What is Classical Education?
A Brief History
Classical education traces its roots to ancient Greece and Rome, the civilizations that first systematically explored the meaning of human existence. The literature, poetry, philosophy, and political experience of those ancient cultures serve as the foundation of Western civilization and form the basis of classical education. Classical education recognizes the experiences of historical peoples and societies as a rich source of wisdom for the present.
In America, classical education arrived with the British settlers. It was the norm from colonial times until around 1900 when the focus of public education shifted away from classical education to a skills-based system designed to prepare young people to fill roles in a rapidly industrializing "modern" economy. Today, Aristoi Classical Academy is a part of a growing nationwide movement to reclaim America’s educational heritage by restoring to prominence a concept of education that is first and foremost in service of the student as a human being. We believe that such an education is also the best way to prepare him or her to be a responsible and virtuous American.
Several principles set the classical approach apart from modern educational perspectives:
- Truth - Classical education values knowledge for its own sake, which is to say that the body of knowledge under study itself helps students to discern that which is true and good and beautiful, rather than having an external definition of these things imposed upon it.
- Guidance for Modern Life - Classical education holds that the study of the liberal arts should yield the perspectives that ought to inform and provide direction to the sciences and to social constructs, not vice versa.
- Western Civilization - Recognizing that “American Civilization” is the product of the millennia-long project known as Western Civilization, classical education teaches the standards of moral virtue and character that created Western culture, and which allow students to assess and understand other cultures.
- Civic-Minded - Classical education upholds the value of responsible contribution toward family, community, and governments. Students are able to connect the civic life and political experiences of historical societies to present-day cultures.
- Eloquence - Classical education teaches standards of excellence in communication that are embodied in the great literary works of the Western canon. For generations, these works have exemplified greatness in that they present important events and persons, and interpret these events and persons through abiding values and concepts in language marked by precision, beauty, and power.
- Unity of Knowledge - Classical education trains students to recognize the relationships between the various fields of inquiry and knowledge (such as history, science, and literature) and to organize these varied fields into an integrated, logical, and systematic framework.
Knowledge and Virtue
Aristoi’s mission is to provide students with an academically challenging Classical Liberal Arts education that encourages them to develop a passion for learning and that gives them the means to become responsible citizens of virtuous character.
Thus, the twin (and indivisible) aims of classical education are knowledge and virtue. Thomas Jefferson said, “An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second."
Most Americans have heard the term “liberal arts” used to describe particular subject areas including the arts, humanities, and social sciences that students may pursue in college. But the term liberalis artes meaning “the arts of freedom” originated from the Greeks and Romans who used it to describe the type of education available to free citizens in order for them to remain free.
In 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what type of government the constitutional convention had produced. He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” His answer implied that not only would the keeping of the republic be difficult, but that it would survive only if citizens took action to preserve it. Education is, and always has been, an indispensable tool for the preservation of freedom. Thomas Jefferson, who himself received a classical liberal arts education, warned “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.”
Robert M. Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago and Editor in Chief of The Great Books series, said the following about liberal education in “The Great Conversation”:
The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public… Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men.
At Aristoi, the study of the virtues of Western civilization is at the heart of education. Those virtues are Humility, Honesty, Charity, Prudence, Respect, Responsibility, Perseverance, and Temperance. Why should a modern school place so much emphasis on character? It is because the cultivation of virtuous character makes possible both happiness and freedom. When you look at the diagram of the virtues on the last page, you will note that Humility is the foundation. Knowledge without humility is dangerous and potentially destructive. Aristotle, one of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, said “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.” He recognized that humans must be life-long learners and that we never really complete our education.
The American founders valued the pursuit of happiness so highly that they named it in the Declaration of Independence as one of the three unalienable rights guaranteed to citizens (the other two being life and liberty). George Washington knew that virtue and happiness were tied together. He said this in his first inaugural address in 1789:
There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
America’s founders understood that virtue in its citizens was required if the people were to remain free. Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
At Aristoi Classical Academy, we understand that in order for our students to achieve the good life, they must embrace virtue.
The Pattern of Classical Education
Dorothy Sayers, brilliant writer and scholar, has been credited with igniting a renaissance in classical education after she presented her essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” at Oxford in 1947. Her entreaty for schools to return to classical education rings as true today as it did in 1947. She explained,
“For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. "
Dorothy Sayers argued that schools should use “the Trivium” to organize the stages of learning in classical education based upon a child’s natural stage of intellectual development. The three stages of the Trivium are the Grammar Stage, the Logic stage, and the Rhetoric Stage.
The Grammar Stage, from Kindergarten through 4th grade, corresponds to younger students’ delight in gathering knowledge, in learning names and basic descriptions of things, and absorbing information. The learning of basic building blocks (like the grammar of a language) is key to this level, as students learn foundational facts: phonics, spelling, grammar, poems, vocabularies (of English and other languages), history, literary stories, plant, animal, and bodily descriptions, and basic mathematics. This level focuses on the particulars of knowledge, and on learning facts.
The Logic Stage, or dialectic, the Trivium’s second level, is designed to engage students from the 5th-8th grades, at a time when students increasingly ask “Why?” Children at this age have the capacity for analytic thought and an understanding of cause and effect. Not coincidentally, the logic stage corresponds to the pre-adolescent and adolescent urge to question everything and to argue incessantly. What is sought for the student at this level is the ability to integrate differing fields of knowledge, and the organization of facts, into a logical framework. Higher mathematics (such as algebra or geometry), as well as the application of the study of logic to all subjects (such as learning paragraph construction and thesis-writing, textual criticism and analysis, the scientific method, and historical questions such as why World War II was fought), are taught. Thus, criticism and comparative analysis, as well as an understanding of the why of complex relationships, are encouraged and reinforced at this level. This is also a time when the beginning skills in logical argument and debate begin to be fostered.
The Rhetoric Stage, the third level of the Trivium, aims primarily at students from the 9th – 12th grade and teaches them to express persuasively and eloquently conclusions drawn from the organization of facts into integrated relationships. Students at this level learn to write, speak, and defend original ideas by applying the rules of logic to expression.
Thus, in the Trivium’s three-level approach, the student first learns basic facts, then utilizes logical tools for the organization of systems of thought on a more complex level, and then is equipped to draw, write, and communicate creative and persuasive conclusions. Although the three levels of the trivium correspond generally to three developmental stages, elements of all three stages can be seen at every grade level. For instance, the knowledge of a wide range of facts is not limited to grammar students—junior high and high school students are continuously learning and absorbing facts. Grammar students engage in Socratic dialogue and ask and answer some of the “why” questions that are so common to junior high students. And students of all ages are asked to present their ideas and the product of their own research to their peers in a way that prepares them for public speaking which will become second nature in the rhetoric stage.
The Tools of Classical Education
Classical literature is introduced to students beginning in kindergarten. The Core Knowledge® Sequence used in grades K-8 prescribes a rich list of classics ranging from Aesop’s Fables to Shakespeare’s plays to novels and poetry by the greatest writers of all time. By reading the rich and evocative descriptions and the expression of great ideas and concepts postulated by the giants of classic literature, students come to recognize the beauty and power of language.
The great books of the Western tradition are indispensable tools of the classical liberal arts. The literary works which include the best of all things written or thought by the best thinkers of all time make up the “Great Conversation” as described by Robert Hutchins. To study the great books is not to attempt to return to the past; rather, it is a recognition that human nature and the moral struggles of mankind have not changed appreciably over the centuries. Hutchins wrote, “To put an end the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is leave them unread for a few generations.”
The study of history is the organizing principle of classical education. In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks reasoned that the antidote to the scattershot nature of modern schooling is to study history in chronological order and then to learn other material as related to historical events. He explained, “ The beauty of the classical curriculum is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolisms, plots, and motifs.” Classical education seeks to integrate subjects rather than focus on them separately. As a result, the period being studied in history will correlate with science, art, music, and literature. For instance, during the time that students are studying the Renaissance in history class, they will learn about the scientific discoveries from that period in science class, the musicians and music from that period in music class, the art from that period in art class, and the literature from that period in English class. In this way, students can appreciate that world events, historical figures, and the products of the day are interrelated.
The Socratic Method is used in classical education in order to help students practice critical thinking skills in all subjects. Even discussions in math and science are guided by the Socratic Method. The teacher asks a series of probing questions meant to draw out truth or fallacy so that students may discover for themselves the deeper meaning of each topic. The frequent application of this method in Aristoi classrooms is one of the reasons why it is unusual to hear a teacher say, “That’s an interesting observation, but we don’t have time to get into that today. We have to stay on schedule.” Meaningful discussions on important, weighty ideas spring naturally from a classical curriculum. Indeed, such discussions and discoveries lead students to a love of learning and a habit of critical thinking which are important goals of classical, liberal education.
The study of Latin is a requirement at Aristoi. Latin is introduced in 4th grade, with the study of Latin roots from English vocabulary. The in-depth study of Latin begins in junior high and continues into high school. Latin is important to classical education because approximately 50% of English vocabulary comes from Latin, and all Romance languages are based upon Latin. Much of the history and writings of Western Civilization were written in Latin. It is also true that an understanding of Latin reinforces recognition of the reasons for, and use of, parts of speech used in English (plurals, nouns, verbs, prepositions, direct objects, tenses, etc…). One of the best reasons to study Latin is that it stretches the mind and forces one to be detail-oriented. America’s founding fathers studied Latin and Greek. Proficiency in both languages was a requirement for entrance to college in those days.
Twenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were college-educated. Thomas Jefferson said of learning to read Latin and Greek, “I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, & have not since acquired.”
What About the 21st Century Global Economy?
Basic technology instruction is required by the state of Texas and, as a public school, Aristoi does follow that requirement. But we do not focus on technology as an educational priority. Technical “job skills” can be picked up relatively easily. But does this teach students how to think?
Thomas R. Cech, the 1989 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, said this of his undergraduate years at a small liberal arts college, “In 1966 I entered Grinnell College, where I was to derive as much enjoyment studying Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and Constitutional History as Chemistry.” Cech was impressed with how effectively the study of liberal arts prepared him for a career in science that he decided to look into the question of how many Ph.D. scientists had undergraduate degrees from liberal arts schools versus larger research universities known for their science programs. Cech made this fascinating discovery: “…the most selective private research universities (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, and Yale) are more selective than any of the liberal arts colleges, and their students taken as a group have higher SAT test scores than the entering classes of any of the liberal arts colleges. Yet their efficiency of production of Ph.D.’s, while excellent, lags behind that of the top liberal arts colleges…” Why did Cech find that liberal arts graduates were better prepared for a career in the sciences? One of the main reasons he cited, in addition to the development of better communication skills, was this:
“… a liberal arts education encourages scientists to improve their “competitive edge” by cross-training in the humanities or arts. Such academic cross-training develops a student’s ability to collect and organize facts and opinions, to analyze them and weigh their value, and to articulate an argument, and it may develop these skills more effectively than writing yet another lab report. What is the value of such intellectual cross-training? Just as mathematics is considered to be good exercise for the brain even for those who will never use calculus in the future, so the study of great books, history, languages, music, and many other non-science fields is likely to hone a scientist’s ability to perceive and interpret the natural world.”
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc., believed that technology without the liberal arts was incomplete. In explaining the success of the iPad in 2011, he said, “… I’ve said this before, but I thought it was worth repeating. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yield us the result that makes our hearts sing.” Facebook founder and computer whiz kid Mark Zuckerberg attended a public high school in New York until his junior year. According to his interview with The Harvard Crimson, his local high school didn’t have a focus on computers or higher math. He transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy his junior year, not to pursue an interest in technology but, because of Exeter’s Latin program. His plan was to study the classics at Harvard. Although Zuckerberg’s mostly self-taught computer skills ultimately led him down a different path, his liberal arts high school experience certainly did not hinder his development into the person he was meant to be.
Schools and parents must decide which they value more, the teaching of skills always in flux as technology changes, or the teaching of the timeless art of learning itself. Would not the latter prepare students to secure the former? But the reverse is not true. Why then would a school prioritize the teaching of a skill set that will shift like sand rather than guiding students to develop their intellect and character, two priceless and lifelong tools that help them become well-rounded citizens capable of pursuing any number of paths? At Aristoi, we are interested in the development of the whole person. Whether our graduates attend college or go straight into a vocation, each of them will have the means to achieve the goal of classical education.