What Makes Education "Classical"?

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Have you ever heard the phrase “classical education”? Mentioning it generally brings either glazed over eyes or a vague, “Isn’t that the curriculum method homeschool overachievers follow?”

If either of these responses is yours, never fear, I was once there myself. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer you this brief primer on classical education.

Historical Significance

Classical Education has been around for thousands of years and is largely based on the education methods employed by the Greeks and Romans. These methods were continued throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, and Exploration eras, but were gradually phased out in the early to mid-20th century as Progressive education became popular. Thus, if you attended school anywhere between the 1950s and today, you likely did not receive the rigorous, classical education that the American Founders and famous authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien received.

Methods and Curriculum

Classical education revolves around the idea that “the sole true end of education is simply… to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

Thus, in order to avoid spoon-feeding children material that goes in one ear and out the other, classical education is formed around 3 stages - known as the Trivium - which build upon each other and capitalize on a child’s natural process of development. These three stages include:

  • Grammar Stage – Focuses on compiling facts through memorization, rhymes, and other chants which appeal to elementary age students.
  • Logic Stage – Builds off the facts learned in the grammar stage and teaches junior high students how to rationally form arguments and defend ideas.
  • Rhetoric Stage – Instructs high school students to expertly present the logical arguments they formed in junior high through clear and captivating writing and speaking.

Some modern forms of classical education also use a chronological study of history as their backbone. Literature, music, art, and sometimes even math and science are connected to their historical framework, thus giving children a solid structure on which to build their understanding of the world in which they live.

Additionally, children learn classical languages such as Latin and Greek, which besides their historical importance, provide many educational benefits such as a deeper understanding of English, better test scores, and increased mental capacity. 

Who Does Classical Education?

In the last few decades, classical education has been employed by homeschooling families and a number of private schools. But the thirst for this high quality form of education is beginning to spread to other arenas, and as a result, various charter schools have begun to re-adopt the classical education method. Some prime examples of this are the Great Hearts Academies in Arizona, and Nova Classical Academy and St. Croix Preparatory in Minnesota.

Performance Results

If the scores of the public charter schools mentioned above are any indication, the success of classical education methods is not limited to private and homeschool students. In 2014, Nova and St. Croix Prep posted reading, math, and science proficiency scores which were approximately 20-25% higher than the Minnesota average.

On a different performance measurement, several Great Hearts Academies took the OECD Test for Schools, which is based on the international PISA exam. Great Hearts students scored above or just below students from Shanghai-China, the first place winners of the 2012 PISA exam. For the sake of comparison, the U.S. as a whole ranked 17thin reading, 26th in math, and 21st in science on the 2012 PISA.

Interested in seeing how classical education is working in a public school? Check out the video below from Great Hearts Academies. If it’s working there with such success, why can’t we re-introduce the concept of classical education to other public schools around the country?


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