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A Closer Look at Classical Education

  • Andrea Newitt The Old Schoolhouse
  • Published Mar 30, 2010
A Closer Look at Classical Education

When selecting a method for educating their children, many homeschoolers take one look at classical education and just walk on by. They view classical education as too rigorous and demanding, too tedious and unpleasant to even consider as a realistic choice. If that describes your thoughts, please take a little time to look at the basics; you might just discover that this approach is both a valuable and a viable option for your family. Of course, classical education appeals to intellectuals, but those of us with less than scholarly minds can still glean the benefits it offers. With a small amount of work on our part, we can take the various aspects of classical education, as well as the available resources, and easily adapt them to our own interests and abilities as we exercise our minds and expand our sphere of learning. 

Contemporary classical education comes to us along the regular route of Western Civilization. From the ancient days of Greece and Rome, it has traveled through the centuries to Medieval Europe, across the Atlantic to early America, right up to our day. Traditionally, classical education has been reserved for the elite. In fact, our term liberal arts comes from the Latin word liber, which means "free" and refers to the type of education provided to free men in contrast to the slave population of ancient times. As Christians, we have the unique privilege of being set apart as both the common men and members of the elite, for we are servants of Christ yet joint heirs of the Kingdom with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Why not make good use of this educational heritage that was designed for nobility? Before the educational system of our country was essentially industrialized and students were placed on a mass production line of learning, formal education in America typically meant "classical education." 

Now this particular approach might seem far too challenging, but you don't have to study as hard or as long as those who are more academically gifted. You might even be pleasantly surprised by just how much fifteen minutes of concentrated effort each day can accomplish. Imagine the results of that focused attention over a period of weeks and months and years. Yes, you are going to have to invest some time in research, but the "Who's Who in Classical Education" at the end of this article is filled with information to get you started on crafting a plan for your family. Implementing these five common features of classical education: (1) the pursuit of character, (2) reading the literary and historical classics, (3) learning the classical languages, (4) studying the core curriculum of the liberal arts, and (5) entering into a conversation about ideas does not need to be difficult. Reflect on the true goals of your homeschool Then take a closer look at classical education; look further into the purpose and content of this method, become familiar with the terms and resources, and consider the possibilities.

1. Character

Wisdom and virtue are the two primary goals of classical education. The ancient Greeks sought to produce the ideal man and called that education the paedeia. The Romans picked up that same purpose, adapted it to their culture, and called it humanitas, similar to our word humanities. It has been handed down through the ages to us as the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, some of the very things that Paul encourages us to think about in Philippians 4:8. In contrast to those ancient, pagan societies, we search for these virtues in the light of God and His Holy Word, for "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10)

2. Classics

To obtain virtue and wisdom, classical education relies on actively reading and discussing the Great Books. These are books that have withstood the test of time. As my 16-year-old son explained, "If the author's dead and the book isn't, then it's a Great Book." Christine Miller's site includes a "100 Great Books List", Susan Wise Bauer offers a list within "Great Books: History and Literature", and the Veritas Press catalog includes shorter lists as primary reading in each of their Omnibus sections. Through these writings, we are brought into direct contact with great minds of the past, the best that man has to offer. As we consider the ideas presented by the authors, we enter into the Great Conversation, the ongoing discussion of what is good and true and beautiful. Again, we measure the things we read by the Word of God, which judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart, and we rely on the Holy Spirit, who searches all things, to reveal the truly noble ideas. 

Some of these books can be difficult to comprehend, but more than ample material is available to help prepare our minds and hearts for this undertaking, including children's versions that provide an easy way to introduce characters, plots, and even concepts. You can find background information for the Great Books in Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, to help you make careful selections for your family. Consider reading one or two of the Great Books each year. Read them aloud so that you experience them with your children. Adam and Missy Andrews' Teaching the Classics includes a list of questions useful for all ages, a list that introduces the Socratic method, a technique named after the ancient philosopher Socrates, who educated his students by asking a series of questions. For those parents interested in providing a more serious study of the Great Books for their children, any of the online tutors in the "Who's Who" section could serve as mentors to bring the great works of literature and history to life. We all can benefit from their enthusiasm for these works of the Western tradition. Visit their sites for some valuable insight on the importance of the Great Books.

3. Classical Languages

While classical education itself originates with the ancient Greeks and Romans, so does a significant amount of the English language. The culture and the languages of these two civilizations profoundly impact our society, for many of the Founding Fathers were classically educated. In those earlier days of our country, children studied both Greek and Latin, becoming adept enough to read the historians and poets in the original languages and translate the works into English and back again . . . in another tense! (See Martin Cothran's article at Greek is the language of the New Testament; Greek and Latin provide a substantial portion of the vocabulary of medicine, law, and science; and the study of Latin makes learning the modern Romance languages, as well as English grammar, much easier. Don't be afraid to learn one of these classical languages with your children. Spend a few minutes each day on oral drill, include board work, and involve all your children whenever possible so that you all learn a little each day together. For more reasons to study the classical languages, read "Why Study Latin and Greek?" by Andrew Campbell.

4. Core Curriculum

Verbal and mathematical skills, the very essence of the SAT, form the framework of studies in classical education. The seven liberal arts, developed by the Romans and refined during the Middle Ages, are comprised of the three verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the Trivium), and the four mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the Quadrivium). In her 1947 essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" (, English writer and Oxford scholar Dorothy Sayers advocated adopting a modernized version of the Medieval curriculum to reform the poor educational system of her day. Because she described the Trivium, those lost tools, in terms of the stages of children's mental development, many classical educators now commonly refer to the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages of learning. These stages vary from child to child, but as presented by Sayers, they generally correspond to our upper elementary, junior high, and senior high school ages. Her essay offers practical advice on how to incorporate the subjects we study into the three levels of the Trivium.

5. Conversation

Classical education is simply incomplete without a discussion. Whether through the Socratic method of questions and answers between teacher and students as in the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, or a conversation among friends or family, the books and ideas are meant to be shared. Time talking with our children is an essential part of our schoolwork, as we prepare them for a lifetime of seeking answers to meaningful questions and as we strive to strengthen their hearts and minds and souls. Again, we have access to a wide variety of resources to equip us for the task of leading and carrying on the conversation, even engaging in the Great Conversation, with some measure of skill and insight. If you are looking for a sure way to lighten the load of your studies and liven up your school day, include time for discussion with your children, following the example set forth in Deuteronomy 6:4-7 for passing on God's truth.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

Regardless of your current style of homeschooling, try implementing these characteristics of classical education in your studies. With the many resources available, you can participate in some small way in the Great Conversation, develop the verbal and mathematical skills of the Trivium and Quadrivium, begin a family study of Latin or Greek, or read aloud a few of the Great Books, all to develop wise and virtuous students. You might not spend as much time studying as your scholarly friends, but by devoting even a short amount of time to any or all of these areas, you can reap significant rewards. Classical education, adapted to our academic abilities, can be a fine and pleasant, even an invigorating, manner to mildly challenge our minds as we raise citizens of heaven, ambassadors of Christ, who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God. (See Micah 6:8.)

Who's Who in Classical Education

Don't miss the wealth of information and resources on these sites. Much of the material is designed for parents who are not acquainted with the ins and outs of a classical education. 

Adam Andrews - The Center for Literary Education

Susan Wise Bauer - The Well-Trained Mind: Classical Education for the Next Generation

Norman M. and Katharine Birkett - Classical Legacy Press: Classical Choices for Today

Andrew Campbell - The Latin-Centered Curriculum

Marlin and Laurie Detweiler - Veritas Press

Andrew Kern - Circe Institute: Cultivating Wisdom and Virtue

Cheryl Lowe, Martin Cothran, and others - Memoria Press

Christine Miller - Classical Christian Homeschooling: Return to the Proven Educational Methods of Past Centuries

Andrew Pudewa - Institute for Excellence in Writing: An Effective Method for Teaching Writing Skills 

The Great Books Tutors

Alexandria Tutorials - Matthew Turnbull 

Escondido Tutorial Service - Fritz Hinrichs 

Oxford Tutorial Service - Dr. Norman Lund 

Schola Classical Tutorials - Wes Callihan 

Torrey Academy - various tutors, sister program of Biola University's Torrey Honors Institute - Dr. John Mark Reynolds 

The Trivium & The Quadrivium

Ancient and medieval thinkers believed that in order to be truly free, an individual must master the seven liberal arts, or intellectual skills, which are also known as the Trivium and the Quadrivium. In the United States, as we began to shift from an agrarian to an industrial society, we departed from this focus in the mid to late 1800s. The Trivium paves the way for the Quadrivium, which in the past was reserved for university study. But students entered higher learning at an earlier age then, so these subjects and their related skills can wisely be included in a high school student's education today. 

The Trivium -  the "three roads" or "three ways" of language 

Grammar - mechanics 

Logic - reasoning 

Rhetoric - persuasion 

The Quadrivium - the "four roads" or "four ways" of mathematics 

Arithmetic - properties of numbers 

Geometry - shapes 

Astronomy - shapes and motion 

Music - ratios and proportions (harmonics) 

A Gentle Approach to Classical Education 

If you are interested but still unsure just how to put classical education into practice, especially with elementary school-aged children, why not read Susan Schaeffer Macaulay's For the Children's Sake? This book introduces the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. More than a few homeschoolers consider a Charlotte Mason approach to be anything but classical. Maybe that's because she stressed nature study and nature journals over science, recommended short lessons and no homework, or insisted that children be given the entire afternoon of each school day to play and explore. 

However, Charlotte Mason also believed that a liberal education was the "natural birthright of every child," that "telling back," or narration, is education, "that great character comes out of great thoughts, and that great thought must be initiated by great thinkers." These insights all come from her book titled A Philosophy of Education. In true classical form, spend some time learning directly from the source material. Charlotte Mason's series on education is available online at Through your reading, you will discover that she brought her students in contact with the masters of literature, art, and music, as well as the great men of history. The Charlotte Mason method is a refreshingly short and simple way to ease into classical education. 

*This article published March 31, 2010.

Andrea Newitt is the Assistant to the Senior Editor of

The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine. She has been homeschooling for nine years with the encouragement and support of her husband Mark. They have three children aged 15, 14, and 10. In addition to bicycling, Andrea enjoys swimming, reading, and cooking.

Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Winter 2009/10. Used with permission. Visit them at For all your homeschool curriculum needs visit the Schoolhouse Store.