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A Second Look at Classical Education

  • Elizabeth Smith Speaker, Lobbyist, and Veteran Home-Schooling Mother
  • Published Aug 14, 2002
A Second Look at Classical Education

Over the past five or six years there has risen a chorus of advocates for classical education.  As I have listened to these discussions, I have looked for a voice that questioned this approach.  All the voices seemed to be saying the same thing: Classical Education is the answer; it is the best way to teach; it will give us the smartest kids.  Yet as a home-school mom I have some reservations.  I believe that there is a down side to the classical approach and my hope is that parents will look at it carefully, investigate its claims, and make wise decisions.
Classical Christian Education continues to be a hot topic sweeping the home-school movement.  It is being heavily marketed to moms who already feel overwhelmed by the demands of home schooling.  When the method first surfaced several years ago, many of those proposing it had actually never tried it themselves.  Nevertheless, it is promoted as the ultimate answer to the best education you can provide for your child.  I spoke to a home-school mom recently who admitted that she felt guilty because she had not chosen classical education.  So please allow me to share some of my concerns.
Some have claimed that Classical Education is really a Christian idea that was stolen by pagans and we just need to reclaim it.  However, the history of education, including Classical Education, traces its roots to the pagan Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle around 500-400 B. C.  Today the backbone of the classical approach is the trivium. (Trivium means where three come together.)  This theory maintains that there are three stages to learning: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.  Although the term trivium was not used until medieval times, the components were very much a part of the ancient Greek approach to education.  Most of the concepts surrounding Classical Education in the Middle Ages reflect a refinement of much earlier pagan philosophies about mankind and his place in the world.  Humanism is the central premise to that original philosophy.  These pagan roots have always concerned me.  I just do not know how you make that go away.
According to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Classical Education has been controversial because it pits pagan thought against theological doctrine.  Again, according to the Britannica, a Liberal Arts education that was designed to follow the trivium was intended to make one knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects and well able to intelligently discuss many topics.  It promised to make members of the upper class witty and interesting among their peers in any setting, but it was never intended to prepare someone to make a living or support a family.  A Classical Education was for the upper class, which had no need of income or meaningful occupation.
Greek, and later Latin, were deemed essential to the well-formulated mind.  There are two reasons for this: 1) It allowed students to study ancient philosophers in their native tongue, and 2) It provided an elite language that only the upper class had knowledge of, thereby demonstrating their superiority.  Today there is very little practical reason to study either language.  In 17th and 18th century Europe, German and French replaced the so-called dead languages because they were simply more practical.  Today advocates of Christian Classical Education seem to put such a large emphasis on Latin and Greek and I am trying to figure out how years of this study will benefit the vast majority of children.
The trivium is taught in stages.  The first is grammar for the early years, followed by dialectic, and then concluding with rhetoric.  Grammar emphasizes memorization and rote learning of as many facts as possible.  The more knowledge retained the better.  Knowledge is considered neutral in that it is neither good nor evil.  The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica states that the content of what is learned is not to be judged morally or spiritually.  The young mind is simply to acquire knowledge.  Throughout the ages pagan philosophers have stressed open-mindedness in education.  Our modern ideas of being non-judgmental and tolerant stem from the principles of this philosophy.  This perspective paints the Christian view of homosexuality and abortion, for instance, as narrow-minded because it only accepts a biblical view.  As I look at the trivium from every angle it just seems to be an artificial way to learn.
Those encouraging us to implement Classical Education today recommend that we screen some of the classic literature because it is morally unacceptable.  I am grateful for the effort to root out unacceptable literature.  One leader has said that a 10-year-old should not read certain classical material, but it is acceptable when they are older.  I have read things form Chaucer that I consider unsuitable for me.   Romans 16:19 tells us  " ... yet I would have you wise unto that which is good and simple concerning evil."  And Romans 13:14 says we are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof."   As Christian home schoolers one of the wonderful privileges we enjoy is the careful selection of curriculum that reflects our faith.  I question whether we should expose our children to ideas that may undermine their young faith or rob them of their innocence.
In Colossians 2:8 we are told to "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."  II Timothy 2:16 says to "shun" such teachings lest our children "increase unto more ungodliness."  I honestly struggle with my mother instinct that tells me to protect my children from some of these influences.  Have you ever met someone addicted to Greek mythology?  I have, and I have never forgotten it.  In consideration of our children’s varying temperaments, how can we tell whether or not some of this literature will be harmful to them? I am also concerned about the "spirit" of Classical Education.  Just as our faith has a spiritual element to it, so does humanism. We all know stories about someone who has started out on the path to God and had their faith shipwrecked.
I don’t want to be preachy, but as a home schooler I feel that I have taken on a sacred  trust from God to train my children for Him.  I have tried my best to screen my decisions about their instruction through that responsibility.

This article will be continued in Part 2.

Elizabeth Smith is the wife of Michael Smith, President of Home School Legal Defense Association.  Elizabeth and Mike home schooled their children for 15 years.  Elizabeth is on  the Board of Directors for the Family Foundation of Virginia and the Madison Project, and on the Advisory Board of Breakthrough International Ministries. Elizabeth speaks at women’s retreats and at home school conferences throughout the country.

Editor's Note: Please send feedback on this article to me at, and I will send your e-mail to Elizabeth.