What is Classical Education?

What is Classical Education?

A classical education is designed to provide students with the intellectual and moral tools necessary to learn and to think independently. It seeks to foster a love of learning by encouraging and channeling a child’s natural desire to know.

“It is language-intensive…[and] history intensive…It trains the mind to analyze and draw conclusions. It demands self-discipline. It produces literate, curious, intelligent students who have a wide range of interests and the ability to follow up on them…[preparing students] to read, write, calculate, think and understand.” (Jessie Wise and Susan Wise-Bauer, “The Well-Trained Mind”)

“Classical learning follows a particular pattern called the Trivium – which consists of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric…The purpose of following this pattern is not to teach the student everything there is to know, but rather to establish in the student a habit of mind which instinctively knows how to learn new material when the formal schooling process is a only a faint memory. The student is taught not so much what to think, he is shown how to think.” (Douglas Wilson, “Classical Education”)

What is the purpose of the Trivium?

The purpose of the Trivium is to organize a child’s education according to the natural pattern of intellectual development. A classical education makes use of the methodology that is most appropriate to each of the three stages (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric). “The mind must first be supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions.” (The Well-Trained Mind)

In the grammar stage students naturally absorb large amounts of information, soaking up data about the world around them. They enjoy memorizing all manner of things.

When a student moves to the dialectical stage, they have become ready to begin to more formally sort, organize, and analyze the material that they acquired, and continue to acquire, in the previous stage. It is during this time that the subject of grammar (not to be confused with the first stage of the Trivium) is introduced, as the child is now ready to begin the sort of analysis that is required by its study.

In the third stage, the student’s ability to express the conclusions drawn from the analysis learned in the previous stage is refined. The focus is on learning to speak and write clearly, concisely, and persuasively.

Certainly it is possible to ignore these developmental stages and teach children to do all sorts of things. But, as with all things, forcing nature has consequences. A child can be taught to throw a curve ball, at the nearly inevitable expense of ruining his pitching arm over the long term. Forcing children intellectually hampers their ability to reason, imagine, and make judgements.

Is this a new approach to education?

It is definitely not a new approach. Instead, the classical approach to education was used throughout the western world since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, being refined during the Middle Ages, and was the education received by nearly all of the great statesmen, artists, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and saints of the last two millennia. It was exactly this sort of education that so well prepared the founders of our nation.

Is a classical education elitist?

This question might be asked in two ways.

First, does a classical approach to education create students who are intellectual snobs? The answer is, “no.” Instead, a classical education encourages a love of truth that requires a strong sense of intellectual humility. Learning comes to an abrupt end when one is convinced that he knows all the answers and has nothing more to learn. Following Socrates, our students are taught to see the desire for Wisdom as a continuing quest that has only its beginnings within our doors. As a classical school in the Roman Catholic tradition, students are also formed according to the virtue of charity, among others, in order that their education will be put to the service of humanity and the glory of God.

In another sense, it might be asked: Is a classical education only for those who are intellectually “gifted”? Again, the answer is, “no.” A classical education makes use of the natural intellectual development of children who have a natural desire to know (unless and until it is squashed by inappropriate teaching methodology or drained by a lifeless presentation of the subject matter). At St. Monica Academy we seek to draw forth each child’s own excellence.