Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Contemplating Classical Education: What is it and how has it changed?...

I've been studying classical education for years and decided to start a series here regarding my findings.  In fact, the classical method was one of the first that I learned of when beginning homeschooling.  Ironically, it was the road that led me to Charlotte Mason.

Most recently, I've been working through Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America by Dr. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern, CiRCE Institute.   I would describe the book as a means to understanding what a classical education is.  It begins with the history of where education in America went wrong, then describes the elements of a classical education, followed by explaining different types or philosophies of thought regarding classical education.  I've been taking a copious amount of notes.

The following list of chapter titles may give you a further sense of some of the various philosophies, some of which I hope to unpack throughout this series:

Chapter 1 The Lost Content of Learning
Chapter 2 The Elements of Classical Education
Chapter 3 Christian Classicism
Chapter 4 Democratic Classicism
Chapter 5 Norms and Nobility
Chapter 6 Catholic Classicism
Chapter 7 Liberating Classicism
Chapter 8 Classical Homeschooling
Chapter 9 Higher Education
Chapter 10 Epilogue: Myths and Realities of Classical Education

There is also an appendix at the end with a wonderful list of Organizations and Resources related to classical education.

So far, I am half way through the book and have made several connections.  I've learned more about such views as modernism, postmodernism, and progressivism.  I have since been on high alert when hearing the current presidential candidates debate and tout their agendas, particularly when referring to themselves as "progressive", which of course, I now realize is a person advocating or implementing social reform, or new liberal ideas, more than likely, ones of which I disagree...ahem.

Anyway, back to the book.  It's no surprise that education has changed significantly over the years.  The authors attribute these changes in part to the work of John Dewey, a modernist education theorist, who lived from 1958-1952.  Dewey believed it was more important to teach the process of learning than the content of what was being learned.  He used Charles Darwin's theory to call for radical changes in education.

According to Veith and Kern, a classical education has four elements that define it: 1) A high view of man, 2) Logocentrism, 3) Responsibility for the Western tradition, and 4) A pedagogy that sustains these commitments; most of which, seem to be in line with a Charlotte Mason education.

A High View of Man

We are human beings, of which Christians see as being created in the image of God, creatures of timeless significance.  This is perfectly in line with Charlotte Mason's first principle, children are born persons.   The purpose of classical education is to cultivate human excellence or virtue within each child.    


Logos is Greek for 'word' or 'reason'.  In theology, it's the Word of God, or the principle of divine reason and creative order.
Christians recognize that Christ is that Logos.  He makes reason possible, harmonizes everything, and creates the conditions for order, knowable truth.  He is the unifying principle of thought, the key in which the music of the spheres is played, the archetype of every virtue. (p. 14)
Christ is the center.  He is the reason and He is a God of order.  According to a logocentric view of the universe, organized knowledge can be discovered, arranged, and even taught.  Charlotte Mason understood the importance of Logocentrism and keeping God first and foremost in teaching.  In Volume 6, she wrote,
Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, - the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe, - the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making.  (p. 158) 
Responsibility for the Western Tradition

"Western civilization is the property of all who live in America." (p. 15)  It is rooted in classicism, or those traditions of civilizations that have gone before us, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, European, etc.  This does not mean that a classical education doesn't recognize more recent American achievements, such as technology, but rather that we don't forget our roots in the tradition.

Charlotte's students studied a wide variety of history throughout, sometimes referred to as a "pageant of history".  Her students studied such classic works as Plutarch's Lives, Iliad, Odyssey, Stories from the History of Rome, etc. to gain knowledge of man and traditions throughout all of civilization.

A Pedagogy That Sustains These Commitments
Western civilization, the classical educator believes, offers its children a rich heritage on which they can feed their own souls and those of their neighbors. The classical curriculum provides the means to do so.  [pabulum for the mind] 
The classical curriculum can be divided into two stages. First, the student masters the arts of learning.  Then he uses the skills and tools mastered to enter the great conversation, which is another way to say, to study the sciences.  (p. 16-17)
There are Seven Liberal Arts of learning, The Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences were the curriculum known to ancient Greece and Rome and to Western Europe of medieval times.  The Seven Liberal Arts offered a canonical way of depicting the realms of higher learning.  The Liberal Arts and Sciences were divided into two parts, the Trivium ("the three roads") and the Quadrivium ("the four roads").

The Trivium consisted of:
  • Grammar
  • Rhetoric
  • Logic
The Quadrivium consisted of:
  • Arithmetic -- Number in itself
  • Geometry -- Number in space
  • Music, Harmonics, or Tuning Theory -- Number in time
  • Astronomy or Cosmology -- Number in space and time

I will not get into each of these now because I'm still working to fully understand them.  However, there are many websites with more information.  There's what appears to be a good concise explanation here.  Also, Andrew Fleming West, Professor at Princeton College, wrote an exposition published at Classical Academic Press on the origin of The Seven Liberal Arts.

In studying this notion of what is a classical education, I watched a variety of YouTube videos published by Roman Roads Media, including:

A Conversation with Andrew Kern on the Definition of a Classical Education

What is Classical Education? Interview with Martin Cothran 

Interview with John Hodges on Classical Education

Interview with Andrew Pudewa on Classical Education

Are you educating classically?  If so, what does it mean to you?  Feel free to leave comments below...


  1. l look forward to following along with your thoughts on this, Melissa. Classical Education always seemed elitist to me but Charlotte Mason gets to the heart or essence of what it means & that it's not just for a small percentage who are so much more intelligent than everyone else. I've been listening to some of the Circe podcasts by Andrew Kern & Wes Callihan and they are very helpful also. I'm with you on the Triv & Quad - still trying to work it out.

  2. "Classical Education always seemed elitist to me but Charlotte Mason gets to the heart or essence of what it means..." Carol, I think you hit the nail on the head here. As I study CM's philosophy, I really feel I have a better understanding and a great desire for classical education. The classical model seems more approachable now.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation :)