Classical education

From Academic Kids

Classical education as understood and taught in the middle ages of western civilization is roughly based on the ancient Greek concept of Paideia. China had a completely different tradition of classical education, based in large part on Confucian and Taoist traditions. This article concerns the western tradition.


The overall organization

Classical education developed many of the terms now used to describe modern education. Western classical education has three phases, each with a different purpose. The phases are roughly coordinated with human development, and would ideally be exactly coordinated with each individual student's development.

"Primary education" teaches students how to learn.

"Secondary education" then teaches a conceptual framework that can hold all human knowledge (history), and then fills in basic facts and practices of the major fields of knowledge, and develops the skills (perhaps in a simplified form) of every major human activity.

"Tertiary education" then prepares a person to pursue an educated profession, such as law, theology, war, medicine or science.

Primary Education

Primary education was often called the trivium, and covered grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Ideally, logic and rhetoric should be taught in part by the Socratic method, in which the teacher raises questions, and the class discusses them.


Grammar consists of language skills such as reading, and the mechanics of writing. An important goal of grammar is to acquire as many words and concepts as possible. Very young students can learn these by rote. Classical education traditionally included study of Latin and Greek, so that students could read the Classics of Western Civilization in the words of the authors.


Young adults can learn logic, also called dialectic, the art of correct reasoning. The traditional text for teaching logic was Aristotle's Logic.


Rhetoric, debate and composition (which is just written rhetoric) are taught to somewhat older students, who then have the concepts and logic to criticize their own work, and persuade others. According to Aristotle, "Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic." It is concerned with finding "all the available means of persuasion." Hopefully, a student has already learned to reason correctly by studying logic. Students would read and emulate classical poets such as Ovid.

Secondary Education

Secondary education, classically the quadrivium or "four ways," classically taught astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry, usually from Aristotle and Euclid. Sometimes architecture was taught, often from the works of Vitruvius.

History was always taught to provide a context, and show political and military development. The classic texts were from ancient authors such as Cicero and Tacitus.

Biographies were often assigned as well; the classic example being Plutarch's "Lives." Biographies help show how persons behave in their context, and the wide ranges of professions and options that exist. As more modern texts became available, these were often added to the curriculum.

In the middle ages, these were the best available texts. In modern terms, these fields might be called history, natural science, accounting and business, fine arts (at least two, one to amuse companions, and another to decorate one's domicile), military strategy and tactics, engineering, agronomy, and architecture.

These are taught in a matrix of history, reviewing the natural development of each field for each phase of the trivium. That is, in a perfect classical education, the historical study is reviewed three times: first to learn the grammar (the concepts, terms and skills in the order developed), next time the logic (how these elements could be assembled), and finally the rhetoric, how to produce good, humanly useful and beautiful objects that satisfy the grammar and logic of the field.

History is the unifying conceptual framework, because history is the study of everything that has occurred before the present. A skillful teacher also uses the historical context to show how each stage of development naturally poses questions and then how advances answer them, helping to understand human motives and activity in each field. The question-answer approach is called the "dialectic method," and permits history to be taught Socratically as well.

Classical educators consider the Socratic method to be the best technique for teaching critical thinking. In-class discussion and critiques are essential in order for students to recognize and internalize critical thinking techniques. This method is widely used to teach both philosophy and law. It is currently rare in other contexts. Basically, the teacher referees the students' discussions, asks leading questions, and may refer to facts, but never gives a conclusion until at least one student reaches that conclusion. The learning is most effective when the students compete strongly, even viciously in the argument, but always according to well-accepted rules of correct reasoning. That is, fallacies should not be allowed by the teacher.

By completing a project in each major field of human effort, the student can develop a personal preference for further education and professional training.

Tertiary Education

Tertiary education was usually an apprenticeship to a person with the desired profession. Most often, the understudy was called a "secretary" and had the duty of carrying on all the normal business of the "master."

The early biographies of nobles probably show the ultimate form of classical education: A tutor. One early, much-emulated classic example was that Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle.

Modern Interpretations of Classical Education

"The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home," by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (W.W. Norton, 1999), is a modern reference on classical education. It provides a history of classical education, an overview of the methodology and philosophy of classical education, and annotated lists of books, divided by grade and topic, that list the best books for classical education in each category.

Marva Collins has successfully taught a rapid-fire classical education to inner-city deprived children, many of them labeled as "retarded."

Also of note is "A New Trivium and Quadrivium," an article by Dr. George Bugliarello (Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Vol. 23, No. 2, 106-113 (2003)). In it, he argues that the scope of the classical liberal education is inadequate for today's society, and that people should also be conversant with the basic facts of science and technology, since they now form a much more important part of our lives than did the tertiary studies of antiquity. He argues for a new synthesis of science, engineering, and the humanities in which there is a balance between what can be done and what ought to be done, between human desires and earthly consequences, and between our ever-increasing power to affect our surroundings and the ever-present danger of destroying the ecological and environmental systems which allow us to exist.

No discussion of classical education could be complete without mentioning Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, both of the University of Chicago, who set forth in the 1930s to restore the "Great Books" of Western civilization to center stage in the curriculum. Although the standard classical works—such as the Harvard Classics—most widely available at the time, were decried by many as out of touch with modern times, Adler and Hutchins sought to expand on the standard "classics" by including more modern works, and by trying to tie them together in the context of what they described as the "Great Ideas," condensed into a "Syntopicon" index and bundled together with a new "five foot shelf" of books as "The Great Books of the Western World." They were wildly popular during the Fifties, and discussion groups of aficionados were found all over the USA, but their popularity waned during the Sixties and such groups are relatively hard to find today. Extensions to the original set are still being published, encompassing selections from both current and older works which extend the "great ideas" into the present age and other fields, including civil rights, the global environment, and discussions of multiculturalism and assimilation.

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