Classical Education in Modern Schools

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by Jacob Akins / published 2.15.2014 / updated 1.16.2020

What did our ancestors think centuries ago about the noble endeavor of education and learning, that we can still use today to be successful students? It’s important to see the past as a way of understanding the present in terms of how the present differs and how it is the same as the past. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes” (C. S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books). So what did the great thinkers of the past think about education?

Plato Education Quote Classical EducationIn Plato’s Republic, the child who has been raised properly is one “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a juste distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her” (Republic, 402. A).

“Can you be righteous,” asks Thomas Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value” (Centuries of Meditations, i 12).

“For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting” (Plutarch, On Listening to Lectures, 23).

St. Augustine’s ‘virtue’ is defined as ordo amoris, giving each object the proper degree of love which is appropriate to it (De Civ. Dei xv 22).

classical educationAristotle said that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought (Eth. Nic., 1104 B).

The common thread in the conception of classical education is that there is an objectively true and proper correspondence between the kind of thing nature is and the kind of creatures that we are.  These sentiments, it was believed, are already inside of us and should respond to real truths about nature properly, and it was believed to be education’s job to nurture these sentiments. This conception is almost lost in modern education, which operates under the belief that our sentiments towards nature and ethics are subjective and personal (e.g., beauty is in the eye of the beholder), and certainly not responding to truths built into nature. There are, of course, more aspects to classical education than this, but this was certainly a main part of it.

There is, however, a resurgence of classical education occurring. CNN has an interesting article about the rise of classical schools, both public and private. The classical curriculum at these schools isn’t just a matter of adding a few language or philosophy classes to an otherwise entirely modern education; rather the schools are taking a more all-encompassing approach of dividing the classical education curriculum into the medieval trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is taught starting in kindergarten and lasting through fourth grade, in which children learn basic facts and math, poetry, phonics and spelling, music, the natural world including animal and plant kingdoms, the history of civilization starting with the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and begin learning languages such as Latin.

Then comes the Logic stage, which starts in fifth grade and lasts through eighth grade, in which children learn powers of evaluation, analyzation, discernment and inquiry. They study algebra, participate in discussions, learn argumentation and cause and effect, as well as how to propose and defend a thesis, and they’re still learning Latin.

Lastly, there is the Rhetoric stage, beginning in ninth grade and lasts through twelfth, in which students focus on knowledge and idea application and expression through writing and speaking.

St Jerome Academy Classical EducationAt Catholic school St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, seventh graders compete on who can write past and future tenses of Latin verbs the fastest. When asked about adopting this form of education, Mary Pat Donoghue, St. Jerome’s principal, said “When we started developing a new curriculum, we were trying to save our school. But now, in an era of growing malaise and cynicism, we’re equipping young minds and hearts to save civilization itself.” Catholic schools near Rochester, New York, Denver, Colorado, and Lexington, Kentucky have followed suit and adopted the same curriculum as St. Jerome’s.

classical educationCombining these stages of learning with modern education was popularized in part by British author Dorothy Sayers, friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” presented at Oxford University in 1947. In this essay Sayers writes “[T]oday a great number–perhaps the majority–of the men and women who handle our affairs, write our books and our newspapers, carry out our research, present our plays and our films, speak from our platforms and pulpits–yes, and who educate our young people–have never, even in a lingering traditional memory, undergone the Scholastic discipline. Less and less do the children who come to be educated bring any of that tradition with them.”

Scholastic discipline was the medieval practice of applying reason to beliefs that were matters of faith in medieval thought. By extension, medieval thinkers developed and taught important philosophical ideas that were not directly related to theology, and where the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric was developed. In the essay Sayers explains that being taught how to learn is more important than being trained for a specific task, for in so doing anyone can learn just about anything. She makes the point that an entire society, each trained only in specific tasks, will not see the end purpose for which the individual work is for, nor what all of the collective work is supposed to amount to; they will miss the interconnected synthesis and the bigger picture.

Saint Theresa Sugar Land Classical EducationAt St. Theresa Catholic School in Sugar Land, Texas, the pre-K-through through fifth-grade school has approximately 160 students enrolled each year. Second-graders will learn Greek history, with, for instance, the help of children’s versions of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Latin lessons begin in first grade.

“There’s nothing in classical education inherently conservative or liberal. And we’re not scared of memorization. Kids need content in their brains and they’re wired to absorb it. You can’t reflect on something if it’s not in your brain in the first place” said principal Jonathan Beeson.

in 2011, The Association of Classical and Christian Schools conducted a survey of its member schools’ graduates which showed that 98.3% went on to attend college, of which 34.8% chose to attend a Christian university, and the most popular among the remaining 63.5% chose the University of Southern California, Georgia Tech, and the U.S. Naval Academy. In addition to producing students with a high propensity for attending college, a classical education seems to have a bearing on scoring higher on standardized tests. For instance, on the SAT the class of 2012 averaged 621 in reading, 606 in writing and 597 in math, scores that were significantly higher than the national average.

Some school systems have adopted classical education models in public charter schools. Ridgeview Classical Schools, a K-12 charter school located in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, is ranked #103 in best high schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report in 2013, and #2 in the state.

The Barney Charter School Initiative is opening classical education charter schools around the nation. It is a collaboration with The Barney Family Foundation and Hillsdale College, a liberal arts institution located in Hillsdale, Michigan. The collaboration has opened schools in Lewisville, Texas, Moriarty, New Mexico, Savannah, Georgia, and Bentonville, Arkansas. In 2014, more classical education charter schools will open in Atlanta, Georgia, Naples, Florida, Las Vegas, Nevada, Leander, Texas, and Palm Bay, Florida.

In this TEDx video, Rebekah Hagstrom, founder and headmaster of Liberty Classical Academy, a private Christian school located in Minneapolis/St. Paul, gives an overview of what a classical education involves from a non-denominational Christian perspective.

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