What is Classical Education?

Editor’s Note: Classical Education is at the core of Torrey Academy’s pedagogy and a rising trend for homeschool families and charter schools across the United States. But what is it? In this blog, Torrey Academy director, Catherine Hood, examines the history and philosophy of Classical Education at each stage of learning.

Stack of old leather-bound books – What is Classical Education blog

“How will I use this information?”

This has become an all-too common question asked by students today. I certainly asked it often, much to the frustration of my high school teachers. This expectation that education must be “useful” is a relatively new development in Western civilization. Particularly now, in this age of rising college tuition and cost of living, parents and students alike are single-minded in their educational priorities. Students must get the best grades and test scores, so they can go to the best colleges, so they can get the best jobs, so they can make enough money to live a comfortable life. While these pursuits aren’t necessarily wrong, is this really the fullness of the way God created us to live?

The Purpose of Education

The word “education” literally means “to lead out of.” What does education “lead us out of”? True education leads us out of ignorance and into wisdom. It leads us out of a focus on self and into a focus on God and others. True education leads all three parts of the soul—mind, heart, will—to a knowledge and love of God and others. Therefore, education must be more than the sharing of useful information. It must be more than jumping through the hoops to get a good job. Education must be about the formation of the mind, body, and soul, in preparation for the Lord’s service: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, ESV).

So where did we lose this vision for education? The primary question of education shifted from “How will this form me?” to “How will I use this?” primarily during pragmatic philosopher John Dewey’s progressive education movement in the mid-twentieth century. After that shift, western civilization drifted more and more towards seeing humans as cogs in the machine of production. But our Christian anthropology suggests we were made for something greater than efficient production—we are dynamic image bearers of a creative God. Our purpose is not a large paycheck—our purpose is the restoration of relationships with our Creator, other image-bearers, and the rest of Creation.

The History of Classical Education

Before the rise of progressive education, the primary western pedagogy was classical, which was discovered centuries ago based on observations of human nature. Classical education began in ancient Rome, with the purpose of training and enculturating the next generation in all parts of their being: head, heart, hands. The goal was to pass on the best of all that’s been said, thought, and done throughout time, and teach these riches in ways that fit with children’s developmental stages. Education begins with teaching information, then progresses to teaching analysis, then culminates with guiding towards synthesis and communication. Christian classical education combines a Christian imago Dei anthropology with this classical pedagogy.

Grammar: Classical Education in Elementary School

The elementary stage, or “grammar stage,” focuses on building a strong foundation of information during the ages when children love to soak up knowledge. Students spend their days learning facts across all subjects and building their memory skills. They learn history as a chronological story. They read classic stories and often write their own versions of these stories. And, they are learning to recognize, love, and imitate the Good, True, and Beautiful.

Logic: Classical Education in Middle School

The middle school stage, or “logic stage,” is just when these adolescents are beginning to question more and enjoy argument (no surprise to parents of pre-teens!). This stage capitalizes on that interest and focuses on developing students’ ability to examine and analyze the facts they have already learned. They begin revisiting the knowledge learned in grammar school, but on a deeper level. They are taught to distinguish truth from error, understand the logic of arguments, and form their own arguments in a rational and gracious manner.

Rhetoric: Classical Education in High School

The high school stage, or “rhetoric stage,” focuses on synthesizing and all that has come before. While the previous stages heavily emphasize integrating subjects, the rhetoric stage is where the final integration occurs. Any parent of a teenager knows that this is the time that these young adults yearn to express themselves. In this stage of education, students are taught to persuasively communicate the Good, True, and Beautiful by creating art, music, arguments, and poetry with the integration of knowledge and skills learned in earlier years.

What Christian Classical Education Offers

Throughout the K-12 years, there is a holistic and integrated view of formation of head, heart, and hands. Christian classical education offers students’ “heads” high-quality, tried-and-true, integrated content to form their minds by the best of what has come before them. This education also focuses on the “heart” with a focus on a deep formation of character, helping students order their affections and habits towards a love of learning, of God, of others, and all that is good, true, and beautiful. Students’ “hands” are trained through the development of a wide variety of skills: they learn to think, read, write, and speak well; they grow in observation and question-asking skills, they develop a strong memory, and deepen their analysis and synthesis skills.

Christian classical education invites students into a cultural heritage greater than themselves, and teaches them that they offer value not by what they do, but by who they are. This education introduces them to the Goodness, Truth, and Beauty found in God, and trains them to recognize, love, and pursue God and His will. Unsurprisingly, the natural byproducts of this formative education often include high test scores, impressive grades, and college and career acceptance letters. Ultimately, however, this education is not merely passing on information to be used, but it is helping form adults who lead flourishing lives for the Kingdom of God.


Author’s Note: Much of this content was gleaned from my classical teacher training under Jean Kim, Founder and Head of School of The Cambridge School in San Diego.


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