What is a Classical Education? Why Does it Matter?

by Judy Ness

Genesis Classical Academy engages students in an education based on Christ, character, and classical methodology, or what we call “The Three C’s.” The first two—Christ and Character—are pretty much self-explanatory. But the third “C”—classical methodology—is more difficult to explain. What is a classical education? And more importantly, why does it matter?

Classical education is a time-tested, proven method that dates back more than two thousand years to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans and includes the three pillars of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is rooted in a rich understanding of history and classic literature upon which Western culture was founded. Our nation’s founders were classically educated, and until the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, classical education was the primary educational model in the United States.

A classical education involves much more than just learning facts, although students receiving a classical education do indeed acquire a great deal of knowledge. The goal of a classical education is to develop wisdom and virtue. St. Augustine of Hippo defined virtue as “rightly-ordered love.” To love in right order assumes that we love what should be loved (good instead of evil), and do not love less something that should be loved more (loving our work more than our family). For Augustine, the highest virtue was love of God: “As to virtue leading us to a happy life, I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God.”           

At the beginning of the 20th century, the more traditional, classical education in the United States was supplanted by progressive educational theory. Progressive education is centered on child psychology, social engineering, and job skills. Conversely, a classical education trains students how to use the tools of learning, enabling themto approach any facet of life, covering more ground in less time.

In 1947 Dorothy Sayers, a British novelist and poet, delivered a talk at Oxford University entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Although not immediately seized upon by the educational establishment, this essay has been instrumental in the resurgence of interest in classical schools, and provides a foundational framework for modern classical education. 

The essay begins with a lament by Ms. Sayers regarding the inability of modern persons to resist the lure of advertising and mass propaganda, write or speak articulately, define terms precisely, or debate an issue logically. For Sayers, the learning of a “subject” was not nearly as important as learning how to learn and acquiring the “tools of learning.”

“Is it not the great defect of our education today (a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned) that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning.”

Sayers then describes a framework for educating students that aligns with their natural developmental stage—the modern Trivium. The three stages of the Trivium are Grammar, Dialectic (Logic) and Rhetoric, which roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school ages.

Grammar (elementary school)—students in the grammar school stage love to learn. Their minds are like sponges, soaking up factual information quickly and easily. It is at this stage that students learn the basic facts that become the “raw material” for the understanding and synthesis of the later logic and rhetoric stages. Learning is enhanced by rhymes, chants, and songs.

Dialectic/Logic (middle school)—students at this stage have developed the capacity for abstract thought, and naturally like to argue and debate. They question “how” things work, and are beginning to develop independent thought by challenging ideas. In the classical curriculum, the study of logic helps students not only reason logically, but recognize faulty arguments.

Rhetoric (high school)—at this stage, students are interested in self-expression and creativity. They use the tools of the Grammar and Logic stages to synthesize connections between ideas, and learn to express themselves articulately and persuasively.

But no education, whether classical or progressive, takes place in a vacuum. Whether or not we have thought about it or can articulate it, we all have a worldview. Our worldview helps us make sense of, and put in order, all the other bits of information that are thrown at us. 

Since Genesis Classical Academy is a Christian school, the information is taught from a Christian worldview. In the rhetoric stage students study other worldviews so that they can understand and analyze the differences, and respectfully defend their own position.

So, what is the goal of classical education? Dorothy Sayers puts it like this:

“For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

The goal of classical Christian education is to teach our students to be independent thinkers. They will know how to learn, how to analyze information, reason logically, and spot fallacies in arguments. They will know what they believe, why they believe it, and be able to explain their position articulately and persuasively. In a word, we are training our students to be leaders.

Judy Ness is a business owner, former teacher, and a passionate supporter of Genesis Classical Academy in Winnebago, Minnesota.  She and her husband James have 3 adult children and 4 grandchildren. They count among their blessings the wonderful education that their grandchildren are receiving at Genesis.

The mission of Genesis Classical Academy is to prepare students for leadership, citizenship and healthy family living through a Christ-centered, Character-building education using the Classical model. Is this the type of education you desire for your children or grandchildren? Would you like to ensure that all area families can offer this education to their children, regardless of their ability to pay? If so, call Genesis Classical Academy at 507-893-3600 to find out how you can impact the future of our children, and become a part of the exciting work of Genesis Classical Academy.