Classical Education – What exactly is it?



DEFINING CLASSICAL EDUCATION by Andrew Kern, Circe Institute


CATHOLIC CLASSICAL EDUCATION by Dr. Peter Redpath, Professor of Philosophy, St. John’s University

First, let’s look at the history of classical education and what happened over the years.  With the permission of Diane Lockman, from Classical Scholar, I reprinted her articles that speak precisely to this question:

Where did classical education originate, and how has it been adapted over the years?

National leaders on two continents have been successfully trained by the classical method for over two thousand years. The “paideia” of the ancient Greeks referred to the process of forming an enlightened mature mind. Unlike today, the paideia was not concerned with preparing students for jobs; rather, learning led to the mental discipline to discuss abstract ideas like truth, beauty, and justice. Adopting the Greek idea of classical education, the ancient Romans created a system of study called the “seven liberal arts” which were divided into two phases. Beginners mastered the three skills of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) before moving on to the quadrivium. There is evidence in the writings of the Apostle Paul that he received a Jewish adaptation of the classical trivium.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century a.d., classical education as a method of learning appeared to disappear; however, in the 9th century, Emperor Charlemagne revived and Christianized classical education in Europe when he opened the Palace Schools to perfect Christian leaders. Scripture and the writings of early Christian leaders were incorporated into the content. During the late 11th century, loose confederations of teachers and apprentices gathered in what was called the “universitas” to study the seven liberal arts. Students joined the the universitas at 14 or 15 years of age and began mastering the three skills of the classical trivium. Classes were taught in homes or churches. Study centered around great writers and their books, not subjects. By the 13th century, three more liberal arts were added at the graduate level: law, medicine, and theology.

With the colonization of America, classical education crossed the Atlantic and took a new twist. Educational institutions were established in the mid-1800s to control the rapidly expanding immigrant population, and initially a form of the ancient classical education was taught in the twelve-year common school format. Instead of teaching the three skills of the classical trivium, “classical” subjects like Latin and Logic were incorporated in the curriculum. By the early 1900s, the lack of qualified teachers meant that even a classical variation was no longer possible for American public school children, and classical education once again appeared to fade into antiquity.

During the 1980s, the twelve-year common school variation of classical education was reborn within the homeschooling movement. Inspired by a lecture given by author Dorothy Sayers in the 1940s, several homeschool educators adopted her premise that the three skills of the classical trivium might correlate with the chronological development of the child. These reformers chose to embrace the idea of stages instead of the “lost tools of learning” that Sayers lamented. Thus, the contemporary version of classical home and private school education generally follows a three stage trivium with artificial milestones established as follows: grammar stage covers grades 1-4, logic stage covers grades 5-8, and rhetoric stage emcompasses grades 9-12. Some reformers, myself included, believe that teaching three skills concurrently is more historically accurate and avoids the trappings of the 12 year public school paradigm.

What is the classical trivium, and what is the purpose?

Prior to the introduction of the classical curriculum in the public school systems, the three skills of the classical trivium were taught concurrently, not consecutively as subjects or as stages. In fact, the Latin word “trivium” means the intersection of three roads. You can visualize the simultaneous travels on these three roads if you imagine a three-dimensional cube – width represents one skill, length represents another skill, and depth represents another. Within the mass of this cube, there are multiple points where all three planes come together or intersect. It is this intersection, mastery of language, thought, and speech, that drives the curriculum in the early childhood to preteen years.

Working on the classical trivium is like that imaginary cube. A student can be acquiring language while he is improving his critical thinking tools and exercising his speaking skills by narrating what he’s thought and learned. Over the years you will be teaching your child all three skills with a goal of substantial mastery. When you reach this goal, your preteen or teen is ready to tackle the weightier disciplines like the abstract ideas found in the books of the Western Canon. Practically, your son or daughter needs to have such command of the English language that the vocabulary, complex sentence structure, and literary style of the classics is not overwhelming. The ability to comprehend and wrestle with the meaning of the written text is also essential. Finally, the young adult who has substantially mastered the three skills of the classical trivium is comfortable writing about abstract ideas such as freedom, compassion, and redemption. The content studied during these post-trivium years will comprise the bulk of the high school transcript.

From The Classical Scholar – Parent Workshop 101 Primer (

To read more about how we practice the skills of Language, Thought, and Speech go to our Mission and Philosophy


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