Jul 1, 2014

Beyond the Buzz Words: What is Classical Education?

By Jackquelyn Veith

Classical education is becoming a buzz word in some circles. This raises questions like, “What is classical education?”  “How is it different from regular school?” “What difference does classical education make for a child?”  Bottom line:  “How do parents justify withdrawing their children from typical educational settings in order to make a philosophical point?” After all, the public schools are free, a place of community, and sometimes quite successful academically (they may even offer AP exams, rigorous music programs, etc.). Local private or parochial schools that are focused on mainstream teaching methods and state standards may be enjoyable places with good test scores. Why reject them? 

We should remember that historically, the family served as the initial educational setting.  Parents taught their children the tasks and processes that allowed the family to survive, grow, and exist.  As families began to live together in communities, knowledge was collected and passed down through generations to strengthen individuals, families, and society.  As society became more complex, practitioners of education (teachers), more often than parents, ensured the success of knowledge transmittal. 

Martin Luther (himself educated through the system that we now call classical education, which helped him to develop the skills to examine what he learned from the riches and wisdom of earlier thinkers) had unambiguous thoughts about parents being responsible for their own children’s education: 
“For if we wish to have excellent and apt persons both for civil and ecclesiastical government, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, that they may serve God and the world. . . . Let everyone know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God, and if they are talented, have them learn and study something, that they may be employed for whatever need there is [to have them instructed and trained in a liberal education, that men may be able to have their aid in government and in whatever is necessary].  If that were done, God would also richly bless us and give us grace to train men by whom land and people might be improved, and likewise well-educated citizens, chaste and domestic wives, who afterwards would rear godly children and servants.” 

The schools that Luther had in mind and which Philip Melanchthon helped establish promoted a liberal, or classical, education for all children, including girls, a bold step indeed in those times. Thomas  Korcok reminds us in his book, Lutheran Education, that until the last century the Lutheran approach to education has always been classical education plus catechesis.

Liberal (classical) education refers to an organization of knowledge known as the liberal arts.  Seven liberal arts are represented in the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy).  Every content area or academic discipline today can be traced to either a liberal art or science (whether natural, moral, theological).  Many (but not all) classical educators also consider the trivium as itself a teaching and learning methodology.  Dorothy L. Sayers, with her child development stages of poll parrot, pert, and poetic, is an example of this emphasis on the structure of classical education.  Other classical educators, such as those in the Consortium of Classical Lutheran Educators (CCLE), take the view that classical education can be defined through both content and methodology.  

One characteristic in classical education that strongly appeals to Christian parents and educators is its emphasis on the unity of knowledge, the understanding that all knowledge is intertwined and related between and throughout different areas.  Furthermore, this knowledge is objective knowledge; it exists before the child learns it and before the teacher teaches it.  We identify God as the source of all knowledge and, therefore, can freely study all materials—even pagan works–knowing that all knowledge points to and comes from God.

In contrast, today’s educational system is saturated by Progressivism, a twentieth-century philosophy that proposed that education should be based on a child’s experiences, that the current social setting shapes the child’s experiences, and that previous knowledge (history and traditions) is less important to the development of the child than is the direction in which society needs the child to go.   Much of progressive education today is based on constructivist theories, the idea that a child must “construct” the knowledge.  The knowledge doesn’t exist until the child creates his own understanding of it.  Can you see how this literally makes each of us a (false) god?  

This illustrates a major educational difference between the purposes of classical and progressive education: classical education seeks to develop critical thinkers (it was originally focused on preparing individuals to participate fully in decision-making in all areas of society) whereas progressive education seeks to develop individuals who are primarily prepared to participate economically in society.  This is the issue represented in the argument about college: do you go to college to get a well-paying job or do you go to college to get an education?  Classical educators believe you focus on getting the education, and then the job comes along; progressive educators are pragmatists who would focus primarily on getting the job.  Christian classical educators believe you should study all about God’s creation as a means of learning more about God’s glory, power, and omnipotence; and this same God will provide for your needs.

Another primary difference is that classical education respects and values the past as a source of wisdom.   When issues or problems arise, classical educators believe that solutions or insights can be found by studying previous societies and their actions, events, and practices.  Christian classical educators reject the notion that humanity has progressed, believing that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Progressive educators instead reject the past and dissect historical traditions for their errors as identified by current values.  If any person or country ever believed or ever committed an action which is no longer morally or socially acceptable, this negates the entire value of the person or country.  Progressive education also reflects a relativism which teaches that the same historical or cultural event may mean different things to different groups of people, and that thus no one interpretation should be favored over any other.  Their relativistic view of the past, combined with constructivist epistemology, produces floundering students who lack moral anchors.  Such students are at the mercies of progressive educators, unable to counter what they are taught because they have developed no mental tools (logic) or skills (rhetoric) which could allow them to articulate curiosity, conduct rigorous investigation, or expose and question existing assumptions.  

But these are philosophical issues, which may not be readily apparent in the local public or parochial classroom. The differences between classical and progressive education that are most visible to laypeople are seen in teaching methodologies.  Some of us remember memorizing math facts, spelling rules, states and capitals. Perhaps not fondly—but we remember!  I have searched in vain for articles in mainstream K-12 education journals or books that discuss “rote memory work” in a positive light.  In fact, the vast majority of articles or books written by practicing K-12 educators (that I could find) deplores and bemoans any type of drill exercise or repeated practice as a VERY POOR teaching practice.  Meanwhile, drill and practice are accepted as de rigueur to develop physical skills and abilities in organized sport activities!  Why are they outlawed in the arena of cognitive skills and abilities?

However, if you read non-classroom educational researchers, you will find evidence that memorization makes an essential contribution to learning.  From Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy, to brain-based learning, to cognitive load theory, all of these are based on memory.  When a person can retrieve a fact from his previous experience and apply it in a new situation—that represents learning by memory.  If you have to re-discover all facts every time you enter a new situation, you will certainly be wasting a good deal of time, energy, and brain activity (think about this the next time you try to find a word in a print dictionary—knowing the alphabet automatically comes in handy!). Automaticity is a key characteristic of reading fluency. The reader must see the word and “know” the word quickly and automatically, instead of spending time or effort trying to construct the meaning—he simply knows it from memory.

Some of us were teachers during the reading wars when whole language replaced phonics as the desired and approved method of reading instruction.  In an ideal world, whole language is a beautiful, effortless means by which children learn to read eagerly.  But we live in a fallen world.  Who would sacrifice children to protect a teaching practice?  Phonics has substantial research support as an effective teaching practice, especially for struggling readers. 

When the “professional experts” disengage from practices that laypeople recognize as effective, common sense practices, there’s something wrong.   The trivium as a teaching methodology considers the stages of child development and matches teaching practices to them.  When children are eager to soak up knowledge, we should give them facts, information, and content.  When children are ready to manipulate knowledge and explore what they know, we should teach them how to apply logical processes and how to articulate pieces of knowledge.  When children are becoming young adults who need to be prepared for new tasks, new responsibilities, and serious decision-making, we should teach them how to realize what they still need to know as they apply what they do already know.  In CCLE’s Marks of a Classical Lutheran Educator, the educational focus is on both what is taught (the wisdom of the past) and how it is taught—using time-tested practices instead of applying untested practices.  

Many Lutheran parochial schools are returning to their classical heritage and rejecting a relativistic, progressive program.  Why would concerned, loving, conscientious parents consider a classical education school for their children?  Why would Lutheran parents? Let me close with Martin Luther’s admonition:  “You parents cannot prepare a more dependable treasure for your children than an education in the liberal arts.”  

In search of this treasure, I support Classical Lutheran Education which “cultivates in a child self-knowledge, tools for learning, the contemplation of great ideas, and an understanding of the world in which he lives, all for the love and service of others. Above all, classical and Lutheran education inclines a child toward Goodness, Truth, and Beauty found fully and eternally in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is most certainly true.” 


Jackquelyn Veith has taught students (kindergarten through college) for 25+ years. Married to Gene Edward Veith, they are parents of three adult children and nine beautiful grandchildren. They are members of St. Athanasius Lutheran Church in Vienna, VA.

Title Image: "Vanitas" Still Life by Adam Bernaert


  1. I'm currently homeschooling my children (two preschoolers and one entering 1st grade), and was homeschooled myself K-12, and so I have run into the idea of the "classical education" a lot over the years. While I wasn't taught using strictly classical methods, and don't adhere to them much myself now, the idea of everything being connected was definitely present when I was learning, and shows up so much now. My 6-year-old will ask a question about science that we end up answering using history, math, science, and religion. We were talking about nuclear submarines at lunch today, and ended up discussing (in a way a 6-year-old would dig) Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the uses of nuclear research for bad and for good, a little about WWII because he's aware of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and touching on what the Bible says about how to use knowledge.

    Sometimes I feel like I "ought" to be adhering to the classical methods, and then I realize that I am doing so in spirit, just not quite the way most proponents of a classical education outline. I think it's a splendid education model, and I'm happy to borrow some of my own teaching methods from it.

    1. I think that one of homeschooling's big strengths is its ability to foster connected learning. After all, the mom knows what the kid is studying in all the subjects, and isn't under the same time-constraints of a teacher to keep moving on so that the students get to math on time. Do you read Jules Verne aloud to your kids?

    2. I just bought a copy of "20,000 Leagues" last week, and I don't know if I'll read it aloud to them quite yet, but some time in the future, probably!


Please note: Comments are moderated and will appear on the blog once we've had a chance to approve them.

Thanks for joining the conversation!