Homeshooling Methods and Philosophies: What is Classical Education?

Classical Ruins

This is the first in a series of posts I am planning regarding the different homeschooling philosophies, methods and materials available. I’ve spent large portions of the past five years researching home education, now I hope to share what I have learned.

Classical Education is a popular concept in the homeschooling community, but it means different things to different people. In general, advocates of classical education embrace the concept that there are methods of education which originated in the ancient civilizations of the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans; were adopted and adapted by the early Christians and the schools and scholars of Middle Ages; and were passed down in some form or degree through generations of teachers and learners until modern times—only to be abandoned in the past century or so as educational aims and priorities have changed.

One major group of Classical Education proponents follow the theory of education outlined by Dorothy Sayers in her in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” first presented at Oxford in 1947. Sayers laments that while we as modern educators “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.” The remedy, according to Sayers, is to return to a time-tested model of education: “if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

Jordan Philadelphia_NEW

Sayers goes on to outline a modern-day reincarnation of the medieval scholastic disciplines of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. These are her “lost tools of learning,” with which she hopes to reform education. Sayer believes that each of these disciplines is ideally adapted to a particular phase in a child’s development—this is the great innovation of her educational outline. Grammar, says Sayer, is naturally fitted to the study of younger children, those who have just gained the ability to read, write and cipher; this she nicknames the “poll-parrot” phase, when children naturally enjoy observing and learning facts about their world, and memorizing information. Sayer’s second phase is the Dialectic, or Logic, stage, when children develop greater interest in the hows and whys of the information they have collected, and are ready to begin analyzing and making connections. The third and final phase in Sayer’s Trivium is the Rhetoric stage, the point at which synthesis and expression of ideas becomes important, and when a student is finally prepared to explore the rich treasures of knowledge and ideas available to us and arrive at a degree coherent understanding.

The ages which Sayers tentatively ascribes to each of these stages are of interest, particularly because many of the more recent interpreters of her Trivium have tried to stretch them to fit our contemporary extended period of formal schooling.  Sayer suggests that the study of Grammar might be accomplished between the ages of 9 and 11, Dialectic from 12 to 14, and Rhetoric from 14 to 16. A student who is continuing their education past the age of 16 would then enter into a course of study corresponding to the medieval Quadrivium (traditionally encompassing the arts of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, although a modern interpretation could include whichever arts and sciences the student chose to pursue). Sayers views the Trivium not as subjects proper, but rather as the development of the mental tools which will equip a student to study any subject.

Jordan Philadelphia Amphitheater

Sayer’s “stages” model of classical education (termed by some a “neoclassical” model) has been picked up and elaborated on by various homeschooling experts. Among these are Susan Wise Bauer, whose book The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home outlines a rigorous K-12 educational program based on Sayer’s Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric stages; Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, authors of Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style; and Leigh Bortins, author of The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Educationand founder of the Classical Conversations communities.

Another group of classical educators reject the concept of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric as stages, pointing out that historically these were not conceived of as sequential phases of learning but rather as academic disciplines or subjects, taught together as the Trivium. These educators espouse a more “traditional” style of classical education. Among these are Andrew Campbell, whose book The Latin-Centered Curriculum: a Home Educator’s Guide to a Traditional Classical Education calls for a return to an education centered on the classical languages of Latin and Greek and the great literature produced in them, and Diane Lockman, who wrote the book Trivium Pursuit: The Intersection of Three Roads to demonstrate how the Trivium may be taught in our day through the development our faculties of Language (grammar), Thought (logic), and Speech (rhetoric).

I will explore each of these, and other classically oriented publishers and resources available to homeschoolers, in future posts.

For those who are interested, the photos included in this post come from my days as an archeology student. I spent a summer in Jordan, excavating sites around the ancient city of Petra. The photos, however, are from modern-day Amman, which in classical times was known as Philadelphia (not to be confused with the city of Philadelphia in Turkey–modern-day Alasehir–referenced in the Book of Revelation). Pictured are the ruins of the Temple of Hercules and the Roman amphitheater.

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