Classical Education

What Is Classical Education?

Download the free booklet, An Introduction to Classical Education, here.

The following article is used by permission of Mars Hill Academy, copyright 2003,

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers addressed Oxford University in a lecture entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She asked a rather simple, yet profoundly important question: “Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of and unimagined.” If this were true in mid-20th century England, how much more is it true for us today—Christian and non-Christian alike? As Christians we cannot allow this to continue. We are commanded to love God with “heart, soul, mind, and strength....” Our educational goals and expectations, in both public and private, secular and Christian sectors are astonishingly low. In the worst cases, children pass through a dozen years of mandated government education and remain functionally illiterate. In the best schools, our children have digested huge amounts of unrelated data, yet remain unable to distinguish truth from falsehood in nearly every sphere of life. And most importantly, our children are taught that God, if He exists at all, is positively irrelevant to everything they study. Finally, many parents are asking, “What can be done?”

First, let it be said at the outset that classical education is no panacea to cure the myriad of infirmities that assail Western intellectual life. It has, however, helped to train and nurture a glorious Christian heritage for nearly two millennia and for that reason alone deserves Christians’ attention. More importantly, however, God demands that His children be clear thinkers. A quick survey of the book of Romans or Hebrews will tell us as much. To understand God’s Word and His world, we simply must love to learn.

What follows is a brief description of the Trivium (Latin for “three ways”) that formed the backbone of classical instruction for generations. Think of each stage – Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric – as emphases. Elementary students are capable of some abstract reasoning; they just are not characterized by it. Likewise, High School students need to memorize facts, ideas, persons, etc.; however, this should not characterize their learning.

The Grammar Stage
Historically, this first step in a child’s education was structured around the study of Latin grammar and, as a result, came to be known as the Grammar stage (corresponding to Elementary School). The memorization of Latin vocabulary and grammatical forms trained the young student’s mind to encounter, assimilate, and retain large quantities of material in an organized and efficient manner. Schoolmasters and teachers were concerned that the students not only memorize Latin, but gain proficiency in memorization more generally—a skill that has fallen on hard times in our own century. History, Science, Math, and the study of God’s Word, were all beneficiaries of this rigorous intellectual training, for the tools of learning were easily applied in different academic disciplines. The memorization was never an end in itself, but a tool to be placed in the student’s intellectual arsenal for later use. Scripturally, we might say that this stage seeks to equip the students with knowledge (Prov. 2:6).

The Logic Stage
Formal logic is the cornerstone of what is known as the Logic stage (roughly corresponding to Jr. High School). Logic is the study of correct reasoning and everyone, to greater or lesser degrees, is a logician. We all make inferences, deductions, and aspire to be consistent in the way we think about the world. Logic helps us make sense of everything. The Greek word meaning “therefore”—a sure indication of inductive reasoning—occurs nearly one thousand times in the New Testament! Using Formal Logic as a tool, the students attempt to study the ordered relationships of the persons, ideas, and institutions that were committed to memory in the Grammar stage. Again, the skill is more important than the subject. When students think logically, they are demonstrating understanding (Prov. 1:5).

The Rhetoric Stage
Once a student has become a proficient and logical learner and thinker, he/she must learn to give eloquent and persuasive expression, in both oral and written mediums, to their learning. This is the goal of the Rhetoric Stage (High School), the culmination of a child’s education. God’s truth needs to be brought to bear on new situations and experiences; therefore, the classically educated student will possess the ability to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in a logical manner. Biblically, we might say this is exercising wisdom (Prov. 2:2).

Perhaps the three “stages” of the Trivium may be more appropriately thought of as overlapping spheres of instruction. We would miss the point of classical education if we failed to realize that the study of Grammar necessarily involves small amounts of Logic and Rhetoric. A child standing to present information gained from a purely rote method of instruction is still expressing his knowledge publicly and this can be done poorly or it may be done well. Likewise, a student of Rhetoric will, on occasion, have need to memorize and make inferences between pieces of information, as he/she will for the remainder of his/her life.

Our desire in teaching and learning classically (and Christian-ly!) is to integrate learning, to think systematically about critical issues, and to submit all knowledge to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who gives wisdom abundantly to all who ask for it.

The Case for Classical Christian Education, by Douglas Wilson
Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, by Douglas Wilson
The Lost Tools of Learning, by Dorothy Sayers
On Secular Education, by R. L. Dabney
The Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer
Repairing the Ruins, edited by Douglas Wilson
The Seven Laws of Teaching, by John Gregory
Why Johnny Can’t Read (or Why Johnny Still Can’t Read), by Rudolf Flesch
Ideas Have Consequences, by Richard Weaver
Of Education, by John Milton
Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern
Education, Christianity and the State, by J. Gresham Machen
Foundation of Christian Education, by Louis Berkhof and Cornelius Van Til
The Paideia of God, by Douglas Wilson
On Christian Doctrine, by Augustine

Association of Classical and Christian Schools
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