Four Characteristics of a Classical Education

Classical Tapestry of Jesus

The natural application of the above theological and philosophical foundations of a Catholic education is the classical approach to educating the child.  The classical principles of education have ancient Greek, Jewish and Roman roots—a pedagogy of learning which produced nothing less than the unparalleled intellectual and cultural development of Western Civilization.  This approach can be expressed in many ways but can be captured in four key components:

  1. The Natural Stages of Learning—The child’s three natural stages of cognitive development are the basis of an overall structure of classical learning from Kindergarten to 12th grade—the trivium.
  2. Focus on Language: Beyond the use of language, the classical approach develops a child’s appreciation and understanding of language as the key driver of more perceptive thought.
  3. Developing Thought and the Unity of Knowledge: All subjects possess an internal unity as well as a unity beyond themselves.  The classical educator intentionally leads students into a thoughtful experience of these unities, inspiring the child to greater sensitivity to and exploration of the Truth, of Goodness and Beauty.
  4. History as Organizing Principle: Subject-specific learning is grasped in its meaning and depth, beyond its utility, only when understood from the perspective of its historical development.

I. The Natural Stages of Learning

A classical education partitions the goals, activities, and content of a child’s learning into three fundamental stages of learning which are aligned to the natural development of a child’s inclinations and cognitive capacities.

Grammar Stage (Kindergarten – 4th Grade):

This age’s distinguishing cognitive capacity is memorization.  In this stage the ‘grammar of learning’ or, the verbal, written and conceptual building blocks of future thought and understanding is built up through memorization strategies involving repetition, rhyme, song, etc.  The fundamental elements or tools of reading, writing, mathematics, history, linguistics and the study of nature are put into place to be built upon in a child’s succeeding stages of learning.  The three cognitive goals in this stage of learning are
1) Paying attention as a willful activity of attending,
2) Memorization as an exercise and development of this faculty,
3) Imitating as an ability to recognize key elements and being able to replicate them afterward, both in the correct sequence and accurately.

Logic Stage (5th – 7th Grade):

This age’s distinguishing cognitive capacity is to experience meaning or to understand.  Students at this stage are guided by the educator posing essential questions, which promotes key habits of deeper thought, including organizing, comparing and contrasting, conducting research, ordering ideas, and writing from another’s perspective.  This approach comes to include an introduction to the elements of argumentation, formal logic and debate.  Students are trained in creating written exposition that is organized, carefully worded and informed.  There are three cognitive goals in this stage of learning: 
1)  Prioritizing and summarizing details by identifying the few, key elements that define the content,
2) Identifying similarities and differences through comparing and contrasting key ideas and essential details,
3) Making and evaluating inferences based on partial evidence and prior knowledge.

Rhetorical Stage (8th – 12th Grade): 

This age’s distinguishing capacity is to apply, judge and express learning.  In high school classical education settings, students are guided in analyzing, synthesizing, deriving judgements and communicating persuasively their positions.

II. Focus on Language

The written and spoken word is the hinge upon which all classical teaching and learning swing. To become a fluent reader, a coherent writer, and an articulate speaker are fundamental goals of a classical education as these form the medium for developing the careful thinking skills that allow students to establish a vantage point, not within but above the level of ideas.  After first attaining fluency in the word, students can then be trained in the ‘commerce of ideas’.

The pedagogy of classical education, therefore, emphasizes language as the medium for becoming aware of all distinctions, relationships, and connections.  Language acquisition, grammar, vocabulary, fluency in verbal and written expression, and the understanding of language structures—are all emphasized beginning in the grammar stage and intentionally expanded with age.  Through this emphasis, a child attains clarity of thought and expression—the power of effective reasoning, of grasping and testing ideas, of readily moving from the concrete to the abstract, assessing the intelligibility of argument, and discerning truth from falsehood.

This impact of language on clarity and depth of thought is the basis for making Latin a requisite course of study beginning in the 4th grade and continuing through 8th grade.  The linguistic benefits of studying Latin are many-fold:

  1. The habits of mind of the student studying Latin take on the qualities unique to the unexcelled system that is the Latin language: logic, order, precision, structure, all while learning how to exercise patient, methodic, and diligent effort.
  2. 65% of English words have Latin roots—to understand and use English well, we learn Latin (e.g. ‘father’ in Latin is pater, therefore the English paternalism, expatriate, patronize, patriotic, etc., or ‘death’ in Latin is mors, therefore the English mortal, immortal, morbid, mortuary, mortgage, etc.)
  3. After learning basic English grammar in Kindergarten through 3rd grade when a child learns to read, the 4th-grade child then encounters thousands of new words as he or she reads to learn. Latin provides the important next level of language organization after that of English grammar.   Latin does for language, what mathematics does for science.
  4. A language can only be studied outside of itself. Latin allows students to study and appreciate words–their origins, relationships, and their travel between languages, Latin forming the linguistic foundation of the five most spoken Romance languages and greatly facilitating their learning.
  5. Latin informs the vocabulary of all the natural sciences (e.g. equinox, igneous, symbols of the elements, etc.), the life sciences (e.g. plant and animal classifications, etc.), mathematics (e.g. axiom, integer, exponent, etc.), law and government (e.g. subpoena, pro bono, quid pro quo, non sequitur, etc.)

III. Deepening Thought and the Unity of Knowledge

The division of learning into subjects is essentially an artificial one.  Ultimately, all knowledge in its multi-faceted aspects of phenomena, quality, and change becomes one Truth, a simple, unified, singular, absolute reality Who is God.  The seeing of the transcendent in the temporal world of change and phenomena becomes in classical education, nothing less than the fulfillment of all learning.

The classical educator works hard to identify, present and lead students to an encounter with the Unity that is within the diversity of the world and the various subjects of its study.  “The beauty of the classical curriculum,” writes classical schoolmaster David Hicks, “is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way, to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasonings, patterns of action, recurring symbolism, plots, and motifs.”  Each subject possesses its own inner nature which the classical student in the logic and rhetoric stages of learning is guided to grasp, verbalize and understand.   Beyond the innumerable facts and details—students are taught to see the deeper connections and relationships that abide within a subject’s content—this is where perceptive thinking leads.  Such perceptive understanding inspires fascination.  Here the imagination can then extend learning, apply and evaluate it, and make judgments.  It is at this point that a subject changes a student, impacts them as a person, a thinker, as one who has a direction that can be influenced toward great ends, a great purpose.  Subjects are more than information.  Each can be formative of a child’s mind, impressing its own qualities upon them.  Are we, what we eat?  Maybe so, for our mind certainly becomes what we study deeply.

This formative aspect of a subject is therefore as important, if not more important, than its facts and skills. The subject of literature not only conveys knowledge of other lives and cultures, but when reflected on carefully, teaches insight, perception, and compassion for the human condition. The subject of history not only conveys historical events, conditions and relationships but beyond these, it can develop judgment, discernment, and wisdom. Mathematics impresses habits of accuracy and logic. These qualities of mind are priceless and what differentiates the educated person from the uneducated.  Deep thought in each subject is, therefore, a key goal of classical education.  The classical educator intentionally leads a child to these experiences the ultimate unities of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that lie at the center of each subject and all subjects.

IV. History as Organizing Principle

History plays a key role in the development of a child’s understanding of the world, salvation history and their place within it.  As such it is not just one subject among others but serves as a common thread that links the subjects in time and circumstance.  This is why a classical education moves away from ‘social studies’ to a dedicated, ongoing study of history.  A rich study of history reveals to the student the originating quest of learning, exploration, and discovery, and inspires them to pursue these in their own life.

In classical education the study of history is reflected in a pedagogy of instruction where learning employs the actual texts that were written within a subject of study—literature, science, history, mathematics–or age-appropriate versions of them, to inform instruction.  In a classical education, history informs all the subjects, as each has its own history.  This is in contrast to the tendency of progressive education’s reliance on textbooks which compile, organize, filter and define a sequence of ahistorical facts and skills, while entirely losing sight of the deeper meanings and higher purposes that led to the subject’s development in the first place.  A classical education ensures that both the technical content of a subject and its historical drama are understood by students so that they too experience the deeper motivations to study the subject.

In the classical curriculum, history is studied in four-year cycles sequentially studying the four epochs of Western Civilization:  The Ancient World (5000 BC – 400 AD), The Medieval Age (400 – 1500 AD), The Renaissance 1500 – 1800 AD), and Modern Times (1800 to Present).  The first cycle begins in the Grammar Stage of Kindergarten through 3rd grade, is then repeated in the Logic Stage of Learning, with an age-appropriate depth in 4th through 8th grades (and repeated again in the 9th through 12th-grade Rhetoric Stage).

St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School