Classical Education Makes a Comeback

Published February 1, 1998

In a quiet revolution that has received little public notice, schools embodying the principles of classical education–the education that gave us Western Civilization–are being organized across the country, teaching students at all grade levels and acknowledging both religious and non-religious traditions.

Such education is not just for the privileged or middle income, say the authors of a new book about these schools. As Chicago’s Marva Collins and others have shown, classical education also furnishes inner-city children with an escape ladder from urban misery.

While there is growing recognition of a malaise in the progressive approach to public education, many of the reforms proposed to address that malaise–among them “back to basics,” school-to-work, computers in every classroom, and self-esteem training–are inadequate to the task, according to Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Andrew Kern. Veith and Kern are the authors of Classical Education: Towards the Revival of American Schooling.

Classical education, contend Veith and Kern, can provide the necessary intellectual stimulation and moral discipline to foster the creative powers of our children.

“Classical education is conservative in honoring past achievements and defending permanent values,” write the authors. “But it is also radical in welcoming creativity and individuality, and encouraging new discovery.” Employing the wisdom of the past to address the needs of the present, classical education instructs the young in avoiding the illusions and mistakes of their predecessors.

The modern classical education movement was launched by Douglas Wilson with the opening of the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, in 1980. This school of “Christian classicism” subsequently served as a model for the 56 schools that today comprise the Association of Classical Christian Schools.

In addition, over 100 schools brought a program of “democratic classicism” into existing school structures after the 1982 publication of philosopher Mortimer Adler’s book, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. Educator David Hicks, on the other hand, adopted a “moral classicism” approach in his schools, while Marva Collins has used the principles of classical education to successfully educate inner-city minorities.

Classical education consists of four elements of learning: the trivium, the quadrivium, the sciences, and the professions. While the trivium is first applied to the three steps involved in learning language, it also defines the building-blocks necessary to master any subject: grammar (facts), logic (arguments), and rhetoric (applications). Grammar is the structure, vocabulary, and rules of language; logic makes it possible to think in that language; and rhetoric is where the student communicates his or her own ideas.

The trivium helps make clear the shortcomings of current education reforms. For example, the “back to basics” approach extols grammar while neglecting logic and rhetoric; “critical thinking” applies logic without the support of factual knowledge (grammar); and “discovery learning” turns education on its head in an attempt to use rhetoric for establishing underlying facts (grammar) and relationships (logic).

The quadrivium consists of the study of abstract thought (mathematics), aesthetic appreciation (music and poetry), empirical inquiry (astronomy), and spatial relationships (geometry). Once the trivium and quadrivium “arts” of learning are mastered, the student is considered equipped for the study of the sciences, which include the natural sciences, history, politics, law, religion, and metaphysics. After this, a student is ready to study the professions, which include law, medicine, and the church.

In praising the virtues of classical education, authors Veith and Kern recognize that it goes against the grain of contemporary culture, demanding that pampered children work hard and read instead of watching television.

“Teachers will have to convince students that the good, the true, and the beautiful have more value than the glittering prizes of pop culture and the easy answers of relativism,” warn the authors. They ask, “How many parents will be like those who pulled their children from Marva Collins’ school because she demands too much?”

The rewards of a classical education, note Veith and Kern, are great: students have learned to think broadly, deeply, and creatively. After visiting a school dedicated to classical education and finding students there far more accomplished than most of his college students, one of the authors had to keep reminding himself, “These are high school students?”

Veith is professor of humanities and Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Concordia University in Wisconsin, while Kern is Director cf Classical Instruction at Foundations Academy in Boise, Idaho. Their book was published by the Washington, DC-based Capital Research Center.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

To order a copy of Classical Education: Towards the Revival of American Schooling, contact the Capital Research Center, 1513 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036-1401, telephone 202/483-6900. The book is a 99-page paperback and costs $10.00.