Classical Education: No School Like The Old School - Blog! - Two-Fisted History


Classical Education:
No School Like The Old School

  • ‘Mother Teresa was elected to the Pericles along with Jono Kenyatta and Martin Luther.  She was very outspoken, but mostly when she spoke.  She was elected because she knew what the people feared.'
  • ‘Lyndon Johnson sent troops into Vietnam because they crashed planes into the World Trade Center.'
  • ‘Many Guptas are located on or near the Nile River Valley.'


Yes, these are actual answers that actual students have said on actual standardized Social Studies tests. 

How could our students get answers as fundamentally wrong?  My thoughts are that this is, in part, a result of our education system has become a giant Blender.  Students go from Social Studies to Science to Elective to Math to lunch to English to next class to next class where each teacher fills them with 44 minutes of material that is geared to prepare them for the standardize tests that measure whatever it is that standardize tests actually measure. . . and despite attempts at being cross-curricular, none of the courses actually fit together with another in our current system.  A typical 9th Grader in New York, for example, learns about the Neolithic Revolution through to the Enlightenment in Global and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in English.

Since the day the Baby Boomers started arriving in secondary schools in the mid-1960s, the United States has been inundated with an endless torrent of horror stories proclaiming the failure of its educational system. Standardized tests reveal that a large percentage of high school graduates who cannot identify the location of either North or South America on an unlabeled map of the world, who believe that Frederick Douglass wanted to keep Dred Scott as a slave, who confuse the Vietnam War with World War II, and who believe that Nelson Mandela and John Locke used their ideas & beliefs to rule the world.

From personal experience, I can tell you that these tales of terror are true.

Fewer and fewer adolescents and young adults, even college and university graduates, are properly able to express themselves (either verbally or in writing) or to form an argument based on anything other than how funny or cool a particular meme is.

In response, educators of the past forty-to-fifty years have come up with all manner of revolutionary new teaching methods that were supposed to correct the situation and get us back on track.  For fifty years, one theory after another has failed holistically.  In response, the bureaucrats and politicians have stepped in and looked for solutions by throwing money at the problem and, by deeming that local school boards have no idea how to educate a child, centralizing control in state capitals and in Washington with people with little practical background in education.

Were we always like this?  What were Grover Cleveland’s Regents exam scores?

No. No we weren’t.  Let me tell you a bit about Classical Education and how we used to teach.

Classical Education


Beginning in the mid-19th century, critics of Classical Education claimed that its approach was ‘unmutual’ and ‘elitist.’ Why on earth would you teach Latin, Greek, and other sundry subjects that most people would never need in their lives?  How is Latin going to increase individual income and advance national economic progress?

What the critics failed to take into account is that one of the purposes of a Classical Education is that, whatever the individual student may do in their post-school life, it trains and prepares their mind for all other types of learning that they will do throughout their life.  At the same time, it produces highly trained individuals who love truth, to discern truth from error, and to provide to the world the fruits of their individual creativity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Disney, J.D. Rockefeller, and 11 U.S. Presidents including Washington and Lincoln  were not university graduate, but the rigorous traditional education they received early in life prepared them to produce creations that have endured and will continue endure hundreds of years from now.

What Does Classical Education Consist Of?

Classical Education has its roots in the Middle Ages, where it’s aim was to provide an organized structure to teach all human knowledge.  This education consisted of three stages:

1.) Primary education, which consisted of Grammar, Logic, & Rhetoric, teaches the student how to learn and think critically. 

2.) Secondary education teaches history; the foundation for all human knowledge. It also fills in information and practices of major fields of knowledge such as Literature, Philosophy, Art, & Science, and develops the fundamental skills necessary for every human endeavour.

3.) Tertiary education, which is much like an apprenticeship which then prepares a person to pursue a profession such as law, medicine or science.

I’m going to focus on Primary and Secondary Education in this article.

In the Classical Model, Primary Education consists of the trivium which is the foundation of classical education.  The subjects taught in the trivium are grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

  • Grammar teaches the student how to read and how to obtain comprehension of what they’re reading.  Grammar also teaches the rules for writing intelligibly.
  • Logic teaches how to think critically and how to reason analytically, so that one is not misled by misleading arguments.
  • Rhetoric teaches how to express oneself, to articulate thoughts accurately and to be persuasive in discussions.

The trivium prepares the student with a thorough understanding of his or her language, the ability to think critically, and the ability to express their thoughts eloquently & convincingly.

The Secondary stage in the progression of Classical Education is called the quadrivium, and consists of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Arithmetic and Geometry should be a bit obvious, I hope.  Arithmetic deals with mathematics – both basic and advanced – and geometry deals with the measurement of various shapes, the relationship of points, lines, & surfaces to each other, and the properties of space.   Easy.

Music, though, is a bit more abstract.  In the Classical traditions of Greece and Rome, the word ‘music’ came from the Greek word ‘mousike,’ which consisted of the domains of the nine Muses; including literature, poetry, music and the sciences.

The Muses

Astronomy seems a somewhat curious addition.  The study of the sun, moon, planets, stars and whatnot.  In the Classical Model, astronomy was the basis for what modern schools call ‘Earth Science.’  Through Earth Science, we come to understand the physical world around us

What’s awesome about this is that the student is learning in a type of ‘Societally Evolutionary Learning’ (Yes, I made that phrase up and no, I don’t think ‘societally’ is a word).  The world is chock-full and jam-packed with information and knowledge.  Discovering the relationships between subjects can lead to all types of confusion.  Classical Education faces this challenge head-on by taking History and using it as a framework on which to build the other areas of study, starting with ancient and classical civilization and moving forward towards modern History, Science, Literature & Art.

In Classical Education, History is shown to be the Road through which we understand our development as individuals and as a People. In the student’s first year of Secondary School, they’re learning as a Classical individual (Classical in the Historic point of view, like Greece and Rome).  In History, they’re learning about everything up to Rome.  In Literature they read Homer and Virgil.  In Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry, and in Science, what we call ‘Earth Sciences.’  In short we learn and grow as Mankind has learned and grown throughout the ages.

After the quadrivium was complete, students went on to study philosophy and theology. That final phase of formal education was quite demanding, but by completing the trivium and quadrivium, students were prepared for more rigourous scholarship.

See, to the Classical methodology, all knowledge is connected.  As I mentioned in my 9th Grade example, ‘Earth Science’ isn’t studied in isolation; it’s learned through the history of scientific discovery, which takes us to the how early civilizations experienced science, and from there to the history of classical civilizations.  Reading the Illiad directs the student to the study of Greek history, the meaning of heroism, the evolution of the epic, and how Mankind understands of the transcendent.

Classical Education stresses using classical skills to study content. By classical skills we mean replication, memorization, drill, recitation & grammar.  Not grammar in the sense of diagramming sentences or learning sentence structure or the difference between ‘Can I go to the restroom?’ versus ‘May I go to the restroom?’ (although that is part of it) but grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything and everything. Every field of study and every career has a language all its own that the student must acquire like a foreign language.

A Classical Education is much, much more than simply a pattern of learning, though.  Classical Education focus on learning language - learning is primarily (though not exclusively) accomplished through the written and spoken word rather than through images (pictures, videos, and television).

Why is this important? Learning via language & learning via viewing require very different habits of thought. Language requires active engagement; the brain has to work harder.  When we read, the brain is forced to translate text into concepts. Watching a video on T.V. or on YouTube allows the mind to be passive.  In front of a screen, the brain can chillax and veg out. When the mind comes face-to-face with the written page, it has to roll its sleeves up and say ‘Let’s do this.’ This produces a foundation of knowledge & skills that grows stronger over time.

The trend toward an ever-narrow vision of education seems to be encouraged and even mandated by our government officials who have little to know actual experience in Education (Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for example, has no actual Education experience).  Instead of decreasing the near-obsessive focus on testing and test preparation — a fixation which totally turns the link between content and assessment on its head – our policy makers continue to put the conjectures driving NCLB in practice. 

Standardized Tests

The chief supposition that State and Federal Education Departments seem to have is that an education’s primary goals should be individual income and national economic progress.  As a result, the past three administrations have overseen a rapid decline in funding for Humanities & Arts.  As a result, teachers on the ground continue to find themselves with less and less time to teach anything other than Literacy and Math due to students arriving into their classrooms with little to no foundation.

The human aspects of the Social Sciences, the Arts, & Science, that is imagination, creativity, and critical thought, are disappearing as the Humanities are being eliminated from our schools as the driving focus is on how we can ensure that students  ‘stay competitive in the global market.’   The ability to think critically and reason analytically, to probe and investigate, to evaluate evidence and form well-structured arguments - abilities fundamental to the health of any free society – are being lost. Developing competent world citizenship – to cultivate our budding Citizen Scholars - is a task that can’t be achieved without the Humanities & Arts which encourage creative, open, and flexible thinking.

Forget about the hottest new craze & en vogue quick-fix.  Put your nose to the grindstone and focus on the time-tested study & practice of Classical Education: History, Literature, Philosophy, the Arts, the Sciences, Arithmetic, & Foreign Languages.

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