Updated: May 1
Classical education is an approach that has been around for 2,500 years that is still popular today for good reason. It is a method of education that is based on the belief that students should be taught to think critically and engage with the world around them. The classical education system emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge and skills, particularly in the humanities, and a content-rich curriculum.
Academia has seen a gap in student's common storehouse of knowledge that needs filling. You could say that it is one of the many potholes on the road to success as schools raced to the future with STEM, abandoning social studies in the process. These potholes continue the ongoing disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Why, you may ask? Because studies have shown that when students lack the same background knowledge, reading suffers. When reading suffers, graduation rates decline and the outlook for student's future success diminishes. However, history teaches that there is hope for the future that lies within our past.
Back to Basics Approach One of the strengths of the classical curriculum is its “back to basics” approach. Unlike many current educational fads, the classical approach does not rely on technology or constantly changing curricula. This avoids problems with curriculum change battles, teacher’s learning curves, infrastructure costs, and internet dangers for students. Instead, the classical approach explicitly instructs language arts using phonics instruction, spelling, grammar, and writing, which enables students to achieve reading proficiency on a deeper level. It also does something that education reformer E. D. Hirsch highly recommends for students to do: learn large amounts of information that are available and common to all often by rote or drill. The classical education devotes much time in the early grades memorizing facts to songs.
A content-rich curriculum is an educational program that emphasizes the learning of specific subject matter enhancing reading proficiency. In a classical education, the content-rich curriculum includes subjects such as history, science, literature, and mathematics.
History has a thorough four-year instruction cycle starting in kindergarten with the beginning of time to the Fall of Rome (Ancient History), first grade continues to the year 1400, second grade builds up to the year 1850, and fourth grade ends with today. This cycle repeats three more times on deeper levels until high school graduation.
Science is on a similar repetitive four-year cycle starting in kindergarten with Biology, first grade Chemistry, second grade Physics, and third grade Earth Sciences. Each cycle delving deeper until graduation.
Reading is taught through explicit phonics instruction, spelling, grammar, and writing which when paired with literature from the time periods studied, allows for reading and comprehension on a deeper level, something many schools are sorely missing.
Liberal Arts Focused
One of the hallmarks of a classical education, besides the study of Latin, is the study of the liberal arts, which includes the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consists of three subjects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These subjects are intended to develop the student's ability to read, write, and speak effectively. The quadrivium consists of four subjects: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These subjects intertwined with music, art, physical education, and music (that were never dropped due to budget cuts) are intended to develop the student's ability to reason, understand patterns, and appreciate beauty.
In a classical education, students are encouraged to read great works of literature, such as the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer. These works are studied not only for their literary merit but also for the ideas they express and the historical context in which they were written. Recent literature is not included as it has not stood the "test of time" to be considered one of the great works. Students are also encouraged to study history, not just as a series of facts and dates, but as a narrative of human experience. Through the study of history in this mindset, students gain a deeper understanding of the world and the people in it.
Primary Source Use
Classical education also emphasizes the use of primary sources. Students are encouraged to read and analyze original documents, such as letters, speeches, and historical documents. By studying primary sources, students develop critical thinking skills and gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. They understand events in its historical context and through the lens of the people who experienced them. Approaching subject matter with the frame of mind of intentionality leads to deeper understanding.
Conclusion In conclusion, a classical education is an approach to education that emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge and skills through a content-rich curriculum. It is an approach that has been used for centuries. Through the study of the liberal arts, students develop critical thinking skills and an appreciation for the arts. By studying great works of literature, history, and primary sources, students gain a deeper understanding of the world and the people in it. When searching for a solution to fix the many challenges facing our school system today, we may find that we already had it, but left it for the “shiny and new.” It may be worth looking back in our history to find anything else we left behind.
Learn More! To learn more about classical education from Headmaster and founder of The Classical Academy of Sarasota, Josh Longenecker, listen to his interview, The Strengths of Using a Classical Curriculum with Headmaster Josh Longenecker, on The Brighter Side of Education podcast. Longenecker dives deeper into the benefits of using the classical approach to instruction and how he developed his school’s curriculum by partnering with Hillsdale College.
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Hassler, L. R. (2022). America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What we learned from COVID: A guide to help educational leaders, teachers, and parents change the game. Fig Factor Media Publishing.
Hassler, Lisa Richardson (Host and Producer). (2022-present). The Brighter Side of Education [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://thebrightersideofed.buzzsprout.com
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