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The Classical Classroom: What Should My Child Be Learning?

The Classical Classroom Part I:

What Should My Child Be Learning?

“No.  I had thought of that.  Merlin is the reverse of Belbury.  He’s at the opposite extreme.  He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused.  For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse.  After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead-a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.”

C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength


In A History of Education in Antiquity Henri Marrou drew out the defining mark of classical education when he concluded that,

Classical teaching was chiefly interested in the man himself, not in equipping technicians for specialized jobs.

We have strayed far from the path first laid by our Western ancestors.  The education of children today is by and large dedicated to the development of specialized skills that are designed to prepare children for careers and not life.  This is problematic because it limits the perception and understanding of what it means to be a person.  When life is defined by one’s career, the knowledge and skills necessary for that career will define one’s life.  The problem worsens as the practice of “equipping technicians for specialized jobs” works its way into the private institution.  A classical school must ask the question “Is our classical school classical?”

 The Homeric birth of the classical world fixed the educative goal upon the human ideal.  “What is Man?” was the central question of classical education.  The human ideal, presented in the Homeric hero, was the image of a wise and virtuous man or woman who embodied the good.  The task of educating was not an act that catered to the undeveloped nature of a child, but cultivated the premature nature of the adult within the child.  Classical education began with the end in view always oriented toward that fixed and defined point.

 As classical education sought the answer to human identity it contemplated and pursued the related question of how to be a true man or woman.  For the classicist, education was very clearly a discipline and training of the child’s moral perfection and not vocational preparation.

 With this understanding as our backdrop, parents committed to classical education will first ask, “What should my child be learning?”  This question drives our attention to what is being taught in the classroom generated by the lesson.  We will first look at the classical curriculum before turning to the ideas that govern the classical lesson.  Following the discussion on curriculum and ideas we will consider two models of education that emerge from a priority given either to curriculum or to ideas.


Subjects: The Classical Curriculum

 Strictly speaking the classical curriculum did not have anything like the seven liberal arts and four sciences as we know them today.  This was uniquely a medieval contribution that was constructed as a systematized model of the classical curriculum. 

 The Greek model according to Plato consisted of music and gymnastics, of which music was subdivided into poetry and letters.  As the Greek student advanced through his studies he would enter upon the sciences and conclude with philosophy.  The study of philosophy marked the educative end of a Greek classical education.

 Roman education was by and large a seamless continuation of the Greek model.  One particular distinction was the importance given to rhetoric in place of philosophy.  The educated Roman was not only one who thought well but also one who spoke well, which carried immense weight in the political and legal arenas. 

 In the midst of the Roman era the Judeo-Christian church took root in Western civilization.  The church recognized much of Greek and Roman education that could be assimilated and re-directed toward the training of the Christian equipped to serve God and his church.  Rather than philosophy or rhetoric, Christianity set the study of theology as the educative end.

 It was the early medieval church that began to reorganize the educative tradition in inherited.  The task seems to have been an effort (at least in part) to justify the conjoining of sacred with secular studies by sifting the latter and redirecting its aim toward a sacred end.  In one such effort the medieval church reordered the classical subjects to a total of seven.  For the medieval church the number seven was the appropriate number for sacred studies as this number was by its use confirmed throughout scripture.  The phrase “Seven Liberal Arts” was first used by churchman Cassiodorus (480 – 575ad) to indicate the elementary phase of a child’s education.  Later, Isidore of Seville (560 – 636ad) used the terms “trivium” and “quadrivium” for the natural division within the seven liberal arts. 

 The division of the seven liberal arts into the trivium and the quadrivium was a division that separated the three verbal arts from the four mathematical arts.  The three verbal arts were grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric while the four mathematical arts were arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. 

 Classical education maintained an understanding that levels of knowledge exist in an ordered hierarchy whereby a child engages each level successively.  The primary base of all learning begins with poetic knowledge.  Poetic knowledge is not the knowledge of poetry, but the first layer of knowledge that a child develops through direct contact with an object and is known by means of the senses.  The seven liberal arts form the secondary base upon which all later and higher learning is built.  Advancement onto the four sciences can only be achieved in accordance to the degree of mastery one accomplishes in the arts.  In other words, a child cannot safely and fruitfully engage a science without having first adequately developed basic verbal and mathematical skills.  These skills are designed to train the mind and prepare the child for the higher levels of learning provided by the sciences.  Dragging a child prematurely into the sciences can be damaging and destructive to the child’s soul.

 Following the elementary level of classical education the student progressed to the four sciences, which were also ordered hierarchically.  First, the natural sciences (biology, physics, and chemistry) laid the groundwork for the moral sciences (history, politics, and ethics), which in turn prepared the student for the philosophical sciences (epistemology and metaphysics).  At this point the student was equipped to study the theological sciences (ontology) marking the end of one’s liberal education.

 The “arts” and “sciences” are two terms that have taken on different meanings today from what they originally intended to convey.  For the classical curriculum an art denoted a particular skill.  We tend to think of art as a reference to a particular object of someone’s creation: painting, song, film, sculpture, etc.  But classically understood an art was the development and mastery of a specific skill.  The intent was not to concentrate the summation of learning with the object, but upon the skill developed through a study of the object.  The object functioned as an instrument for developing one’s skill and not the substance of what was to be learned. 

 The seven liberal arts are verbal and mathematical skills designed to make one free.  That is, they are skills of right speech and right thought.  What we should be teaching our children in classical education is to think well and to speak well.  Thrown into this couplet is a third concept due to the classical emphasis upon letters and that is to write well.  In order for one to speak well one must be able to write well, and to write well one must be able to think well.  The three form a classical triad of skills to make one free, to make one wise and virtuous, to make one a Man or a Woman.

 A science, classically understood, referred to a specific domain of knowledge that sought to understand the modes of causality in relation to things.  Science literally means knowledge, and it is by no means limited or controlled by any single field of knowledge.  The natural sciences do not possess the keys of all knowledge.  The only thing that limits science is nature for it is the nature of things that science explores.  There is one kind of science that seeks to know the physical world (natural science) and it must attend to the nature of the physical world for that knowledge.  There is another kind of knowledge that seeks to know the metaphysical world (philosophical science) and it must attend to the nature of the metaphysical world for that knowledge.  The same applies for inquiry into the nature of Man (moral science) and the nature of God (theological science) respectively.  Much confusion and damage has been done to the concept of knowledge by means of the tyrannous rule one science executes over all the others.

 Consistent throughout the use of the classical curriculum was a clear and concise determination to achieve the human ideal.  Clearly set within the classical mind was an image of the finished Man-the wise and virtuous man or woman.  It is important to realize that the curriculum was not the end or even object of classical education.  It was the instrument for learning that served to shape the child into the adult.  But only the best curriculum afforded by literature, art, and nature could achieve such a noble end.


Ideas: The Classical Mission

 The triadic virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness formulate the highest ideals of human aspiration and rightly bear the name of virtues.  They touch upon all that applies to the mind, body, and will or upon what may be termed the rational, aesthetic, and moral faculties of Man.  Virtue attends to the rightful constitution of the human soul that in turn constitutes rightly the world one inhabits.

 The classical world named four cardinal virtues that emerge from truth, beauty, and goodness.  Justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence together framed the ideal life of the man or woman who was true, beautiful, and good.  The soul that was able to employ these virtues was the soul rightly ordered.  To these four the church added the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity bringing the virtues to a total of seven.  Any curriculum in a Christian and classical education would need to institute these virtues. 

 The classical educator understood that all learning begins with seeing.  A child cannot be taught a virtue if they do not see it embodied in some concrete way.  Initially conceived, the virtues are merely ideas, but the aim of classical education has always been to lead the child toward imitating the idea by means of contemplating the concrete forms it may take. 

 Where can such forms be found?  Literature, art, and nature[1] were three particular places that classical educators took their students to encounter the ideas of virtue and wisdom.  These are sources that have endured the trial of time because they contain glimpses of things that are not constrained by time.  They grasp for the eternal, for that which humanity knows instinctively to be immortal within mankind and the inhabited world.[2]

 One other model that students encountered was the paidagogos.  The paidagogos was generally a household slave who took the child to and from school assuring the child’s safety along the way.  In addition to this protective task the paidogogos was also responsible for the moral training of the child for which they served as a living model.

 It is clear that a classical curriculum is not consumed with the transference of facts, but of ideas that can be first contemplated and then imitated.  Such ideas do not serve to catalogue information in the mind of a child, but to in-form wisdom and virtue within the soul of a child.  Classical education is singularly concerned with the formation of the soul.  It labors toward this end through the use of the seven liberal arts and four sciences, which act as carriers for the ideas of wisdom and virtue.

 The imitation of ideas for the formation of the soul is, as any parent surely knows, a natural process, but must be a guided one.  When we are talking about the education of a child within an academic institution the parents of any child are entrusting other men and women (teachers) to join them in the shaping of their child’s soul.  This is why the question “What should my child be learning?” carries so much weight. 

 The guided process of imitation takes the child through four distinct phases.  First the child is brought to perceive the embodied forms of an idea.  As the child first sees the idea she will begin to contemplate and absorb the idea into her soul.  When the child absorbs the idea she is led to continue examining it until she grasps the idea.  Once a child has grasped or apprehended an idea she has come to know it.  This marks the initial fusion that takes place between the idea and the soul.  The educative process toward imitation is complete when the child must re-present the idea in some embodied form.  In the classroom this will generally take the form of either speech or writing or both, which falls back upon the verbal and rational skills developed by means of the seven liberal arts. 

 From beginning to end classical education tends after the question of what it means to be human.  The classical educators maintained that the fully matured man or woman was one who embodied wisdom and virtue.  Yet such human constitution does not live in isolation.  The wise and virtuous person was one who sought to cultivate a wise and virtuous society.  Much can be said at this point for the Christian assimilation of classical education concerning the “new man” and the “new creation” (cf. 2 Cor. 5; Rev. 21), but it is enough to highlight that the Christian ideal is the man or woman of God, one who worships and serves the Triune God who is both Creator and Redeemer.


Models: The Classical Difference

 We continue to watch as the public institutions of education struggle to stay afloat while private education and especially home schools rise upon perches of excellence.  Even more marked is the difference between classical education and its modern rival.  By comparing the two models seven distinctive characteristics emerge.

1.  Classical education is eternal versus progressive.  Modern progressive schools are marked by change insofar as they conform to the dominant ideologies of the day rendering their values and effects temporal.  Classical education is constituted by a fixed and unchanging vision of meaning and purpose enabling it to effect true reform.

2.  Classical education is adult oriented versus child centered.  Modern progressive schools begin with a rejection of tradition and authority in favor of attending to the psychology of the child.  The effect this has upon the curriculum is the use of highly unstable content serving an experimental function that must adapt with the accepted notions of child psychology.  Classical education accepts the authority of the past and works to shape the child to the matured and stable form of the adult.  Children grow to become men and women, which provide the instructional assurance of what a child should become as opposed to what they may happen to be at the moment.

3.  Classical education honors versus measures the nature of a child.  Modern progressive education is consumed by data.  It observes only what can be measured, gives preference to the repetitive, and directs attention to performance.  Classical education attends to the nature of the soul.  As an organic discipline it works to cultivate the well formed soul that marks the good life.

4.  Classical education is the moral versus vocational training of the child.  Modern progressive education instills specialized skills to prepare a child for a particular career, and by doing so limits both his skills and his knowledge.  Classical education is the moral training of a child toward the completeness of being of one who is filled with the ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness.  It is the training that prepares one for the good life, not a good job.

5.  Classical education is thought driven versus content driven.  Modern progressive education is generated by the accumulation and categorization of facts.  The child is strictly taught what to think with the effect of producing isolated and fragmented knowledge.  Classical education is governed by ideas.  The child is taught how to think in order to cultivate integrated patterns of thought.

6.  Classical education accepts nature and knowledge versus rejecting nature and knowledge.  Modern progressive education is essentially utilitarian.  The child, curriculum, knowledge, and instruction are adapted for the production of a specialized product.  The question is not concerned with what something is, but with what it may effect.  Classical education is rooted in ontology.  The nature of things is accepted as given and can be known by the observer.  What a thing is does not deviate nor conflict with what it can be.

7.  Classical education is for freedom versus slavery.  Modern progressive education produces individuals who are subject to the norms of modern society functioning as mechanical parts to the social-political machine.  The result is an oppressed soul.  Classical education is not confined to social norms, but cultivates men and women who are free.  The result is a human soul that is able to know and partake in the leisure of the wise and virtuous life.

 The difference is clear, but the decision can be difficult in a culture that marginalizes what it means to be human.  Four fundamental thoughts must be considered in weighing one’s decision.  Parents who are deciding what kind of education they want for their child will need to: 1) recognize their core beliefs concerning nature, 2) determine what education means, 3) conceive how the right education is best achieved, and 4) clearly envision the purpose of education.  Today’s parents have a choice between two competing options; only one is fit for the human soul.



 The classroom of today’s schools encircles the spatial boundaries where teachers, students and the lesson come together to partake in this thing we call education.  Parents want to know what their child should be learning, but the answer to this question rests in the larger question inquiring into the purpose of education.  The relation between the two questions has been shown by looking to the lesson.  Every lesson consists of subjects and the ideas subjects embody.  Where a school places the educative emphasis will determine what kind of education it offers and the kind of content it will teach the child.

 The classroom whose lesson is driven by subject matter seeks to transfer a transient set of information subject to the times and for the purpose of contributing to the idea of social progress by means of one’s labor.  This is the modern progressive classroom.  On the other hand, the classroom whose lesson is driven by the ideas of truth, beauty, and goodness seeks to cultivate the adult within the child for the purpose of partaking in one’s full humanity in order that the soul may achieve the just end of enjoying the good.  This is the classical classroom.

 The classical classroom is not driven by content, but governed by ideas.  The emphasis cannot be placed upon curriculum as the object of study.  Ideas are the objects of study while curriculum is the instrument for communicating those ideas.  Our goal is to teach students how to think over what to think developing the verbal and rational skills required for making wise and virtuous judgments.

 The classical classroom is not defined by the measured assimilation of data, but by the moral cultivation of the soul.  When education becomes a discipline consumed with accumulating and categorizing facts it fragments and isolates knowledge while simultaneously negating the nature of things.  Our purpose is attending to the child and the subjects we teach by honoring each according to its nature.

 The classical classroom does not provide an education for slavery, but for freedom.  Education, from its classical roots, was designed to generate the freeman and woman.  Teaching specialized skills that are vocationally oriented ultimately limit the child to the prescribed parameters inherent within such skills.  Our mission is to nurture within students the ideas and concepts that liberate the soul and not those to which the soul grows enslaved.

 The telos (end goal) of classical education is the moral human being.  Classical education seeks to cultivate wise and virtuous men and women who seek what is true, beautiful, and good for their soul, family, and communities.  The classically educated child is firmly set upon the path to becoming the man or woman they were designed to be and ready to live the full life of one whose life is fully lived.


Helpful Resources

Books & Essays

  1. Plato, Republic
  2. Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), Of the Education of Children.
  3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Education of Children
  4. G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World
  5. Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education
  6. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
  7. James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education
  8. Gene E. Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern, Classical Education
  9. David Hicks, Norms and Nobility
  10. Henri Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity

 Web Resources

  1. CiRCE Institute:
  2. CiRCE Forum:
  3. Blog of Andrew Kern:
  4. Blog of Buck Holler:


[1] Regarding nature S. T. Coleridge opines,

“I think the memory of children cannot, in reason, be too much stored with the objects and facts of natural history.  God opens the images of nature, like the leaves of a book, before the eyes of his creature, Man-and teaches him all that is grand and beautiful in the foaming cataract, the glassy lake, and the floating mist.” The Education of Children

[2] In The Poetic Principle E. A. Poe writes that 

“We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. … Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone.”

  1. Martin Keast permalink

    A great post! Excellent.

  2. Thank you for this excellent post! I’d like to contact you about using this post in a publication for our classical school in Albuq, NM. Can you contact me? I didn’t see a way to easily contact you.

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