What is Classical Education?

​​”Is not the great defect of our education today… that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils subjects, we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, ​except the art of learning.”
​​- Dorothy Sayers



When we say “classical education,” we mean an educational approach rooted in the medieval concept of the Trivium (Latin for “three ways”). Each element of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) is viewed as subjects, stages of development, teaching methodologies, and tools for learning, A student who has mastered the tools will be able to think and learn for themselves and thus be able to master any subject they approach.

Dorothy Sayers, a Christian writer and thinker who was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, explained the Trivium in her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning. She writes that children grow naturally through three stages: the “poll-parrot,” “pert” and “poetic.” Each stage corresponds to the three elements of the Trivium, Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric so children benefit from the best tools at just the right time.

Likewise, each “way” in the trivium may be utilized during individual classes, despite the subject, guiding students through the three acts of the mind: simple apprehension, judgement, and reasoning. The fruit of these acts then is not the self-expression of the student, not even the highly-touted “critical thinking” found in modern education. The good and right fruit of these acts is the student expressing the truth beautifully in thought, word, and deed. This can happen in any class and during any stage of one’s formal education.

Taken as stages of development, however, we may more properly fit the subject and content of a class to the child’s frame. The elementary years (Sayers’s “poll-parrot” stage) correspond to the Grammar stage of the Trivium. In the Grammar stage, students take in the core knowledge of each subject by memorizing the basic facts and fundamental rules related to that subject. In the middle school years (the “pert” stage), children grow into the Logic or Dialectic stage. At this age they are beginning to think abstractly and are able to relate and understand all the facts they have previously accumulated. They are therefore taught sound reasoning and critical thinking skills. The third stage of the Trivium is the Rhetoric stage (the “poetic” stage), which corresponds to high school. This is the age when young people become more concerned about their appearance and how they express themselves. So, correspondingly, students in this stage are taught how to express themselves and communicate their ideas in an effective and eloquent manner, learning to be articulate, persuasive and creative in their written and oral communication.


The Five Academic Competencies 

Classical Christian education excels at forming students in the five academic competencies. Just as a body must maintain homeostasis and health through both major and minor anatomical and physiological functions, so must one’s academic health maintain a kind of homeostasis through major and minor functions. And just as the body has its five vital organs which sustain life and health (brain, heart, kidneys, liver, and lungs), so the student has five central activities which are necessary for academic vitality: reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking.



Today reading is perhaps one of the most well-known benchmarks for being educated. Elementary-level literacy has become the modern standard for whether one’s education is effective. Schools have students reading at a younger and younger age. However, this has not always been the case, and there is important discussion to have whether students should be pressured to become early readers. Likewise, the advent of radio, television, and the internet have come at a great cost to strong literacy. As Mortimer Adler says, “There is some feeling nowadays that reading is not as necessary as it once was. Radio and especially television have taken over many of the functions once served by print, just as photography has taken over functions once served by painting and other graphic arts.” (How to Read A Book, p.3)

Still, reading is an important academic competency that must be matured year after year, matured in its fullness. But literacy means much more than sounding out the words on the page or answering surface questions about a story. We must recover a full, high, and robust definition and practice of literacy in the education we offer. This means being able to read across genres and being able to read a text at various levels. This especially means becoming proficient in the four levels of reading: elementaryinspectionalanalytical, and syntopical. Furthermore, students must learn to be active readers, learn to read for information as well as understanding and see reading as learning. Similarly, we must see that being a great reader is directly related to the other four academic competencies, especially thinking and speaking. Recovering reading also means a full recovery of phonics, of good and great books, of narration, of orderly classrooms, and of adults reading aloud to students. All these are important for schools who want their students to truly become great readers, discerning readers, purposeful readers who are able to affirm what Francis Bacon once said: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read-only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” (‘Of Studies’ in The Essays by Francis Bacon)



As the newest of the five academic competencies, writing has become an important platform for communication and dialogue. With the introduction of word processors and computers, the quantity of writing is high through social media, texting, print and digital publications, and the internet. However, becoming a great writer is not merely about the quantity and diversity of media. There are three kinds of writing our students ought to seek to master: argumentative proseimaginative prose, and poetry. By focusing on these three genres, a student’s compositional sensibilities will be well-rounded and mature.

Like the others, writing must be matured alongside the other four academic competencies. Greater writers can be forged from among those students who read good and great books (being able to imitate great writing), who have a strong and orderly mind, who communicate well through the spoken word, and who are growing as those who can listen and observe well. Similarly, students must continue to mature in their mastery of language: speaking and thinking in class with complete sentences, learning to diagram sentences, learning Latin and enjoying the mental architecture it creates, learning and implementing the most important English grammar rules, and delighting in the imaginative enterprise that comes with writing. Ultimately, students must be acquainted with good models for writing, and that means reading good and great books. Students must not be strongly encouraged to express themselves in writing; they must be encouraged to express the truth beautifully. And to do this they must have the freshwater of great authors, their wisdom and eloquence, wash over their minds and imaginations day after day, until their final day in school. As Flannery O’Connor states, “The high school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.”



To educate our children to speak well is to teach them the definition and scope of rhetoric, details and lessons within rhetoric, and to have them practice early and often those features of eloquence, in the articulation of truth and in service to one’s neighbor. Rhetoric is best defined as the art and science of a good man persuasively speaking. There is no relationship, no job, no society which would not be better served by having individuals live together as mature speakers. And there is no older and more foundational academic competency than educating our students to become well-spoken. As Isocrates of Antidosis once stated, “…there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish. For this it is which has laid down laws concerning things just and unjust, and things honourable and base; and if it were not for these ordinances we should not be able to live with one another. It is by this also that we confute the bad and extol the good. Through this we educate the ignorant and appraise the wise; for the power to speak well is taken as the surest index of a sound understanding, and discourse which is true and lawful and just is the outward image of a good and faithful soul. With this faculty we both contend against others on matters which are open to dispute and seek light for ourselves on things which are unknown; for the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and, while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skillfully debate their problems in their own minds. And, if there is need to speak in brief summary of this power, we shall find that none of the things which are done with intelligence take place without the help of speech, but that in all our actions as well as in all our thoughts speech is our guide, and is most employed by those who have the most wisdom…Therefore, it behooves all men to want to have many of their youth engaged in training to become speakers…” (page 48 in Readings in Classical Rhetoric)

Rhetoric is not merely the verbal manipulation for political ends; it may be these in the hands of a narcissistic statesman. But rhetoric in the hands of a virtuous citizen is employed for the benefit and building up one’s neighbor. If we do not teach our students to become well-spoken, especially as citizens of a democratic-republic, they will fall victim to all kinds of sophistry, intellectual confusion, and public shouting matches. They will either devolve into a kind of beastliness or a kind of intellectual slavishness, neither of which is fitting and honorable.

Learning to speak well comes from a combination of natural gifts, having good models (listening to adults, orators, and peers speak well), learning the rules of eloquence at the appropriate age, and practicing good speaking habits early and often, inside and outside the classroom. Among these, having great models inside and outside the classroom is of the utmost importance, for children learn most by imitation. As St. Augustine said, “Given a sharp and eager mind, eloquence is picked up more readily by those who read and listen to the words of the eloquent than by those who follow the rules of eloquence.” (Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, p.102) Along with the rules and models for speaking well, students will learn that a virtuous life is of the utmost consequence to being a good speaker. Again, St. Augustine is helpful, “More important than any amount of grandeur of style to those of us who seek to be listened to with obedience is the life of the speaker. A wise and eloquent speaker who lives a wicked life certainly educates many who are eager to learn, although he is useless to his own soul…” (Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, p. 142) Along with the practice and rules and skills of speaking, students ought to be trained in the other important and effectual disciplines which directly relate to speaking and thinking: music and singing, and memory and recitation.

Finally, we should quickly recognize that these five academic competencies are the best way to provide our students with a general education, as well as prepare them for specific vocations. We need not hyper-focus our student’s attention too soon in order to assure she will be ready for college or whatever field she pursues after her formal studies in high school. Thinking and speaking—logic (dialectic) and rhetoric—are two of the most important foundations we can build into our student. As Aristotle state, “Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic, – since both are concerned with things of which the cognizance is, in a manner, common to all men and belongs to no definite science. Hence all men in a manner use both; for all men to some extent make the effort of examining and of submitting to inquiry, of defending or accusing.” (Aristotle’s Rhetoric page 53-54 in Readings in Classical Rhetoric)



Perhaps the least popular and least well-known of the five academic competencies, listening is an incredibly important skill and gift to mature in our students. A man who does not listen well will struggle to maintain healthy relationships, participate in meaningful dialogue, and grow in intellectual acumen. Authority figures will lose confidence in them and subordinates will not maintain a high level of respect for a man or woman who does not listen well. Listening does not mean the mere hearing of sounds. It includes humility, consideration, discernment, patience, acting neighborly, learning, focus, and stillness. It includes seeking to understand before being understood. Being a good listener must be prized once again in our schools if we intend our children to be educated now and become lifelong learners. Writing in 1983, Mortimer Adler states: “How utterly amazing is the general assumption that the ability to listen well is a natural gift for which no training is required. How extraordinary is the fact that no effort is made anywhere in the whole educational process to help individuals learn how to listen well—at least well enough to close the circuit and make speech effective as a means of communication…Widespread and indignant are the complaints about the level of skill that our school and college graduates attain in writing and reading. There are few if any complaints voiced about the level of skill that they attain in speaking and listening. Yet, however low the level of writing and reading is today among those who have the advantages of twelve or more years of schooling, much lower still is the level of skill in speaking that most people possess, and lowest of all is skill in listening.” (Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen, p. 5)

Plutarch, in the first century, explains, “For surely the fact is plain, that the young man who is debarred from hearing all instruction and gets no taste of speech not only remains wholly unfruitful and makes no growth towards virtue, but may also be perverted towards vice, and the product of his mind, like that of a fallow and untilled piece of ground, will be a plentiful crop of wild oats. For if the impulses towards pleasure and the feelings of suspicion towards hard work (which are not of external origin nor imported products of the spoken word, but indigenous sources, as it were, of pestilent emotions and disorders without number) be allowed to continue unconstrained along their natural channels, and if they be not either removed or diverted another way through the agency of goodly discourse, thus putting the natural endowments in a fit condition, there is not one of the wild beasts but would be found more civilized than man.” (On Listening to Lectures) And Plutarch continues, “And it is a common saying that nature has given to each of us two ears and one tongue, because we ought to do less talking than listening. In all cases, then, silence is a safe adornment for the young man, and especially so, when in listening to another he does not get excited or bawl out every minute, but even if the remarks be none too agreeable, puts up with them, and waits for the speaker to pause, and, when the pause comes, does not at once interpose his objection, but, as Aeschines puts it, allows an interval to elapse, in case the speaker may desire to add something to what he has said, or to alter or unsay anything. But those who instantly interrupt with contradictions, neither hearing nor being heard, but talking while others talk, behave in an unseemly manner; whereas the man who has the habit of listening with restraint and respect, takes in and masters a useful discourse, and more readily sees through and detects a useless or false one, showing himself thus to be a lover of truth and not a lover of disputation, nor froward and contentious. Wherefore it is sometimes said not unaptly that it is even more necessary to take the wind of self-opinion and conceit out of the young, than to deflate wine-skins, if you wish to fill them with something useful; otherwise, being full of bombast and inflation, they have no room to receive it.” (On Listening to Lectures)

It is a strange thing that not only the art and competency of listening has been neglected in our schools, but also the art of rhetoric, of a good man persuasively speaking. We are then left wondering whether our children are indeed educated, and we must wonder with grave concern at the current state and future health of our society when it is to be run and maintained by those who have not been taught to speak or listen.



There is perhaps no more distinguished aspect of a human being than our ability to engage our world and all our lives with a rational mind, a mind which questions, answers, discerns, judges, identifies, affirms, and denies. However, of the five academic competencies, thinking is the most endangered in our day. As Adler states, “…the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener of radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to ‘make up his own mind’ with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and ‘plays back’ the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.” (How to Read A Book, p. 4)

While there has been a recent trend in education to espouse “critical thinking,” the advocates for such a trend hardly do the work in the classroom and in curricula to set any kind of worthy foundation for thinking whatsoever. Formal logicinformal logicsymbolic logic, and classical rhetoric are all but completely gone from modern schools. Similarly, all the definitions and practices of “critical thinking” in education amount to nothing more than personal expression and the identification of differences. To teach a child to think is to plant them in the great intellectual tradition of philosophyepistemologyethics, and metaphysics. To do so is to acknowledge and respect the fullness of their humanity. As Adler states, “It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.” (Six Great Ideas, p. 3) Thinking is not something we instill in our students because we want them to be intellectual elitists. We ensure our students are maturing in their reasoning faculties to ensure we are truly educating them.

To educate our children to be thoughtful students, good thinkers, we must recover the great and accessible study of logic. As Isaac Watts states, “True logic is not that noisy thing that deals all in dispute and wrangling, to which former ages had debased and confined it; yet its disciples must acknowledge also, that they are taught to vindicate and defend the truth, as well as search it out. True logic doth not require a long detail of hard words to amuse mankind, and to puff up the mind with empty sounds, and a pride of false learning; yet some distinctions and terms of art are necessary to range every idea in its proper class, and to keep our thoughts from confusion.” In so recovering a proper study of logic, the other competencies will be bolstered. Kreeft explains, “Once upon a time in Middle-Earth, two things were different: (1) most students learned ‘the old logic,’ and (2) they could think, read, write, organize, and argue much better than they can today. If you believe these two things are not connected, you probably believe storks bring babies.”

What is Classical Education