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Classical Christian
Classical Education
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Christine Miller

Classical Christian
Homeschooling FAQ:
The Core of Classical Education

This page last revised:
February 2003


The Core of Classical Education

Christine Miller

Modern Classical Education

There are two major ideas on how to best implement a modern classical education. The first developed primarily, I believe, from a close adherence to Dorothy Sayer’s philosophy of education outlined in The Lost Tools of Learning. In this speech, Ms. Sayers introduced the idea that subjects -- such as grammar, history, or math -- be taught so that the subject is tailored to the student’s level of learning, or trivium stage. Certain aspects of the subject would be emphasized during a child’s elementary years (the grammar stage), when his focus was on concrete thinking; other aspects were emphasized during the child’s middle school years (the dialectic stage) and so on.

This approach has been most popularized by the private classical schools that have sprung up since Logos School began in Moscow, Idaho. The most vigorous outgrowth of this philosophy has been the premise that there is a distinct grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric way to teach every subject, from art to zoology.

Historic Classical Education

The second major idea is a return to historic classical education. In this approach, the three core subjects of each of the trivium stages become the sole subjects studied during that stage, just as they were historically. Thus, Latin and Greek grammar is studied in the grammar stage -- the elementary years -- with no or few forays into other academics; logic, using Euclid’s Elements, is studied in the dialectic stage; and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the art and science of effective and elegant written and spoken communication, is studied in the rhetoric stage.

A correlation can in fact be made between the historic core of classical education: Latin, Euclid, and Rhetoric, and the emphasis on the three R’s in American education: reading (grammar), writing (rhetoric), and ’rithmetic (logic, via Euclid’s Elements). The historic approach to classical education, with modification, has been most popularized by Memoria Press in its core curriculum and web articles.

Historic and Modern Application of the Trivium

Taking Latin Seriously by Cheryl Lowe

The Language Imperative

But I think it is even more helpful to understand why the historical core of classical education was the study of Latin, the study of Euclid, and the study of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It is because classical education carries a distinct language imperative; it is a completely language-centered education. The study of grammar teaches a child the standard of language usage and the meaning it conveys in the cultural convention. The study of logic, which Euclid’s Elements taught, is the next rung in the ladder of language mastery. It teaches a child how language conveys truth or falsehood, and how to think rightly in language (all thought occurs in language). The study of rhetoric is the next rung in the ladder of language mastery. It teaches a child how to effectively and eloquently communicate, using the language convention, what is now known to be true. The three subjects of the stages of the trivium can really be thought of as the three stages of language mastery. At the end of the study, a child can truly understand without being subject to manipulation (as advertisers or politicians often do), and be truly understood: that is to say, able to convey the exact nuance of meaning he intends to convey.

A classical education, that is, a language-centered education, “leads” a child “out of” (educare in Latin) immature speaking, writing, reading, and thinking, and gives him what Richard Mitchell called “the power of his mind.”

Why Good Grammar? by Richard Mitchell

The Biblical Imperative of Language

Why is this language mastery so important? It is because God is a God of His Word. He spoke, and it came to be. He has chosen to reveal Himself to man by the Word. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,” (John 1:14). The infallible and immutable revelation of God to man contained in God’s Word is expressed in the medium of language; this is why classical education was brought to this country in the first place by the first settlers. It was so that every child be proficient in language use as a tool, in order to read and understand the Bible. In those days, every pastor was facile in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (grammar), able to tell truth from falsehood in his doctrine (dialectic), and able to expound eloquently on the Scriptures (rhetoric).

Language is also the medium in which Truth is expressed, and Jesus promised that we should know the truth, and that knowing it will set us free. Language is also the medium in which the Lie is expressed; every lie which Satan has lied to man since the beginning. Every human being ought to have mastery of the medium in which truth and lies are expressed.

There is a related reason: the commission of every Christian is to witness to the Truth. The ability to effectively and eloquently express truth, the goal of rhetoric, is not optional for believers. While truth can be expressed by those who have not had a classical education or who have not gained the mastery of language that the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric provides, we ought to still want to, for the Lord’s sake, take advantage of all that education affords to make the most of our potential.

“The Classical Bias Toward Language”,
Classical Education & the Home School by Douglas Wilson et al

Tools vs. Subjects

Dorothy Sayers taught that when we focus solely on teaching subjects, as is common in modern education, rather than the tools of learning, we have sacrificed something important in the process of educating children:

Is not the great defect of our education today, a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned, 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. It is as though we had taught a child mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “As though”? In certain of the arts and crafts we sometimes do precisely this, requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe, it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool.”

Dorothy Sayers
The Lost Tools of Learning

Therefore our overriding concern in determining the core of classical education has to be: teach the tools of learning, the overriding mastery of language which grammar, logic, and rhetoric provides, not merely subject information. The difference between teaching tools of learning and teaching subject matter can be subtle, especially since we use some subjects to teach tools, such as using the subject of Latin and English grammar to teach the tool of concrete thinking and fact-finding. The distinction is in the attitude and focus of the teacher: in all our teaching, we are mindful that certain subjects are our tools to use to an end, which is the tools of learning. When teaching subject matter for its own sake supercedes that attitude and focus, then we have left teaching the tools of learning.

The Three-Legged Stool

The Dorothy Sayers method of classical education does not guide us as to core subjects; she describes the method to use to learn any subject. The historic method of classical education likewise does not provide a curriculum comprehensive enough to meet the requirements of most state homeschooling laws. A truly optimum classical education, then, ought to be like a three-legged stool. One leg would be the mastery of language with a biblical foundation: English and Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The second leg would be the mastery of mathematics with a biblical foundation: arithmetic, the grammar of mathematics; algebra and geometry, the logic of mathematics; and higher maths, the rhetoric of mathematics. Mathematics is also a language, and also teaches precise thinking and logic in another way. The third leg would be Christian and Western Civilization with a biblical foundation, so that the culture may be transferred from one generation to the next, allowing it to endure and progress. (If ever a generation failed to transfer Christian and Western culture to the next generation, that culture would cease to exist upon the parent generation’s death.) Western Civilization, which is based upon and is an outgrowth of Christianity, includes history, literature, art, music, science, philosophy, law, government, and other related topics, all on their biblical foundations.

Out of all the subjects which might be studied under the umbrella of Western Civilization, history and literature are the most important. History, because the plan of salvation and the work of God among men rests on a historical foundation; God has commanded parents to instruct children in what has happened before; and the study of history helps impart wisdom and judgment to those who engage in it -- foolish choices and their consequences are seen played out on the historical stage, so that foolishness need not be repeated. Literature, because, as C. S. Lewis wrote,

Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours ... [therefore] the author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.

C. S. Lewis
“Christianity and Literature” in Christian Reflections

In other words, the truly good and great literature of Western Civilization reveals beauty and wisdom which are reflective of the Beauty and Wisdom inherent in God’s nature, each in its own way. And this does not take into account the purely pragmatic benefit that in order to develop proficiency in reading, one must, well, read, and do a lot of it.

To put it another way: in the grammar stage, the core of classical education would be: English grammar and writing; Latin or Greek grammar; Arithmetic; and Christian and Western Civilization and culture, especially as it is found in history and literature, all on a biblical foundation. In the dialectic stage, the core of classical education would be: formal logic and writing the argumentative essay; Latin or Greek grammar and reading in Latin and Greek; Algebra and Geometry; and Christian and Western Civilization and culture, especially as it is found in history and literature, all on a biblical foundation. In the rhetoric stage, the core of classical education would be: formal rhetoric in both oratory and writing; Greek or Hebrew or modern languages such as French or German; higher mathematics; and Christian and Western civilization and culture, especially as it is found in history and literature, all on a biblical foundation.

Important Links:

The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers

Historic and Modern Application of the Trivium

Taking Latin Seriously by Cheryl Lowe

Why Good Grammar? by Richard Mitchell

Less Than Words Can Say by Richard Mitchell

The Underground Grammarian

Classical Education & the Home School by Douglas Wilson et al

Motivation in Education by Fritz Hinrichs

Christian Reflections by C. S. Lewis

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