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History of Classical Education

Plato_and_Aristotle_in_The_School_of_Athens,_by_italian_RafaelClassical education’s methodology derives directly from its history. The theory arose during the time period of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, thus resulting in the term “classical”. Citizens of the first democracy, these men knew that this novel form of government was but a “noble and sluggish horse” that could not proceed without educated, virtuous citizens to ensure its survival. Such citizens were necessary in a society where they would have to make innumerable personal, professional, and political decisions on their own. They would need the ability to thoughtfully examine both themselves and others, as well as of any proposition, tradition, and authority. These Greek philosophers worked to curb the tendency to accede unthinkingly to any accepted beliefs of the day and to cultivate critical thought and virtuous character.

The goal of classical education was to train the mind and the heart to seek for the true, the good, and the beautiful. As time went on, others built upon this theory, incorporating the Greek form of grammar education – the teaching of basic skills – along with teaching of logic and rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing effectively. This education became the predominant way people were educated from ancient times until about 50 years ago. In fact, it is most likely the education your grandparents received.

Classical education is particularly deeply rooted in American life. In 1635, the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony formed the first public high school in America – the Boston Latin School. This school provided a classical education through a rigorous curriculum based upon the classics, the study of Latin and Greek languages and literature, oratory, debate, and composition. These men, like the Greeks before them, knew self-governance could not work without citizens versed in the great ideas of the past and familiar with the principles of democracy and the rule of law. From that school, numerous leaders arose, including five who would sign the Declaration of Independence.

Along with those who attended Boston Latin, almost all the founding fathers received a classical education, including Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson, along with others, who argued strongly for establishing the public education system in the United States, for the primary purpose of ensuring students would be able to make wise personal and professional decisions in life.
While classical education has been around for thousands of years, it has only recently been commonly termed “classical”. Earlier, it was often called a “liberal” education, in the sense that it was based on a liberal arts philosophy. The term “liber” used in “liberal arts” comes from the Latin word for “free” – to distinguish it from a purely technical or vocational education. Over the thousands of years when it predominated, classical/liberal education produced some of the greatest minds of all time, including Archimedes, Dante, Da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, Columbus, Shakespeare, Alex de Tocqueville, John Adams, Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, Einstein, and Eudora Welty.

Today, schools are again providing this type of public education to students. The pedagogy remains similar to that of the past.

The grammar stage, elementary school, is where the foundation is laid for mastery of the rules of each subject. At the logic stage, in middle school, students are taught to evaluate arguments through specific logic classes, as well as through Socratic teaching of other subject areas. Finally, at the rhetoric stage, during high school, effective communication, both written and oral is perfected through methods typically including Socratic teaching, composition, debate, and philosophy courses.