The Value of Classical Education

Origin of Article

The following article is a letter written to the parents upon the junior’s college tour led by Kim. My grandson was on the tour. When I read it, I asked for permission to republish it on this blog.

A Gracious Thank You To:

Kim Fulcher, Co-Director of College Advising at Westminster School at Oak Mountain, September 2023

Learning the Art of Learning

Is it 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, The Lost Tools of Learning

Can an educational method dating back to Ancient Greece prepare our students for a modern-day college experience? Many people associate the idea of classical education with subjects such as Latin, logic, and rhetoric, which are noticeably absent from any state’s graduation requirements. When compared to other schools, parents often think classical education is less college-preparatory because it doesn’t emphasize AP (Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) courses. However, the classical approach has proven successful at producing students who are not only ready for college-level work but excel at it. A closer look at the approach offers the main reasons why.

Why Classical Students Excel

1. Integrated Curriculum: Classical education covers a wide range of subjects, including literature, theology, history, science, math, language, and the arts. Teachers integrate material both laterally (examples include history within the Bible, the math within science, the language within literature) and vertically (“In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” Col 2:3). Building on the solid classical foundation students receive in kindergarten through 6th grade, they then press further into classical methodology through focused studies in Logic and sharpening their critical thinking skills through Socratic dialogue and Harkness discussions. During the pinnacle senior thesis course, students bring their knowledge, research, and communication skills together to engage with issues and ideas that have local and global significance, much like an IB or AP Research course. Students take this experience to college, confidently approaching a new subject and being able to make connections to other topics and disciplines.

2. Emphasis on Critical Thinking: The core of classical methodology is found in the first three (out of seven) liberal arts known as the “Trivium.” The Trivium focuses on three essential arts that form the bedrock of all other learning. These three arts are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students first learn terminology and basic broad information about a new subject, then seek to understand and analyze it, and finally express their understanding of the subject eloquently and persuasively. Ultimately, this approach teaches students how to think, not just what to think. These skills are highly valued by college professors because classical school students approach learning new course material systematically: break it down into terminology and broad understanding, analyze the why and how, and then offer insightful contributions on the subject within the classroom.

3. Strong Communication Skills: Classes in logic, composition, and rhetoric focus on clearly ordering and articulating an argument, writing effectively, and persuasive communication that includes speaking in front of others. In classical schools, students learn to write and give speeches at a young age and practice both in various exercises in every grade. This repeated practice builds confidence in expressing their thoughts and ideas in front of others. College courses are places where these skills become vitally important, with their emphasis on writing, discussions, and presentations. Professors also appreciate that classical students are used to participating in class discussions and speak up more readily than other students.

4. Discipline and Work Ethic: Due to its rigorous nature that starts in kindergarten, classical education often requires a significant amount of study and effort, which instills discipline, perseverance, and a strong work ethic in students. These study habits are key to handling more difficult coursework and the self-initiative demanded in higher education.

5. Cultural Literacy: The curriculum of classical education includes studying great works of literature, reviewing the complete cycle of world history multiple times in grades K-12, and discussing the philosophies of Western culture. This approach gives students a broad and complex understanding of their cultural heritage. This understanding provides a rich context for engaging with contemporary issues in a college setting, particularly as they learn about different fields and additional cultures.

6. Emphasis on Character Development: As classical education evolved over the centuries, especially after it was taken and improved through the monastic movement, moral (virtue) education and character development became important components. Students are not only educated but also taught virtues such as honesty, respect, kindness, and integrity. Being seen, known, loved, and pursued by the faculty within the small classroom builds virtue but also passes along a love for that which is true, good, and beautiful. Knowing how to make wise decisions and being a responsible citizen on the college campus is essential to a successful transition, where students are “on their own” for the first time and must navigate complex social environments.

The Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal of classical education goes beyond preparing students for college by preparing them to be good learners, good citizens, and good human beings 10 years, 20 years, and even 40 years down the road. It not only teaches them how to learn but also helps them develop a lifelong love of learning. However, this holistic approach to learning — along with its emphasis on integrated knowledge, critical thinking, effective communication, discipline, cultural understanding, and character development — prepares students exceptionally well for the challenges and opportunities of a college campus.

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