Approaches to Homeschooling: Classical

Dear Reader,

I have read a number of articles now comparing the classical and Charlotte Mason methods of homeschooling and asking if Charlotte Mason was indeed classical or not. Too often I find that these articles spend a lot of time talking about the particulars –dictation, copywork, and the like– and they do not address the philosophies behind these approaches. So as a part of my series on the different philosophies of education available to us homeschoolers, I would like to try to look at classical education with regard to the following questions:

1. What do they assume about how learning works?

2. How do they view children?

3. How do they view human nature?

4. What do they believe is the goal of education?

Before we begin, we need to define “classical education.” It is a pretty broadly used term. If you look up just “classical education” on Wikipedia, what you find is a list of links to other more specific topics. “Classical” can refer to historical educational practices in ancient Greece and Rome or in the Middle Ages. When the topic “is Charlotte Mason a classical educator?” comes up one is usually talking about how she relates to these older, historical methods. I know very little about them, though I have read some convincing arguments that, yes, Miss Mason did have a lot in common with them and obviously was well-versed in classical education of this sort. (See AfterThoughts on this topic here and here.)

But when most homeschoolers speak of “classical education,” what they mean is the modern classical education movement. This movement is based upon the  classical education on the Middle Ages. It has been revived by Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” It has since been further defined by the Core Knowledge Foundation created by E. D. Hirsch, the “Great Books” movement of Mortimer Adler, and, most popular in homeschool circles, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s book The Well-Trained Mind. One of the best summaries of these three modern approaches I have found is in “The False Promise of Classical Education” by Lisa VanDamme. It will be these modern approaches that I have in mind when I discuss the philosophy behind the classical approach to homeschooling.

So what are the assumptions behind the modern classical (I love oxymorons, don’t you? Perhaps we should say “neo-classical”) homeschooling movement? Just looking at the names of these three major schools of thought gives us a clue.  “Core Knowledge”, “Great Books”, “Well-Trained Mind”– what do these tell us? The first two allude to the fact that there is a set body of knowledge which one should learn. The classical approach believes that there are some books and ideas and bodies of knowledge which are inherently more valuable and worth learning. They are foundational to our (western) civilization and therefore should be learned by all students. Van Damme puts it well when she says,

“Great Books promises to give students the crucial knowledge and thinking skills they need for adult life—with an emphasis on exposure to, and grappling with, the great works of the great minds of Western civilization.”      [Van Damme, False Promise]

The difference between the Core Knowledge and Great Books programs is one of degree:

“We can see in Hirsch [of the Core Knowledge approach] a greater emphasis on cultural communication than in Adler [of Great Books fame], whose emphasis is more on the cultivation of the intellect. Yet both share an obvious affinity for a content-filled core curriculum and a disdain for much of the nonsense of progressive education.”                                               [Van Damme, False Promise]

The goal then of learning this common body of knowledge is to provide the knowledge and skills needed for life and particularly for good citizenship. The introduction to the What Your . . . Grader Needs to Know series lists three reasons why core knowledge is needed:

“1. Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling more effective.”

“2. Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling fairer and more democratic.”

“3. Commonly shared knowledge helps create cooperation and solidarity in our schools and nation.”

[E.D. Hirsch, What Your Second Grader Needs to Know (New York: Core Knowledge Foundation, 1998) pp. XVIII-XIX]

Notice the concerns here. They are not about the individual student. They focus on what is good and fair for society as a whole.

The title of Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s book alludes to another aspect of the classical movement, not the body of knowledge to be learned but to the understanding of the mind. It must be “well-trained.” The classical method is not just about knowledge but about teaching how to think and reason as well. The assumption here is that children’s minds are not fully developed and must be trained in the paths they should take. While there is still a common body of knowledge to be learned, Wise Bauer adds onto this the framework of a three stage journey of learning. In the elementary years, children are fed facts. In the middle years, logic is introduced, and finally in the high school years, the focus is on rhetoric:

“[A] classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions.”

[Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Trained Mind (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), p. 45]

While Wise Bauer would say that absorbing facts comes naturally to the younger child, as they grow they must be taught to use logic and to speak convincingly. I have heard it said that this three stage regime, especially the sequential nature of the stages, was not part of classical classical education. That is, that though they may have spoken of grammar, logic and rhetoric, they would not have separated them out as isolated processes in this way. I can’t vouch for the truth of that, but it does appear that Sayer’s lecture reignited the classical movement and either initiated or revived the three stage idea.

There is a large burden on the parent or teacher in the classical method, as the size of Wise Bauer’s book and its many lesson plans attest:

“As your child’s teacher, you’ll serve as a source of information . . . This process –which we’ll outline in detail for each area of the curriculum– will train him to grasp facts and express them in his own words.”  [p. 54]

This is not the picture of a child who learns naturally (beyond the early years in which they presumably love to learn facts and do so quite easily). Rather they are presented with a formidable course of study through which their minds must be trained in how to think.

Which brings me to answering one of my questions: What is the goal of classical education?

As we have seen for the Core Knowledge school, it is to have kids learn a fixed body of knowledge for the good of the society in which they live. While they no doubt wish success for the students, the goal of that success seems to be for the furthering of the whole community rather than the individual.

I know least about the Great Books school. They seem to have more of an emphasis on the individual’s intellect, the development of which serves to prepare one for “adult life.” I do not know what they would say the goal of that life would be. Is it worldly success? The ability to hold a job? Being able to participate in democratic society?

The Well-Trained Mind does not have as clear a statement of purpose as I would like (at least not that I found). But I did find this:

“Remember, classical education teaches a child how to learn. The child who knows how to learn will grow into a well-rounded –and well-equipped –adult . . . ”  [p. 55]

Again I am left wondering what the ultimate purpose is. Is the well-rounded, well-equipped adult made so so that they can serve society as a whole? So that they can fend for themselves? Hold a job? For myself as a Christian, I  find these goals less than satisfying. They seem to be education for education’s sake and give no hint as to the higher purposes of a man’s (or woman’s) life.

If I can get off topic for  a minute, I would say the goal of my children’s education is to enable them to know their Creator and to serve Him in whatever ways He calls them to. So if we learn grammar it is to that they can communicate well enough to tell others about Christ. If we learn math, it is so that they can be good stewards of what God has given them. If we learn art, is to appreciate the beauty that God has given us. And some things we learn just because I don’t know what their specific callings will be and I want them to be prepared for whatever He has for them. And it saddens me a little to see so many Christians putting so much time into their kids’ education without first thinking about why they are doing it and what is really necessary.

But back to the topic of classical education. The next question I set myself to answer is: What do they assume about how learning works? I think I have already done much to answer this. There is the assumption that learning is a three-tiered process. And behind this is the assumption that younger children are not capable of logical thought and rhetoric. Wise Bauer says,

“The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument. The critical and logical faculty simply doesn’t develop until later on . . . Children like  lists at this age. They like rattling off rote information, even if they don’t understand it . . . Don’t make K-4 students dig for information. ”  [p. 54]

The emphasis, in the early years at least, is on much rote learning, “even if they don’t understand it”! The idea of forming relationships with the material which is at the core of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is not present here. Children are to learn facts first, without much context or understanding, then later to learn the logic behind the facts which helps them make sense and finally to learn to argue for one position or another.

So we turn to the next question: What does this say about the classical view of children? What I hear when I read all this is that children are incomplete. They are not born nor do they for many years have all their faculties. In order to develop these faculties, they must be trained. It is an intensely hands-on process for the teacher in which the child is molded into a logical, thinking adult.

And so lastly,  I have to say that as far as human nature goes, I think the modern classical approach sells children short. Children are not viewed as fully formed people. They are not as Miss Mason would say “born persons.” And the goal of thinking adult life is also less than I would wish for. It seems to be merely to be a functioning, able adult.

None of the books I have looked at on classical education, the Core Knowledge series and The Well-Trained Mind in particular, have a Christian or biblical foundation, and, frankly, it shows. I know that there are Christian classical methods out there so perhaps I need to look into those more. But I will say of all the many Christian classical homeschoolers I have met nigh onto 100% would say they take The Well-Trained Mind as their guidebook.

So I may do another post or two on classical education. And I still have other, less common approaches to tackle like Waldorf and Montessori. Stay tuned for more.


32 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by laurke on June 24, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you for this. I was trying to explain why CM is far better than neo-classical/trivium learning just yesterday before I read your thoughts on it. I agree with you! I haven’t read well-trained mind, but just looking at the overview of it and the materials that the “classical” publishers had available at the homeschooling conference yesterday were really off-putting to me – the fact that young children don’t need to be taught the why’s; the flash cards; the teacher intensiveness of it all. Ugh. Let me lead my child to good and beautiful things and let him partake for himself – easier on me, more fulfilling for him. I also checked out “What every 2nd grader should know” from the library to see how on-track we are, and the watered down stories made me cringe, as did the philosophy in the introduction of the book. You are spot on – and I actually have notes where I was going to blog about that as well, so when I do, I’ll link to you!


  2. I’ll stay tuned for sure! I love your analysis of each homeschooling approach. I am looking forward to the Waldorf one especially because I’m intrigued but haven’t read anything more yet 🙂


  3. […] received some questions about my post on classical education and particularly on my use of VanDamme’s article. The following is an edited version of the […]


  4. […] the series is here. So far I have published posts on Unit Studies (and a follow-up), Unschooling, Classical Ed (and a follow-up) and a post on Charlotte Mason is coming out […]


  5. […] to homeschool (see the intro here; so far I have done posts on unschooling, unit studies, and classical education; more are coming), I have been struck by how the different philosophies define what makes […]


  6. […] behind different homeschooling methods (See the introduction, unit studies, unschooling, classical, and Charlotte Mason entries). I am starting to get further and further from my area of knowledge […]


  7. […] homeschooling methods. Here are the previously published parts: Intro, Unit Studies, Unschooling, Classical, Charlotte Mason, and Thomas Jefferson […]


  8. […] two categories, the academic and the spiritual. Methods which emphasize academic success, such as the classical method, do so with worldly goals in mind. The end of academic success is meant to be a job, a career, the […]


  9. […] The first question is the easiest to get at with Montessori education because this method is, first and foremost, a theory about how education works. Maria Montessori believed that children would naturally develop in appropriate ways if they were given the right environments and stimuli. I see this as a somewhat middle of the road approach. It is not as hands-off as unschooling. On the other hand, it is not as structured as classical education. […]


  10. […] continuing series on different approaches to homeschool (see the intro, unschooling, CM education, classical, TJEd, Christian classical, Montessori, and the Puritans’ Home School Curriculum, not to […]


  11. […] the idea of the progymnasmata. This is a classical way of teaching writing. I am not a big fan of the classical approach to homeschooling, but there is something here that appeal to me. The brief explanation is that one looks at an […]


  12. […] of my continuing series on different approaches to homeschool (see these posts on Unit Studies, Classical Ed, Christian classical ed, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson Education, Unschooling, the […]


  13. Posted by cho on February 28, 2013 at 9:37 am

    The article by Van Damme does NOT correctly portray Classical Education. She takes portions of TWTM entirely out of their context. If one is going to argue you must first understand your opponents position.


    • Thanks for taking time to comment. It has been a while since I wrote this post so if you really want to discuss is, I woudl have to do some review. I have read TWTM. If you have specific points of Van Damme’s or mine to dispute, I am willing to listen. Honestly, this whole series was me trying to understand different educational philosophies. If as a classical educator, you think I have completely missed the boat on what your approach is, I am happy to hear how you understand classical ed but I can only respond to specifics.


  14. […] kind of logic but it seems like something we should all know a bit of. Though I don’t follow the classical model of education, I do think this is the sort fo thing that could be taught in later years as one class. Of course, […]


  15. […] learning by heart as a primary method. I will admit to be often intimidated by those who follow a classical approach to their homeschooling. They seem to cover so much, and their children seem to be able to spout of […]


  16. […] kind of logic but it seems like something we should all know a bit of. Though I don’t follow the classical model of education, I do think this is the sort fo thing that could be taught in later years as one class. Of course, […]


  17. […] of the differences between a Charlotte Mason education and a classical education (as we term it today; Charlotte can be called classical depending on how one defines it), it the […]


  18. […] of the modern classical education movement. I have blogged on modern classical education (here, here, here and here) but had never read this document. As you know if you have been here any time […]


  19. […] does not profess allegiance to one particular philosophy of education, he seems to me to fall in the classical education camp. Though my own approach tends to follow along the lines of a Charlotte Mason education, I was […]


  20. […] the food for our children by making the connections they are supposed to find on their own. The modern classical approach to education feeds the youngest children on a diet of dry facts at a time when they are capable of so much […]


  21. I know this is an old post, but I did want to point out that we know through modern studies of the brain (and of children’s brains in particular), that though they are certainly born “whole persons” with all the value and worth of any other person God created, there are simply parts of their brains that are not developed, and will not be fully developed until the mid-20’s. Their minds do need to be trained and guided along as they grow, because as adults with fully-developed brains and many more years of experience, that’s just our job. So I feel like CM advocates (and I love CM and am incorporating many of her philosophies) focus way too much on the “whole person” aspect and reject other educational methods that imply that there are stages of development, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Modern neuroscience just proves that those stages exist. A great book is “The Whole-Brain Child.” It’s a parenting book, actually, that helps you understand why your child sometimes acts like a tiny crazy person. Because in some ways, and under some triggering circumstances, your child IS a tiny crazy person. 😉 Their brains simply aren’t “all there” yet.

    ALSO in my several years of following (at a distance, as my children are young) Classical Education, I’ve always gathered from their publications (Memoria Press, Veritas Press) that the point of Classical Education was to prepare a young Christian’s mind to withstand the temptations and philosophies of the world. They know the facts, they can logically reject falsehood, and they can clearly express the Truths they believe. I think Susan and Jessie purposefully kept their writing more secular (Susan addresses this in some blog posts), which has pros and cons, but again, baby, bathwater.

    Just some thoughts! Hope you don’t mind!


    • I don’t mind at all. Thoughtful comments are always welcome. As you say, it has been a while since I wrote this. I will give you my thinking-as-I-go response. The first thing that comes to mind is that CM was really arguing against a view in her day which I don’t think anyone really thinks today — that children are blank slates, that they don’t even come equipped with basic faculties. In its extreme this approach treated every child like the most intellectually handicapped child. Modern classical and CM are going to be much closer together than either of us would be with that view. My second thought is that CM’s ideas were partly about how we should educate kids but were even more about how kids learn. If you and I both give our elementary age child a book like Little House on the Prairie to read, which I would consider a living book, it doesn’t matter if you are a classical homeschooler and I am a CM homeschooler, the child is still interacting with a living book and will be affected by the ideas in it. At least that is my CM view. Third thought — in practice I think there is a lot of overlap in the classical and CM worlds today. Many, many people on both sides acknowledge combining the approaches and even those who say they are one or the other tend to have a lot of overlap, for example using the same books as in my previous example. Though CM is not big on memorizing facts for their own sake, many CM homeschoolers include some of this. Though classical says the grammar stage is about learning the material (ie facts) and that the context comes later, very few people I know of actually remove facts completely from any context. Fourthly, we have to ask just what CM meant when she said children were born whole people. She was big o habit training and so clearly did not believe that they have all the skills they need in terms of good behavior and fighting temptation on their own. They are born with consciences but depending on the input they receive these consciences can either be built up or perverted. She was very big on what she calls the way of the will in particular which is really about self-control, about being able to do not what you want but what you should. She clearly believed that this was not something that came naturally to children and that they needed training to master it. Intellectually, CM was not giving the same books to a 7yo and a 14yo. There is obviously advancement intellectually, both in the language one can handle reading and in the ideas one can absorb. This does not stop, incidentally, when one reaches adulthood. As we push ourselves, we can handle harder and harder books even as adults. My own experience and observation is that ideas and argument are not at all foreign to even small children. I have been out-argued by a 4yo. They seem clearly (to me) capable of fairly advance thought though there is also lots of room for training. If I had to say today what defines a CM education as opposed to classical or other approaches it would be “ideas are the food of the mind.” There is some memorization in CM, particularly of things like poetry, but I do not believe the mind thrives on it. I think ideas as found in real. living materials (books, art, etc) should com early and that kids soak them up as they are able. When I read to my kids, a 5yo doesn’t get the same things a 12 or 16yo gets from a book, but they are all capable of getting of getting intellectual sustenance from them through the working of their own minds (that is, not being spoonfed by the teacher). That’s how I would explain it right now.


      • That all makes sense and helps to clarify the view (especially the context of CM replying to the “blank slate” theory). I really appreciate the series that AfterThoughts did on CM+Classical last year. I find I lean towards using a Classical “curriculum,” but with a CM “approach,” if that makes sense, with only as much fact memorization as each of my children seem to soak up positively, and with a greater emphasis on nature and folk culture than Classical typically includes. But my oldest is only three. So I’m still in the infancy of my educational philosophy formation myself. 😉


  22. […] My post on modern classical education can be found here. […]


  23. […] Wise Bauer (originally published 1999; I have not reviewed this book at length but do discuss it in this post on classical education). While Sayers’ article was quite slim, this is a hefty book with lots […]


  24. […] the other end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of […]


  25. […] The first approach, knowledge-getting, focuses on content. There is a certain body of material and the goal is to get the student to learn it. This approach tends toward memorization and quantitative testing. It also tends to minimize the individuality of the student as it is the material to be learned that is paramount. This approach is most closely associated with the modern classical education movement.  […]


  26. […] and Nobility presents to us classical education, not the modern version of Dorothy Sayers and the Well-Trained Mind, but truly classical classical education going back to […]


  27. […] classicism (see this earlier post) is that of Mortimer Adler and the Great Books movement. It is the secular variety of classical […]


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