Approaches to Homeschool: Christian Classical Ed

Dear Reader,

This is part of a series I am going on different homeschooling methods. Here are the previously published parts: Intro, Unit Studies, Unschooling, Classical, Charlotte Mason, and Thomas Jefferson Education.

Having gotten some feedback on my post on modern classical education, I thought it would be worthwhile to look specifically at Christian classical education as well. Of all the homeschoolers I have met who would identify themselves as Christian and classical, near 100% have used the Well-Trained Mind which I spent considerable time on in my earlier post. But there are other resources out there that are specifically Christian. In fact, there is a lot out there (most of whom would be happy to sell you their curriculum). So I needed to pick a couple to focus on. If there are others you use or are interested in, I am happy to look at them in the future too. Just let me know.

But for now the two I have chosen to focus on are the Circe Institute and Trivium Pursuit. I have chosen these two because they were recommended to me and because they provide a lot of background material on their educational philosophies.

I have in these posts been looking at four questions in relation to each of the methodologies. They are:

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?

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap between classical and Christian classical education. The assumptions about how learning works are largely the same. The biggest difference is in the goal of education so I would like to start there this time.

I found that the goals of modern classical education were quite worldly. That is, they focused on the things of this world and not on eternal things. As a Christian, this was unacceptable to me. But in Christian classical ed, the goals are ones I cannot disagree with. The Circe Institute says, “The purpose of Classical Education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom.”  This is probably true of all classical education, whether it is Christian or not. The difference lies in how the wisdom and virtue are used. They go on to say, “The ultimate end of Classical Christian education is to enable the student (disciple) to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.” This is a statement I would heartily agree with.

Trivium Pursuit says that “the goal of education is to fully prepare a child for adult life” and then goes on to say that “the ultimate goal of education is holiness -to teach separation to God in order to serve Him.” So we see in both these Christian classical approaches an intermediate goal which need not necessarily be Christian, but an ultimate goal that does focus on God and His glorification.

I’d like to turn next to the second and third questions I have posed, what classical Christian education says about human nature and about children in particular. My conclusion regarding secular classical education was that it de-emphasizes individuality in favor of a set curriculum every student must learn. It also sees the child as innately lacking in certain qualities, as one in need of training and who is not yet complete.

In the Christian sources I am looking at, the individuality of the student is more important and academics are less important (though still very important). The Circe Institute says, “Schooling is not the purpose of life or of childhood and it has value only to the degree to which it enables the child to fulfill his purpose as a particular human being. It is not fitting for a school to dominate a child’s life or to ask a child to perform exercises that have no value beyond school.” While there is a common curriculum here, the end goal is to prepare each child for his particular mission in life. The child is appreciated as a unique, valuable human being:

“The child is a living and eternal soul to be nourished, not a product to be molded.” [Circe Institute, “Principles”]

However, the classical scheme of different stages of development are still maintained, though perhaps less stringently so, and the cultivation of individual interests is delayed until later years:

“Education should correspond to the growth of the child (which Dorothy Sayers, among others, outlines generally), but in so doing the quality and depth of the instruction must not be sacrificed to the interests or even the skills of the child.  The purpose of childhood is training for adulthood, not amusement.” [Circe Institute, “Principles”]

Trivium Pursuit also keeps the three stage developmental process found in non-Christian classical education, while still allowing for some variation among individuals:

“Children are continually developing in Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. Though these three capacities are mutually dependent upon each other, and the capacities are developing in the child from before birth, nevertheless, children pass through several developmental stages, or levels of learning, where one capacity experiences rapid growth. We will describe these stages below. Keep in mind that our age divisions are not meant as nice neat little cubicles. They are only arbitrary approximations, and they may vary greatly from child to child.”  [Trivium Pursuit, “Trivium in a Capsule”]

So my conclusion is that the classical Christian methods I have looked at do acknowledge the value of the child. Though I don’t recall that either used the phrase “image of God,” I think that they do embody the idea that the child (and indeed all people) is a unique, valuable individual made in the image of God. There is a strong emphasis on the need for moral training along with academic training which I suppose also acknowledges the sinful nature in all of us. Though perhaps I should say that they say we are not born holy and must work on it which is different from saying that we are born sinful. I suspect the writers of these websites would say children are born with sin natures; it is just not something I saw that they addressed directly in the parts I read (and both have an awful lot of material available to read).

The part I do have a problem with is when they say that the foundation of many years of education must be laid before individual interests are catered to. Again, as with the other classical approaches, there seems to be the implication that the child is somehow incomplete and many years must pass before this changes.

Which brings me to the first question, how does education happen in classical Christian methods? Here the Christian approaches have the most in common with the secular and earn the name classical. I have already mentioned that the three stage learning process of knowledge, logic, and rhetoric which is so foundational to modern classical education is present here. There is a great emphasis on the teacher. Though the Christian sources are careful to say that the child is a soul who must be respected and guided more than molded, the classical model still places  a large burden on the parent or teacher to educate the student (as opposed to unschooling and Charlotte Mason in which the student bears the burden for their own learning).

There is, however, also the added element in the Christian sources of the divine. Trivium Pursuit says that “all education must begin with the Word of God.” The Circe Institute goes further in saying that God helps make the teacher’s work effective:

“Instead, the classical Christian teacher asks God to use his teaching, dispositions, and actions as an instrument in His hand to cultivate the students’ souls toward holiness.” [Circe Institute, “Principles”]

The Circe Institute sounds almost Charlotte Mason-like in how it says learning happens:

“The soul feeds on ideas, and the great ideas are most perfectly expressed in great books and great artifacts. Content and skills must be mastered in order for the student to absorb ideas, but they cannot serve as adequate integrating principles.” [Circe Institute, “Principles”]

Ideas as educational food is one of the core principles of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. In the second sentence, however, I think we begin to see the glimmer of a difference. There is a hierarchy in the classical method. One thing must be learned before another. So, while ideas are the food, they can only be taken in after the facts have been learned as a groundwork. This notion of building upon earlier foundations continues throughout classical education. So the Circe Institute says that the liberal arts (including the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) must be learned first and then the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) afterwards. These are followed by the human sciences (ethics and politics), followed by the philosophical sciences (metaphysics and epistemology), and finally the theological sciences (knowledge of God Himself) [“Principles” and “Definitions”].

There is a lot here that I feel I am not quite getting. I just don’t see why astronomy, for instance, comes earlier but biology, chemistry and physics must come later. It seems to me that these divisions are based on ancient models (meaning from the ancient Greeks). And while those ancients were deep and good thinkers with what they had, science itself has progressed well beyond what they knew. The ancients spent a lot off time on astronomy because it was what they could see. Chemistry for them was more theoretical. They only guessed about the idea of something like atoms. But we have so much more knowledge in all these areas as well as the ability to be hands on with them. I am just not sure the ancient categories and groupings apply any more. There is a certain extent to which one needs prerequisite skills to learn later information. I am thinking here of things like math skills that are necessary to learn higher level chemistry and physics. But I believe children can also learn quite a lot about the sciences from an early age. Their knowledge may not be so advanced and quantitative as it can later be, but they begin, as Charlotte Mason would say, to form relationships with the material which they can build on in later years.

I also wonder about the last stage, theology. Is this really something reserved for the most advanced, for those well into adulthood? Perhaps they mean something beyond what I think of when I hear “theology” but the Circe Institute website does define it as “knowledge . . of God Himself.” This is not something I think should be reserved for the highly educated. In fact, I think ordinary believers do themselves great harm when they delegate the thinking about such things to only pastors and scholars. Theology should be very practical; it should have consequences for how we live. And it should be something we all think about. Even children. My own children have occasionally asked me very good theological questions. They have also had struggles with physical and spiritual problems that God has brought into their lives. God does not wait to work in them until they are grown; neither should we wait to talk to them about Him. In general, I think we give our children too little real theology in favor of watered-down Bible stories. Often, they are more ready than we are to accept difficult theological truths. If we can introduce these things to them when they are young, hopefully they will stick with them throughout life.

Which brings my mind back to one of the quotes from Trivium Pursuit that I have the most problems with. It is:

“The best reason for choosing a classical style of schooling is simply because this is the natural model and method for education – which God wrote into reality.”

[Trivium Pursuit, “Transformation of Classical Education]

This is a very bold assertion– that the classical model is best because it is “written into reality.” This is essentially saying that it is the God-ordained model. I have not read everything by Trivium Pursuit. But in the context of this article, there are no Bible verses or other evidence to back up this claim. My own contention would be that the Bible tells us very little about the how’s of education (see this post and this one). Of course, they are not saying that the Bible supports their view, but rather that it is “natural,” that it can be seen in nature. But I look at nature and at myself and the other humans I have some insight into, and I do not see this at all. I rather see the opposite, that my children have fine, active minds which are capable of much thought and understanding. That they use logic and make good arguments from an early age. That they can and do think about God and His nature even before the age of seven.

So here are my conclusions about Christian classical education as exemplified by the Circe Institute and Trivium Pursuit: Their goals are good. In contrast to modern secular classical ed, I think they have the right focus. They also do well to acknowledge the personhood of the child and the role of God in education. However, while they are less rigid than their secular counterparts on the stages and curriculum of education, they are still more rigid than I like. They acknowledge individuality, but they put off pursuing individual interests and “higher” subjects to a later age. It is the methodology of classical education, especially the hierarchy of learning and of subjects, that puts me off. It does not seem at all “natural” to me. If it rings true with you, if it seems to reflect how your children learn, then perhaps the classical method is the right one for your family. But for me, it is not.

I will close by saying that I know there is a lot more out there, even from the two sources I have looked at not to mention all the others. If you have had other impressions and experiences with Christian classical education, I am happy to hear them. I will probably do at least one follow-up post with some other, more random observations I had.


15 responses to this post.

  1. […] verses or other evidence to back up this claim. My own … … View original post here: Approaches to Homeschool: Christian Classical Ed « Letters from … ← Forbidden Bible Verses: Mark 3:13-19 « Churchmouse Campanologist Christ in All the […]


  2. Posted by Rebekah Patrick on July 25, 2012 at 1:46 am

    Have you considered reviewing the principle approach. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on TJE. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the principal approach.



    • Thanks for the feedback. I am happy to look at any approach. Do you have any recommendations of books or websites to start with on the principle approach?


      • Posted by Rebekah Patrick on July 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm

        You could google Foundations for American Christian Education (I think it’s James Rose and Katherine Dang are also very good people to look into. I have done a bit of research myself over the past few years. I like how Charlotte Mason focuses on Living books and on the child as a whole person, but I also like the teaching of Self government and and Americans founding. You really can marry the two and teach PA mostly when your studying American History.

        You could also google bible principled education and find some websites. The main books are very expensive, however you may be able to find them at the library. Just a warning: there is a lot of reading and analyzing that goes into studying this method, which I think is one of the reasons many people who start it walk away. However, there is a lot you can glean from it and use in your own method of education.

        I will keep checking this post for your responses. Feel free to email me. I believe my email is attached.

        Thanks again


  3. […] the other side, many of the distinctly Christian approaches have other-worldly goals. Christian classical education in its many forms speaks of preparing children for their adult life but also of enabling them to […]


  4. […] on different approaches to homeschool (see the intro, unschooling, CM education, classical, TJEd, Christian classical, Montessori, and the Puritans’ Home School Curriculum, not to mention some follow-ups and […]


  5. […] world of Christian classical education is a large one. When I examined that approach, I chose to focus particularly on Trivium Pursuit and […]


  6. […] series on different approaches to homeschool (see these posts on Unit Studies, Classical Ed, Christian classical ed, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson Education, Unschooling, the Puritans’ Home School […]


  7. […] Christian Classical Education and a follow-up […]


  8. […] 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 at all, I […]


  9. […] homeschool world, when we speak of classical education we are really most often talking of a certain version of the classical philosophy of education which was reignited by Dorothy Sayers’ famous article. When one asks in this context if […]


  10. […] My article on Christian classical is here. […]


  11. […] end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of education says that yes, there is a core body of […]


  12. […] these three areas and their associated goals are interrelated. Unlike the classical tradition (see here and here),  these do not represent different stages in learning. Even the youngest child engages […]


  13. Posted by Karoll on December 15, 2020 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Nebby. I don’t know how I came here. But I have read almost all blog posts. Sincerely, I had some thinkings about CM and difficult to follow in our homeschool. So we choose the christian classical education by classical conversations for almost 2 years. However İ began again to question some aspects of that way and curriculum. And now, I am grateful for find someone that put in words exacly my questions about classical education and CM, and you could explain with good resources authors etc. I am a reformed christian too, so I have thinking and thinking about my homeschooling way. Thanks. Please, continue.


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