Sorting Out Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I don’t mean to keep posting on classical education, but I don’t feel like I have presented it very clearly. I blame classical education itself, or at least how the term is used. “Classical” can refer to so many things. Chronologically, it can refer to what was done in ancient Greece and Rome, or in the Middle Ages, or it can refer to the modern classical education movement (pardon my oxymoron). To top it off, within each of these periods, there was a lot of variety. There is not just one model we get from ancient Greece. The Middle Ages was a long span of time and education changed throughout it. And in the modern era, there are at least three major schools of thought which term themselves “classical.”

I am not going to dwell too much today on the ancient and medieval variants, but I can point you to some resources and some earlier posts on them– Herman Bavinck in his Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) discusses some of the variety within Greek education (see this post). William Barclay’s Train Up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) is also useful on this topic as it shows the differences between education in Athens and that in Rome, not to mention Sparta (see my review here). My own observation would be that modern proponents of classical education tend to write as if the ancient world were uniform, lumping Rome and Athens together, forgetting that Greece was more than the Athens of Plato and Aristotle, and neglecting to notice or mention that even among Athenians there were divergent opinions. A quick comparison of two books I have reviewed recently (and will mention below) shows this: both David Hicks and James S. Taylor look back to classical Greek education to find a model for their own proposals. Both extensively cite ancient sources. Yet Hicks champions dialectic knowledge while Taylor largely ignores dialectic and advocates for what he calls poetic knowledge. 

As we move into the medieval period, one is usually told that this was a time in which the Church rediscovered and began again to implement classical education. Bavinck shows that this period was not as uniform as it is often portrayed to be. It was a long period and there were changes within it. The scholars of the Middle Ages were also influenced by different ancient traditions, many of which they knew only indirectly. There were, as an example, periods when Aristotle was revered and periods in which he was in disfavor. Because their knowledge was frequently second-hand, they did not often know whom they were modeling themselves after (again see this post).

Last but not least, we come to the modern era. I have recently been reading Douglas Wilson’s The Case for Classical Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003). Wilson’s main object is to present his own view, but along the way he interacts with the other major modern views which has helped me sort them out a bit in my own mind.  Quoting Andrew Kern and Gene Veith, he distinguishes three varieties of classical education: democratic classicism, moralistic classicism, and Christian classicism (p.82).

Before jumping into these three, mention should be made of Dorothy Sayers’ article “The Lost Tools of Learning” (see my review here),  a fairly brief article which is said to have jump-started the modern classical movement. The key features of Sayers’ proposal were an emphasis on teaching students how to think and a three-fold division known as the Trivium. The Trivium rests on a certain view of child-development which distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. Sayers acknowledges that these stages are based on her own experience and observation. I would add that they are based on a particular view of the child and of man’s reason (see that review I linked above). [1]

Democratic classicism (see this earlier post) is that of Mortimer Adler and the Great Books movement. It is the secular variety of classical education as delineated by books like the What Your … Grader Needs to Know series by E.D. Hirsch. It is democratic in that it seeks to provide education for all. The emphasis is on a common body of knowledge which both reflects and builds a common cultural heritage. Like the Athenians of old, democratic classicism sees education as essentially salvific.  It elevates man’s reason above his emotions. If the passions can be controlled, then man by his reason will be able to live rightly. Education teaches one to think so that he may act according to reason and thereby do good and not evil (Wilson, p. 47). The problem, they would say, with the modern progressive methods of Dewey and the like are that they have cut us off from the great conversation of the past. If we return to classical sources and again participate in that conversation, we can recover virtue. The assumption is that there is a common, human culture that functions as a standard by which we can judge what is good and true and beautiful (p. 100).

Moralistic Classicism is that exemplified by David V. Hicks in his book Norms and Nobility (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999). I have reviewed Hicks’s book extensively in this post and this one. Though Wilson identifies his own approach as “Christian classical,” Hicks would also claim the title. As I showed in that earlier review, however, he is very accepting of Greek, which is to say pagan, categories and presuppositions and there is much that is not Christian and certainly not reformed about his approach. If there is a defining characteristic of Hicks’ version of classical education, it is dialectic, a process of questioning through which one uncovers knowledge. 

Though Wilson does not mention it, I feel I should also include here James S. Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998; see my review here).  Taylor, like Hicks, presents a detailed view of what Greek classical education was, but while Hicks then comes down in favor of dialectic as the defining characteristic, Taylor rejects dialectic as primary and favors what he calls “poetic knowledge,” which is, briefly put, an intuitive, non-scientific way of knowing. 

The third and final group which Wilson identifies is his own. I will do a more thorough review of Wilson’s book soon. In describing what makes his approach to education classical, Wilson singles two characteristics: an adherence to the Trivium and an emphasis on Western culture. He defends the Trivium as biblical, an argument I will tackle in another post. Preference is given to western culture because it is “intertwined” with Christianity and Church history (pp. 84-85).

Though they all bear the name classical, there is little that all these approaches have in common. Perhaps the most defining commonality is a rejection of Dewey’s Progressive Approach to education with its emphasis on the scientific method as the be-all and end-all of knowledge.  There is little else that can be said to be true of all of them. Though Sayers is often said to be the well-spring of the classical movement, Taylor and Hicks go back to the Greeks to find their models and do not mention Sayers and her Trivium [2]. For both Hicks and Taylor, classical is defined by a certain epistemology, a theory of knowing, though again they do not have the same epistemology. For Adler and others in the Great Books school, the content is key. It is about using the right materials. Content is also important for Wilson but he adds to this Sayers’ Trivium.

I have spent some time on the blog in countering classical education and arguing why it is not enough. I realize that I have not always done so in the most clear manner. You may read a given post and say, “Well, I use classical education and that is not what I believe.” This post is an attempt to sort it all out and clear up any confusion. If you were to come to me now and ask “Why not classical education?” my answer would be first to ask what you mean by classical education. There may be more schools of thought out there that I haven’t covered, but I have done posts now on the major modern ones discussed here. For your convenience, here again are the posts where I have discussed each of them:

Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning”

Adler and Hirsch and the Great Books Movement, aka democratic classicism (this is, admittedly, an older, briefer post)

James S. Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge

David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, aka moralistic classicism

Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical

Veith and Kern (added 2/7/2020)

If you know of others you’d like to see reviewed, please do let me know.


[1] For a critique of Sayers’ take on the Trivium and her sources for it, see Shawn Barnett’s “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] I have heard rumors that this movement away from Sayers’ work as the foundation of classical education is trending.

7 responses to this post.

  1. […] Recently we talked about the variety that exists with the modern classical education movement. Today we add one more piece to that puzzle. […]


  2. […] terms of method, Cornerstone seems to have a bit of Charlotte Mason (CM) in it and a bit of classical. The site quotes CM in a number of places and there is talk of living books and narration. From my […]


  3. […] It is used of ancient and medieval and modern movements. It may be pagan or Christian or secular. I have tried to the past to make sense of some of the variety of what is out there. Today I have one more take on classical to add to that list: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A […]


  4. […] classical educators, each with their own unique take (even the ancient world was not uniform; see this post for some background on the varieties of classical ed). If we pick any two at random we may find […]


  5. I’m doing some research for my doctorate and would love to hear more about your insights into the classical education movement- contact info below!


  6. […] education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern […]


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