Classical Education

“The greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects.
― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

This page is an ongoing compendium of essays and resources to guide you in teaching, and learning, classically. (This page is in beta.)

I have been teaching classically since 2000, including one two years as Master Tutor at the Torrey Academy in CA and one year as Director of High School at Veritas Academy in KY. I have a passion for teaching students, helping new schools’ growth and formation, and advocating to the public for classical education.

What is classical education?

‘Classical education’ is shorthand for a cluster of related educational aims and methods. Classical education is one of humanity’s oldest wisdom traditions. It was recently forgotten in the west. Now, many around the world are re-discovering it.

Classical education is a set of the best, time-tested practices for education – the kind of education James Madison got at the college we now know at Princeton… the kind of education W. E. B. Dubois got at Harvard… that Jefferson wanted to give students when he started the University of Virginia. Frankyl, it was the kind of education most Americans got in grammar school during the pre-Colonial era and the first 60 years after the Revolution.

It is education to free the mind and make truly independent reasoners who are responsible adults and members of society.

Not everyone agrees on the details or even the outline, but most people agree about what classical education is not. Classical education is not a radical innovation. It is not a social experiment. It is not indoctrination, not college prep, and not technical training.

fun books

  1. Read Great Books. One clear mark of a classical school is a rich diet of “Great Books” of western civilization. These powerful books are among the best works ever produced by human hands. They are beautiful and timeless texts that – even when they are wrong – delight and instruct. They naturally enliven student interest and profoundly impact the imagination, mind, and heart of any who pick them up. Engaging in careful discussion in small groups naturally teaches students the “meta skills” of learning how to learn and equips them for a life of continual growth. Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Newton’s Principia, Wollestencraft’s Frankenstein, Dosteyevsky’s Brothers Karamasov, C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings are just a few of the timeless, illuminating, accessible and fascinating books from the Western canon through which students are introduced to the history, the priorities, the dynamic life of our culture. Of course, the heritage of the west is not just its books; it includes art, architecture, music, science, technology, theater, and film. Students who are reared on such a nutritious intellectual diet are not only much more fascinated by their studies, but often find their mind, heart, and habits shaped for a lifetime of learning in and out of the classroom. The Great Books teach history folded in to its curriculum from the earliest stage.
  2. Learn Greek and Latin languages. Part of the commitment to mastering English is mastering our source languages: mostly Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Most of the Great Books of the west were written in Latin or Greek. Until these works were translated, “students had to learn Latin and Greek for instrumental reasons” (Martin Cothran)
  3. Practice Socratic Discussion. A second mark of a classical school is a commitment to discussion and dialogue. Modern social scientists discovered again and again that students retain up to five times more information learned through discussion than they do through lecture. Students become a part of the Great Conversation going on through the Great Books. They don’t just spectate, they participate in dialogues about God, investigations into the natural world, and explorations of what it means to be human — all in the context of a group of friends who are on the same quest. Guided by a lively facilitator committed to speaking the truth in love, students discard false beliefs and acquire new truths in an exhilarating and challenging discussion.
  4. Acquire Moral and Intellectual virtues. Parents want their children to become thoughtful adults with character and integrity. Employers want workers of good character who can think well. Classical education, as it happens, specializes in just those two areas. The goal is not only to give students a standardized set of facts and abilities, but to form them into virtuous and thoughtful members of society, church, and family. The motive of many public education institutions is the production of productive members of society. The motive of classical schools is the formation of virtuous men and women. The Robert E. Lee was president of Washington College, he told his students, “We have no printed rules. We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.” On this model, ethics is not one subject among many but a core of every subject. Like rationality itself, and the virtues of hard thinking, clear speech, a hatred of deception and falsehood, the ethical model expressed perfectly in Jesus Christ is the standard of all our behaviors and habits.
  5. Learn Language first, then Logic, Rhetoric, Math, Music (in that order): Many classical educators follow a three-stage process called the “Trivium”. Medieval schools followed a seven stage program called the Trivium (three) and Quadrivium (four). This model has roots in the ancient world and was formalized by medieval educators to map onto normal child development stages. For the first three stages, students proceed through Grammar, Logic (or Dialectic), and Rhetoric as their curiosity and capability increase. The grammar stage is a place of memorization. The logic stage is a stage of ratiocination. The rhetoric stage is the stage of creation. Grammar (concepts), Logic (conceptual structures at rest), Rhetoric (conceptual structures in motion). As students advance, they progress to the Quadrivium: Arithmetic (pure number), Geometry (number in space), Music (number in time), Astronomy (number in space and time).
  6. Learn the Master Skills. All truly well-educated people read well, write well, think well, and live well. The master skills to think and live well are the “real” subject behind every discipline: language, logic, math, reading, conversing, and speaking. Educational experts sometimes call these meta-cognitive processes. They are thoughts that apply to other thoughts. The classical education movement is aiming to get ‘back to the basics.’ Students learn not only subjects, topics, facts — they learn how to learn. Even as some facts are forgotten or some subjects never used again, the master skills of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking lasts a lifetime. We learn to read and write and speak, we become experts on this or that topic in this or that field not in order to puff ourselves up with knowledge, but to love God fully with our minds (and our whole selves) and to be equipped members of the Kingdom of God while sojourning in the city of man.
  7. Don’t just teach, mentor. The means to the end are actually simple: Trained educators mentoring students, helping them learn how to learn.
  8. dialogue

Various schools and educators will emphasis one or more of these over the others; various schools and educators will add some components or subtract others. Classical education is not a strictly defined entity under the purview of a few experts. It is our common heritage. It is our common property. It belongs to us all.

When teaching students to follow God and love goodness, truth, beauty, and justice, we ourselves seek to follow God and attain goodness, truth, beauty, and justice.

We don’t have to do it perfectly. We just have to do our part to restore the “Lost Tools of Learning” to our generation.

Join us!

Introductions to Classical Education

In a nutshell it is the same course of study that helped propel Western Civilization to the top of the world when it comes to civic institutions, personal liberty, philanthropy, economic enterprise, technological innovation, and relative safety and security. It is rooted in an approach that goes back to ancient Greece and Rome and developed over a long period of time in the West. Classical schools take an approach to education characterized by a traditional liberal arts and sciences curriculum and pedagogy, and an orientation towards truth, beauty, and goodness that aims to cultivate wise and virtuous citizens. – Founders

Andrew Kern’s Five Classical Ideals

  1. A unifying principal that orders all learning, thus an integrated, proportioned course of learning.
  2. Recognition of the transforming power of ideas, thus an emphasis on training students to contemplate ideas rather than merely retain content or master processes.
  3. Virtue as the end of education, rather than mere application, thus a concerted and rigorous effort to cultivate every human faculty in every student.
  4. Recognition of the need for mentors, models, examples, etc. who are masters of their area of knowledge and who are the kinds of people we hope the students will grow up to become. In a word: honor and recognition to genuine authority.
  5. Endless emphasis on reality over mere appearance, thus the recognition that perception is powerful, but it is not necessarily reality. When one is taught that perception is reality, accountability and the need to grow are either relativized, trivialized, or removed altogether.


Basic Defense of “Useless” Knowledge

Philosophy as a Liberal Art

Math & Science as Liberal Arts


Alternatives to College

Home Schooling

Problem Solving

Asking Questions

The purpose of education.

What is the purpose of education? Traditionally, education has had to distinct purposes– perhaps we should say that traditionally there have been two related forms of education.

The first aim of education is to liberate students. The successfully educated person is free, free to think, live, and thrive within his community. This is traditionally described as a liberal education: the liberal arts reading, writing, literature, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic history and so on. The liberated individual is capable of thinking for himself of leading his community of setting goals and achieving of commanding his life his property, his family to settled ends. Such a person has a distinct value for the community. He or she may serve in the role of governing, writing, leading a church or organization teaching, preaching. A class in which students might ask “Am I ever going to use this?” like history or algebra II is geared towards the subject matter not for the sake of some particular skill but simply for knowledge and the beneficial affect that that knowledge has on the developing mind.

The second aim of education is to equip students with technical skills needed to perform valuable jobs in the community. The successfully educated person is a capable professional in some trade or craft. Since the word ‘technician’ and ‘technology’ have more narrow connotations in our contemporary parlance, we should pause on this word for a moment. The Greek word techne means skill or craft. A carpenter is a technician in the sense since he is capable of harvesting conditioning manipulating wood putting it together into useful forms, as when he builds a house or a piece of furniture or a tool. But also a medical doctor has techne–he knows how the human body works, and perhaps has some special knowledge of one part of the body, like the heart or the eyes, ears, and nose. A farmer is a technician with the practical skills of producing edible food, storing it, and getting it into people’s hands. We can see using this broader sense of the word that the information technology professional, also, is a tecnician, not because he works with electrified technology but because he has the knowledge needed to build, fix, or design new computers useful for performing complicated tasks. An architect is a technician, since he has the knowledge of how to design electrical systems for an office building, or how to build Many, many technically proficient individuals are capable of performing some task building or fixing some object useful to the community. They are capable of serving in roles of building cars or houses designing new spaceships or airplanes. My parents’ generation had techne oriented classes like “Shop” or “Home economics” where they learned certainly some theory but focused on practical skills.

Both forms of education are highly necessary it is needless to say. Both forms have a political dimension. Since man is a ‘social animal’ by nature, education exists within a community or polity wherein the older generation educates the younger generation, inducting them into the social life of the community. Every person who is a young student today will be a member of society. Tomorrow. They will serve in some social role and they will be an important member of their communities, social groups, friendships, family, church relationships.

But what’s important for our purposes is to notice that liberal arts have a unique place in education. Their uniqueness is due to two factors: the first factor is that liberal education undergirds all technical education. By this I mean that the master skills of speaking and thinking and reasoning well are just as much a part of the practice of law as they are a part of driving a bus. This common basis for all learning in language, thought, reading, writing, and calculating lends special importance to the liberal arts. Without them, the void is felt. We all encountered someone, perhaps who is competent in his job but has poor communication skills. One of my bosses when I worked in construction was an excellent general contractor but struggled to communicate with me and his other employees exactly what he wanted us to do and exactly how to do it. In other words, to state something uncontroversial it would be folly, and inefficient too, to try to train someone to be an architect before teaching them to read!

The second factor that places liberal arts in a unique position in education is perhaps best illustrated by story. Consider farmer Charles let’s suppose the farmer Charles lives in an early American Township in New England. What does he do on a typical day? He wakes up early works on harvesting or planting his crops takes care of the animals, and perhaps mends a broken tool. Then he rides his horse into town to sell milk and eggs to the town merchant by the few necessities. Then he stops by the town church to talk to the parson, confess his sins and donate a little bit of milk and cheese to the church is a tithe. On his way home he stops by the public house for a drink with his friends and talks politics in town gossip, hears and tells a few jokes, and goes on his way. At home, he eats the dinner that his wife cooked and sits around the table with his children quizzing them on their days activities. As a family. They sing a chorus or two after dinner, and sit out under the stars while he reads aloud from a book that they have acquired or inherited. Perhaps the Bible or a novel, then he goes to bed.

What we notice in this little illustration is that only part of Charles’s day is taken up with the technical activity and skill of farming the rest of it is taken up with talking with friends singing with his family, reading and enjoying relationship.

Liberal education aims to equip Charles to live his life. His whole life with flourishing. What is the practical use of singing? Perhaps for a professional singer who earns their wages by singing it could be considered a practical activity. But for Charles singing is simply part of the joy of his daily life. What is the practical use of talking politics with his friends? Or looking at the stars? Charles is an excellent thinker and debates persuasively, and he knows quite a bit about the stars–but these skills do not directly concern his success as a farmer.

The point here is to observe that the liberal arts take aim at the specifically human side of life. To this day. They are called the humanities, history, literature and philosophy and we might include the arts, music, theater, dance, painting, sculpture, and so on. These activities though they may have a more highly specialized or professional aspect for some people, are common to all people. They are universal. Everybody philosophizes (perhaps not with profession-specific vocabulary!), everybody enjoys music, and most everybody creates something, whether it’s choosing an artful outfit to wear in the morning or cooking a new dish for dinner.

The liberal arts help men and women to thrive as human beings. They also serve to equip some people to serve some specialized functions in society, just like the technical arts do–but these two factors, commonality and universality undergird other forms of learning and help give shape to the daily meaning and purpose of ordinary human life.

With these two purposes of education in mind the classical school is both more modest and more ambitious in its aims, then the public school down the street. More modest in that we have cut out the plurality of topics and subjects that the typical school includes some high schools even incorporating electives into their curriculum! By focusing on the master skills of reading, language, writing, arguing, calculating, and speaking, we leverage every minute spent in class to the greatest possible effect. Students are not only learning their subject, but they’re learning how to learn. They’re not only receiving the great body of knowledge that is the treasure of Western civilization, but they are recovering the lost tools of learning themselves whereby they are equipped to serve the community in myriad capacities to thrive as human beings and to continue learning for the rest of their lives. We are also more ambitious in that a quick study of history reveals just how much students are capable of learning and accomplishing by their 16th year of age– so we hold students to that standard. Our graduates are ready to apply for useful and rewarding jobs, or to apply to the Buhler College, where they can learn a real trade from real professionals in that field. In other words, we are confidently sending these remarkable young people into a successful place in the workforce or a promising role in higher education by the age in which my generation was taking Economics, Spanish III, and preparing college applications.

Graduates of classical schools like ours are remarkably well equipped. They are engaging, articulate thinkers and sharp, capable doers. They are bright-eyed and ready to mantle the full responsibilities of adulthood in their community. Whereas in the old model high school was simply a preparation for college and college merely a preparation for a job classical schools are re-thinking a model, drawing on the best of the classical traditions and the best of our modern traditions. We are not perfect in our execution, but our graduates find that they are prepared for college a job and for a flourishing life.

Get to know our model. We think you’ll be impressed with our students. We sure are.

The master skills: reading, writing, speaking

Boethius, De Arithmetica, Migne LXIII, 1079d: ‘it was impossible to achieve the summit of perfection in the disciplines of philosophy ounless one approached this noble wisdom by a kind of fourfould [quadrivium] way’

Job training.

The “other” purpose of education is job training. There are as many jobs as you like, and so there is no one way to train people for jobs in advance of knowing, for sure, what job they are going to do.

A tried and true curriculum.

The “classus” of “classical” education is simply the

  1. Community
  2. Values formation.
  3. Age grade topic.
  4. Modules vs. grades (“they feel bad” real life isn’t age stratified)
  5. Schools that are getting it right.
  6. The great books (real life)
  7. Time manging, time bungling (wasted time in school compared to work week)
  8. Independence, self-starter vs. working hard (real life)
  9. Sequence time vs. project time (real life)
  10. Depth of topics vs. width of topics (real life)
  11. Adulthood vs. adolescence (real life)
  12. Doing what I love vs. doing what we need (entitlement culture)
  13. Rights vs. Justice (entitlement culture)
  14. “Work hard” vs. creative, taking risks, stepping out (entitlement culture)
  15. Event coordination and project management vs. Task accomplishment
  16. Facts & information (memorize) vs. master (understanding) familiarity, truths?
  17. Corey: Classical education, cultural perception of teaching profession vs. practicalities of day-to-day school life

Administrators vs. Educators

One of the many social fractures of modern society is the fracture between leaders and their followers. A healthy society consists of a series of interlocking trust relationships between those who lead, command, direct and those who are follow, obey, and are directed. Good leaders are servants of their servants, and good followers love and trust their leaders. Neither expects perfection of the other and so both have patience for the other.

In a school, the basic transaction is the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student (or the mutual acquisition of knowledge, from a book, by teacher and student.) Therefore, the practical fundament are a time and place for teacher and student to meet. In the earliest schools, teachers performed these simple and basic fundamental administrative tasks.

Our modern context values specialization over generalization, and “expertise” of the “manager” (often false and sophistic) over the activity of the amateur.

In a classical school, teachers should lead and leaders should teach.

Compulsory vs. Voluntary

Trivium/Quadrivium vs. “Subjects”

The Pythagoreans considered all mathematical science to be divided into four parts: one half they marked off as concerned with quantity, the other half with magnitude; and each of these they posited as twofold. A quantity can be considered in regard to its character by itself or in its relation to another quantity, magnitudes as either stationary or in motion. Arithmetic, then, studies quantities as such, music the relations between quantities, geometry magnitude at rest, spherics [astronomy] magnitude inherently moving. Proclus, A commentary on the first book of Euclid’s Elements, xii, trans. Glenn Raymond Morrow (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1992, pp. 29-30. ISBN 0-691-02090-6.

Put differently, the quadrivium studies number in four modes: pure number (arithmetic), stationary number (geometry), moving number (astronomy) and applied number (music) number.