Classical Education

Brad Agee - Thursday, October 15, 2015

What Is a Classical Education?

If you are reading this, you are searching for the meaning of a “classical” education. There are many institutions around that claim to administer this type of education. Further research into these schools will reveal one thing: there is no general consensus on what a “classical” education is. Because of this, I will explain how Twin Peaks Charter Academy defines it. A classical education is three things: the Great Books, the trivium, and character education In other words: great works, great teaching, and great character.

Classical Education Is About Great Works.

When I ask people what comes to mind when I say the word “classical,” many respond with “old” or “music.” This is correct and is part of what TPCA will do, however it is incomplete and needs further explanation. Classical education does involve old things such as the ancient Greeks and it will also include studying classical music, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Twin Peaks Charter Academy will also study many “old” books and people, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, Plutarch, and Thucydides. These historic books and characters are chosen not only because they are old, but because they have withstood the test of time. These are the great books and authors of the ages. They are the great works because they give insight into our heritage, into ourselves, and into our souls.

Classical education also involves studying primary sources. For example, if you wanted to study the U.S. Constitution, you could either study the Constitution itself or study what others say about the Constitution. Many schools today choose to take the second option. Many schools feel that the Constitution itself it too difficult for the students to learn so instead they look to an expert who supposedly knows something about the Constitution. TPCA feels that students are capable of amazing things when given the opportunity. Reading the Constitution is one of those things. We prefer to read the original source documents when possible so that they understand what the author truly intended, without passing through the lens of another person.  

Sir Isaac Newton once wrote to his rival Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” He understands that he has contributed a great deal to the scientific community; however, he understands that he only did so by understanding the works of those before him. The works of Galileo, Descartes, and Copernicus paved the road for him. Like Newton, students learn greatness by surrounding themselves with great people. Who better to surround students with than some of the greatest of all time: Odysseus, Socrates, Euclid, Plato, Melville, Orwell, Vergil, Milton, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Conrad, to name a few.  

Classical Education Is About Great Teaching.

The trivium is a classical method of educating meaning the three ways or the three paths. It is the beginning of the seven liberal arts which consists of the trivium and the quadrivium. The three ways the trivium refers to are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This method of education began thousands of years ago by the Greeks but wasn’t referred to as the trivium until the Middle Ages. The medievalists studied grammar, which was Latin, in order to understand the structure of language. Then the student learned how to use the language so as to make accurate statements, construct logic arguments, and detect slip-shod reasoning. This is the logic stage often referred to as the dialectic stage. The student would then learn how to communicate elegantly and convincingly in the rhetoric stage.

This model of learning is not bound to language and may be applied to all areas of learning. First, let us change the wording a bit from grammar, logic, and rhetoric to facts, critical thinking, and communication. In order to learn anything, one must learn the fundamental structure in order to be able to understand the subject. These facts are what need to be agreed upon to build our foundation. Next, we take those facts and infer something that was not previously known. When the student has completed an adequate amount of logical thoughts, the student needs to artfully articulate what the student has learned in a persuasive manner. For example, when young children learn mathematics, they most definitely need to learn the facts of the addition table. They will need to know that two plus five is equal to seven. No one will argue this! Once a student has mastered these facts the teacher can ask a logic question, “Three plus what will equal eleven?” The student needs to work through his addition facts to find this solution. Some will be able to recognize that the answer is eight by mere recollection. If this is the case, we need to understand that this is not logic thought, but mere remembrance of the facts. We will then need to ask a more challenging question. Still, many students will not rely on recollection; many will need to logically envision three objects and add objects until there are eleven objects total while keeping track of how many were added. This exercise leads the student to knowing something that was not previously known. The student has engaged in logic stage, which is the difference between remembering and critical-thinking. The student should repeat this exercise many times to learn the art of learning. Finally, the student needs to communicate what was learned. The student should be able to eloquently express himself such that the reader will be able to follow from first facts to conclusion.

Classical Education Is About Great Character.

Academic success is not guaranteed at any institution. It is something that requires hard work, perseverance, and determination. At times, the learning process may be painful and frustrating.  This is a good thing. Socrates draws an analogy between teacher and midwife; the midwife is only present to attend to the birth. The person giving birth is experiencing the pains of labor but the fruits of her labor are well worth the discomfort. As teachers, we would be wise to follow Socrates’ example. Teachers are present to attend to the birth of the students’ ideas. They guide and give advice when necessary but the pains of learning are to be part of the educational experience. This experience is often uncomfortable to endure and to observe. However, it is an opportunity to build character. We don’t want our students to quit whenever the situation becomes difficult. We must instill to them that they have much to gain from hardship. We must use education as a tool for students to develop admirable characteristics.

As crucial and essential as diligent work ethics are, moral integrity is more vital. A person may work hard to be a great criminal. It is important that students also strive to carry out good actions. Instead of waiting for students to be in compromising positions, challenging questions should be asked to prepare students for these situations. A classical education engages in books and discussions that train students to act with great character even while others around them do not. Students will have thought about what to do when their peers are not acting with honor. If their friends are defacing public property, appropriate discussions about the heinous nature of this act will supply the suitable defense for the student. Perseverance and determination are good only if they are working toward a moral end.

As definitions of classical vary from institution to institution, Twin Peaks Charter Academy has defined it as great works based on the Great Books, great teaching founded on the trivium, and great character supported by our core virtues. TPCA will take the works of the western world to surround the students with magnanimous characters to ensure they have the finest models to follow. We will impart the knowledge with a time tested method of the trivium from the ancient Greeks and Romans with the purpose of making morally conscientious citizens. We invite you to join us in this endeavor.

David Yu

Interim 6-12 Principal