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2019 Dec

A Foundation for Learning

What is classical education and how can it help my child?

As parents, we want the best education for our children. But what is the best way to achieve this? To answer, we must consider two questions. First, what is the purpose of a human being? Second, what is the purpose of life?

The ancient Greeks believed the purpose of education is to cultivate virtue and excellence in young people, in order to live a life of happiness. In the past century, there has been a fundamental shift in education—public and private—away from cultivating virtue and toward a decidedly utilitarian outcome.

As a result, most schools focus instead on SOLs, standardized tests, and accreditation. As Dorothy Sayers famously stated, “We are teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ but we fail lamentably…in teaching them how to think: they learn everything except the art of learning.”

Classical Education is Time-Tested

It Teaches Children How To Learn


The term “classical” evokes something that stands the test of time and sets a standard of excellence. We refer to classic cars, classic music, and classic literature. Classical education is the model by which history’s greatest minds were educated and was the predominant method in the United States before compulsory public education in the 19th century. There are varying models of classical education today, but they are similar in philosophy, methodology and content.

Classical education begins with a high view of what it means to be human: that we are here for a purpose and that there are objective standards of truth, goodness, and beauty. The aim is to nurture the humanity of our children while inspiring them to lead rich, more thoughtful, and virtuous lives.

Rooted in the liberal arts and sciences (liberal, from the Latin, liber, meaning “free” or independent), classical education emphasizes the centrality of the Western heritage and the Judeo-Christian tradition. This includes reading Great Books of the western canon, allowing students to participate in what Mortimer Adler called “The Great Conversation.”

Classical education is based in the medieval framework of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). These were the seven liberal arts of a classical education. Grammar, the nature of a subject; logic, that of thought; and rhetoric, that of artful persuasion. Today, the trivium is aligned with a child’s natural developmental stages, each building on the other. This teaches children how to learn while instilling a lifelong love of learning.

Knowledge-Centered Approach

Sets the Stage for Excellence

1219 Foundations3web

As opposed to the modern “student-centered” approach, classical education is knowledge-centered. Using traditional methods and integrating concepts across disciplines, teachers share wisdom and pursue the ideal rather than the individual appetites of students.

Literacy is taught through instruction in explicit phonics and cursive writing because of the well-documented cognitive benefits. Teachers do not over rely on technology. Calculators and other electronic devices are allowed only after mastery of arithmetic. Dictionaries are commonplace. There is no guesswork such as “inferring from context” before a proper mastery of the English language.

Latin is introduced as early as first grade because over 60 percent of the English language is derived from Latin. A strong foundation in Latin improves literacy and enriches understanding in math and science.

Classical education disciplines the mind to a higher order of thinking and allows students to compete in, what George Washington called, the “arena of ideas.” It creates a wise and virtuous citizenry who know their history so deeply they can apply the lessons of the past to solve contemporary problems.

A natural by-product of a classical education is that students do extremely well on national aptitude and college entrance exams, typically scoring in the top 10-15 percent.

Perhaps the greatest benefit is that students take a long view of life, looking backward to their ancestors and forward to their posterity. The Greek philosopher Plato likened education to the blueprint of a ship that will guide children best through the voyage of life.

Today there is a movement in America and in Hampton Roads to return to the great classical tradition—a time-tested, proven approach that prepares children for excellence in their voyage through life.

P. A. Gist is founder and director of Hampton Roads Classical Academy, a full-time classical school opening in the Carrollton / northern Suffolk area in the fall of 2020. For more information, email info@hamptonroadsclassical.org or call 757-285-2024.

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