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What is Classical Education?

Old School is the New School

We live in an age when what is practical and useful takes precedence over what is timeless and virtuous. Until the early part of the twentieth century, most Americans were educated classically. American students were exposed to the best of literature, music, art, and thinking that Western civilization offered. Consequently, this classical method of thinking shaped the modern world’s system of government, religion, medicine, and education.

Classical educators endeavored to train students who were going to “be” someone rather than to “do” something.  When America was founded, the average person could quote from the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer, or Virgil with confidence and had a deep appreciation for learning and ideas.  Latin was commonly studied, since its virtues were understood not only as a basis for all Romantic languages but also as an effective tool for teaching logical and precise thinking.

Fortis offers a classical education that is traditional, time-tested, and intellectually rigorous. Often “Classical” is misconstrued as education that is limited to the study of Latin, Greek, and antiquated approaches to learning. In 1947, Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, wrote The Lost Tools of Learning. In this catalytic work, she bemoaned the loss of classical education and its virtues of depth and substance in inspiring young minds. Her writing served as a call to many educators to reconsider classical education. Currently, classical schools are forming around the world, in both rural and urban settings, with dramatic results. Classical education works even in contemporary society with its manifold (and often contradictory) sources of information and its fast-paced, compulsive popular culture.

The Trivium—A Foundation in the Classics

One of the distinctions of classical education is the insistence on presenting students with the great works of Western Civilization—masterpieces that span the fields of art, history, language, philosophy, and literature. Thus, students come to understand the present and gain perspective on the future through knowledge of the past. A classical education is based on great ideas, great books (including primary sources when possible), foundational truths and principles, and enduring traditions and skills. It holds to long-established standards.

These standards are founded on a centuries old pattern of education called the Trivium. The Latin word, “trivium,” means “three roads.” Ancient and medieval education was structured around the Trivium. The three roads of learning consisted of three subjects: grammar, or skill in comprehending the facts; logic, or skill in reasoning out relationships between the facts; and rhetoric, or skill in effective expression and application of the facts and their relationships.

Grammar Stage

Kindergarten and elementary aged students are in the “grammar stage.” They are naturally inclined to absorb the basic knowledge of each subject. For example, core grammar skills include knowledge of dates and events. Math grammar incorporates basic math facts, including hands-on manipulatives and reinforcing of core concepts. Children at this age absorb everything from core academics to jingles on commercials and the names of breakfast cereals. By teaching to “the grain of the child,” a solid foundation of the grammar of both language and math provides the basis for a lifetime of learning.

Logic Stage

By middle school, students move into the “logic stage,” when the question “why?” becomes a common response. At Fortis, logic is formally taught to give a tool to students to enable them to engage ideas and concepts at a higher level. Formal debate takes place as students delve more deeply into various subjects. For example, students discuss the British and American perspectives during the Revolutionary War. Students learn to support conclusions with facts. Students are exposed to the Socratic Method, where questioning leads students to answers and engages them in class discussions.

Rhetoric Stage

High school builds on the first two stages. Students learn to express ideas persuasively through writing and speaking.

A distinction of Fortis’s approach to classical education is the recognition that students develop through all the stages described by Dorothy Sayers. Younger students not only learn facts but also reason. They are expected to write about what they have learned. Older students continue to add new, more complex, factual information to their store of knowledge.

The three stages of the Trivium distinguish education at Fortis from a “progressive” model of education found in most schools today, where the emphasis is on facts and memory work. At Fortis, all courses of study begin with basic information in multiple forms: phonograms, math facts, maps, or butterfly specimens. As students mature, the coursework focuses increasingly on gathering and interpreting information and on the limitation of information and its logical implications. Ultimately, the aim is for students to articulate what they have learned, both orally and in writing.

The Classical Difference

At Fortis, a well-rounded, integrated, sequential curriculum stresses depth and weight in order to nurture students, not simply to entertain them. Because the emphasis is on the classical model, the curriculum is consistent, enabling a teacher to be immersed in content, rather than reinventing the form. One of the hallmarks of classical education is multum non multa, “much, not many.”  Depth over breadth is a refreshing approach in an age of the superficial and the temporary.

Classical education enables students to think critically and logically by evaluating the works of prominent thinkers and artists of the past and present. Teachers encourage students to express themselves creatively in various media forms.  For Fortis students, the goal is to participate knowledgeably and confidently in the scientific and technological issues of the modern world.