What About Classical Education?

A growing number of Catholic schools around the country are embracing classical education as an excellent, time-tested way to fulfill the goals of Catholic education.  Catholic classical education leads students to Christ by immersing them in the riches of the civilization His gospel inspired, and by guiding them in the development of the theological, intellectual, and moral virtues.  The classical liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric give students the interior tools to benefit from the best that has been said and written, to avoid being manipulated by the subtle use of words and images, and to lead others to love and live the truth.  The classical approach integrates the curriculum and the life of the school, cultivating all that is truly human in each student and fostering a community of faith-filled learners.

[Education] is to give strength and preparation for the whole life.  It is then that habits, principles and tastes, that fix the colour of succeeding years, are to be formed.  Then are the victories to be achiev- ed over the temper and disposition, over the temptations from within and from without, that make the man master of himself through life.  Patience in investigation, accuracy of research, perseverance in labour, resolution to conquer difficulty, zeal in the cause of learning and virtue, are then to be acquired.  Then is Science to display her charms, and Literature, her delights, and a refined and exalted taste to lure him, by high gratifications, from the vain pleasures of the world.  Then is he to be made familiar with the sages and heroes of antiquity, to catch the inspiration of their genius and their virtue, and the great and the good of every age and of every land are to be made his associates, his instructors, his examples.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                           – Francis Scott Key 

The revival of classical education truly has been a grassroots movement that has included secular as well as non-Catholic Christian schools and homeschools.  Many remarkable, reflective individuals have been inspired by looking back at the education of the past – Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and Christian –  and have been inventive in finding new ways to bring its blessings to today’s schools.  They have come up with many related but different accounts to guide themselves and explain to others what they are doing.

The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has been involved in this same movement from the Church’s perspective, and has advised schools from around the United States and other parts of the world.  From this experience, we have drawn common factors which seem to capture the heart of the classical movement.  We present these, not as the definitive explanation of what classical education was or is, but as a helpful framework for those entering one of the most promising movements in education today.

Catholic classical education begins with a conviction that Christian civilization – which had its roots in the Hebrew world, was defined by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and His disciples, and integrated the riches of Greco-Roman civilization – is full of truth, beauty, and goodness.  Today’s ordinary education ignores this inheritance.  Catholic classical educators immerse students in the Church’s 2,000-year-old history and culture.  They seek to form graduates and faculty who have been nourished, inspired, and equipped by their inheritance so they may promote the message of the Gospel in our own time.

Classical educators also believe that we should learn the importance of formation in virtue from our predecessors. Traditionally, education was much less concerned with training and much more concerned with developing the moral, intellectual, and theological virtues.  These virtues aim to perfect all the powers of the human person, from observation and memory to reasoning and expression.  Awakening wonder —  a sense of awe before all that is true, good, and beautiful — begins to affect the soul of the learner.  Wonder leads to questions that uncover the meaning of things both visible and invisible.

Classical educators realize that all the areas of the curriculum — religion, literature, history, math, science, music, language, art — contribute to awakening wonder, encountering wisdom, and developing virtue.  Curricular decisions must be made according to this common goal, and not simply according to the dictates of individual disciplines. Methods of instruction are designed for active, not passive, learning.

Classical education believes that students should master the arts of language known as the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), because they are the tools of clear thinking and powerful expression.  These tools train the young for leadership in service to their communities.  Classical education often includes Latin because it develops a deeper understanding of the structure of all languages, and because it is the universal language of the Roman Church as well as one of the primary languages of classical civilization.

Classical education also tries to preserve the spirit of the Quadrivium, seeing in the mathematical and scientific disciplines first and foremost an opportunity to make an encounter with Truth accessible to the young mind and to form the specifically human power of reasoning.

Classical education, through the seven liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium as well as the sciences, lays the groundwork for the wisdom studies of philosophy and theology, which draw on all learning to address the highest questions of man, nature, history, and God.

The fruit of classical education is experienced within the schools themselves.  Their common traditions and common loves make them authentic communities rejoicing in the Truth.  Graduates are truly prepared for 21st century leadership, being grounded in the wisdom of the past, attentive to the reality of the present, and primed to innovate for the future.

Frequently Asked Questions


Is it Catholic? 

Classical education, when ordered toward Christ, superabundantly fulfills the benchmarks for Catholic education found in The Holy See’s Teachings on Catholic Schools.

Is classical education elitist?

Classical educators believe that all students, whatever their ethnic or economic situation, should have the chance to be inspired by truth, goodness, and beauty.  Every student can benefit from this approach to learning, because it corresponds to the way human beings are made.  Even those with learning difficulties find much to fascinate them and help them develop their God-given gifts.

Is it anti-modern?

Classical education is not anti-modern, but it does recognize that modern education and the modern world suffer from a fragmentation and incoherence that often make the real goods of modern life a source of indifference and even despair for youth.  The wisdom found in the past can help today’s student comprehend the present and make prudent decisions for the future.

Is it anti-technology?

Classical educators are convinced that technology can be used well, but cannot provide wisdom.