Classical vs. Neoclassical Education

If you’ve been around the homeschooling world for a while, you’ve no doubt heard about classical education (CE). Known for its academic rigor, the classical method provides a liberal arts education that emphasizes strong language skills and a solid grounding in literature and history.

Most classical homeschoolers follow the method outlined in The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, a must-read guide to this style of home education. Now in its fourth edition, TWTM gives both an overview of the method and detailed curriculum recommendations.

Yet you’ll sometimes hear people say that TWTM isn’t really classical, and I am one of those people. SWB herself refers to her method as “neoclassical,” and I think this is a more accurate description. I’d like to explain my unpopular opinion with a little trip through educational history, and hopefully help readers new to classical education gain some perspective on the labels they’ll encounter.

Classical education’s historical roots lie in ancient Greece and Rome, and many CE advocates point to ancient writers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian as influences on the method. CE was codified in the European Middle Ages as consisting of two parts: the Trivium (“three ways” or “three roads”) and the Quadrivium (“four ways/roads”). The Trivium represented the classical language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, while the Quadrivium encompassed the science of number, including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Taken together, these seven subjects comprised the Liberal Arts, or the skills appropriate to free persons. (In the ancient world, “free persons” meant those who did not have to work for a living, that is, upper-class men, the “1%” of their day. The term “liberal arts” has also been interpreted to mean the “freeing” arts, or those intellectual skills that enable independent and critical thought.)

The classical liberal arts formed the basis of all education in Europe from the Middle Ages until at least the middle of the 19th century. It consisted of an education in and through the classical languages of the ancient Mediterranean: Latin and Greek. In other words, it focused on the subjects that today we would find in a university Classics department. A typical example of the classical curriculum at its height was the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum. When Ben Jonson razzed Shakespeare about having “small Latin and less Greek,” he was referring to the Bard’s lack of a “proper” classical education.

The classical curriculum, with its narrow focus on the languages, literatures, and histories of ancient Greece and Rome, began to fall out of favor in the second half of the 19th century, as its core subjects were displaced by the natural sciences, modern languages, and national histories and literatures. By the early decades of the 20th century, advocates of CE were writing impassioned defenses of the method, but the educational establishment of the day had little time for the classics. By the end of World War II, CE was all but dead at the pre-tertiary level.

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers, one of the first female graduates of Oxford and best known as a novelist, translator, and Christian apologist, was asked to give a talk at a summer teachers’ institute at the University. The title of her talk was “The Lost Tools of Learning,” and in it, she outlined an innovative approach to education based on the Trivium. Sayers had been educated in the classical tradition herself, but she did not refer to her approach as “classical.” Rather, she proposed what she called a neo-medieval curriculum that applied the traditional classical subjects of Grammar, Logic or Dialectic, and Rhetoric to the stages of a child’s intellectual development. The grammar stage—or “Poll-Parrot Stage,” as Sayers called it—was the period in childhood when children memorized easily, so Sayers suggested that memory work of all sorts should be emphasized during that phase. The logic stage, covering roughly the early teen years, was characterized by a tendency toward contentiousness, and Sayers’ plan was to tame and channel that natural impulse with instruction in formal logic and debate (dialectic). The rhetoric stage favored self-expression and was, in Sayers’ view, the perfect time to work on the art of persuasion in speech and writing.

Sayers, by her own admission, had little teaching experience. Her ideas, while intriguing, were not what we would today call “evidence-based.” Apparently, the only evidence she had for them was the example of her own childhood, and by all accounts she was anything but an average child. In other words, her proposal was purely theoretical, and it made no impression on the educational establishment of her day.

In fact, her talk lay unnoticed until the 1970s, when an American conservative news magazine, National Review, reprinted it. Sayers’ ideas struck a chord with one reader, an evangelical pastor named Douglas Wilson. Wilson went on to publish books and found a school based on the Sayers Trivium model, which he rebranded as “Christian classical education” (CCE). This is the source of the educational model we find in The Well-Trained Mind (albeit it in secularized form), and the reason that it is called “classical” rather than “neo-medieval,” as Sayers would have described it.

Today most homeschoolers turn to TWTM for its clear, detailed, and thorough descriptions of how to provide an academically rigorous education. I recommend it regularly to new and seasoned homeschoolers alike. But I always remind people that it diverges from what “classical education” meant for centuries and still means in Europe. It suggests but does not insist on Latin, let alone Greek. It makes a four-year history cycle the organizing principle of the curriculum, an idea that seems to be original to Susan Wise Bauer; it certainly has no precedent that I have found in the history of  classical education. (It is possible that it was borrowed, along with many of TWTM’s literature recommendations, from the programs of Great Books colleges like St. John’s.) It does emphasize the study of (English) grammar and encourages a course in formal logic in middle school (several years earlier than Sayers suggests). Bauer’s outstanding writing curriculum, the Complete Writer series, promises to integrate principles of rhetoric in its high school levels.

It is perhaps inevitable that classical education would evolve into a rigorous, modern, college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum like the one described in TWTM. Even companies that once championed classical education’s traditionally narrow focus, like Memoria Press, have expanded their offerings to include the full range of modern school subjects. This is all to the good, as it would be a rare child indeed who would thrive on an intellectual diet consisting only of Latin and math. (Not to mention the potential issues with such a limited curriculum in states where homeschooling plans require approval from the local superintendent or education department.)

I would still reserve the term classical education, without prefixes or modifiers, for curricula like that  found in the Jesuit Ratio. Curricula based on Sayers’ ideas have come to be called neoclassical, which is perhaps the best one can hope for. Curricula that center Latin but add in modern subjects are often called traditional classical, but like TWTM, represent a significant shift away from the historical meaning of the term and toward a modern reinterpretation of it.

Copyright 2021 by Andrew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.

Andrew Campbell is the author of The Latin-Centered Curriculum, Living Memory, and I Speak Latin. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.