To avoid confusion, let me say at the outset that Acton Academy Northwest Indianapolis is not a classical school. However, there is much we appreciate about classical education, and we recognize that it is growing in popularity. Indeed, there is something appealing about a millennia-old educational approach that is steeped in a rich tradition, particularly so when the values underpinning many schools have changed so dramatically in recent years. In fact, if you’ve found your way to this article, you are probably considering whether a classical education is right for your child. The purpose of this article, then, is to lay out what exactly a classical education is and provide a series of questions for consideration that will help you discern whether it is a good fit for your family.
Let’s first lay the foundation by identifying the key elements of a classical education. In its most basic terms, classical education is structured around the study of the liberal arts and classic books. This means your child would likely be engaging with classics such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, and other classic novels, plays, and works of philosophy. All of this is framed within the classical framework of the liberal arts, which are defined as grammar, logic, rhetoric (known as the trivium, which is the focus of primary education), and arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These latter four comprise the quadrivium. The study of Latin and sometimes Greek is also central to a classical education.
Within the classical construct, there are phases of learning that dictate the kinds of activities that children engage in. The grammar stage is usually K-6 and is understood to be a time when children are primed for memorization. As such, there is a strong emphasis memorization, often through songs or chants. The logic stage is generally grades 7-9 and is a time when students begin to dig into the logic, or the “why,” of things. Finally, the rhetoric stage is when they learn to communicate with style and force, becoming persuasive speakers and writers. Ultimately the goal is to create a well-rounded individual with a strong sense of morality and keen critical thinking skills.
There is much to admire about this framework, particularly the emphasis on critical thinking and character. As a culture we are desperate for keen, critical thinkers capable of conversing beyond the confines of 240-character shouts and the strawman arguments they employ — for people who are able to disagree thoughtfully and to offer compelling, yet respectful argumentation that can advance a conversation, rather than lock oneself in an echo chamber of social media and vilify those with differing viewpoints.
By placing this virtue at the front and center of its paradigm, classical education separates itself from the vast majority of educational systems, many of which do not stress this skill. This alone has been a large source of its resurgence in popularity.
However, there are other aspects that families considering a classical education should carefully consider to determine whether classical education in its totality – and not just its emphasis on critical thinking – is right for them.
First is the emphasis on memorization. The classical paradigm holds that the brain is primed to memorize during elementary years and to unpack the logic behind these memorized facts later in life. This means that children will often memorize things well before they have a context for understanding them. Will you be comfortable with this if they are memorizing, for example, the quadratic formula years before they know how to use it?
More foundationally, though, you’ll also need ask is how much you value memorization in general. Some families place high value on memorization while others have concluded that with any fact now a mere tap of the phone away, memorizing facts has become less critical than learning how to make sense of them. Even if you do value memorization, you’ll need to consider whether you feel this approach will reduce your child’s opportunities to grow in critical thinking and agency at an early age, particularly if the memorization work comes at the expense of hands-on projects and exploratory activities that cultivate higher orders of thinking and a love for learning. Classical schools range in their approach to this dynamic, so you’ll need to get a sense for the specific program you are considering.
The next thing you’ll need to consider is the role of classic works of literature in your child’s educational experience. Undoubtedly, there is benefit to reading these works, but it is important to consider whether requiring them of children, especially if they aren’t ready to tackle them, could produce resistance and avoidance capable of eroding their love for reading and learning more generally. If a vivacious love of learning and lifelong curiosity are high priorities for you, this is an important question to consider.
It’s also important to consider the rigidity of a classical education. Within many classical structures, there is little room for a child to explore his/her own curiosities and passions. Some families are not concerned by this and prefer for their child to progress through a tightly mandated curriculum. Others, however, prefer a bit more breathing room to allow children to pursue a topic of unique interest. You’ll need to figure out where you fall on this spectrum and align it with the approach of the school you are considering.
Lastly, embarking on a classical education also requires a strong commitment. Because the structure is set up such that different levels of learning are phased in throughout a child’s educational path, it is can be disruptive if a child enters or exits a classical program without completing the other levels. So if you are considering classical, it is best to think about it as a long-term investment that will ultimately be fulfilled as your child completes the final stage of the classical construct.
In the end, classical education has much to be admired, and it is undoubtedly the right fit for many families. We at Acton Academy Northwest Indianapolis share its emphasis on critical thinking and its use of the Socratic method. We differ in many other areas, however, opting instead for a paradigm that stresses that children are capable of far more than we could ever imagine and seeking to emphasize critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and autonomy at an early age, all within a context that cultivates a love of learning and the joy of curious exploration.
If you’re interested in exploring these principles further, we’d recommend the following: