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Classical Christian
Classical Education
at Home

Christine Miller

Classical Christian
Homeschooling FAQ:
Changing to Classical Education

This page last revised:
February 2003


Changing to Classical Education

Christine Miller

Practical Implementation

Depending on which educational model someone is changing to classical education from, there will be more or less changes to make. Because of its emphasis on great books, good literature, classical art and music, and grammar lessons for elementary children, the Charlotte Mason method might require the fewest changes. Charlotte Mason taught and developed her methodology at a time in England when standard educational practices were still largely classical in nature. If changing from a form of unschooling, there might be the greatest changes to make. Unschooling, which allows the child to direct his own education, relies on a premise opposite to that of classical education. Classical education asserts that not only does a body of knowledge exist which must be delivered to the next generation, but an optimum order and method for its delivery also exists.

In considering how to make the practical switch to classical education, remember the core of the trivium: the English language: grammar, logic, and rhetoric; Latin or Greek; Mathematics; and Western Civilization. Keeping the core in mind will help keep the most important priorities in view for the curriculum when deciding what to change and what to keep.

If someone has the resources to change out everything in the curriculum to completely follow classical education for the next school year, fine and good. But few homeschoolers are in that position. If that is the case, then change only one or two things at a time. The second year, change another one or two things, while keeping the changes from the first year. And continue on this path, until the curriculum is completely switched over. Initial changes might include:

1) Keeping the same curriculum, but adding drill, memorization, and recitation if in the grammar stage, or discussion if in the dialectic or rhetoric stages;
2) Keeping the same curriculum, but adding Latin, Grammar, Logic, or Rhetoric to the school day;
3) Changing just the English curriculum out to focus on the classical study of grammar, followed by logic, followed by rhetoric in all its aspects;
4) Laying aside reading textbooks to add living books from the 1000 Good Books and 100 Great Books List (study Reading and Literature to learn how to best use these lists);
5) Laying aside social studies texts to study the history of Western Civilization;
6) Laying aside the writing curriculum to focus on copybook and dictation, if in the grammar stage, or systematic sentence, paragraph, and essay writing in the dialectic stage.

Classical Emphasis on Language

Probably the most important subject to change first is a more rigorous and classical study of the English language, as it is core to classical education. Many curricula do not even study English grammar seriously until the secondary years, and that ought to be changed first of all. In the grammar stage, phonics must be learned systematically and scientifically; the spelling curriculum ought to apply phonics to spelling; vocabulary development ought to be an integral part; the curriculum ought to enable mastery of writing mechanics, and sentence diagramming ought to be practiced and mastered. In the dialectic stage, the study of formal logic ought to be an integral part of the English curriculum. In the rhetoric stage, rhetoric and oratory ought to be an integral part of the English curriculum. If an older child is making the switch to classical education and has a poor background in English grammar, then the child needs to study that core subject of classical education as of first importance. It will not necessarily take six years as it would for a six-year-old just starting out. Then he ought to tackle the English language subjects of his own stage, logic and rhetoric, in their turn.

Western Civilization

Next in priority ought to be the classical focus on Western Civilization. This includes, most importantly, history (not social studies), in a chronological study preferably, and with primary sources and “living books” where possible; then the literature of the Christian and Western tradition using the real literature in its whole form, and not a textbook written about it; followed by its science, art, music, and in the higher stages, government, philosophy, economics, and so on.

Classical Mathematics

Is there a classical “way” to teach mathematics? I would say, yes, indeed. It would begin with the supposition that mathematics instruction at the trivium level consists of a series of defined, contained, and knowable sets of facts and skills, which then build upon each other to provide either all the mathematics (and precise and logical thinking patterns) one requires to proceed through daily life as an adult, or the solid foundation for higher math study at the quadrivium level if one aspires to a mathematics or science profession.

This series of defined, contained and knowable sets of facts and skills -- subjects -- begins with arithmetic in the grammar stage. In the dialectic stage, the next rung in the ladder would be algebra, then geometry. In the rhetoric stage as a child individualizes his study, he can either go on to study higher math, if he is interested in a mathematics dependent career; or he can apply the mathematics he has already learned to business, or music, art, furniture building, home construction, or whatever. Another possibility and a fascinating study is the history of mathematics development in Western Civilization.

Mathematics instruction was slower to change from its classical foundation than many other subjects, especially grammar. Most mathematics curricula available to homeschoolers teaches math in a traditional, or classical, way. The new math, or new new math as it is sometimes called, or “fuzzy” math as the President calls it, is not based on the same (biblical) supposition that mathematics study consists of a series of defined, contained, and knowable sets of facts and skills, which build one upon the other. So if using a new, new new, or fuzzy math text like those used in many public schools, plan to change it for a traditional or classical approach as soon as possible.

Incorporating Latin

Now I am going to say something which might surprise some: adding Latin or Greek to a modern-style Prussian education, without changing anything else in the curriculum or the way the curriculum is taught, does not make that education classical. The first primacy of a classical education is a full study of language, with a solid foundation in grammar, built upon with logic, roofed by rhetoric. Adding Latin without addressing any deficiencies in the current English curriculum does not a classical education make. Latin is important; it does help build necessary language and thinking skills, but by itself it is not an end.

So what is the best way to incorporate Latin into the classical curriculum? There are good Latin curricula for every stage, for the grammar stage, the dialectic stage, and the rhetoric stage. (While there are excellent options available for Greek, there are less of them than for Latin.) If someone is beginning classical homeschooling early on, with young children, and can easily begin a grammar stage Latin curriculum, that is best. If someone is switching to a classical education in the middle of homeschooling, or with children of a variety of different ages and grade levels, it is okay to choose a dialectic level Latin curriculum for all the children, and wait to incorporate Latin into the homeschool until each child reaches the appropriate stage for beginning that curriculum.

While Latin is a very important part of a classical education, homeschooling parents can evaluate their own individual situations, curriculum budgets, and children, and decide when to add it to the curriculum without feeling the pressure that it has to be the first thing added to the curriculum, or the education will not be classical. That is not the case.

Some Final Considerations

Classical education ought to, as C. S. Lewis put it, “teach far fewer subjects, and teach them far better.” If someone’s current curriculum consists of twelve or twenty workbooks and textbooks, all dealing with different subjects, then that family may be suffering from the public school nightmare and its attendant problems. While a canned textbook curriculum can be made to serve a classical education, keep in mind that “doing” every text or workbook offered for each grade level does not automatically equate with real education, real learning of vital tools. I believe it to be a hindrance, in fact.

If someone must make a canned curriculum do because of prior investment and expense, then please eliminate half the texts and concentrate on the classical core. Real books must be read, not reading textbooks; real books on a wide variety of topics: literature, fiction, poetry, history, biography, non-fiction, philosophy. Make use of the library (but look for the anti-biblical bias common in many books today; that does not necessarily disqualify it from use, but point it out and discuss why it is anti-biblical) and of inter-library loan. Use the texts as a reference to give the parent the set of facts to be learned, but begin teaching those facts in an interesting way, especially in Western Civilization. Tell the “story” of history, and weave the facts in where appropriate. Make memorization a challenge as part of competitions or games, with rewards and the whole nine yards. Pick up an old poetry book from a yard sale, read the poems outloud to the children, and begin memorizing the best ones and having recitations.

With your teen, begin discussions about the content of his texts; relate it to current events or biblical standards; the point is to get him thinking on his own, evaluating, questioning, and not just passively “doing” the text. Check out real books on the same subject from the library. Use the Internet for additional research. Set aside the writing curriculum and have him write on what he has read: what does he think about it, what caught his attention and why; make moral judgments and explain them, and so on.

Important Links:

The Public School Nightmare by John Taylor Gatto

The Core of Classical Education

Starting with Older Children

On the Use of Real Books in the Elementary Curriculum

On the Use of Real Books in the Secondary Curriculum

The 1000 Good Books List by the CE Loop

The 100 Great Books List by the CE Loop

Learning Latin by the CE Loop

Classical Christian Homeschooling Curriculum

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Starting with Older Children Choosing Classical Curriculum

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