There is a consensus that the educational system in the United States is failing, but people argue whether modern teaching or classical education can better approach the problems besetting it. Although many goals are similar, the two theories differ widely in their approach to educating children. Additionally, the two views of education seem to polarize adherents into the modernist camp and the classic camp characterized by Judeo-Christian academies and homeschooling.
Classical Education Defined
This type of instruction dates back to the Egyptians and finds some of its highest traditions in the Greek methods of instruction. Simply put, it is a method of teaching based on the view that people have "the divine spark," or that they are made in the "Divine Image," and should be guided to their highest potential of wisdom and virtue. This is accomplished by exposing students to fine art and literature as well as classic philosophy in addition to the sciences. Today this type of instruction is found primarily in religious schools and in the homeschooling movement.
See our ranking of the 30 Best Small Colleges for a Classical Education.
How it Functions
Classical educators teach the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and the Quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music). According to the Circe Institute, music is taught because it is seen as the "door between the physical and the spiritual." The classical educator believes that when students listen to "mathematically sound" musical compositions, the order of mathematics "sings to the soul in a way that doesn't need to pass through the understanding." That doesn't mean that classically-educated students don't learn math principles, it only means that they are taught the underlying concept that math is a tool divinely used to construct the universe.
Students learn the natural sciences of biology, chemistry, and physics because all science rests upon these three. Biology is the understanding of why beings exist and why they change. Physics is the understanding of the forces that bring about that change. Chemistry is the examination of the elements that make up living things. Classical teaching also involves the human sciences of ethics and politics that are human behavior and the soul. Students learn from the philosophical and theological sciences. Two kinds of teaching methods are used: the mimetic which involves lecture and imitation, and Socratic which involves deep scrutiny and logical thought.
Differences from Modern Education
Modern education is student-centered, and technology-driven, allowing students to "teach one another" through learning groups and cohort methods. The goal is to produce an individual who can function in a highly technical and evidence-based environment. Although it is student-centered, there is less attention to the individual and more focus on "common core" goals. Classic instruction is teacher-centric in that an instructor guides regimented learning instead of acting as a facilitator for cohort discovery groups. The method focuses on the potential of individuals to nurture the "divine spark" that each has, and to reach the highest possible point of wisdom and virtue within their abilities. One of the things that separates the two thoughts is the down-to-earth matter of textbooks. There are few produced for the classic camp because the market is not as great as for the modern technical books. Classic learning employs fine art and literature as well as current curriculum materials.
Although most people agree that modern education in the United States is failing, fewer people know how to address the problem. America's students seem to be falling behind others in many fields worldwide. Approaches to the deficiency have included traditional education, Montessori and now classical education to prepare American students to compete on a global platform.
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