Recapturing the Educational Approach of the Past

Classical & Christian Education:

Recapturing the Educational Approach of the Past

by Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.


The Future of the Past

Reflecting upon a basic college preparatory education of just a few hundred years ago can be a little overwhelming. Jonathan Edwards grew up to become one of America’s greatest theologians and philosophers, but his education was not uncommon for those in his circle. His father schooled him in the “basics,” and these basics enabled him to enter Yale in 1716, before he was thirteen, with a thorough knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Just the language entrance requirements for those starting college barely resemble the present-day exit requirements for a typical liberal arts Ph.D. degree. Edwards himself was a key preacher in the Great Awakening and later became president of Princeton. He had a profound effect on those who came after him. Among his direct descendants are found three college presidents, sixty-five professors, one hundred lawyers, thirty-three judges, sixty-six physicians, three senators, three governors, and one Vice President.


One can hardly think of education in the past without being impressed with learning and academic skills that far exceed our own. Pick up any book written before this century, and it will be a challenge to the ordinary college graduate because of the eloquence of style, complexity of sentence structure, and vocabulary. Even the common letters of the literate “uneducated” in the last century stand out as supremely elegant.


Looking at such individuals is especially impressive to those of us who have suffered from our current educational malnutrition. There’s still hope. We wish more for our children in education than we have known. Looking at past educational standards and achievements reminds us that we have some serious catching up to do.


The roots of classical education stretch back to the classical Greek civilization, just prior to Christ. The methods matured during the Western Christian era, the Middle Ages and came to full flowering in the Renaissance. Though universal literacy was not an educational goal in medieval Europe, the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s provided a great impetus for learning throughout middle and even lower classes with its emphasis on knowing Scripture. As a result, a very high view of education prevailed and spread throughout the Western world.


This high view of the tools of learning spread to the New World, too. Those who originally settled America were second and third generation Reformation. It’s not surprising, then, that the very first educational act in colonial America in 1647 was aimed at teaching all “children . . . to write and read,” so they could gain the “knowledge of the Scriptures.” It was also ordered that in towns of a certain size there should be “set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university.”


Since the early 1990's, the rising movement of “classical and Christian education” has aimed to recover and develop some of the educational excellence of the past. It aims to shake the dust off many of the forgotten methods and subjects that were central to education, not just in Jonathan Edwards’ time, but throughout the development of Western culture. The classical and Christian approach to education is about equipping children for the future with what has been successful in the past. In short, classical and Christian education is about getting back to the future.

Now even the most zealous fan of our public/government education system must admit its dismal failure in the light of moral break-downs, soaring illiteracy rates, and declining test scores. American public/government high schools are graduating thousands who are functionally illiterate, to say nothing of religious and cultural illiteracy. Not counting the serious epidemic of violence, our government schools are preparing us for utter failure as a nation. And all of this failure comes with more funds, facilities, and faculty than ever before. Consider the sobering words of the famous government education report, “A Nation at Risk” (1983): “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”


Learning to Learn

Though classical and Christian education desires to recover the past paths, it certainly doesn’t seek to discard everything about contemporary education. It’s not calling for a return to a one-room school house where all good students must fetch well water and chop fire wood. It’s not necessary to throw out all the computers and go back to chalk slates. A classical approach focuses on the time-honored “tools of learning.” This phrase comes from Oxford writer Dorothy Sayers’ watershed 1947 article, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” It emphasizes the goal of giving our children the educational tools to both learn and think for themselves.


It is unfortunate that college education departments are, for the most part, arming teachers with everything new under the sun—except what has been proven. We hear much about “critical thinking skills,” but critical learning skills must precede critical thinking skills. In the process of teaching graduate courses in education, I have heard many graduate students promote a new and improved method without the faintest notion of what has proven to produce both learning skills and thinking skills for millennia.


As a viable alternative to what is currently being served in the education buffet, the classical emphasis is grounded on the three-fold approach to the tools of learning called the trivium. Now trivium is probably not a word we use at the breakfast table. Unlike other educational views, the value of the trivium is self-evident in its simplicity.


The trivium is shorthand for the three foundational academic categories: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (see below). But it doesn’t stop there. These three categories of education suggest three other lines of practice, three other educational functions. Simply put, the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric suggest (1) an approach to learning (2) an approach to subjects, and (3) a set of subjects.



A Set of Subjects

An Approach to Subjects

An Approach to Students



Knowledge Mastery


“Poll-Parrot” Stage



Principle Comprehension

Jr. High

“Pert” Stage



Expression and Application

Senior High

“Poetic” Stage


(1) The trivium is an approach to learning. It corresponds to three basic, progressing stages in the development of a child: from kindergarten through about the sixth grade is the grammar stage; the junior high years (seventh through ninth grade) are the dialectic, or logic, stage; and the high school years (tenth through twelfth) are the rhetoric stage.


In the grammar stage, children’s minds are like sponges. They soak up information and absorb facts, facts, and more facts. Contrary to the modern disdain for it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an emphasis on knowing by heart and mastering important information during this stage of learning. Whereas it is dull and laborious later, young children can easily retain information and love to display their mastery of it. In fact, I believe it could be proven that by mastering the processes of memorization and recitation of knowledge at this (the grammar) level, understanding and formal capacities of complex reasoning are later strengthened. For example, imagine having skill at advanced mathematics or algebra without first learning the simple sums or the multiplication table. Mastering the facts gives one the foundation of further understanding. This is common, “classical” sense.


During the dialectic stage the student’s capacity for formal reasoning develops. So why not stick the peg where it fits? This is the stage when learning facts is not enough. Questioning and arguing is commonplace, and often even a nuisance. Children reaching this age are eager to challenge ideas and exercise their newly developing reasoning abilities. Learning formal logic and the correct methods of reasoning fit in this stage like hand-in-glove. Logic, as a subject, matches the structure of their developing minds. Amazingly, classical and Christian schools have been quite successful in teaching college level logic to eighth graders (including formal syllogisms, fallacies, truth tables, and digital logic)!


Finally, during the rhetoric stage, when students in their teen years begin to be concerned (to a fault) about self expression and appearance, why not teach them the art of rhetoric—the skills of wise and effective presentation in language? Rhetorical skill is the culmination of the process of learning. It brings knowledge and understanding together to be expressed in a wise, persuasive form.


The capacities of children naturally develop through the grammar stage, the dialectic stage, and the rhetoric stage. As Dorothy Sayers comments, we are “teaching with the grain” when our educational approach follows this outline. In biblical terms, the trivium can be seen as an expression of the development of knowledge to understanding to wisdom (cf. Prov. 2:6, 9:10, Dan. 1:4, 2:21, and Col. 1:9).


(2) The trivium is an approach to each subject.. The trivium not only lays out the stages of learning, it is a way to break down a subject of study for full digestion. Every subject has aspects of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. For example, when we study a subject such as American history, we must first grasp the grammar level, including the “facts”—like a knowledge of important dates, key people, major events, etc. Then we must go beyond just the knowledge of such grammar-level facts and learn things like the motivations for the discovery of America, the taxation debate, religious influence in the colonies, the economic forces in the Civil War, the ideological differences of the North and South, etc.—this is part of the dialectic or logic of American history. The final goal of our study, however, is the expression and application of American history—effective, clear, and wise discernment on national and political views, civil responsibilities, and a recognition and evaluation of the problems in our nation’s future. We want those fully educated to have a mastery of more than the facts. We want good students to know the underlying principles and concepts through which they are equipped to apply and evaluate issues that arise in all of life.


(3) The trivium is a set of subjects. As a set of subjects, the trivium has traditionally included Latin as part of the grammar component, logic as part of the dialectic component, and rhetoric (the art of speaking/writing clearly and cogently) as part, obviously, of the rhetoric component. This set of subjects may be the most crucial aspect of the tools of learning and probably the hardest pill to swallow, too.


The first question often asked is, “Why Latin?—it’s a dead language.” It is true that Latin is not the only language which would do a good job of imparting the tools of learning. Other good languages could be Greek or Russian. The reason these languages work well is because they are inflective languages, that is, the root remains the same while the alternate endings dictate who is carrying out the action. The different endings indicate different grammatical uses. For example (now for our Latin lesson), in Latin voco means “I call.” Vocas means “you call.” Vocat means “he/she/it calls”. Vocamus means “we call.” Vocatis means “you (plural) call.” Vocant means “they call.”





1st Person

voco (I call)

vocamus (we call)

2nd Person

vocas (you call)

vocatis (you call)

3rd Person

vocat (he/she/it calls)

vocant (they call)


Because the endings change, students must learn the form of the endings by heart and carefully analyze the components of each word in a sentence. So, not only are the meanings of words important in learning how to learn, but learning Latin rehearses many analytical skills. These tools of learning transfer to many other areas, including scientific and literary study.

Why Latin over other inflective languages, you ask? At least three reasons can be given: (a) Unlike other such languages, Latin uses our alphabet (or rather we use the Roman/Latin alphabet). Any American who looks at the Greek abcdefg or Russian abcdefg alphabets can see an immediate advantage to Latin’s “A, B, C’s,” et al.


(b) About 50% of our English words come from Latin. This makes Latin very practical in gaining a mastery of English word meanings. What is more, only one Latin word might be the basis for five or ten English words. Take voco (I call): vocal, revoke, invoke, irrevocable, provoke, vocation, advocate, invocation, convocation, equivocation, vociferous, and vocabulary. Just think how many dreaded vocabulary tests would be required to learn all these words. And with one simple Latin root the whole list can be decoded.


Of course, we are not talking about just any old 50% of our words. These are the “power words” of our language—the words of professional fields such as law and medicine, not to mention the connections to the highest literature and art of our culture. It has been estimated that for every year one studies Latin, 500 to 1000 new English words are gained. And it goes without saying that choice words and colorful speech give students an advantage in the workplace, as well as the classroom.


(c) Because of this, as a matter of educational statistics, students who have taken Latin score higher than students of other foreign languages on standardized tests. According to Richard A. LaFleur, Franklin Professor and Head of Classics, University of Georgia, “The mean Verbal SAT score for students in 1999 was 505; the mean SAT verbal score for students who took the SAT II Latin test was 662, 157 points higher” (College-Bound Seniors booklet published by the College Board).


Now I suppose we could sneak in a fourth (d) reason for those who want their children to know modern foreign languages, like Spanish or French. Namely, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish are Romance languages. All these are derived from the medieval Roman language, Latin, spoken in areas of Europe throughout the Western Christian era. The vocabulary and grammar overlap significantly. Perhaps as much as 80% of the vocabulary is Latin-based. And as Latinists will stand to testify, once the foundation of Latin is laid, other languages are much easier.


The folly of so much of what passes as educational research is evident when we see how much it conflicts with the basic stages of development. A public school teacher once told me about the latest greatest method her school adopted to re-educate her illiterate third graders. The chief feature was to use collaboration groups in which the teacher looks on as the children discuss and interpret the story. (Apparently, the story had to be read to them as they viewed the pictures.) Of course, since this approach was developed and “researched” by a prestigious university, the teacher was certain that it would revolutionize the school and reverse the trend of upper elementary school illiteracy. While acknowledging this teacher’s noble motives, we must ask—Why invent educational methods which contradict child development? At a time when elementary-aged children can memorize and recall with ease, such fanciful methodologies depend on their capacity to express, discuss, interpret, and evaluate. Unfortunately, through state university educational research, our hard-earned tax dollars are used to raise a generation of “guinea-kids” for a “new and improved” educational snake oil.


The trivium, as an educational framework, is a proven way to accomplish a better education. In the same way that phonics is the time-tested method of teaching reading, the trivium is the proven method of imparting the tools of learning. What phonics is to reading, the trivium is to all of education (those unfamiliar with the phonics debate should see the classic treatment by Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read [New York: HarperCollins, 1955, 1986])


I can hear the skeptic saying, “Latin? Logic? Rhetoric?—How irrelevant! We need to train leaders for the techno-future! We need computer skills!” Of course we need such skills. Remember though, those who program such computers need to understand logic. Those who effectively write, need a good vocabulary. Those who use business presentation programs to effectively persuade in the business context need rhetorical skills. Even in a digital world, the trivium excels—after all, every age calls for bright young minds, well-equipped to deal with the problems of the future. A true education for the future cannot rest on acquiring a bank of vocational skills which were in demand yesterday. We must equip students with the tools of learning to enable them to acquire any needed skills. As Sayers’ wise words instruct, “The sole true end of education is simply this; to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”


Vanilla Education?

The trivium sums up the educational structure of classical education. But as a Christian approach to education, it is Biblical Christianity which is to be the standard for this approach to education. Many modern educators are deluded by the myth that education can be neutral about religious and cultural matters—the myth of neutrality. Many educators and parents act as though schools can teach a kind of vanilla education and then parents can pour on values and even sprinkle on God as a topping if they so choose. In many rulings and well known cases, the Supreme Court has given us about fifty years to thoroughly test this theory in public/government education. We can now be relieved of our fears that children will learn and obey the Ten Commandments in these schools. We only need worry about the right to bear arms in the classroom.


I believe it’s not too presumptive to pronounce that values-neutral, vanilla education is not only undesirable, it’s simply impossible. Someone’s values get through—one way or the other. It is simply educationally unavoidable that world and life view values are communicated, both in what is stated and what is implied.


Christian parents are responsible for their children’s education. Though Christian parents feel trapped today by government-subsidized education, parents, not the federal or state governments, are responsible for the education of their children. And as Christians, it is simply a matter of allegiance to Christ that our children are taught truth and not error. Christians have a belief system which we consider true. Is it too much to want Christian children to be taught that which is consistent with our belief system?—That God created the world rather than life from naturalistic causes; that sin is a violation of His law instead of moral relativism; that life is a sacred gift of God instead of the leftovers of choice, and the list goes on. Is it too much to aim for an education which sees all truth as God’s truth and which acknowledges His lordship in every field of study (Prov. 3:5-6)? In the final analysis, it is not a mere education preference, but a solemn duty to bring our children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).


One must distinguish between education that is governed by Christian thought and secular/agnostic education (posing as vanilla, values-neutral education). Christian education must be no less than worldview education. A worldview is one’s view of all of life, especially the important assumptions and convictions which shape our interpretation of the world. Everyone has a worldview, including those controlling our secular bureaucracy of education. A Christian worldview, in comparison to non-Christian worldviews, requires that every area of life be committed to Christ, sanctified under His lordship, and maintained for His glory. The lordship of Christ in this grand way, over and in all of life, must be evident throughout the curriculum. A mere Bible class or a weekly chapel sprinkled on vanilla education is simply not Christian education.



While an emphasis on knowing Biblical content is critical for solid Christian schooling, an education which is mere indoctrination will be, in the long-run, ineffective. A distinctly Christian approach to education stands firm on God’s Word and recognizes God’s common grace in culture and civilization, especially in Western civilization (impacted so much by the Gospel). In fact, Biblical content was transmitted to us through Greek and Latin cultures. God, in special providences, used the Greco-Roman world to send forth His message of grace. Because of common grace, we should not throw out the legitimate scholarship, art, and literature of less than consistent Christians, or even non-Christians. It is just because we have a sure standard of evaluation in God’s Word that we can be “in the world,” but not “of the world,” educationally.

Consider the biblical example of the Apostle Paul who quoted and alluded to many pagans in his epistles. These include Aratus of Soli in Cilicia (c. 270 B.C.) in his Ta Phainomena and Cleanthes, the Stoic philosopher (300-220 B.C.), in his Hymn to Zeus (Acts 17:28), Menander (1 Cor. 15:32), and Epimenides (Tit. 1:12). A.T. Robertson argues that there are also many clear allusions to Pindar, Aristophanes, Aristotle, and other Greek writers.


How did Paul know them to quote them? Because Paul knew his audience and their background, he could say with power, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). He was in a position, educationally, to know the utter foolishness of anti-Christian thought. A thorough knowledge of the thought of our culture will only serve as the “Hallelujah Chorus” to the truth of the gospel. Christians need not fear a thorough knowledge of the classics of philosophy, literature, and art. Classic works which began in antiquity and will last into the future are important for a culturally robust education.


In a Nutshell

Christians should desire for their children to learn of Christ at school, as well as at home and church. The devotional and spiritual aspects of the Christian faith are often emphasized in the home and church. But there is more to our faith than sacred activity and devotional experiences. Schools, regardless of their kind, are places where children are inescapably trained in some view. Christian schools ought to be places where children are trained in the Christian world-and-life view. I assert that it is the duty of believers to see to it that their children’s education is consistent with their Christian convictions (Eph. 6:4; Deut. 6:4-7).


The classical emphasis in structure, content, and method is unsurpassed for providing the tools of learning. This emphasis heartily provides for intellectual development, academic achievement, and moral stability. It provides a way to educationally apply the mandates of God’s Word, to seek true knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. In our growth in the mastery of God’s world, as well as His Word, we apply that ancient dominion mandate – “Fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion” (Gen. 1:28, cf. 2:20). Through high quality education we also apply the mandate to love God with our hearts and heads.


Christian education is our duty to God (Eph. 6:4, Deut. 6:4-7). Classical education in methodology and content equips learners with the tools of learning. Here is classical and Christian education in a nutshell: the trivium provides the tools of learning, Scripture and the classics furnish the core content, and Biblical truth is the fixed point of reference. The trivium is the hammer, the classics are the wood, and the Bible is the ruler.


Suggested Reading

[This booklet is available in hard copy from Veritas Press ]

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (Crossway) 

by Douglas Wilson

“The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy Sayers (Downloadable free from

Repairing the Ruins (Canon Press), edited by Douglas Wilson

The Seven Laws of Teaching (Baker) by John Milton Gregory

The Abolition of Man (Harper & Row) by C.S. Lewis

On Secular Education (Canon Press) by R. L. Dabney


Each of these publications is available from

Veritas Press 1-800-922-5082


Let me give credit to whom it is due: thanks be to God for Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Cornelius Van Til, Douglas Wilson, George Grant, and their numerous hosts of true learners, et al.