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10 Common Misconceptions About Classical Education

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Whether by families, teachers, or politicians, a lot of thought is put into education these days. Common questions we ask ourselves include, “How do children learn best?”, “What’s worth learning?,” “Where does technology fit into a child’s education?”

As everyone from the government to school administrators attempt to answer such questions, the topic of Classical Education has come up again and again. Once the go-to education for students everywhere, Classical Education experienced a rapid decline in the age of computers and in the face of things like the student-led classroom. But with 1,500 schools nationwide now describing themselves as “classical,” and even more homeschool families embracing it, it’s clear Classical Education is making a comeback.

And yet, Classical Education is more misunderstood than ever. Keep scrolling for 10 common misconceptions about Classical Education.

Common Misconception #1. Classical Education is all about religious doctrine.

It’s a very common misconception that Classical Education is all about religion. Such a misunderstanding likely stems from the fact that in our modern age, Christian schools have been the first to adopt all things classical. But true Classical Education is not dependent upon religious doctrine. Classical Education does, however, embrace and teach the Western Heritage, which by nature includes the story of the Bible. After all, how much of our history, artwork, literature, and music has been influenced by the Bible in some way? To ignore the stories of the Bible would be doing a disservice to any student learning about European history, classic literature such as King Arthur or The Chronicles of Narnia, or even myriad scientific discoveries. Religiously affiliated schools such as Catholic schools aside, most classical schools do not tell students what they should be believing when it comes to faith, religion, or the Bible.

Common Misconception #2. Classical Education is too dependent upon memorization, an outdated learning method.

Sometime around the late 1980s and early 1990s, memorization in the classroom became a bad thing. Instead, students were expected to figure out just why and how three times five equals fifteen. It’s no coincidence that around this same time, students’ success in higher levels of math began to decline. Because students were no longer required to memorize the most basic math facts, they were still focusing on what three times five produces when they were meant to be focusing on solving longer equations, dividing fractions, or figuring out the area of a triangle.

Classical students do not memorize simply to memorize — though the memorization of a poem certainly helps exercise the brain. Rather, they memorize the necessary facts, or building blocks, that will help them excel later in their academic career: simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts; major geographical capitals; Latin vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions, etc.

Common Misconception #3. Speaking of Latin, it’s a dead language. There is no point in learning it.

If you want to rile up an advocate of classical education, spout the common misconception that Latin is not worth learning because it’s a “dead language” (But is it? A law student might disagree). Of course, everyone learning and teaching Latin knows very well that one will never travel anywhere and speak Latin to the local people. But as they’ll be quick to tell you: that simply isn’t the point.

Learning Latin teaches the brain to think and organize unlike any other subject is able to do. Students, who are often as young as third grade when they begin, must memorize Latin nouns and verbs, and remember the six different endings of each. Not to mention, they must decide which of those endings to use based on whether the word is acting as a direct or indirect object, the subject, the verb, or something else altogether. Studies have shown that students who learn Latin outperform their non-Latin peers in everything from English grammar to science class. Mark Zuckerberg learned Latin as a child, something he credits for his later success as a web developer.

Common Misconception #4. Classical Education places too much of an emphasis on history.

As previously mentioned, the Western Heritage is an important part of a classical education. To understand ourselves, both as humans and as a society, it is vital we understand where we come from, and the mistakes made by those empires which came before. Thus, classically educated students learn about the lives and characters of significant historical figures. They read classic literature, some of which is centuries old. They learn the most influential Biblical stories, among other things here and there. Altogether, this emphasis on history serves two purposes:

1) To ensure students are historically literate. After all, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

2) To serve as quality examples. Learning about Charlemagne, and the many ways in which he shaped the modern Europe, sets an example of good character for students.

Reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Canterbury Tales illustrate different writing styles, both of which are celebrated. In every subject but history, these glimpses into the past are merely supplemental.

Common Misconception #5. There is not enough science taught.

In fact, true Classical Education places a very strong emphasis on the sciences. At one classical school in Louisville, Kentucky, fourth graders study insects, 5th graders birds and the history of medicine, and 6th graders trees and flowers. When these same students enter upper school, they take the more expected classes such as biology, chemistry, and physics. What sets these students apart from their non-classical peers, however, is that they’ve already been taught a respect for the natural sciences, which is consistent with Classical Education’s pursuit of “the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

Common Misconception #6. We live in a technological world, so students should be immersed in technology.

Whether they go to a classical school or a state-of-the-art public school, students are already immersed in technology. There are very few children in the United States who do not have access to computers, the internet, television, and a variety of other technological toys at home. But if students are immersed in technology both at school and at home, when do they learn to hold a pencil — a skill just as much about fine motor skills as it is about modern-day communication. Putting aside the fact that studies have proven children don’t learn as well from a computer screen, it is more important than ever that parents and educators realize that technology is constantly changing. What is brand new when a student begins Kindergarten is old and outdated by the time they progress to middle school. On the other hand, handwriting, arithmetic, a geographical awareness, and public speaking skills are timeless. Classical Education simply emphasizes those timeless elements of education, and leaves the rapidly changing technology up to life at home.

Common Misconception #7. Classical Education stifles a child’s creativity.

Younger students obtaining a classical education are oftentimes provided models by which they may compose their own creations. For example, a common assignment is to rewrite an excerpt from literature. These younger students are thereby learning how to be purposeful and creative, while also being encouraged to produce work of a high quality. When these students reach older grades, they have a solid foundation of the “rules” before they’re encouraged to break them.

Common Misconception #8. Classical Education curriculums seem to focus more on Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome than they do our own modern country.

Similar to Common Misconception #4, this typical misunderstanding stems from considering just one element of Classical Education. And since Classical Education is comprehensive, focusing on just one element or subject is bound to produce an inaccurate view.

As mentioned above, the study of great thinkers and empires which came before our current society is important.  As philosopher George Santanya said, “Those who cannot remember the the past are condemned to repeat it.” Students who have already studied the rise and fall of Rome are sure to look at American history quite differently than the students who have no prior knowledge of empires or those classical thinkers who inspired our own Founding Fathers.

Common Misconception #9. There is no diversity in literature or other subjects taught.

Heidi isn’t too similar to King Arthur, we’d argue. Nor is Beowulf in the same boat as Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And yet, all four of these titles are very commonly taught in classical schools. Classical Education places an important emphasis on those books which have stood the test of time. They are meant to provide for students wonderful examples of story, character, and style. They are not meant to push a political point or fulfill a quota.

Common Misconception #10. Classical Education is outdated.

On the contrary, Classical Education is timeless! Great literature, beautiful music, the discoveries and accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and critical thinking will never  be outdated.