Sunday, September 20, 2009

Classical versus Progressive Education

Classical education seems to be a topic of interest to many people in the last decade or so. Try as I might, I cannot get a handle on what it is, though. Some say classical education is about the content of the curriculum. Some say it's about the methodology of teaching. Some say it's about teaching subjects such as Latin and logic and rhetoric. The one evaluation I heard consistently was that classical education is NOT progressive education.

Even this, though, I am beginning to wonder about. The self-proclaimed goals and methods of progressive educators seem to me to have a lot of similarities to the self-proclaimed goals and methods of classical educators.

Both camps say they value
  • critical thinking and problem solving,
  • de-emphasizing textbooks and instead using other resources,
  • educating children who will grow up to be of service to the neighbor,
  • life-long learning,
  • seeing the interconnectedness of academic subjects, and
  • evaluation methods that do not depend on standard testing procedures.

Even in some of the areas of greater difference, I still see similarities.
  • Progressive educators greatly value learning by doing, hands-on projects, and experience. Most classical educators recognize that much book-learning is cemented in the mind by projects or experiments or experiences.
  • Progressive educators value understanding over rote memory. Classical educators see great value in rote learning, but not for its own sake. Classical educators want children to use their rote learning to grow in understanding, to be able to reason with the information they have memorized.
  • Some classical educators see great value in doing unit studies and learning-through-literature, connecting different academic subjects in the one project or one book. Progressive educators often present information in integrated ways such as unit studies.

There are differences. Progressive education puts more value on group work than does classical education. Progressive education will often set aside rote work altogether instead of ensuring that rote work is explained and understood and used later. Progressive education is more concerned with figuring out what skills and information will be necessary and practical in the future, and concentrates on imparting those, whereas classical education spends more time on reading the great books from ages past.

What's hard to take seriously is when each side accuses the other of the same things. Some say that we should all do classical education so that our children will learn to think critically; progressive educators accuse classical educators of failing to teach critical thinking. Progressive educators throw stones at classical educators for teaching separate academic subjects so that the children never learn the interconnectedness of it all; classical educators promote their view by insisting that children need to see how the subjects interrelate instead of studying many disjointed topics. Sometimes the two sides sound more alike than different. But there is a difference. What I can't figure out is just those differences are.

If the same thing is done in two classrooms, but done for different reasons, arising out of different philosophies, will one way be right and the other wrong? Will those philosophies show through in hard-to-pin-down ways?

What I can't take seriously is "Listen to my side because we value thus-and-such" while the opposing philosophy is saying the exact same thing. Surely there must be a way to get down to what the real differences are, and how they play out, and how the different aspects mesh or conflict with Christian doctrine. (The unfortunate thing is that when I ask these questions, the conversation usually resorts to name-calling, guilt by association, or knocking down straw men. This is not attractive amongst those who say they value teaching logic.)


  1. Hi, Susan! I stumbled onto your blog somehow.

    For a solid explanation of what classical education is I recommend you look at the CiRCE Institute. This is a think-tank and instructor-training resource group concerned with classical education. Their definition of classical education is the one I've adopted: The cultivation of Wisdom and Virtue by nourishing the soul on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

    Here's the website:

  2. Hi, Kerry. Thanks for the input. The thing I'm still struggling with, though, is that there are people who would disagree with what the CiRCE Institute says, and they claim to speak for what Classical Education is, every bit as much CI.

    If the definition of classical education is "cultivating wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty," there are ways to do so without doing what is considered (by many) to be essential to classical education (in either methodology or content). Then what? Is the education still classical because it's nourishing Wisdom and Virtue? Or is the education "classical" only if that is done in a particular way? There are some pretty strong opinions on both sides.

  3. Susan, I've been watching you discuss this for a while and have learned a lot, actually I think you are making more sense than either the all classical or the all progressive camps. In the end I think that the beauty of homeschool is that we get to use what works best for our kid no matter what philosophy it comes from. With John we are using some classical things, a few progressive ideas and even a little montessori thrown in there, in the end it's all about his education and what is best for him. Thanks for pursuing this line of thought publicly, you're a great teacher!

  4. I don't think you'll ever find a generally accepted definition of classical education. Too many people with differing ideas want to claim it.

    But for a good historical discussion of liberal education I recommend The Great Tradition, Richard M. Gamble, ed. It is an anthology of writings on what constitutes a good education, from Plato to the present. Dr. Gamble restricts his opinions to the introduction and his selection of texts.

    Be warned, it is a Very Large Book. I find it best to read it intermitently, rather than try to wade through it all at once.

    The price on the dust jacket is $30.00, but I know the Hillsdale College library has it, so you probably can get it on inter-library loan. It is published by ISI Books (

  5. Ah, Sir Cuthbert, if only I had time to read the Very Large Books that I did, once, long ago. Now I seem to read only to my children ... and launder their socks and stuff like that there. :-)

    I have been discovering (and very slowly it comes through my thick-headedness) that you are right about the label Classical Education. Lots of people with different ideas want to claim it. There is no definition that is acceptable to all. If I were to say that I am a classical educator (in line with the definition Kerry gave above), some people would protest mightily because in our school we neglect some of the things that are considered (by some) to be important to a Classical Education. And yet, when I say I'm not a classical educator, those with a broader definition protest that I am.

    It is interesting to me to see the desire amongst so many to claim that label, that definition. I'm trying to understand why it's important to them to be "classical" when, as you said, there are such differing ideas behind what "classical" is. And I struggle to know how to communicate with people about the topic.

  6. Ah, so I had "Progressive Education," eh? I had never heard that term contributed to it, but it makes sense. I definitely didn't learn things by rote! I definitely did learn by doing, worked in units and often with others! Whatever the term, I couldn't be more pleased with my early education. I think it has formed my life in huge ways, and for the better.

  7. nathan fischer9/21/2009 10:35 AM

    Importance of a label? Well... I'm not sure you're ever going to find the answer to that apart from: "It's important to have a Classical Education, so that's what my kids have, no matter what you (general, plural you) say!"

    Seriously. Look at Lutheranism throughout the ages. Who the HECK gets to decide who is or isn't a Lutheran? Even from Luther's day there was disagreement on the topic. Clearly, today, there are plenty who call themselves Lutheran who are not. And we've had the whole wide spectrum (evangelicals who deny the Eucharist to those who would be considered true Roman Catholics) at some point and time in between. Even the LCMS today would be considered more Reformed than Lutheran by many Lutherans in the past.

    And yet it was important (imperative, even) that all these different "Lutherans" hold that title - even when they admit to disagreeing with Luther and/or the Lutheran Confessions!

    I'm not trying to harp on anyone in particular here - I'm really not. And, obviously, you would reply by saying: "But they're not Lutherans. A Lutheran is..." And you might be right. But that's besides the point - the point is, they want that title.

    So 'classical education' is the new, big thing. In fact, among home school and private school groups it is oftentimes the ONLY way to go. Buuuuuut... Some people don't really agree with what the "big people" (the guys with their PhD's and MA's) say, or with what the big colleges or universities or organizations (which we might liken to 'denominations') say, so they do their 'own' Classical Education.

    Not to sound like some postmodernist here or anything, but I think the real question at this point is: CAN you even define what a 'classical education' is? And even if you could, who gets to have the final say-so that that's the right definition?

    Quite frankly, I think the whole thing is rather silly. We want to claim a 'classical education' because it's SO IMPORTANT TO BE CLASSICAL. But I don't think we stop for even one second to ask, "Why is that so?"

    I intend to educate Alia. I don't have the slightest idea what kind of 'education' she'll be getting. Maybe it will be classical. Whatever it will be, it will be something that works for her, and that I know is giving her what she needs (though perhaps not always what she wants).

    As for all the others out there who want so badly to lay claim to the title 'classical education', I am quite happy to let them have it, and to work at defining it among themselves. Perhaps in 20-50 years we'll have a clear-cut definition of what constitutes a classical education.

    Or you could just go edit the Wikipidia page on "Classical Education." That will likely influence the minds of countless millions far more easily and readily than what any organization might say on the topic...

    That was a joke. :-)

  8. Nathan, I think you're right that in 50 years there might be a generally agreed-upon definition of classical education. But right now, apparently the different groups are still trying to figure it out. And honestly, it wouldn't be that big of a deal to know what it is IF it weren't definitively promoted as The Right Way. But if it's The Right Way, then it's kinda nice to know what it IS, so that you know whether you agree or disagree.

  9. Susan -Good conversation and blog. We just started using "The Well Trained Mind" approach in homeschooling our 6 yr old. After teaching graduate students, I was surprised to find out what my colleagues referred to as my "innovative approach" (and therefore progressive in their eyes) was actually a classical approach. When I think about it, choosing an approach has to do with using a model on which to guide overall decision making. I do not think that either paradigms can really dictate specific activities or subjects. The trivium of grammar(lots of memorization of facts), logic (examining how those facts fit together), and rhetoric (drawing conclusions from it all) makes sense to me.... but specific activities can vary widely to achieve this. -ACH