Classical Education and Four-Year Cycles

I’m hoping this will start to disabuse people of the notion that classical education is all about 4 year development cycles. The classical tradition is about inquiry, ideas, and character rather than intellectual achievement.

My introduction to classical education came through twentieth-century authors. I was encouraged to read contemporary authors who based their ideas largely on Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning, but she also was a twentieth-century thinker. I knew that if her ideas were right, I should be able to find the roots of them by reading the classical authors. I read Plato, Erasmus, Quintilian, and others, and when I found no correlation between their ideas and Dorothy Sayers’ about stages, I felt that “classical education” was an undefinable, nebulous idea that could not be understood.

Ironically (and yet, not ironically), it was another twentieth-century author who shed light on the classical tradition for me, and allowed those nebulous ideas to coalesce into a solid foundation upon which educational methods could be built. When I read Norms and Nobility, I was able to see that classical education was more than I had previously perceived.

Suddenly, Plato, Milton, Erasmus, Comenius, and Augustine spoke in unison—-not because they prescribed the exact same process or curriculum, but because they shared a common desire to educate men to be the very best that it was possible for them to be—-to make the best humans they could be. What ought men to do? What ought men to think? What is right for a man to know? What knowledge can man not do without? These kinds of questions should be asked again and again, in every generation, and the answer should be sought because it is both new and old—-old, because men have answered it before, and new because the answers act as a germinating seed in the heart of every thinker and learner who seeks them, producing new ideas and avenues to explore.

Karen Glass:

(Remember that these were written in response to specific other posts, and I’m not including those comments, so if my remarks seem a little disjointed, that’s why.)


I am recycling my answer from a post I sent to another list some time ago. I have written, do write, and probably will write more about this general topic because it is dear to my heart, and as I learn more, I just can’t help sharing. You are quite right that people define it [‘classical’ history] in different ways. That frustrated me at first, until I penetrated more deeply into my reading.

It was only when I saw the heart of classical education that it held any appeal for me at all. I got the first glimpse of it when I read David Hicks’ book, Norms & Nobility. He says the purpose of education, to the ancients, was to instill virtue in the pupils. That was their goal, and intellectual growth was only a part of that process.

Any educational method that focuses on intellectual development, without considering the spirit or heart of man, is *not* classical. Much of the classical literature, depicting the heroes, etc., was intended to inspire virtue. The *reason* they wanted to study things like logic and rhetoric was so that they would be better able both to discern truth, and then to persuade others.

Naturally, they fell far short of attaining their goals, but that’s what their goals were, and that is really what is at the heart of classical education. When I read this in David Hicks’ book, it *really* struck a chord with me. It happens to coincide with Charlotte Mason’s goal of education, too: formation of character.

But, I have found this premise borne out by every writer I’ve read so far. Sometimes they differ in their methods, or order, or recommending this or that author/practice/book/language, but they are in agreement about this–the purpose of education is to elevate the character and heart of the student.

This is where Christians have it all over the ancient classical educators. To paraphrase Charlotte Mason, their system could only instruct–ours both instructs and enables.

The basic premise of classical education is “right thinking leads to right acting.” That’s not 100% true, but it’s a good working basis. I like a lot of what David Hicks says about the differences between the analytical thinking of moderns and the dialectic/synthetic thinking of the ancients. We like to tear things down into manageable little pieces, but that destroys them. Synthetic thinking sees a person as whole, and as a part of a greater whole–the family, the community, the world.

Our educations taught us to break everything down and look at the pieces apart from each other and apart from ourselves. We have no moral obligation to information in this form, because the connections are lost, including any connection between the information and ourselves. If you were fortunate to have good Biblical teaching, you may have counter-acted the analytical tendency to some extent, because synthetic thinking is also Biblical thinking. (This does not mean that all analysis is bad or wrong, but when analysis replaces synthesis or dialectic, we are looking at things the wrong way.)

As we seek to classically education our children, we have to begin with ourselves. We are not going to teach our children to think rightly, to view the world as a whole, and themselves as part of it, unless we make some adjustments to our own way of thinking.

Naturally, David Hicks says this a lot better than I do. But, to go back to the beginning, the heart of classical education is the pursuit of virtue–right thinking and right acting. As you can see, this has little to do with child-development (i.e., three “stages”), but this *is* the heart–the one thing all the classical educators were striving for.

I agree with Athena [another classical homeschooler who uses TQH and posted to the loop], too, that language is absolutely central to the whole process. Language–words–are important to God, too. So much so, that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I consider myself a classical educator because we approach every subject as a whole. We make use of living books, which contain real ideas. We seek to place our learning into a larger context. TruthQuest History guides are a valuable tool in this process! I completely reject the “stages” interpretation of classical education, so that doesn’t figure into my thinking. As far as organizing history, I like and use Ambleside as well as TruthQuest History. If you have to have cycles, I think two 6-year cycles would be better than 3 four-year cycles, because it allows much more time for learning. You could arrange the 6-year cycles in a number of ways–perfectly chronological, from ancients to 20th century, or other ways. I could see doing American history for 3-4 years with the TQH guides for young children, then beginning with the ancients and going through history to the 20th century again, leaving yourself one year to re-visit the ancients at the high-school level.

But it doesn’t really matter how you do history–that’s not the “heart” of a classical education.


I know you are only writing about something you have read somewhere else, but to say “the classical method of studying history is 4-year cycles” is very inaccurate. Please understand that I’m not criticizing you, or anyone, by saying this. I understand completely that we are operating in a cloud of assumptions based on the ideas of 2 or 3 persons.

But 4-year cycles are NOT inherently classical. It’s just a way of organizing history studies. That’s not the way the ancients did it. That’s not the way it’s been done “traditionally.” It’s just one idea.

You can adhere to a classical tradition of education and study history *any way that you want to.* How you choose to study history is not one of the identifying “hallmarks” of what makes education classical. You could adhere rigorously to the 4-year cycle and swing so wide of the classical philosophy that you miss it completely. Whenever you see or hear or *think* that “4-year history rotations” and “classical education” are inextricably linked, let the warning bells go off: this is FALSE.

There. I hope I haven’t offended anyone, but every once in a while I just have to let fly a few volleys against the misperceptions that take root and spread like kudzu vine.

The *good news* is that you can educate your children classically, and use the TruthQuest History guides in any way that you like.


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