What is a Classical Curriculum?

photo credit:  Nick in exsilio  via  photopin   cc

photo credit: Nick in exsilio via photopin cc

By Michael P. McKeating, J.D.
Chesterton Academy of Buffalo

At Chesterton Academy of Buffalo, an Independent High School in the Catholic Tradition, we teach a classical curriculum.  I am often asked by parents of prospective students, as well as by benefactors and others, “What is a classical curriculum?”

The classical curriculum has its origin in Plato and Aristotle, and was the method of education used in nearly all of Western Civilization for over 2,000 years.  It is the method which produced such great geniuses as St. Anselm, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, Chaucer, Dante, and St. Thomas More, to name but a few.

The purpose of a classical curriculum is to build well-rounded generalists, who can think about, discuss and debate any subject.  Unlike most modern schools, such a curriculum does not teach subjects in narrow unrelated compartments, but stresses the inter-relatedness of all subjects, showing how philosophy, theology, mathematics, history, literature and music are all related.

For example, a lesson in geometry may lead into a discussion of the philosophies and writing of Euclid and Pythagoras, the fathers of geometry, which may help in debate during social and political discussions.

In Medieval times, a classical curriculum was frequently referred to as the Trivium and the Quadrivium.  One could loosely translate these Latin terms as “the three subjects” and the “four subjects.”

The Trivium consisted of 1) grammar, 2) logic and 3) rhetoric.  The Quadrivium consisted of 1) arithmetic, 2) geometry, 3) music and 4) astronomy.  Together, these categories comprised the seven subject areas of a traditional liberal arts education.

These terms did not all have the same meaning that they have today.  For example, grammar was not limited to the rules of a language, but meant the collection and ordering of facts into a coherent whole.  Logic meant bringing understanding to this body of knowledge by eliminating contradictions.  Rhetoric meant the art of communicating this knowledge and understanding its wisdom.

The curriculum at Chesterton Academy of Buffalo is basically a classical curriculum, although the subjects are not called by the same names.  At Chesterton, all students take one year of debate, two years of a second language, three years of Latin, and four years of literature, history, science, mathematics, philosophy, theology, art, music, and drama.

 During freshman year, all subjects of the Chesterton curriculum have a concentration on the Ancient World. For sophomores, the focus is the Early Medieval Period; juniors, the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance; and seniors, the Modern World. Thus, the curriculum produces students who can think and process the world around them as a narrative throughout time integrating all subjects.

For more on our curriculum, see: http://www.buffalochestertonacademy.org/curriculum/

Our students on their first day of literature class at Chesterton Academy of Buffalo.

Our students on their first day of literature class at Chesterton Academy of Buffalo.

Why We Don't Use Common Core

photo credit:  Steve Rhodes  via  photopin   cc

photo credit: Steve Rhodes via photopin cc

By Michael P. McKeating, J.D.
Chesterton Academy of Buffalo

             At Chesterton Academy of Buffalo we do not follow “Common Core.”  We do not use Common Core standards, curricula, tests, or Common Core-aligned textbooks.

            We follow the Classical Model of education.  We teach all subjects through the lens of the Catholic Church, using wherever possible the Socratic method.  We do so because this model is far superior, as proven by the experience of centuries.

            The Common Core is a comprehensive system of standardized, top-down curricula, textbooks and tests for grades K through 12, conceived and funded primarily by Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation and promoted by President Obama and the federal government.  Its stated purpose is to make children “college and career-ready.”  It is entirely pragmatic and utilitarian, based on the educational philosophy of John Dewey, with a strong overlay of Postmodernist philosophy for frosting. 

            It is pragmatic and utilitarian because it emphasizes uniformity and conformity.  It wants all students to meet the same standards, but it wants to accomplish that by lowering the standards.  It also seeks to impose a uniform, politically correct content.  It stresses the information necessary to get into college or to get a job.  These are two laudable, and in most cases, necessary objectives.  But it stresses them at the expense of denigrating the study of great literature, philosophy, history or foreign languages. 

            At Chesterton Academy of Buffalo, we seek to educate the whole person.  As humans, we are composite beings, made up of body and soul, not robots.  The pagan, secular philosophy of John Dewey and his followers—which is really the foundation for Common Core—sees faith and reason as incompatible and mutually exclusive.  We see faith and reason as not only compatible, but complimentary.

            Common Core seeks to teach and test students in the reading of government documents and manuals, because it is useful.  It stresses information.  We teach students to read the great works of Western Literature:  The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, the Confessions of St. Augustine, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales Hamlet, Macbeth.  We introduce them to the works of Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, John Donne, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.

            We require four years of philosophy.  Why do we do this? Because it teaches students to think, a skill in short supply today.  In today’s culture, everyone has an opinion on everything, but few can explain or defend their opinion.  We teach the principles of logic—how to reason, from first principles, through propositions to conclusions.  In short, we teach students how to explain and defend their beliefs.  We also teach Music, Art, Drama and Debate.  We seek to form the whole person with a comprehensive world-view, not narrow specialists.

            Common Core teaches skills in separate, unconnected compartments.  We teach that all knowledge is interconnected.  In each year we show how philosophy, theology, history and literature, music and art are interconnected and interwoven in a cohesive whole.  And we teach that all knowledge is interconnected through the central mystery of human existence:  the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—God become Man.

            In summary we don’t use Common Core because we use something far better.  The superiority of the classical education has been tested and proven by the experience of the centuries.  In the words of Dale Ahlquist, the founder of the Chesterton Network of Schools, “We are doing something new by doing something very old.”