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.