The Difference Between Classical Education, Modern Education, and Traditional American Education

It would seem that in these days of educational innovation and simultaneous looking back at successes  of the past, there would be two “warring” impulses in education (actually, they’re not always at war, many times they both are fighting against the same ineffective practices, but that’s another post) the Classical and the Modern.  This goes back to Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books of 1697 in which the war between the classical and the modern was worked out into a metaphorical campaign of war in which the Ancients won. What’s remarkable to me is that now, three hundred years after Swift’s work, many which were then called “moderns” are now considered “classics,” but that’s yet another post.

What I am driving at here is that often, methods which are loosely termed “classical” are not classical methods at all, but traditional American methods.  Such as an emphasis on rigid grades and handwriting.  I made a chart over the three educational philosophies:


Classical Traditional American Modern
Overarching structure of the method Trivium – Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic Skills based reading, math science and social studies.
Approach to History Chronological history of world going back to 4000 BC Patriotic American history focusing on presidents and generals Anecdotal history, driven by current politics
Assessment practices Poem recitation.  Dramatic performances. Music and art participation.  Writing about what has been read. Pass-fail grading. High stakes assessments such as STAAR; End of Course pass or no-graduate standards; special education (coding) of students unable to pass exams.
Favorite classroom techniques Reading of Mythology and Ancient stories; Ancient Language (Latin); memorization Cursive writing and handwriting;  Sentence diagraming Educational technology ; Small group reading
Classroom management strategies Reading of Mythology and Ancient stories; Ancient wisdom; aphoristic thinking Rules and regulations Situational ethics, thinking problems through; student centered classroom; teamwork
Underlying philosophy Education in the best that has been thought and said will bring the students to the best that they themselves can be. Based in American values of the 19th century, the goal is raising and good citizen in a “Christian country.” Education as a method for improving society; College and Career readiness, schools which represent the best of what America is today.

To look at the chart is to see, I believe, that the classic method, done well, can be argued to be the most interesting, the most effective, but perhaps surprisingly if you look at the row for assessment practices, the most humanistic and humane.  A proper classical education did not function on failing students.  It focused on building up students as far as they would go.  Ancient school teachers were all private school teachers, and they developed assessments such as memorization and performance, which all students could complete.  Students who were able to do more would then be expected to do more. 

It remained for the interpreters of Horace Mann at the end of the 20th century to come out with the idea of No Child Left Behind, make rigid academic standards (and one might argue arbitrary ones too) and then proceed to put legal codes on those who could not fulfill the requirements.

The intervening method between the Classical Method and the Modern, the Traditional American method, is perhaps the culprit for this unfortunate turn of events.  Although I am not an educational history specialist, the view I have of American public schools before 1920 suggests a rigid curriculum taught by teachers who were only roughly prepared to educate students whose home background did not make them particularly ready to learn.  The cruelty and failures of this method brought the advent of modern education practice, but any educational researcher worth their salt knows that when you start with underprepared teachers (such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, 17 years old when she took the school at DeSmet) or uncaring teachers (such as the inhuman teachers of Betty Smith in the ghettos of turn-of-the-century A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and combine them with students who lack appropriate school preparation, results will be poor.

I have compiled this blog post in order to introduce this trichotomy of school philosophies and test it out on colleagues who read this blog.  What do you think?  Are all educational practices before 1920 to be considered “Classical?” Or was there a third way, responsible for the backlash of Mannian education reform, the Traditional American School?  I welcome any thoughts.


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