In Ancient Rome (200 BC to AD 450) education was predominantly literary and rhetorical. Children were taught how to read and from there memorized large swaths of the best of classical literature. And from there, they devoted the majority of their energy to composing and delivering speeches and other types of rhetorical exercises.
Out of Late Antiquity (AD 450-600), which introduced the trivium, the sequential instruction in grammar, logic and rhetoric for elementary and middle school followed by the Quadrivium in high school and college which included instruction in arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, rose Medieval Scholasticism (1100 to 1350) taught in cathedral schools and the medieval university. The emphasis was on practical preparation for the professions, namely, medical doctors, lawyers, and professors of theology.
Italian Renaissance: The humanists pitted themselves against the scholastics’ utilitarian approach because they sought to revive arts and letters (the classical canon of literature and the fine arts) from classical antiquity which they deemed to be superior in scope and content to the content and methods which derived from the period they dubbed “the middle age” between the classical past and their own. They advocated a course of study they dubbed the “studia humanitatis” or the studies of human culture. This was a program that consisted of oratory, poetry, history, moral philosophy with great emphasis on the style and rhetoric of the classical Roman writers. They believed that scholastic logic chopping utterly fails to convince people and there was a need to develop a fine style for the ability to persuade and move people.
By the Victorian era, education for the upper classes of the United Kingdom and America consisted predominantly of the study of the language and literature of Greece and Rome. When this curriculum was marginalized by John Dewey and his education reform movement, Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins created the Great Books movement at Columbia and the University of Chicago in the 1920’s. In creating this rear-guard action to preserve the idea of humanistic education, the Great Books movement created a new, English language canon and methodology (the Socratic maieutic, or round table book discussion group) that removed the need for the study of ancient language.
Modern classical schools movement: in the wake of the “look-say” reading instruction methods and the “whole language” reading programs and their poor success, modern educators and home schoolers (post 1970) have turned back to look for classical methods to teach reading, writing, ancient language, mythology and history. Modern classical schools use a wide range of methods and materials gleaned from classical education history, but the term “classical” remains rather amorphous today when attached to an institution of learning.