Home » Classical Catholic Library » What is the Catholic Homeschool Curriculum? » XIV. The Classical Liberal Arts Academy

XIV. The Classical Liberal Arts Academy

Classical Catholic Homeschooling in the Classical Liberal Arts AcademyIn this course, we have covered the history of education from the ancient Egyptians through to the Catholic schools of the 20th century. By now, you should understand clearly where education started and what its original goals were. You should also know how education changed in history, when and where it abandoned its original aims and who the people were who orchestrated these changes. In this lesson we will look at the misguided efforts some have made to “repair the ruins” and the founding of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.

Returning to Progress

Living in the early-mid 1900s, C.S. Lewis stated plainly the remedy to the Progressivism promoted by men like John Dewey:

“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.”

Understanding what needs to be done does not require supernatural gifts of wisdom or divine revelation. It is a matter of simple historical study. As a man who wanders off course on a journey must back-track to the point of departure and continue on his original route, so we must acknowledge that the past 100, 200, even 300 years of educational history have been spent wandering off course. The only solution–as unhappy as it may be–is to travel back to the original point or points of departure and set out rightly again.

When we do this, we will find that those who either (a) lack the faith to take on the challenge, (b) lack the ability to see and achieve the needed reforms or (c) have something to gain from the present state of affairs in education will attempt to discourage those who seek to return to the right path. Because we have lost so much time on our journey, the willingness to sacrifice the time spent wandering will be called rash; the willingness to return to the point of departure will be called out-dated or old-fashioned (which in modernist thinking is equivalent to “evil”); the willingness to turn and wade against what St. Augustine called “the river of human customs” will be called arrogant and futile–yet all of these discouragements, as challenging as they may be, will be proven false by the man who reaches the point of departure and sets out again on the true path. He that prefers patience and truth to convenience and expedience will be proven wise in due time.

Misguided Effort at Reform

Aware of the great problems in modern education, many have taken upon themselves the task of “repairing the ruins”, but these have been misguided efforts. Like the messenger Ahimaaz in 2 Samuel 18, they have been eager to run, but without knowledge of what to report.

Dorothy Sayers

As we have seen in our studies, the “stages of learning” spoken of by Dorothy Sayers have nothing to do with classical education.

In the 1990s, a “Classical Education” movement grew in the United States, largely among Protestants who assumed that the problems in modern education were caused by the secularization of education and the modern arrangement of school subjects. These groups also argued that the ordering of studies in modern schools was in need of correction. The solution was said to be articulated in an obscure early 20th century essay titled, The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers, an English novelist and translator.

Now, we should first take notice that this effort was conducted in the main by Protestants and the problem with education will not be solved within a Protestant framework. The Protestant Reformation is itself a large part of the problem that led to the corruption of classical education and, though modern secularism allows Protestants to sweep in wearing the dress of saviors, this is either naive or misleading. Protestantism itself must be abandoned for true education to be restored.

Nevertheless, let us examine the educational philosophy proposed by these groups, which was taught by Ms. Sayers. In her essay, she promotes a historical monster as a solution to the modern trouble in education. She is to some degree aware of the classical liberal arts and is obviously thoroughly familiar with the modern scheme, yet she proposes a third option–a via media–or middle road that marries the two and gives birth to something monstrous.

Sayers suggests a marriage between modern educational psychology and the classical liberal arts. In detail, she suggests that the old Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric) be looked at as three “stages” of child development. The Grammar “stage” consists of information-gathering, which we would refer to as “perception” and “judgment” in the classical operations of the mind. In her scheme, Grammar is not itself a subject, but a stage and there can be a “Grammar” of other subjects: a grammar of history, a grammar of Biology, and so on. Next, a student moves into the “Logic” stage, where his education consists largely of activities that exercise the operation of the mind we referred to as “reasoning”. As with her notion of Grammar, Logic is not a subject, but a stage of learning. Students will therefore study the logic of history, the logic of Arithmetic, and so on. Lastly, the student advances to the “Rhetoric” stage, where he is exercised in self-expression. It should be noted that Sayers maintains the modern division (or multiplication rather) of academic subjects–only suggesting that they be studied in three “stages”.

Now, while such a scheme may have impressed ignorant modern educators and parents who were zealous for something that appears to be better than was available at the modern schools, a sound knowledge of educational history clearly proves this to be a novelty itself and no return to classical liberal arts education–no return to the original path. If the proponents of Sayers’ views would have presented it as such, that would have been fine. However, it was hailed as a “return to classical education” and sold as a return to tradition. The system was called “the Trivium” and it was directly claimed that what Sayers proposed was what Christians of past generations knew as classical education. Images were used of Aristotle, Socrates and Cicero and there were references to early Christians like St. Paul and St. Augustine. The final product has greatly misled Christian families who have been told–and believed–that their children were receiving a Christian education similar to that of many of the saints of past generations.

Today the Sayers curriculum provides the foundation for the following programs: Mother of Divine Grace School (Catholic), St. Thomas Aquinas Academy (Catholic), Veritas Press (Protestant), Canon Press (Protestant)–and most other self-proclaimed “classical” study programs. The most depressing observation to be made concerning these programs is that there is a general ignorance of classical sources on education which clearly contradict Sayers, which leads us to what the actual courses are based on.

Big-School-Model Programs

One essential element in classical schools was the simplicity of instruction. Students rarely studied more than one course at a time and the instructors were masters of the arts themselves. The entire program was dependent upon an orderly and natural progress through the arts: from Grammar (the art of speaking and writing well) to Dialectic (the art of reasoning rightly) to Rhetoric (the art of persuasive communication). Because the curriculum was so simple and all students had to advance by the same steps, there was no problem teaching a number of students at different steps since the advanced students provided a preview for beginning students and beginning students provided a review for advanced students.

In the classical Jesuit schools of the 17th-18th centuries, the Praeceptor system allowed a small number of skilled teachers to manage the education of hundreds and hundreds of students–and that normally for free. Elite and affordable were not contrary terms in education since the educators possessed the wisdom to craft a system of studies that was sustainable and efficient. They were masters in the truest sense of the word.

Most attempts at school reform by groups today simply cannot think outside of the box of modern education. Even if they try to restore traditional subjects and teaching methods, they begin with age-based grade levels of the modern public school system. This “big-school model” requires low teacher-student ratios, which means large faculties and insupportable staffing costs. This system is only sustainable when government taxation supplies the funding and when private schools built on this model do not receive taxation it leads to low teacher salaries, which leads to low teacher quality. Worse, though the schools require large numbers of teachers, the number of competent teachers will always be very low as it requires wisdom and grace to order learning and inspire students. Remember that when the supply of unpaid sisters dried up, the Catholic schools collapsed in America–because the big school model was, is and always will be unsustainable for privately funded schools.

In homeschooling circles, the big-school model creates unbearable burdens for parents who are required to serve as teachers of multiple subjects–and multiple grade levels! In order to make the teaching burden lighter on parents, courses are dumbed-down until they are little more than workbook assignments with answer keys. The problem with all of this is simply an inability to see beyond the last 150 years of education. The big-school model is another problem that must be rooted out for education to be restored to its former excellence.

Modern programs founded on the big-school model include: all available local schools, Seton Home Study (Catholic), Kolbe Academy (Catholic), ABeka Homeschool (Protestant) and any other that arranges students by grade levels such as K-12.

The Classical Liberal Arts Academy

Missionaries of the Poor
William C. Michael (center) in Kingston, Jamaica with the Missionaries of the Poor after a class in 2009.

The Classical Liberal Arts Academy (CLAA) was not designed to emphasize a certain element of traditional schooling or to promote some new textbook series. It was designed to unapologetically restore the classical liberal arts curriculum that was used throughout history. Because our program so directly depends on the actual historical arrangement, we do not need to say anything of its philosophical or curricular details. If you know the classical liberal arts curriculum of the past, you know the CLAA. In fact, we have not even changed the study materials but, seeking to first return to the point of departure, judged it to be most wise to begin with what was last used by the classical European schools of the 17th-18th centuries and gain experience with it before seeking to produce anything of our own. We are not wiser in our generation than those educators were who stood at the end of centuries of practical teaching experience! The thought of authoring our own materials at this point in history is ridiculous–we simply must concentrate on getting back to the right road.

What should be explained, however, is our effort to make use of modern technology to restore the traditional simplicity of classical liberal arts education and the traditional praeceptorial system.

A Schoolhouse without Walls

In the past, instruction was provided to students in local schoolhouses. One or a few masters of the liberal arts taught local students to prepare them for the university (which was nothing at all like our modern universities). Teachers managed the progression of students through the arts and the quality of schools were dependent upon the gifts of individual teachers. Those students who were blessed with excellent teachers were well prepared for the university, others were not. Some communities had no schools at all. Remember too that these schools were often free.

As we reflected upon the benefits of this traditional arrangement of classical schools, two modern issues drew our attention: (1) distance learning resources and (2) computer database technology.

What would have happened if the best teachers in the old classical schools could have been made available to all students–no matter where they lived? Surely, it would have created an educational revolution. Well, we thought, using distance learning resources such as online lesson delivery, audio recordings and video instruction–we can do just this.

Second, while no teacher–no matter how gifted–can manage the lessons, assessment and grading of thousands and thousands of students–a computer database can. By creating an online database that contained all student information, lessons, examinations and records, a few efficient teachers could manage the education of thousands of students–without compromising quality in instruction or assessment. Through our unique connections and resources, we were able to quickly arrange such a system.

The Praeceptorial System…at Home

As we reflected on the success and wisdom of the classic praeceptorial system, we quickly saw a wonderful opportunity to reproduce it in our generation. In old classical schools, praeceptors were normally older, successful students who had mastered their teachers’ lessons and could supervise and assist students at lower levels. In our generation, we cannot begin with an army of advanced students, but we can create a virtual army of praeceptors using (1) online quizzes and exams (2) web-based student support and (3) homeschooling parents.

By combining easy-to-use online activities, lightning-fast student support and the present help of homeschooling parents, the CLAA has been able to capture most of the benefits of the old praeceptorial system. However, through this Praeceptor training program, we are preparing the next generation of knowledgeable praeceptors who will be able to serve as the highly skilled liaisons between the CLAA instructors and CLAA students. By this time, you should be able to see how this goal is being achieved.

The Future of the CLAA

Br. Patrick Lynch, one of the first students in the CLAA is now a member of the Marian Fathers.

In our first year of enrollment–despite how radical our program is to modern adults–we enrolled over 630 students. The hardest work is behind us and the impressive results of our first students is creating a steadily increasing enthusiasm and confidence among parents. We have, however, only just begun. Courses are still being written, research still being conducted and capable instructors still being found that will allow us to completely restore the lost classical liberal arts curriculum.

When the core program is finally restored, we will turn our attention to improving from our original point of departure. We have resources available to us today that teachers of old could not have dreamed of. Once restored and understood from an experiential perspective, we will be able to assess how these resources may be employed to raise classical liberal arts education to heights it has never before reached. What is most exciting is the knowledge that, just as the history of the classical liberal arts extends back to the creation of man, we know that the work we are doing will have a significant effect on the future of Catholic education until the end of time.

We thank God for the opportunity to engage in such work and trust that His grace is sufficient to enable us to accomplish our work.


We have studied the history of education together and have seen the unquestionable superiority of the classical liberal arts curriculum to all other innovations. In this lesson, we have identified the misguided efforts at reform based on historical ignorance and poor organization. Lastly, we have looked briefly at the efforts made by the Classical Liberal Arts Academy to return to the historical point of departure from the classical curriculum and those unique resources that have made its early success possible.