Classical Curriculum Essay

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The classical curriculum was intended to prepare the children of the Greek and Roman privileged classes for a life of limited self-government. To meet that goal, the student studied grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, which medieval scholars labeled the trivium, and music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, later called the quadrivium. If the Greek or Roman student intended to practice medicine or law, he would enter into an apprenticeship following his formal schooling. Trades, including any form of manual labor, were strictly taboo for the Greek and Roman aristocracies.

The classical curriculum is historically important for being the first systematic program of intellectual, physical, and spiritual development. It is of particular cultural importance for perpetuating the Greeks’ advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy and for laying the groundwork for most contemporary academic disciplines. Because it is the oldest systematic approach to education, the character of classical education has in the past been, and continues to be, gender specific. The education of girls and young women occurred at home in Ancient Greece as well as in Rome, and the practice went unchallenged in much of the Western world until the eighteenth century. The most well-known exception is Sparta, where young women endured difficult physical training as warriors.

Latter-day proponents of the classical curriculum have a somewhat broader meaning in mind than did their ancient and medieval counterparts. Getting at that meaning has opened the field to theoretical speculation about the boundaries of philology, history, area studies, and the canon. Today, many classicists fall into one of two methodological camps, divided by conflicting ideologies as much as national boundaries:

 (a) philologists, led by Cambridge and Oxford scholars who wish to take texts at face value; and (b) text theorists, largely American, who apply Freudian, Marxist, and postmodern methods to an evaluation of content.

Declining enrollment in classics departments has prompted many scholars to question the future of classical studies. The source of the West’s philosophical, moral, and legal systems is bound up in the tradition of classical education—a fact that raises questions about present capacity to comprehend basic principles still guiding Western culture. Because the study of Ancient Greek and Latin is intellectually challenging, a measure of elitism may be built into classical education. It is therefore possible that classical education is essentially contrary to contemporary egalitarian sensibilities, and so its demise may come as a matter of zeitgeist rather than irrelevance.


  1. Bloom, A. (1988). The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  2. Hanson, V. D., & Heath, J. (1998). Who killed Homer? The demise of classical education and the recovery of Greek wisdom. New York: Free Press.
  3. Kopff, E. C. (1999). The devil knows Latin: Why America needs the classical tradition. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.

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