A Classical Education for the 21st Century
“ . . . the sole true end of education is simply this:
to teach men how to learn for themselves;
and whatever instruction fails to do
this is effort spent in vain.”
Since its inception in 1962, Westminster School has prepared its graduates for successful and fulfilling lives through a classical education delivered in an exceptionally nurturing environment. Classical education is a traditional, time-tested educational approach that has educated some of the greatest thinkers and innovators of the world, from Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton, from Dante and Shakespeare to Rousseau and Thoreau. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other founders of the United States of America, were all classically educated.
Classical education is defined by both methodology and content. It emphasizes mastery of the basic skills and tools of learning by age-related progression through three stages, known collectively as the trivium:
- grammar (grades K – 4 at Westminster) - the study of the basic facts of a discipline – emphasizing knowledge;
- logic (grades 5 - 6) - the study of the relationships of these facts with other facts – emphasizing skill; and
- rhetoric (grades 7 – 8) - the study of the persuasive written and oral communication of these facts to others – emphasizing understanding.
Classical education places a priority on language as the foundation of thought. This is why French and Latin, as the two greatest contributors to the English language, are important aspects of the Westminster program. While establishing a strong foundation in English grammar, usage, spelling, vocabulary, and composition, Westminster’s language arts program emphasizes classic works of literature throughout the grades. In addition to modern works of literary merit, these include seminal works from the western canon, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, Greek and Roman mythology, The Aeneid, Beowulf, and works by Petrarch, Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare. In addition to the regular program of literature, students in all grades benefit from weekly classes in the Junior Great Books program. In this enrichment class, students read (or are read to, in the lowest grades) literature, which may include fiction, poetry, essays, or historical source documents. Through a method known as “shared inquiry,” they are guided by their teacher to explore the text in depth, form and justify opinions based on the text, and share their thoughts in a mutually respectful format.
Classical education embraces the contribution of ancient civilizations, especially the Greeks and Romans, to the rise of our modern world. Not only has the progression of Western Civilization shaped our identity as Americans, it has been one of the greatest intellectual and cultural achievements in history and is currently inspiring human rights and democracy movements around the globe. Studying the development of Western Civilization sequentially, as it is taught in grades 3 – 8 at Westminster, makes sense to young learners, engages them intellectually and emotionally, and establishes a deep and rich context in which to consider modern developments and current events.
From Kindergarten through 8th grade, and throughout all the subjects of the curriculum, Westminster teachers employ the Socratic method—questioning students in order to help them uncover what they know, how they know it, and what they need to know in order to progress. The fundamental goal of this approach is to teach students how to think. Beginning in the earliest grades, students are guided through specific exercises such as comparing and contrasting, logical sequencing, drawing inferences, identifying similarities and differences, discerning likely outcomes of a particular real-life or theoretical situation, etc. The student is asked to articulate the reasons for the answers he gives in class. For example, he may be asked to explain how he arrived at the answer to a math problem, to support his literary opinion by citing specific passages from the reading, or to articulate how his science project adheres to the scientific method. In the higher grades, the student is expected to integrate information from different sources, such as class lectures and discussions, textbooks, educational films, internet research, etc., draw logical and original conclusions about the topic under study, and articulate those conclusions in the form of essay-style answers to homework or test questions. These and numerous other reasoning exercises, which are implemented repeatedly throughout the curriculum, instill in the child essential thinking skills which prepare him for all future learning and problem solving.
This approach requires consistent effort and engagement on the part of the student, as well as the teacher. Therefore, Westminster classrooms are well-organized, purposeful, and free from distractions, creating a respectful atmosphere for learning. Class time is devoted to the teacher’s presentation of material, discussion, student practice, and instructor feedback. Daily homework assignments, which are based on the day’s lesson, and a regular schedule of quizzes, tests, and creative projects keep the student engaged and directed toward the repeated application of the tools of learning as well as the acquisition of knowledge.
The design of Westminster’s curriculum is based on the great ideas and endeavors that define our humanity, i.e., language, mathematics, history, science, geography, the arts, and athletics. We also want the students to understand that all areas of learning and human endeavor are interconnected. Unfortunately, under the pressure of government mandates and hard economic times, the public schools are focusing most of their resources on “measurable achievement” in language arts and math, depriving students not only of the riches of other important subjects, but of the broader context which might illuminate and help them value and retain the particular set of facts and skills being drilled. By contrast, a classically educated student sees the connections among the things he is learning and how they may be relevant to his own life, and is motivated to pursue further knowledge.
A classical education for the 21st century includes the assemblage of knowledgeable, talented teachers who understand the value of a liberal arts (classical) education. Westminster searches for teachers who bring not only knowledge of their subject area, but a genuine passion for it; teachers who continue to learn about their chosen specialty and are eager to share discoveries with their students; who enliven their classrooms and bulletin boards with attractive, informative, and intriguing artifacts; and who are willing to go the extra mile to help their students grasp challenging material or pursue a special interest.
Westminster ensures that students are exposed to the highest standards of human achievement in the various subjects under study. As noted above, the English / Language Arts program is literature based, with students reading several works of high quality literature each year, including important works from the past as well as more recent classics. Required summer reading expands students’ exposure to challenging, meaningful literature. Westminster’s history program takes students on an in-depth journey through the history of Western Civilization, with exciting readings and lively class discussions on the cultural achievements and challenges of earlier peoples and the means they found to meet those challenges. Both of these core areas of study are rich in opportunities to explore “the human condition” and develop imagination, understanding, compassion, and a keen moral sense. Math and science classes are comprehensive, detailed, “hands-on,” and designed to lead to greater depth of understanding as the student progresses through the grades. In addition to providing a link to classical learning and broadening their cultural horizons, Westminster’s inclusion of French and Latin ensures a life-long boost in understanding the meaning, etymology, and proper usage of the English language. Exposure to and participation in the arts offers a vital avenue for self-expression and connection as well as an admirable breadth of cultural knowledge. Many public speaking and performance opportunities build confidence, poise, and pride in presentation. Daily physical education and team athletics foster well-being and strengthen character. The daily emphasis on kindness, good manners, respect, and responsibility prepares students for positive relationships and individual achievement in a diverse and challenging world. Finally, numerous enriching field trips and opportunities for celebration and fun round out the student’s expanding sense of life’s possibilities.
Westminster School stands out from both public and private schools, holding high the standard of a classical education for the 21st century. Westminster’s adherence to time-tested educational principles in no way limits its commitment to meeting the needs of modern families and preparing children for a challenging and unpredictable future. Indeed, the principles of a classical education provide the best known means for doing just that. There is no magic bullet, quick fix, or easy road to becoming a thoroughly well-rounded, knowledgeable, capable, confident person of good character. But, there is a proven way, and Westminster School stands by its 54-year history of delivering a classical education in a nurturing, forward-looking environment. The achievements of our graduates, both academic and personal, testify to the effective and lasting influence of this rich, carefully designed, and well-implemented approach to education.