Whether some form of tutoring can help our society break out of its malaise through new ways of ordering information is a live question. Some people are convinced that with better education we will train more geniuses who will create new frontiers of inquiry; others opine that genius requires a context where new discoveries can be made by individuals and we don't live in that age.

Henrik the Great asked me to dust off what I know about the curriculum and practice of private tutoring. While I don’t know much, I do know the basics and the big names.

I recently compiled excerpts from Jesuit educational ideals already, which offers some pointers.

For a detailed example of an entire curriculum see Jesuit Education: Its History and Principles (1904) which, while a lackluster book for several reasons, does include a detailed course of study which would be fairly standard not just among Catholic but also Anglican and Lutheran teachers during the 17th – 19th century. For example, John Stuart Mill’s early education was very much in the same vein.

Here are the big works on pedagogy and curriculum:

Aristotle (all, but especially)

On Rhetoric


Cicero, Ad Herrenium, which lays out the entire course rhetoric and persuasion for the next 1800 years. It is also the first place that the use of deep memory techniques is briefly discussed. 

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, which reviews Cicero’s course and extends the ideas and practice.

Marcus Aurelius mentions in his meditations mentions the quality of teaching of many of his tutors, especially the method of writing dialogues on alternate positions. This method was popular enough that many early Christian writings are in dialogue form as well. 

Cassiodorus, Institutes of Secular Learning


Peter Lombard’s Sentences were the standard method and textbook for 400 years.

Aquinas On the Teacher. Of course, Aquinas’s Summae tried to make a replacement for the sentences, but was not successful until well after his death (three centuries!).

John Buridan’s Summulae de Dialectica was a standard textbook on Logic and logical method for a couple hundred years.

I do not know of any medieval source who discussed and presented scholastic pedagogical method explicitly, although it was very influential. I need to check what would have been the standard reference.


Petrus Paulus Vergilius, De Ingenuis Moribus frequently translated as The New Education. Refocuses education on service to civic life.

Aeneas Silvius, On Education 

Erasmus De Ratione Studii, On the Method of Study, and Ciceronianus, which covers how he thinks schooling can excel beyond mere memorization and imitation.

I think it is easy to underestimate how much sway these older authors had on 17th-19th century education. They were giants.

I have some takeaways from these readings and my own experience being classically educated but am not yet able to fully articulate them.


I am not well aware how tutoring curricula changed in the Enlightenment. I wouldn’t count the differences in method to be great, although the content certainly shifted to include more mathematics. The personal libraries of the great thinkers reflect remarkably little change from the interests of the Renaissance Humanists, as far as I know. Though, I am happy to be corrected.


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There are really two questions, I think. One is whether or not tutoring is a good way forward. The other is about the classical curriculum and methods that the tutors used, but that were also used in non-tutoring contexts (Roman primary schools, Medieval universities, etc.).

I think your info is mostly about the second thing.

Re: what changed in the Renaissance and Enlightenment: Enlightenment tutors tended to do much more geography and be more on the more aggressive side about teaching Euclid. There was also probably on average some easing up on the later elements of the trivium, with someone like Locke (qua tutoring) easing up a lot and traditionalists much less so. (You can also see some easing in De Ingenuis Moribus.)

To your point, I don't think the Renaissance works really change much about the classical approach to education. What most of your post illustrates is the extreme, multi-century stability of the Trivium approach, which was true in both tutoring and non-tutoring contexts. What's shocking about the Enlightenment is that education doesn't really look much different, except in the very upper edge of the research university context.

Part of the reason for the extreme stability of the ancient curriculum is that rhetoric was stable as the one and only master-skill of the elite, the power tool for gaining wealth and influence. That's not true anymore, which is one of many reasons to be skeptical of any sort of simple applicability of the ancient approach to today.

Confidence level: 30%

Strongly agree this info is mostly about what tutoring was, but I have been struck recently by how far-reaching this idea of 'rhetoric' is. I have found it very easy throughout my life to think about this classic notion of rhetoric as mere speaking well and persuading. But the way it is talked about and the way the curricula of Cicero, Quintilian and Renaissance thinkers seem to think of it, as you say, as the master skill of the elite. Is it not true anymore?

It depends on how we define this master skill. What exactly was this skill, if it is broader than mere persuasion? Rhetoric has its roots in law, political, persuasion, and the courts so we might call it 'public advocacy.' But it concerns not so much what to advocate so much as how to advocate. So at minimum it requires a knowledge of law, persuasion, and politics. 

What might rhetoric have to do with progress studies?

Today, the good public advocate needs also knowledge of technology, economics, and maybe something else, and an eye to how more good can be done. But the key factor of a modern rhetoric would be the study and practice of mechanisms and method for getting stuff done: soft networks, legal process, fundraising, think tanks, legislative interventions, startup pitches, nonprofit organization, policy drafting and implementation, management science.

Since I believe that organizational and structural barriers are currently a bigger limiting variable on progress than invention and technology, a new version of rhetoric might be called for.

One alternative view is that I am just abusing the term and rhetoric is as obsolete as wooden wheels.