I first heard of classical education from an eighty-year-old former teacher, whom I had over for tea. She shared her concerns about the current public school system and government-funded homeschool programs and advocated for a Christian classical education. To learn about classical education, I dived into the book The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, and then a friend told me of a program her children participated in one day a week called Classical Conversations, a Christian classical education program. When I heard of the foundation of knowledge her daughter was learning, I looked into Classical Conversations myself. Within a week, I had convinced my husband to let us try the program and was contracted as a tutor.
Over time, as my husband and I studied education, we came to see how classical education really makes sense, is time-tested, and sets children up for success in learning. It is the way people from western civilization and early America used to learn until John Dewey came and decided that America needed a different system to keep people from thinking so individualistically.
What is classical education?
Classical education is based on the trivium, which means three roads or the three stages of education.
The Three Stages of Classical Education
The first stage is the grammar or knowledge stage. This is the early years of a child’s development and learning (approximately ages 3 to 11.) Elementary schools used to be called grammar schools because of this developmental stage. Grammar is the basic vocabulary of a subject or discipline. During this stage, a child will gather information, observe, categorize and ask who, what, when, and where. This is a time to memorize and drill those memory facts as the foundation to the rest of the learning process, for memorization and repetition are the way children learn.
The second stage of the trivium is the dialectic or understanding stage. This occurs during the middle school years at approximately ages 12 to 14 but can begin earlier depending on the child. Here a child will ask questions on the how and why (the logic) of the vocabulary acquired in the grammar stage. The child will reason, evaluate, compare, criticize, discuss and debate. It is time to learn discernment and reconcile ideas while building relationships. It may feel like a child is seeking to argue about everything, and this is why the teenage years can be so difficult, but this is just part of development.
Then there is the third stage, which is called the rhetoric stage or wisdom. This usually occurs in the high school years, ages 14 to 18. This is the time when a young adult will synthesize and defend ideas and be able to use and apply one’s learning. One expresses one’s ideas creatively or persuades through written papers or speeches and is able to teach others. The goal is to become men and women who are mature and reach their fullest potential, as did Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
Using a few analogies, the grammar stage is like putting down the dots of a dot-to-dot, while the dialectic stage would be connecting the lines. Finally, one can see the big picture in the rhetoric stage. Or using a computer analogy, the grammar stage is the input, dialectic is the process and practice, and rhetoric is the output.
While these are stages of cognitive development, they are also natural stages of learning. Even an adult learning a new discipline will follow these steps. For example, I am learning to sew, so at first I learned the vocabulary of sewing, such as parts of a machine, types of stitches, thread tension, how much pressure to give the pedal, etc., More recently, in the dialectic stage, I have taken on simple sewing projects and learned to follow a sewing pattern. When I am rhetorical in sewing, I will be able to teach others to sew, create my own patterns to share with others, and perhaps sell my creations.
The Power of Christian Classical Education
Allowing children to go through these three stages – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric or knowledge, understanding and wisdom – is the natural process of learning, which is proven over time. Classical education is not a modern creation of a think-tank group, but it is a recognition of the way God causes a child to develop and children’s propensity to learn. While in today’s progressive education as envisioned by Dewey children are being asked to be creative and discuss ideas before they have any vocabulary of the subject, classical education gives children tools to learn by putting the horse (memorization of facts and vocabulary) before the cart (asking questions and discussion of ideas and ultimately, application.) As Dorothy Sayers explains in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning, “For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command.”
The beauty of classical education is that children learn how to think, not what to think. Let’s face it, the government schools have a psycho-social agenda to push and are pressuring our children to regurgitate certain politically correct material as if this is real critical thinking. Only one side of an issue is presented, so children do not learn to ask questions and arrive at a well thought out conclusion, but they are told what to think, to fit in and become part of the collective. Classical education, on the other hand, empowers children to take charge of their learning, and in the rhetoric or wisdom stage, young adults can have meaningful discussions about issues with research on both sides of the issue presented so they can come to a logical and well thought out position.
In classical education, because things are in their proper order – laying the foundation of knowledge, asking questions and assimilating information for understanding, and writing, discussing, and defending ideas and teaching others to the end of application and wisdom – children love to learn, discover how to learn, and ultimately, become true life-long learners, not puppets who merely repeat state approved ideology. Harold spent his school years looking out the window and only went to school so he could play sports, because he was not taught to love to learn nor was he challenged, but he figured out how to meet the requirements and not “rock the boat.” When he moved out of state for college and had to work at his studies, he discovered he loved reading and learning, especially when he could pursue his own interests. Today, we are redeeming our public school education (or lack thereof) through intergenerational learning with our children.
I remember being in biology class in high school and having to learn all the vocabulary of biology and then leap to conclusions in labs all in the matter of weeks. This was the first time I had been exposed to any of the concepts and words – like ribosomes and endoplasmic reticulum, genus and species, intestines and esophagus, etc. I crammed for tests and then promptly forgot everything. Yet, in classical education, because of the three stages, learning is layered and the child does not have to retain all of the information, understanding and application at once. In the grammar stage, a child can memorize the classifications of living things, parts of a plant cell, anatomical systems, and so forth. Later, the child will do experiments and labs to ask questions in the dialectic stage to develop understanding of the classification of living things, parts of a plant cell, and anatomical systems. Finally, in the rhetoric stage, one will write papers, do research, teach others about the classifications of living things, parts of a plant cell, and anatomical systems. It is not overwhelming in these layers of learning.
In my public school past, I recall the 50 minute class periods with a bell ringing to mark the beginning and end of each period, a holdover from the influence of Horace Mann and the Prussian system he introduced to American education in the late 19th century. The subjects were kept distinct in these prescribed time blocks. In science, we studied science. In language arts, we read literature and wrote papers, but not about science. In social studies, we were… socialized? I guess it was history study really, but again, we did not discuss science or literature in social studies. There was not mention of how one subject relates to other areas of life, and there was never a mention of God, except to mock him.
But not so in Christian classical education. Here, it would be better to label school subjects as disciplines or categories of creation, and all of the disciplines should and can be integrated and related back to God. “How does science relate to history and literature?” “How has God worked his will throughout history? See how Alexander the Great brought the Greek language to much of the world so the time would be right for Christ to be born and spread his message throughout the world?” “See how math is structured to show us we have a God of structure? And parsing and diagramming sentences for English is also structured and logical like math.” We can relate all of the learning disciplines to one another and to God.
Group work, a tenet of progressive education, is back in vogue in public schools. It is based on sharing ignorance due to the lack of grammar and involves coming to a prearranged conclusion using peer pressure and teacher facilitation. Usually one student does all the work, and the other students who don’t care coast along on the work of the one who does care. In classical education, dialectic discussion and rhetorical expression do require a group to work with, but it is nothing like group work. Instead, classical education provides community, a safe place to discuss ideas and challenge one another so one can develop convictions, even if they are not the popular agenda of the day. I’d rather see my children become men and women who stand for ideas they can defend than remain infants, who are “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14) They need community to develop those ideas, though, and a Christian classical education community like Classical Conversations is a wonderful place to do this.
In conclusion, we educate our children classically because it is the usual course of development and provides children with the tools necessary to discover, explore, and use their God-given gifts. Christian classical education makes sense as it sets our children up for success in learning any discipline they desire to pursue. With a strong foundation of knowledge, they can ask questions, discuss, debate, synthesize, and eventually reach mastery and wisdom! They are enabled to become responsible adults and to glorify and enjoy God, which is the chief end of man!
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All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®, Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan.
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The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education by Leigh Bortins
The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer