15 August 2006

How I Came to Classical Education

I was recently asked how I came to classical education and to describe my changing definition of classical education through my journey. I thought it might make an interesting post, so here’s the story.

About 7 years ago, I heard George Grant speak. In one of his workshops, he sought to define classical education as describing the three stages of growth children experience (and, thus, is called the stages approach) - the first, the grammar stage, being the acquisition of facts; the second, the dialectic or logic stage, being the connection of those facts; and the third, or rhetoric stage, being the application of all those connected facts. He associated those three stages to the Bible's description of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. That worked for me for quite awhile, and gave me a basic framework (according to George's definition, any subject could be taught classically), but I still often found it overwhelming.

Through the years, I began to hear about other things in association with classical education: Latin, literature, the study of logic, history, rhetoric (the skill of persuasive writing and speaking). I tried to fit in those subjects we hadn't already been covering and to continue working on what we were working on - our load was getting pretty heavy.

I became acquainted with Andrew Kern, founder of the CiRCE Institute, about 5 years ago in the context of an online email loop. Andrew's influence was imperceptible and slow to work, but it's become huge in my thinking. Andrew's definition: "Classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty so that, in Christ, a student is better able to know, glorify, and enjoy God." As Martin Cothran said in his talk, this definition deals with the end goal of a classical education, but I was still stumped on the application - what does it look like day by day in my home?

Then, last year, as I began to prepare to work through formal logic with one of my children by studying it myself, I began to understand the connection between the grammar learned in what used to be called grammar schools (funny thing about the name) with the ability to think clearly and reason rightly. I also began to understand how rhetoric (persuasion) is then built upon logic (right thinking - if we don't reason rightly, we shouldn't try to persuade anyone of anything because without order to our thinking, the structure and style of rhetoric simply become empty propaganda and we will either fail to persuade or we will persuade when we shouldn’t).

I began to see that classical education must include, and is, in part, defined by an in-depth study of the structure of language (grammar, most often through inflected languages: Latin or Greek), a rigorous study of the structure of thinking (logic, both formal and informal), and thoughtful study of the structure of persuasion (rhetoric). These three disciplines form the skeleton, if you will, of a classical education. Without them, there is no classical education.

Classical education forms the mind. I know so many people who really don't understand basic grammar and it seems that they can't think clearly - grammar helps to give structure to the mind, as does logic, and rhetoric.

However, it's not enough solely to form the mind. In order to make classical education Christian, we must also work on loving our students and teaching them to love as Christ loved. Andrew explained this so well! We must teach our students virtue (Christlikeness, as much as it can be taught and relying on the grace of God to bring to maturity the seeds we plant). We must remember and remind our students that classical education is a gift from God and that we don't deserve it (humility). Classical education becomes hard and cruel when separated from Christ (as it was in British boarding schools before it was discounted among the educational elite in the 19th and 20th centuries).

This new understanding, virtue walking hand-in-hand with the disciplines of classical education, has been truly liberating for me. I've finally been able to pare down the number of subjects we're trying to cover; to slow down our pace, not just of school, but of life itself; to realize that the intellectual training I was aiming for is simpler than I thought it was and that it must be tied to love; that the simplicity relieves the pressure and allows us the time and energy to work on relationship and virtue in the context of our studies. This paring down is a setting of priorities and yet will increase the rigor of what we're learning - less, but much more deeply.

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