06 August 2006

Reflections on the Definition of Classical Education

My second set of notes from CiRCE is from a session by Martin Cothran (of Traditional Logic fame). As before, I'm going to write out the points that hit me, with my rabbit trails in italics.

"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." ~Andrew Kern's definition of classical education

This is a lofty definition that deals with the final cause, the purpose, or the goal of classical education. Martin then focused on the material cause, which answers the question "What is it composed of?" In other words, if we break it down into its parts, what are those parts? What are the skills and content of classical education, the how and the what? I'm reorganizing the order of his presentation for clarity.

The skills are the liberal arts. The term art is defined as "a disciplined, organized system of study" and is composed of the trivium (language arts) and the quadrivium (mathematical arts).

The trivium is the qualitative side and is made up of grammar: the study of the structure of language through Latin and Greek; logic: the study of the structure of rational thought; and rhetoric: the study of the principles of persuasion.

Why Latin? Because it is regular and organized; it reflects the culture which it came from. It is also easier to understand grammar by studying a language other than the one we learned at our mothers' knees. Unlike post-modernism, which says that language is subjective, the rigorous study of grammar teaches us, through the study of the objective rules of language, that the concepts referred to by specific words exist outside of ourselves; they're objective, not subjective.

Logic refers to Aristotelian logic and not modern symbolic logic. Aristotelian logic is verbal logic as opposed to mathematical logic. Why is this distinction important? Because in modern, symbolic logic the terms are interchangeable, whereas in verbal logic, each word refers to a concept which refers to the very nature of something. Concepts aren't interchangeable. This refers back to the objectivity of language, upon which the study of rational thought is built. Without this objectivity of language, rational thought itself is impossible.

The quadrivium is quantitative and is made up of arithmetic: the theory of number; music: the application of the theory of number; geometry: the theory of space; and astronomy: the application of the theory of space.

The content of classical education is Western Civilization, the great books, the great ideas. Western Civilization refers to 3 specific cultures: Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem (which includes both Jewish culture as communicated through Scripture and Church history). The Greeks represent speculative, philosophical, and literary man in miniature. The Romans represent practical and political man in miniature. Jerusalem teaches us how God deals with individuals and nations. This isn't exhaustive, but it is the emphasis of classical education.

We moderns have advanced in the quadrivium, but regressed in the trivium. Could this be why there's a greater emphasis on discussing and studying the trivium than the quadrivium in current-day classical education circles?

Martin's next question regarded the classification of classical education. Where does it fit? What greater thing is it a part of? He didn't really answer this question, but instead presented 3 views of education: progressive, pragmatic, and classical.

The progressive view espouses using schools and students as a means to change the culture. Its heyday lasted until the 1950's and Sputnik. It lives on in political correctness.

The life adjustment or pragmatic view espouses acclimating children to the present culture. It is a source of the anti-intellectualism in American life (says Hochtstetter). It is the reason for the proliferation of vocational training, home economics, drivers' education, etc. It is based on the Prussian system, and leads to early pigeon-holing of students. This is the basis for the push in Germany and France for students to choose a major before high school, or one is decided for them. The student is then educated for this vocation, eliminating other options as the student grows. Unfortunately, there's a segment of people in the US who think this is a good idea and are pushing for it in our government schools.

The classical view espouses as its goal the passing on of a culture with roots in the past. We mustn't jump off the shoulders of the giants who came before us. Classical education is a blessing and should cultivate gratitude and humility in us and in our students.

The first two views remind me of something from last year's CiRCE conference, A Celebration of Order, which I've been listening to lately. I can't remember who taught the workshop (Vigen Guroian?), but he said that there is a connection between the magic and the technology that came out of the 16th and 17th centuries. Before this time, education's purpose was to conform our souls to truth (i.e. the way the world really is, or to quote the mice from Babe: "the way things are"). The efforts to master magic and technology were attempts to conform the way the world is to the desires of our souls. 

So, what does this mean for our homeschooling endeavors? Well, we'll be focusing more on language this year. Our older kids will be taking Latin online, as I don't have the time to study Latin and logic and rhetoric and keep up in history and teach my little ones. The online classes will take some of the weight off of my shoulders and it will give my children a better understanding than I've been able to do so far with my struggling efforts to stay one step ahead of them in Latin. 

I also appreciate that Martin took a discipline approach to classical education and not an ages and stages approach. I used to lean toward the latter, until I began studying logic. As I saw the relationship between grammar and logic, a new perspective opened up for me. I've taught the ages and stages approach in the past at our state homeschool convention, but I'd teach a very different workshop if I were to teach again. This shift in paradigm has actually been quite liberating for me. It has given me much more practical guidance in choosing our children's course of study, and helped me set priorities.

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