A Summary and Justification of Classical Education

Tremors are shaking the field of Christian education. Some ministries do not notice, some have heard of the shaking, some have felt it, some have felt it hard, and then some are the ground-stomping tree-shakers. The shaking is starting to grow larger and broader and noisier every year. The shaking has inspired Gene E. Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern to write a book titled Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America. Despite the fact that it is called a “sweeping” or “shaking” movement, it is making its way fairly quietly and, especially within the education realms of Fundamentalism, the movement is practically unknown.

It is a good and proper thing for the honest educator to consider at least a general introduction to the history, figures, and reasoning of this rebirthed movement gaining momentum across the evangelical Christian landscape.

Classical education has its earliest roots in Greek and Roman history. Their philosophy and practical genius led the way for Cassiodorus’ systematization of learning into the seven liberal arts (A.D. 480) composed of a trivium and a quadrivium. The trivium was primarily interested in the grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric; and the quadrivium centered on the arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. The learning of the trivium was a springboard, Cassiodorus purported, into the quadrivium, whose extent went far beyond the scope of our modern notions of their meanings. He intended to include the entire scope of learning under these seven liberal arts, and the labels were much broader than they first appear to us.

After the time of the Greeks and Romans, several centuries ensued which are commonly referred to as dark–there was bedlam and barbarism. During this time the medieval church put practice onto the Greek and Roman theories of learning as meat clings onto bones. They founded the first universities, and their much learning led to the Renaissance and Enlightenment in which there were explosions of learning and profitable excursion in nearly every field. Bacon, Copernicus, Wycliffe, Luther, Knox, Columbus, and all the others were taking advantage of this organized system of learning. During the 1800s, the glut of much learning was beginning to subside (as men again began to rest on their laurels as had the Romans). As a result, skepticism, relativism and modernism began chewing away at society, leaving it in the generally dingy blight in which we now exist.

Dorothy Sayers was born in 1893 England into a ministerial family. A bright spirit, she carried the potential of genius. After graduating first in her class at Oxford in 1915, she became well-known as a crime writer, a translator, and an apologist of the faith. Miss Sayers was contemporary to and friends with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and while she was never strictly an educator, she developed and maintained strong and intelligent stands on matters of education. In 1947, Miss Sayers gave a lecture titled The Lost Tools of Learning. This lecture was transcribed and printed and is now available widely. In printed form, it is the approximately twelve to thirteen pages of fodder fueling the revived modern classical education movement. The lecture is a sort of magnum opus for all classically-minded educators, acting as a springboard into a wide array of classical possibilities.

Sayers’ focus was entirely on the trivium stage of learning. She characterized the trivium as a preparation for learning. She considered the trivium to be all the education that needs to take place on a pre-college level.

Because this lecture so dramatically encapsulizes this modern incarnation of classical education, it would be important to consider what was written. Sayers begins by arguing that, though not an educator, she is qualified to speak on the matters because “we have all, at some time or another, been taught” (1947, p. 1). She continues on by listing some of the key problems being faced in her day, beginning with our prolonging of education. She asks, “The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects [than their medieval counterparts]–but does that mean that they actually know more?” (1947, p. 2). Second, our populace is very naive and susceptible, especially to propaganda and advertisement. Third, we have an inability to center on the core issue of problems. Sayers (1947, p. 2) says,

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side?

Fourth, we offer little regard to the proper place of grammar, logic flow, or definitions. Fifth, we are becoming more and more incapable of learning on our own and have a decided lack of discernment. Sixth, we make “watertight bulkheads” between subjects and find ourselves incapable of noticing unity between them. Seventh, we hold practically no ability to reason logically. Eighth, we show a decided lack of preciseness in thinking and speaking, and lastly, we fail to understand the process of learning how to learn.

Miss Sayers then encapsulizes the problems we face with the following:

Is not the great defect of our education today–a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned–that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning (1947, p. 4).

In a similar vein, she also says,

We let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education–lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it (1947, p. 7).

Sayers then progresses on to assume hypothetically that she should be able and free to design a curriculum to suit these regresses. She begins by assigning her own labels to the different ability levels. She calls the first stage the Poll-Parrot stage. It is the time when students relish memorizing and chanting and reciting and accumulating. The next stage is the Pert stage, in which the child is found to be inquisitive and contradictory, eager to argue and know. The last stage is the Poetic stage, in which the child longs for independence and seeks to unify his thinking and be able to express what he thinks in an appealing way.

While there is nothing like a fixed mandate about where each stage begins and ends, there is a general consistency in how these stages are viewed. Generally the Grammar is what we know as the elementary years. The Logic stage corresponds to junior high, and the Rhetoric stage is associated with the senior high years.

The Grammar stage is not referring to the learning of English grammar, but the grammar of each subject–the facts and meat associated with a subject. According to Sayers, the most important subject to be learned during this stage is Latin. It is here that Miss Sayers makes her most bold claim of all:

I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediaeval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent (1947, p. 9).

This dramatic statement may still be unproven, but the advantages of Latin are presented as stupendous.

The second stage is the Dialectic stage, in which the core subject to be confronted is formal logic. It is an attempt to draw the student into an understanding of the subjects that were confronted in the Grammar stage. Sayers says of logic,

The disrepute into which Formal Logic has fallen is entirely unjustified; and its neglect is the root cause of nearly all those disquieting symptoms which we have noted in the modern intellectual constitution. Logic has been discredited, partly because we have come to suppose that we are conditioned almost entirely by the intuitive and the unconscious. There is no time to argue whether this is true; I will simply observe that to neglect the proper training of the reason is the best possible way to make it true (1947, p. 12).

The doors open wide for the student to explore in the Rhetoric stage of learning. Having been acquiring knowledge all along and then learning how to understand and defend in the Logic stage, the student is ready to explore the possibilities that abound. They are given full-meals of learning–with weightier subjects on which to chew. Students will be bent toward their predispositions and asked to unify their learning. In Sayers’ school, there would be a formal thesis in the last year of learning. This would entail a large degree of study, researchm and writing on a particular topic, and then an oral defense of the topic to a large crowd, including a committee of questioners. The thesis process is meant to be an intense process that caps the trivium.

Sayers concludes her educational proposition with another lament for the need for such a reform as this. She says,

But one cannot live on capital forever. However firmly a tradition is rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies…. We have lost the tools of learning–the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane–that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or “looks to the end of the work…”. It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For 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.

Years after Sayers’ lecture, in the 1960s, Douglas Wilson, a seaman aboard a Navy ship, came across a reprint of Sayers’ lecture. He read it and was inspired. Later as a pastor at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, he started the Logos School– the first modern classical school.

Douglas Wilson should be considered the Father of Modern Classical Education. Logos went through many stages in those early, infant years. Sayers’ lecture was rich in theory but not in practice. Thousands upon thousands of decisions needed to be made in those early years about books and methods as if there had not been school before. The teachers–and the parents–needed to be trained to understand the classical model of education, and beyond Sayers’ lecture there was nothing to guide them except their own understanding and initiative. Nonetheless, Logos grew and grew and maintained a basic structure that did and still does closely resemble Sayers’ ideal.

Many other schools have spun off from Logos. Today there are nearly 200 classical Christian schools in the United States and thousands of home-schools seeking to implement the same model. Each of these units, though different, share the same basic structure. They each generally adhere to the trivium and its three parts: Grammar (including Latin), Logic (Dialectic), and Rhetoric (with formal training in the art of rhetoric). Certainly each part looks different, primarily because a “best way” has yet to be advanced. Sayers’ lecture was a first thought and did not offer the meat of methods.

Also, the advancements suggested in the Lost Tools of Learning are weighty, making them difficult to understand, promote, and advance. The notion of the use of Latin in the curriculum (usually for seven full years or more) is a stumbling block to many parents and educators, especially when the student begins learning Latin in second or third grade; however, the advantages put forth by Wilson and Sayers are fairly gigantic and should surely be considered a long time before dismissing the notions as archaic (or abusive).

Interestingly, there is practically no presence of the classical model within the realms of fundamental Christianity that this author can find, though great effort has been made. A long-established school in Michigan has made some moves in recent years to put on some of the classically-minded garb, but the author knows of no single other actual effort taking place. Many key education leaders inside Fundamentalism are unaware of any such schools and know little about the process themselves. Several reasons exist for this lack of knowledge and interest. The primary reasons are that the model itself is still fairly new and small, the ideas purported are outside the comfort zones of most traditionally trained educators, and finally, it is really hard. The classical curriculum is not rooted in the here and now, as most modern curriculums and methods are, and delving into hard things is even more difficult when you haven’t been educated under the classical model yourself.

After a dozen years, Wilson wrote a summary of the advancements of the classical movement in Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education. In it, Wilson laments the failure of all public education and suggests an approach to a distinctively Christian and classical education. Mr. Wilson wrote one sentence that sounds much like the last line of Sayers. He says, “We cannot say that our job as educators is done until the children have been taught how to learn for themselves and how to express what they learn” (1991, p. 97). Sayers and Wilson both regard learning how to learn as a preeminent notion inside the Christian concepts of education–that is, learning how to learn for the express purpose of continuing to learn for God’s glory is an express concern for the classical educator. Mr. Wilson’s other notable books on the topic of education include Repairing the Ruins, The Case for Classical Christian Education, and the Paidea of God.

Whereas many curriculums are focused on content, classical education is focused on processes. The student graduating from the normal, traditional school is walking away on graduation night with buckets of knowledge–cumbersome cartfuls of buckets of knowledge. His thirteen years have been spent in memorizing and knowing. His teachers consider him well-learned when he can remember all of the capitals in all of the countries, or when he is able to remember the whole poem by himself without helps or when he can reproduce his table of scientific elements without flaw.

As Wilson and Sayers would portray, the classical student walks away on graduation night with a handbag full of the most useful tools for learning. He has learned how to memorize and retain and regurgitate information like the traditional school boy, perhaps he has even learned the value of cramming. But he also learned to reason and proclaim convincingly, debate unwaveringly, defend winsomely, write beautifully, consider thoroughly, win and lose graciously, stand confidently, and die magnanimously. As opposed to a constrictive vocational study, the classical method will allow its graduates to go take on any subject in nearly any school in any field and learn any subject. His classical education has given him freedom, especially the freedom to serve God in whatever capacity He has willed. He is strong and able to stand toe-to-toe with Christianity’s fiercest detractors and speak to their flawed logic and God-denying, lying hearts. His education will teach him how to form an informed and biblical opinion.

Some would argue that this style of education makes a student haughty and over-learned, independent of God and self-sufficient. But classical, Christian education does not make the student independent of God, but rather shows him reasons to be dependent on God. True learning results in humility from seeing our smallness. It drives us before our Creator and onto our faces. The advantage of true education is that it makes us better Christians, not glibly flitting behind every wind of doctrine or mindlessly accepting every exhortation as “sound” or even not knowing what to think about anything. But rather, the truly educated will be like the Bereans who knew how to study; they “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Classical education is not a panacea, and it does not make people perfect. But it is a logical, ordered approach that some consider to be biblically-based–especially considering how similar the stages are to the biblical key words from Proverbs. The grammar stage corresponds well with knowledge, the logic stage with understanding, and the rhetoric stage with wisdom.

Classical Christian education should be investigated thoroughly before it is even partially repudiated. Its tenets have been tested and are proven–not over generations but over centuries. The classical model of education has been a precursor toboomershine_ryan.jpg history’s greatest advancements, and the decline of classical principles has led to the bleakest and lowest ages of our history.

God bless and help the Christian who continues to study these things.

Ryan Boomershine is the school administrator at Prairie Baptist School in Scotts, Michigan. Ryan has two degrees from Bob Jones University, a vision for God-centeredness, a growing love of the history of the Pilgrims, and a fond affection for the guacamole burgers at Red Robin. He and his wife, Christie, have been married for seven years, and they have three future men: Karsten (4), Haddon (3) and Lincoln (1). Ryan is also an eBay PowerSeller.

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