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Thoughts on Classical Education

Posted on: July 7, 2008

I’m collecting my homeschooling thoughts again, this time on Classical education. A few years ago, I read several of Douglas Wilson’s books on Classical education, and I thought I was completely sold on it. But after reading and thinking about it some more, I’m not so sure. Part of the problem is one of definition. Just what is Classical homeschooling, anyway? The word gets thrown around a lot, and it seems to mean different things to different people, and the same is true of the word “trivium.”

I’ve been reading Teaching the Trivium by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, and it’s been very helpful in the thinking process. They set out several definitions:

1. The Formal Trivium in the classical sense refers to the subjects of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (and they were taught in that order). We moderns are supposed to learn the grammar of Latin or ancient Greek as well as English.

2. The Applied Trivium refers to an educational model or philosophy.

3. The Trivium method for teaching subjects is based on the philosophy of the Applied Trivium, and is explained in #4.

4. The Trivium model of Child Educational Development refers to the idea (I think this was developed by Dorothy Sayers) that children’s mental development passes through 3 stages, each of which is ideally suited to learning in a certain way. The grammar stage is when the mind is eager to soak up facts, so this is when children are supposed to learn grammar, both in English and foreign languages, as well as the facts of all of the other subjects – dates, definitions, lists of presidents, etc. The logic stage is when the mind is ready to analyze, so this is when they learn logic, and in the other subjects we scrutinize the relationship between those facts that were soaked up in the previous stage. In the rhetoric stage, the mind is ready for creative expression, so we teach writing and speaking, organizing one’s thoughts, etc. It is also supposed to be when the child is ready for practical application of his knowledge of the other subjects.

Another thing that often seems to go with Classical education (though not necessarily) is a spiral approach to the study of history. You start in 1st or 2nd grade with the study of the ancients. In the Christian version, you start with Genesis. At the beginning, kids aren’t ready for in-depth study, so you read children’s books about the relevant time period, and build models, and other grade-school type things. You take 4 or 5 years to get to the present, and then you start over again with ancient times. The material is familiar from the first time through, but you study more in depth this time. Different versions of this spiral have 2 or 3 repetitions.

So what do I think of Classical education? In the wrong order:

1. Grammar and Rhetoric (which refers to writing and speaking) are necessary for anyone who wants to be educated, and I don’t think I know anyone who disagrees with this. Logic is less universally required, but I think we would all be better off with some formal training in logic.

The ancient languages are a sticking point. Sure, there are lots of good reasons for learning Latin and/or ancient Greek, and I think languages are fun, so why not? But at a gut level, I just can’t get convinced that it’s a big deal to learn anything but English. All the reasons would take up a post in themselves.

4. The Trivium model of children’s mental development sounds pretty good, and it might be true. My own experience in school verifies it in part. In late grade school (the grammar/fact), I remember wanting to soak up facts about my favorite subjects (science and geography), and my main frustration with school was that they just didn’t give them to me fast enough. But I had no interest whatsoever in history, and most people I’ve talked to hated it for the same reason I did – it was just a dry list of facts that none of us cared about. That doesn’t fit with the model, which says children are supposed to love memorizing any old facts. In junior high (the logic/analysis stage), I did analyze things a lot. I’ve never stopped. In my late teen years (the rhetoric/expression stage), I finally learned how to write, and discovered that I liked it! Starting in 5th grade or so, I had developed a phobia of any and all writing assignments because I could never organize my thoughts and get them on paper. This lasted until my freshman year in college, when something clicked.

(Incidentally, this supports something I keep reading in books supporting Classical education. The claim is often made that when we try to get children to do something that their brains just aren’t ready for, we cause all kinds of problems, most of which get labeled as some kind of learning disability that no one ever heard of a hundred years ago. The example most often given is this: If you try to teach a child to read before s/he is ready, you can cause dyslexia. There isn’t really something wrong with the kid, but the stress of trying so hard and failing anyway gives the kid a complex, and pretty soon s/he really does have a problem. In my case, the explanation would be that I just wasn’t ready for the level of writing that was expected of me, my teachers’ insistence that I do it anyway is what caused the problem. Personally, I think that if someone had just taught me how to organize my thoughts for writing instead of just assuming that I already knew, things probably would have been just fine. Argh.)

Anyway, back to the present. My plan is to go forward assuming the theory is more or less correct. But I will watch to see is my observations of my children go along with the theory or not. Whether or not to use a spiral approach to history is my husband’s problem, since he’s going to be teaching history. As for the other subjects…

It dawned on me last week that the Classical approach to education does not prescribe a method of instruction, and that’s part of why I feel so at sea when I contemplate all this. The Charlotte Mason approach works fine, or you can do unit studies, or you can get textbooks and workbooks, as long as they are geared toward the appropriate developmental stage. So I still have to figure out a method after all.

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