Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the Trivium.
The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage” — not because you spend four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation for language. In the elementary school years — what we commonly think of as grades one through four — the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun. So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts. Rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics — the list goes on. This information makes up the “grammar,” or the basic building blocks, for the second stage of education.
By fifth grade, a child’s mind begins to think more analytically. Middle-school students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “Logic Stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the way relationships between different fields of knowledge relate, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework.
A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and learning to support a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story; the logic of science requires that the child learn the scientific method.
The final phase of a classical education, the “Rhetoric Stage,” builds on the first two. At this point, the high school student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language. Students also begin to specialize in whatever branch of knowledge attracts them; these are the years for art camps, college courses, foreign travel, apprenticeships, and other forms of specialized training.
A classical education is more than simply a pattern of learning, though. Classical education is language-focused; learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken, rather than through images (pictures, videos, and television). Why is this important? Language-learning and image-learning require very different habits of thought. Language requires the mind to work harder; in reading, the brain is forced to translate a symbol (words on the page) into a concept. Images, such as those on videos and television, allow the mind to be passive. In front of a video screen, the brain can “sit back” and relax; faced with the written page, the mind is required to roll its sleeves up and get back to work.
A classical education, then, has two important aspects. It is language-focused. And it follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.
But that isn’t all. To the classical mind, all knowledge is interrelated. This is easier said than done. The world is full of knowledge, and finding the links between fields of study can be a mind-twisting task. A classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its organizing outline — beginning with the ancients and progressing forward to the moderns in history, science, literature, art and music.
The classical education is, above all, systematic — in direct contrast to the scattered, unorganized nature of so much secondary education. This systematic, rigorous study has two purposes. Rigorous study develops virtue in the student. Aristotle defined virtue as the ability to act in accordance to what one knows to be right. The virtuous man (or woman) can force himself to do what he knows to be right, even when it runs against his inclinations. The classical education continually asks a student to work against his baser inclinations (laziness, or the desire to watch another half hour of TV) in order to reach a goal — mastery of a subject.
Systematic study also allows the student to join what Mortimer Adler calls the “Great Conversation” — the ongoing conversation of great minds down through the ages. Much modern education is so eclectic that the student has little opportunity to make connections between past events and the flood of current information. “The beauty of the classical curriculum,” writes classical schoolmaster David Hicks, “is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolisms, plots, and motifs.”
Today’s students face a more demanding world than ever before, and few investments have more potential than your children’s education and character training. A Classical Christian Education, with its conception in ancient Greece and refinement over the centuries by Christian scholars is the method that produced the great Western thinkers and scientists of the past, including America’s founding fathers. It will also give modern students the best possible chance of successfully meeting today’s demands.
The foundation of a classical education has three key components: grammar, logic and rhetoric. This simply means that there is an orderly process to learning that starts with mastering the basics, progresses to an understanding of the use of those basics and culminates in the ability to knowledgably apply one’s learning to think logically and communicate articulately. Learning the basics in Grammar includes instruction in phonics, memorization of math, spelling and grammar rules, in a respectful yet demanding environment. Thus, students learn the rules of the English language before they are expected to write sentences. They master spelling, penmanship, math and science facts early. Then they build on that great knowledge-base in the Logic and Rhetoric phases. Please read the more specific explanation of the Trivium included on the reverse.
But truly effective education goes beyond just learning the facts. Dorothy Sayers, a pioneer in the return to classical education observed, “although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects’, we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think.” Classical education cultivates thinking, articulate students who can develop facts into arguments and convey these arguments clearly and persuasively, both orally and in writing. Because it develops independent learning skills by teaching students how to learn, it instills in them a love of learning. The classical difference becomes clear when students are taken beyond conventionally taught subjects and asked to apply their knowledge through logic and clear expression. Thus, even beyond intensive subject matter, classical education develops those skills that are essential in higher education and throughout life—independent scholarship, critical thinking, logical analysis and a love for learning. Thinking, articulate people who are able to acquire new skills rapidly and independently will always be in demand, in any field. A Classical Christian education regularly turns out these types of students.
A classical education also develops a solid sense of accomplishment in students. Today, educators soften grading scales in an effort to bolster student self-esteem. But where public education’s emphasis on ‘self-esteem’ offers a rather hollow feel-good approach, classical education provides students with a realistic and true estimation of their own abilities. Only through genuine effort can student achieve a genuine sense of accomplishment. There are no shortcuts, but the results are worth the price, because in the process learning and hard work become mixed with fun. Learning should be an enjoyable and challenging endeavor.
The “Christian” part of classical education goes beyond Bible instruction to a consideration of all subjects from a Christian worldview. While conventional education operates on the philosophy that truth is relative and there are no absolute values, a Classical Christian education emphasizes the absolute truth and relevance of God’s Word in the natural world, from the order in mathematics, to the science of creation and the accuracy of the Bible in history.
A final benefit of a classical Christian education is that each student is valued as an individual before God, and the kind and generous student who works hard is just as valued as the superior athlete or scholar.
The demanding job of acquiring voluminous information and mastering complex thinking and communication skills forms in students a solid work ethic and personal self-esteem. This, when meshed with a Christian values system and worldview produces young adults prepared to take full advantage of their remaining educational years. A Classical Christian education consistently produces this type of student.
Excerpted from The Well Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer