For six years, we followed that approach and trusted that system. I even signed up to be a licensed business owner myself and recruited others to join it, until partway through my daughter's fifth grade year, when I began to question a whole lot of things. Most were on the business/ethical side, but some were on the academic side. My biggest academic question was if the “system” in which we had invested so many years was really all it was cracked up to be - especially with middle school just around the corner. I started to read about classical education from writers outside of our chosen system, and realized that what I had believed was THE definition of "classical" was actually only one perspective. Not only that, there were many other companies and teachers and writers who had a VERY different understanding of classical education. The more I read articles and books and listened to podcasts and talked with other homeschool parents, the more I felt that a door was opening to a whole new world that I needed to explore.
Now, two years down the road from that “aha” moment, we are firmly removed from our former organization. We spent last year putting together our own eclectic classical curriculum for grades two and six, and all the while I was still reading and learning about classical education, including two summer graduate classes from Memoria College (a new arm of Memoria Press). One was Introduction to Classical Education and the other The Practice of Classical Pedagogy. I also recently discovered the book The Liberal Arts Tradition, an amazing book that unpacks yet another understanding of classical education, and we have now adopted most of the curriculum from Memoria Press as our blueprint for our children's learning (you can see our plan for this year here).
To claim I now have a firm grasp of what classical education is would be extreme hyperbole - but I do have a better grasp, and I thought I would share here what I now believe a truly classical education looks like. I offer it tentatively, as a relative newcomer to this ancient tradition. I also offer it in contrast to what I consider a pale imitation that is often offered to new homeschoolers like myself, who may have heard of this thing called "classical education", but only know enough to make it attractive, and not enough to distinguish between what is actually "classical" and what is trendy.
Pinning it down
Classical education has experienced a revival in the last several decades, in part due to the publication and interpretation of a paper presented at Oxford in 1947 by Dorothy Sayers, in which she draws an interesting (though not necessarily correct) analogy between current child development ideas with the skills presented in the ancient classical trivium. Her analogy was made popular by a couple of modern writers, and now both the trivium and classical education mean entirely different things, depending on who you ask and which camp they are in.
In the reading and learning I've done, I've looked a lot at two aspects of classical education - what the goal is, and what it actually contains. In my reading, two resources have been particularly helpful to me. One is "What is Education?" and other articles by Martin Cothran. The other is The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain. Let me sum up what I have learn from them, and others, below.
The goal of classical education
- holistic wisdom for life
- to shape the culture for the common good and the glory of God
- to teach men how to learn (Dorothy Sayers)
- to seek out truth, goodness, and beauty
- wisdom, virtue, and the formation of the "ideal man"
- "cultivate men and women characterized by wisdom, virtue, and elegance" (Liberal Arts Tradition)
- learn how to think and what to do (Martin Cothran)
- to pass along Western Civilization, the culture of the Christian West
- the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the Great Books and the development of critical thinking skills in order to pass on and preserve Western civilization
The arts and sciences
The three arts (from the Latin ars, or "skill") are the liberal arts, the fine arts, and the manual arts. The
manual arts (from Latin manus, hand) are trade skills and other practical life skills. They are not ends in themselves, but used to reach other ends. The fine arts (from Latin finis, end) are those that are an end in themselves, consisting in part of music, theater, dance, painting, drawing, and sculpture - things we do for the sheer joy of doing them.
The liberal arts are seven in number, composed of the three arts found in the trivium (the verbal arts) and the four arts of the quadrivium (the math arts). (Contrary to popular belief, at no time in history has the "trivium" been used to describe ages and stages of learning, which was a construct wholly from the mind of Dorothy Sayers as she attempted to encourage a return to the "lost tools of learning" in the face of modern educational ideas). The verbal arts are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The mathematical arts are arithmetic, geometry, music/harmonics, and astronomy.
The word sciences (from Latin scire, "to know or understand") refers not just to scientific experimentation, but to an organized body of knowledge. The moral sciences have to do with human concerns - literature, history, and philosophy, also referred to as the humanities. The natural sciences have to do with knowledge of the natural world - life sciences (biology, zoology, botany) and the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, earth science, astronomy). Finally, the theological sciences have to do with God, and include dogmatics (Christian belief), ethics (Christian morality), and apologetics (intellectual defense of the Christian faith).
The combination of these arts and sciences is what makes a solid Christian classical education, according to Mr. Cothran. I liked this description very much, but had questions about how to apply this throughout my children's education. What should come first, and what after that?
For that, I turn to the description of classical education I found in The Liberal Arts Tradition.
In their paradigm, the first three elements - piety, music, and gymnastic - are the foundation upon which other skills and knowledge are laid.
- Piety is proper love and fear of God and man. Is the duty, love and respect owed to God, parents, and communal authorities past and present.
- Gymnastic refers to the physical conditioning of a child through sports and exercise, which helps develop self-control, patience, and habits of hard work.
- Music is not limited to what we think of as music, but is that which the ancients believed to be inspired by the muses, to include poetry, drama, fine arts, literature, history, geography, and astronomy. The authors describe music as "soul-craft [which] carried out properly...tunes the soul and makes one receptive to truth and goodness". With this perspective, stories from the past (both history and literature) builds a child's moral imagination; science builds a wonder and awe of God's creation. These contains in "seed form" the liberal arts and philosophies that will come later. (It is interesting to note that these are areas that seem to be well-modeled and well-loved by advocates of the Charlotte Mason approach, which I see as one type of classical learning. CM purists may disagree, but I think there is much in common!)
Upon this foundation, the next step is the liberal arts, which are the same as described above: the trivium of grammar (to include the rules of language as well as Latin and Greek), dialectic (the art of reasoning, dialogue), and rhetoric (using language to persuade and to speak truth in an appealing way); and the quadrivium of arithmetic (discrete number), geometry (deductive reasoning, continuous number), astronomy (application of continuous number, math in time and space), and music (the application of discrete number, mathematical ratios, proportions, and harmonics). The final elements of a Christian classical education are philosophy, divided into divine (understanding being and truth, moral (social sciences today), and natural (what we think of as science today), and at the pinnacle, theology, the science of divine revelation.
I liked this, too, although I found Martin Cothran's description of the sciences to be easier to wrap my mind around than Clark and Jain's description of philosophy. I have some rereading to do there! What I liked most about Clark and Jain’s work was seeing how the younger elementary years can and should be focused on building wonder and joy and an understanding of how they fit into their community, and not on regurgitating a lot of facts out of context, which, sadly, is what many people think classical education is all about. (I also was challenged by their description of the quadrivium, which led me to the Euclid Geometry program Classical Mathematics One.)
Summing it up
Christian Classical education is a natural extension of our God-given responsibility to bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4), making use of traditional tools, habits, curriculum, and pedagogy, to the end that they may enter adulthood as fully integrated human beings...
- whose relationships with God, family, neighbor, and community are marked by and grounded in piety
- whose bodies, minds, and hearts are formed by gymnastic, music, and the liberal arts
- whose knowledge of the world, man, and God (the sciences) fits harmoniously in a distinctly Christian philosophy
- whose lives are informed and governed by historic Christian theology
- whose days are marked by belief in Jesus, availability to His calling, service to others, and sanctified living.
What it looks like through the years
- piety: early Bible knowledge, memorization, and training in behavior that follows and reflects the Scriptures
- gymnastic: physical training and habits leading to self-control
- music: stories to inspire (including biographies), poetry, music, drama
- immersion in the world of nature to build awe of the Creator
- planting the seeds of future learning, focused on narration and imitation, as well as foundational arithmetic, reading and writing skills, and beginning grammar and Latin
- introductory training in basic manual arts and fine arts
From grade 5 through eighth grade (again, with some overlap on either side) we focus the following
- continue to lay the foundation of piety, gymnastic, and music as above
- continue training in manual arts, to include life skills, computer skills, home management skills, etc.
- within the liberal arts, emphasis on:
- grammar, including Latin and Greek
- logic skills, beginning with early critical study of literature, history, and natural sciences, as well as algebra and Euclid geometry; we will save formal logic study for high school, but these other area will build thinking skills that will serve them well in it
- rhetoric (expressive, persuasive skills), beginning with early stages of the progymnasmata (a series of exercises to teach writing), and moving forward to advanced study of rhetoric
- within the quadrivium, emphasis on arithmetic (including moving toward algebra), and geometry (including Euclid)
- more formalized study of the sciences - literature (including some of the Great Books), history (especially Greek, Roman, and Hebrew), natural sciences, Christian belief, ethics, etc.
- training in how to handle and study the Scriptures on their own
In high school, especially in grade ten and up, our classical study will focus on these areas:
- more formal study in the sciences (theological, natural, and moral) with a greater emphasis on the critical study of these areas; this includes the Great Books and, within theology, apologetics
- advanced study of chosen fine and manual arts
- advanced study of the mathematical arts (music and astronomy and the modern mathematical topics associated with them)
- formal logic study
- advanced rhetorical studies, concluding the steps of the progymnasmata and applying grammar, logic, and rhetoric to both speaking and writing
- Academic curriculum: Memoria Press for most subjects, Saxon and Polymath Classical Tutorials for math, a scattering of materials from Bright Ideas Press, and some ideas and inspiration from Ambleside Online. I also hear great things about Classical Academic Press, publisher of The Language Arts Tradition.
- Awana for Bible verse memorization. If you don’t have a group in your area, you can order the books and do the program on your own. And there are materials through high school!
- American Heritage Girls and Trail Life USA. There are other Christian scouting/service organizations, but these are what we have found and they are great. They have been an indispensable tool in building the virtue of service in our children, and also an outlet for developing many skills.
- Youth recreational sports through the YMCA
- Church activities, family devotions, and family activities.
I hope this is helpful if you are also exploring classical learning for your children! Please feel free to contact me with questions and comments!