Across the country, there is an emerging movement of parents and teachers* that believes it is not enough only to provide the right subjects for their children. More than teaching basic skills and information, these folks are starting and staffing schools that focus on teaching comprehensive content and moral conviction—the kind of education we’d have to look back to our great-grandparents’ generation to find.
This is a central aim of classical educators today, to recover a method that is missing in modern schooling. Their classrooms include the fundamentals of phonics, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. But these “classical” subjects are only the beginning. Students are also trained to use them as tools for self-learning. Indeed, these “tools of learning” are as important as the “subjects” they teach.
Over 60 years ago, Oxford scholar and British novelist, Dorothy Sayers, wrote about the declining ability to think evidenced in her pre-World War II generation. She addressed this topic in an essay called “The Lost Tools of Learning.” There she lamented the fact that while teachers were successful at teaching “subjects,” as a whole they were failing to train students how to think. “They learn everything except the art of learning,” she observed. Her solution? A return to the “medieval syllabus” where teaching doesn’t focus on subjects as much as it does on the methods of handling those subjects. In this approach, students are taught how to use the “tools of learning” before they begin to apply them to study of subjects in particular.
Modern education tends to focus mainly on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be learned more by accident, or at least incidental to the learning process. But Sayers points out that in the mediaeval model, teaching concentrated first on “forging and learning to handle the tools of learning,” using the subjects as material on which “to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.” Teaching students how to acquire and use these tools is fundamental to learning any subject.
So a large part of what classical educators are doing is identifying age-appropriate tools for students so that they become life-long learners. The approach centers on the application of the trivium, the historical foundation for learning. The trivium has three parts or phases of learning that are adapted to three observable stages of childhood development: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Each of these phases focuses on the ways students learn best.
For example, grammar school students are taught through songs, rhythm, and repetition in order to help them develop memory and to store basic information for later use. Amazingly, this is also when they begin to master Latin, the foundation for English, and an important link to the student’s cultural roots and later learning.
Next, in the logic stage, teachers capitalize on the early adolescent’s ability to argue and draw conclusions. These mentally astute kids are taught formal logic, and their reasoning skills are sharpened through learning other advanced subjects, too.
High school is the rhetoric phase. Students now are taught how to communicate with clarity and winsomeness at a point in their personal development when they are naturally concerned about personal appearance. Without this ability to communicate persuasively, the best ideas will go unheard.
Classical education is the legacy of Western Civilization. This method of learning was woven into the fabric of our own nation’s history. Leaders like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson—to name only a few—were products of classical training. Classical education has always provided a structured environment that also inspires students with a love for learning. While in earlier generations this approach trained the best American minds, it is being used again to develop thoughtful, articulate, and morally mature young people today.
Which leads to the final, but the most compelling component of classical education today: moral nurture. In the Western tradition, classical schooling was based on a foundation of morality. Timeless beliefs from the Scriptures were formulated into concrete values on which our greatest leaders once lived and labored. Today’s classical schools build a biblical and moral structure around which all other subjects are taught.
This, then, is modern classical education—so much more than mere subjects to be taught. In response to academic and moral decline in American schools today, this educational movement is returning to a time-tested method that worked for a thousand years until the modern age. These educators are successfully inspiring students to engage in their own learning long after the lights go out at the end of the school day.
*See, for example, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools: http://www.accsedu.org/