What is Classical Education?

(I re-wrote Jennifer Navarr’s compilation of ideas from Teaching the Trivium to help myself understand it better.)

One effective way understand an idea is to contrast it with its opposite. Outcome Based Education (a form of education “evolved” from B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist ideas in the ’60s) could be called the opposite of classical education.  OBE focuses on the performance or product rather than on developing the basics.

Imagine that I was going to teach you to play Ode to Joy on the piano using OBE methods.  We could refer to this as the “whole music” method.  First I would tell you where to place your fingers, and then I would take you through Ode to Joy by rote.  I may break the piece into smaller and simpler bits at first, or create look-play flashcards for you.  You would learn Ode to Joy much faster than if I taught you using the classical method.  But what if you wanted to learn another song?  Guess what?  You are now dependent upon me for learning anything else!  Sure, some students may learn by ear, others may intuitively catch on to the underlying techniques, but not most.  In a nutshell, Outcome Based Education provides snazzy-looking, quick results that are shallow and do not last.  Outcome-based education creates intellectual cripples that are completely dependent on the system because they have mastered outcomes only and not the basics.

On the other hand, imagine that I was going to teach you to play Ode to Joy on the piano using the classical method.  First I would teach you to read music, what we would call the grammar stage of music.  Next I would teach you proper fingering, which could be called the dialectic stage.  Next I would help you to develop the proper technique or expression, the rhetoric stage.  Once you have mastered these 3 levels, then you can begin to work on Ode to Joy.

It would take much longer to learn Ode to Joy the classical way.  But look at the benefits!  What if you wanted to play another song?  You now have all the tools you need to teach yourself how to play anything you want.  You could even write your own music.  You have mastered the arts of the piano which liberate you from your instructor!  In fact, the reason the trivium is known as a liberal arts education is because it was designed to liberate you from your teachers.  The classical method of mastering skills means you are no longer chained to the educational system, where Outcome Based Education is designed to chain you to your taskmasters for life.

Commenting in the introduction to book The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America, Sarah Leslie states that modern methods of education are “purposefully used to create a robotic child – one who cannot make connections, repeat an act, nor recall a fact unless provided with the necessary stimuli and environment (like a dog who learns to sit after the immediate receipt of a dog biscuit).” In contrast, classical education is purposefully used to create a truly human student – one who can recall facts because they are thoroughly memorized, make logical connections, and not only repeat acts but use facts and understanding to decide for himself how best to act.

Classical education is best known by the trivium, or 3 stages of learning:  grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.  Using biblical language, you could refer to these stages as knowledge, understanding, and wisdom (Proverbs 24:3-4).  God created us with the abilities to gather information (knowledge), logically order and consider this information (understanding) and use the information and understanding of it in practical ways (wisdom).  Although these 3 capabilities are mutually dependent upon one another and often used simultaneously, there is nevertheless a very apparent developmental order to them.

During the child’s early years, while his capacities for discovering facts, understanding and connecting facts, and putting those facts to good use are each growing, he has an enormous ability to soak up knowledge!  At this stage – the knowledge or grammar stage — parents and teachers should INSTRUCT the child, teaching him to use the tools of inquiry:  reading, observing, and measuring.  Around age 12 we observe that a child’s capacity for understanding makes a giant leap.  At this stage – the understanding or dialectic stage – parents and teachers begin to GUIDE more than instruct.  We teach the child in this stage to use the tools of investigation:  critical questioning, analyzing, and comparing.  Finally, a child will enter the wisdom or rhetoric stage.  In this stage, a teacher’s responsibility is to thoroughly CHALLENGE the student as we lead him in learning the skills of prudent judgment and effective expression.

Let’s look at the academic study of history taken through the classical model.  In the grammar stage, children would learn a lot of historical facts, including basic time periods, a general timeline of world history, the names of important people and events of history.  In the dialectic stage, students would begin to read literature associated with different time periods and begin reading and writing to discover the why’s of history.  In the rhetoric stage, students would apply their knowledge of history to reason, persuade, or influence the future.

How many of us know mothers that think they aren’t qualified to homeschool their own small children?  These gals are often products of an educational system that lied to them and made them think they were dependent upon others to learn anything new.  If you feel like the education you received did not take you through the trivium (gaining knowledge, making connections, learning how to apply and re-teach what you have learned), why in the world would you think that same education will be beneficial for your child?

The idea of freeing a whole generation of students – and parents – to become lifelong, confident learners excites me!  Let’s break free from the newer behaviorist models and go back to the ancient ways of learning!

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2 thoughts on “What is Classical Education?

  1. I love this post, Debbie! You have a way of making challenging thoughts seem so simple =) My fav. is the question you posed in the 2nd to last paragraph: “If you feel the education …beneficial for you child?” I was just thinking that same thing the other day! How it’s so silly that we are told by the government that public education is so wonderful, yet they don’t believe we are educated enough to teach our own children. Hmmm…

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