What is Classical Education?

This morning I braved the snowy roads (the city apparently decided to not bother plowing even the major roads) to hear Matt Bianco, the national director of education for Classical Conversations speak on what classical education means. It was very informative, as well as entertaining, and I wanted to share what I learned…

To make decisions about education, we have to know what our goal is. This really goes for anything in life. And as an aside, this fits perfectly with the human action axiom. We act to achieve ends, and it makes sense that we ought to consider what our ends are for education, so that we can find the best means to achieve that end. Too often we get caught up in the day-to-day decisions of life and don’t consider how our actions today will impact the goals we have for the next year, or decade. This especially applies to schooling our children. Their education is made up of days like this day. Are you living purposefully today to attain the goals you have for your children?

Once you realize how important it is to be aware of your goal, the next question is, well, what is your goal? Is it to meet the state requirements for education so I don’t imprisoned? Is it so that my child can attend the most prestigious college and impress the world? In the words of Matt Bianco, “are we preparing our children for Heaven or Harvard?” Now of course, these are not mutually exclusive, but one will inevitably take priority. So what is most important to us? Matt Bianco suggests a few ideas that we should consider as goals for our children:

– to be free
– know how to learn
– be able to think
– act rightly

I was intrigued by the first concept, “to be free” and this made a lot more sense after learning more about the history of classical education. The classical approach includes the trivium and the quadrivium. Basically, the trivium is what we consider liberal arts today, and the quadrivium is math and science based. The trivium was traditionally studied through high school and the quadrivium was covered at the college age. Something that’s always puzzled me is why we call liberal arts liberal. And although I’ve probably heard this explanation a few times before, it finally clicked today. The liberal arts are taken from the word “libra” meaning free. Put simply, the liberal arts are for free people. The trivium, or liberal arts, teach and empower people to be free. So in ancient times, slaves were not allowed to study the trivium. If they were to study it, they would become free-thinking individuals who would demand their freedom. A parallel to this would be how slave masters in the American south would not allow their slaves to learn how to read. This seems to be a remnant of the ancient recognition that knowledge is freedom. Anyways, that’s the origin of liberal arts. These arts enable us to be free.

So, what exactly is the trivium? It, staying consistent with the term “liberal arts,” consists of three arts, the art of grammar, the art of dialectic, and the art of rhetoric. And the word “art” here is used purposefully. Just as in any art, you engage in an activity and create something, so after going through these arts, you create an educated human being. And I think it is really beautiful to consider education as an art because this sets it in such vivid contrast with the modern mass-education method that views children as pieces in this vast assembly line. Anyways, that’s another topic : )

The trivium is amazing because, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out in her famous essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, the stages of the trivium correspond with the stages of a child’s development. And Matt Bianco made a great point today that just because we as adults don’t enjoy something doesn’t mean kids don’t enjoy it either. This seems so obvious it doesn’t need to be stated, but this truth is often forgotten in the debate about classical education. For example, the art of grammar focuses on memorizing facts. It is rote memorization. There seems to be a war on memorization these days, and it is often argued that it is unpleasant drudgery for children. Now I don’t think there are many adults who enjoy rote memorization, but do we realize how fun this is for kids? When they’re really young they soak up the facts and have an immense capacity for remembering things. I remember memorizing poems like The Raven when I was young, and now I struggle to memorize a Bible verse. And I’m only 20. So I know it is only going to get worse, haha. But young kids find such joy in repetition and memorization. I know this, after having read The Dragon Egg to my siblings about five times in one sitting. We “unfortunately” didn’t have time to keep reading but they were begging for more. Yes, I made a lot of progress in memorizing that book, though it wasn’t really intentional. Anyways, the grammar stage of learning fits perfectly with a child’s love for repetition and their ability to retain facts.

This also applies to each of the other stages as the emphasis in dialectic and rhetoric fit well with a child’s development and growth towards adulthood. I won’t go into detail here about that, but it is really neat and I think quite beautiful.

The last point I want to make about classical education is about how it gives children a coherent way to understand the world. In the modern method of education, each subject is tightly compartmentalized, not only conceptually but also physically, as a child goes from classroom to classroom all day, with different teachers and classmates for each subject. The student is bombarded by knowledge and diversity, with themselves being the only thing giving unity to their day. In each class, the student is the only thing that’s the same. Everything else is different and constantly changes. Since we simply can’t exist without having some way of understanding the world, each student will strive to create their own system of interpreting and approaching the diversity around them. But they haven’t been told how to create a good system of thinking, so students will often develop an inconsistent and deeply flawed approach to the world; it will be a system that only makes sense in their own minds but won’t hold up to logical examination. And this never really changes. A student struggles to make sense of the world and spends the rest of their life tweaking this precarious structure and trying to hold all the disparate pieces together. It saddens me to think of so many people living without a stable and coherent way of understanding the world around them.

But to look at the positive example, classical education contrasts strongly with the modern education approach. Conceptually, this is done through the exploration of connections between different subjects. You don’t study economics and then shove that into a cupboard while you study history—you study every subject in relation to every other area of knowledge. If you recall the beginning of this post, there’s a great example of that connection-making when I referenced the human action axiom. I heard Matt Bianco talking about our goals in education, and automatically related that to my prior study of economics and praxeology. This was a really neat connection for me and helped reinforce everything Matt was saying. This is what we want our kids to be able to do, and we should be modeling and encouraging that while they are learning. Additionally, in Christian classical learning, every subject is related ultimately to God. Because every subject is just a different way that God reveals Himself to us, there’s a coherent way of connecting seemingly unrelated subjects.  Practically speaking, in the Classical Conversations model, students spend the entire school day with one tutor and the same group of classmates. The tutor exemplifies the idea of knowing all subjects well, by teaching everything, rather than specializing in one specific subject. I’ve experienced this on a small level in my classroom, by having to engage in the arts and science activities which I may not necessarily be comfortable with. For instance, while we were doing art, I’d try to do the art assignment with the kids, rather than just telling them what to do. I wanted them to know that I was game for trying something new outside my comfort zone. Same with the music (yes, I did practice tin whistle), science, and most recently presentations. This semester I decided to start giving weekly presentations along with the kids, since to me it doesn’t make sense to ask them to do something that I won’t do Anyways…back to the main point. The tutor gives stability and coherency by teaching every subject, rather than the teacher changing with each class. And with Classical Conversations, the parents are also involved during the week, so they also give the student another way to understand and make sense of what they’re learning. In other words, they’re not left alone struggling to make a system out of chaotic diversity—the material is presented in a way to demonstrate the unity in apparent diversity, and the student is surrounded by people who are helping them to build a strong and coherent way of understanding the world. And what’s the other word for this system of approaching the world? That’s a worldview. Everyone has a worldview, some are unstable and ambiguous, but through a good education, we can develop a strong and secure worldview based on God’s truth, a worldview so stable that the greatest forces of the world and Satan cannot destroy it. And after all, isn’t that the goal of a good education?


One Comment

  1. Savannah-Thank you so much for sharing this. I was really hoping to go but had to work-I usually work 10 hr saturdays. I knew it would be great!! I really appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective- I really enjoyed it. Have a great weekend!!

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