“[T]he tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command.”—Dorothy Sayers
Classical education is distinguished from other models of education in at least three ways. First, classical education recognizes and embraces three stages of learning and seeks to teach in accordance with those stages. Second, it values history, especially the great conversations of the past, and places a priority on helping students benefit from and engage with those great ideas. Third, classical education values education for its own sake and seeks to develop students who are well-rounded with a wide breadth of knowledge across many disciplines.
We knew almost nothing about classical education when we first began investigating various approaches to homeschooling for our two boys. As Christians, we were looking for an approach that seemed to lend itself to the kind of God-centered education we wanted to give our boys. We chose to go the classical route and are continuing to enjoy the adventure. Here are some of the reasons why we love classical education:
1. Classical education reflects a biblical perspective of learning.
In classical terminology, we are speaking here about the trivium, or the three stages of learning. The first stage is the grammar stage, in which a person begins learning basic facts about a new subject. The second stage is the dialectic stage, in which the student uses reason and logic to draw conclusions from the facts he or she has already learned. The final stage is the rhetoric stage, in which the student has gained sufficient mastery of the subject to instruct others.
The illustration that I (Justin) love to use is that of auto mechanics. It is an area in which I have no expertise (to put it mildly!). Imagine that a strange noise was emanating from the engine of the family van. How might someone, like me, go about learning to fix the problem? First, I would have to open the hood and look at the engine. I would need someone (or some manual) to instruct me concerning the various parts. What is this thingamajig called? What does it do? What about that strange looking part over there? Learning the basic parts of the engine and their functions would be the grammar stage. We call this knowledge.
Having learned the basic parts of the engine, I could now begin to use reason to draw conclusions. How does each part of the engine affect the others? Suppose I have a bad spark plug, or a broken connecting rod—how will that affect the other parts of the engine? This is the dialectic stage, the stage in which we begin to make connections and the light bulb continues to switch on in our minds. We call this understanding.
Finally, having learned the basic facts of auto mechanics and gained an understanding of how each part of the engine relates to the others, I could now make a wise decision concerning repairs. I might even be able to instruct others and give them advice concerning problems with their engine. This is the rhetoric stage. We call this wisdom.
Wisdom is the goal—not just in auto mechanics, but in a thousand disciplines we want our children to be able to make wise decisions. As Christians, our chief desire is not that our children merely have great knowledge. In fact, knowledge that doesn’t lead to wisdom usually leads to pride, and pride leads to trouble. No, our desire is that our children would use the knowledge and understanding they obtain to live for the glory of God in this world. “Wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (Proverbs 8:11). Wisdom is the goal, and classical education is a proven guide to help us get there.
2. Classical education teaches to the developmental level of children.
Once we came to grasp the three stages of learning outlined above, it became easy for us to see that God designed human beings so that we develop in a way that aligns with these stages. During the elementary years, children’s brains are not yet ready for heavy reasoning, but they soak up knowledge as a sponge. The ability of most children to memorize is a wonder to us who are adults. We cannot tell you how many times we’ve heard one of our boys singing a song that they heard on the radio many months before, and then only for a few seconds. Yet this is how God has designed children—their minds are ripe to soak up the grammar of life.
Classical education takes advantage of this by devoting the early years to memorization. The goal is to put as much truly useful information into the minds of our children as we can, even if they don’t yet fully understand it. The understanding will come later, but many of the facts they learn now will stick with them for a lifetime.
As the children grow and enter the preteen years, their brains begin to change. Reasoning becomes much more important. Our children want to know why. Why does our family believe in God when the family down the street does not? Why do we vote the way we do? Why are the rules of our house different from the rules of our neighbors? At this point, our preteens are entering the dialectic stage, and they are beginning to draw conclusions for themselves. “Because Daddy said so,” no longer wins their hearts and minds.
Classical education embraces this stage of development by seizing it as the best opportunity to teach logic and sound reasoning skills. Many other models of education seem to forego the teaching of logic altogether, but certainly there can be few subjects more important that this one! Homeschooling parents will often find that this is a very exciting season for the whole family as dinner-time conversations become more in-depth, with discussions of current events and the values that the family holds dear taking a central place in the student’s learning.
As our children reach the high school years, they are becoming young men and young women. We pray that they have not only gained a great deal of knowledge and understanding, but that they are now learning to make wise decisions with what they know. Our desire is that they be equipped with the skills to take the knowledge and understanding they have and use it to change the world for Christ’s sake. In these last years of homeschooling, the classical model would emphasize refining the student’s ability to speak and write persuasively, to be able to lead others towards truth and godliness.
3. Classical education lends itself to a one-room schoolhouse.
Here is a great benefit to families with children at varied ages who would like to study the same subjects at the same time. The classical education model allows your seven, twelve and sixteen year-olds to all study the same subject at varying depths and with great benefit. So, for example, suppose you are studying the scientific classifications of living things. Your seven-year-old would memorize the classifications (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). Your twelve-year-old could research various plants and animals, seeking to deduce from their descriptions which kingdom, phylum, class, etc., each belongs to. Your sixteen-year-old might write a persuasive paper about a newly discovered plant, arguing whether the plant should be classified as a new species, or as merely a sub-species or variant of an already existing species.
4. Classical education emphasizes the integration of subjects.
God’s world is not segregated into isolated subjects. Instead, all things are joined together, and He is the unifying principle that connects them all. All things are from Him, through Him, and to Him (Romans 11:36); God is the Subject of every subject.
Classical education refuses to move from the study of science to the study of history to the study of math. Rather, it recognizes that all of the subjects are intertwined. The invention you are studying today was designed by a particular scientist, living in a particular part of the world, in a particular culture, at a particular time in history. Perhaps this invention was possible only because of previous inventions, and because of mathematical discoveries made centuries earlier. In the real world, all subjects overlap and connect. Classical education allows us to see these connections, and to stand in wonder at the wisdom of our God, the Author of all these things.
5. Classical education teaches the skills needed to be life-long learners.
Here is one of the great benefits of classical education: it teaches students the skill of learning. With each and every subject studied, as the student is being taught to walk through the three stages, he or she is learning what it is to learn. The student is being quipped with the skills necessary to tackle any new subject he or she chooses in the future. No subject is too hard—all are possible to master if one will only take the time to follow the stages.
6. Classical education gives students a foundation in the past in order to engage the present (and shape the future!).
This is one reason why families who choose the classical model often teach their students Latin and other classical languages. Not only does the study of these languages become a wonderful opportunity to practice the skill of learning, but it opens up the door to the greatest ideas this world has ever known. Students become equipped to read Plato or Aristotle, Cicero or Virgil for themselves. They are able to engage with the thoughts of these men, to have a dialogue with them (through their books) about God, man and morality, truth, goodness and beauty. In our day of triviality and shallow thinking, classical education seeks to put students in touch with the great ideas of the past so that they can stand on the shoulders of giants and lead others today.