In my first post on classical education I explored modern progressive education, and why it’s a disaster. In my second, I shared how I came to not only appreciate classical education, but have become an evangelist for it. Here I want to give a brief introduction to exactly what classical education is, and why it’s so important for Christians to embrace it.

As I said previously, classical education is rooted in history, specifically the history and ideas of the classical world, both Greek and Roman. This became infused with the Jewish and Christian worldview through the Middle Ages as Christian thinkers who took the ideas of the ancients, and wrestled with them through the lens of Christianity. It was in fact the Christian influence that systematized and humanized (as in, for example, man is made in God’s image and worthy of infinite value) classical thought. Part of that systematizing came in what’s called the Trivium, and that is the model of K-12 classical education. What is it?

The word “Trivium” is a Latin word meaning “three roads” or “three ways”. In 1947 English author Dorothy Sayers  gave a lecture at Oxford university that became the inspiration for the contemporary classical education movement. In the lecture, titled The Lost Tools of Learning, she argued that the three ways of the medieval syllabus, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, should be the model for K-12 education. The ways correspond to the mental and emotional development of the child:

  • Grammar – This first phase is one of details for younger children (generally up to age 10) who memorize very well. The focus is on the learning of facts of history, math, English, Latin, etc. I learned how this worked when my wife and I and our then 10 year-old visited the Christian classical school he would attend. The children were reciting facts of history through a chant; I was impressed. Children are sponges at this stage of life, and don’t yet question things, which leads to the next stage.
  • Logic – As children develop in their middle school years they begin to question why, who, what, when, how, everything. At this point they be must be taught to think, and without  logic coherent thinking is not possible. Modern progressive education doesn’t have much room for logic, and it shows in the dumbing down of our cultural conversations. I mentioned the importance of the metaphor of puzzles and puzzle pieces in my first post. Logic teaches children that the puzzles piece of life fit in relation to the whole picture. They are taught, critically, that there is objectively a big picture there! It’s hard to convey in a blog post how important this is in our cultural moment when relativism and postmodernism reign, when the subjective self is sovereign. But facts and logic are not enough. Children must learn how to communicate, thus . . .
  • Rhetoric – Here the students are taking what they’ve discovered as a coherent view of knowledge and the world, and then learning how to persuasively convey those truths (the fact that truth objectively exists apart from our own perceptions is profoundly counter cultural in the 21st century, and one of the many reasons I love classical education). This learning process takes them through the great literature and writings of Western civilization, a past that classical education celebrates. Progressive education, by contrast, generally denigrates this past as misogynistic, or patriarchal (in the new progressive mantra this has turned into “toxic masculinity,” a phrase as oxymoroic as any every invented), racist, etc. As teenagers and because they’ve been through grammar and logic, they learn to effectively synthesize their knowledge from the greatest minds Western culture has produced, and present this knowledge in their speaking and writing.

The key point, though, of classical education is not knowledge in and of itself, but true human flourishing. The goal is to discover the order given to us in reality, not as the progressives think, to create and impose an order of our own making. And true human flourishing comes from discovering and embracing the ends to which we were created. For Christians this means in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Classical education, and persuasive Christian parents, can help our children do this. I’ll write one last post on why this is so specifically important to Christians, as well as the future of our country.

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