A Closer Look at Classical Education

By David Crank


In the Sep-Dec 2002 issue, many of the major approaches to home schooling were discussed, including Classical home schooling. So why am I writing about it again? This approach has been rapidly gaining in popularity with home schoolers, sometimes being presented as "the" best way to home school your children. However, I think this approach requires more careful evaluation than it often receives, before deciding whether this is the best approach for your family.

The Future of Home Schooling?

    Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, in his fine book, "The Future of Home Schooling", published in 1997, begins with a chapter entitled "Classical Education Comes Home." In this chapter he made the following prediction: "We want our children to achieve both academically and morally at the highest levels rather than merely being better than the competition. It is this yearning in the hearts of successful parents that is going to lead many home schoolers in the next five to ten years to include the main components of classical education into their childrenís education." (pg. 7 ). Without a doubt there has been great growth in the use of this approach in the five years since Mike Farrisí book was published!

    In recent years, several key books have been published advocating the classical approach for homeschooling. Foremost among these has been "The Well Trained Mind," by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. Douglas Wilson, a leading author of the Reformed Faith, has also written several books along this same line: "Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning" Ė which also includes the text of Dorothy Sayersí essay by the same name, and "The Case for Classical Christian Education." There is also a very extensive Internet site focused on classical home schooling (www.classicalhomeschooling.org), as well as a number of others offering guidance and helps (i.e. Escondido Tutorial Services at www.Gbt.org).

    So is Classical Education truly the future of Home Schooling? Should it be?

What is Classical Education?

    Dorothy Sayers (1893-1967), a graduate of Oxford University, a scholar and a Medievalist, advocated a return to the classical instruction method of the Middle Ages in 1947 in her essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning." This essay became the inspiration for those advocating a classical education today.

    Miss Sayerís essay points to the shortcomings in her day of the general public, the media, and even the experts in various fields. She criticizes the susceptibility of the public to the influence of advertisement and propaganda, the inability of debaters to either speak to the question or to refute the arguments of the other side, the inability of people to distinguish between books that are sound and documented and those that are not, and the failure of the "experts" to exhibit sound judgment outside of their area of expertise. She concludes that the modern education has taught many subjects but has failed to teach people how to truly think and to learn for themselves. The schools have neglected to teach the true tools of learning.

    As a remedy, she proposes the reintroduction of the Medieval Trivium of Grammar, Dialectic & Rhetoric. With this approach, young students first focus on "Grammar", that being the structure of language, especially of Latin, but possible also including Greek and a modern foreign language, coupled with a focus on memorization and learning as many facts of all kinds as possible. In the second stage, the Dialectic, the studentís natural inquisitiveness in asking why and questioning what he has been taught, is encouraged in order to learn how to define terms, and how to construct sound logical arguments, while detecting fallacies in the arguments of others.Thirdly, in the mid to later teens, the focus is on Rhetoric, the art of how to express oneself in language both spoken and written. In the Medieval tradition, at the end of this course the student was "required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty." This recommended approach is contrasted with "modern education" which concentrates on teaching subjects, but "leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing oneís conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along."

    Modern advocates of a classical education follow Miss Sayerís recommendations in the main, but vary on some of the specifics. Susan Wise Bauer, the author of "The Well Trained Mind", is herself a home school graduate and a college professor. Her mother (and the co-author of her book), Jessie Wise, made use of the classical approach in her education. Their book, "The Well Trained Mind", is thought by many to be the best resource published for classical Christian home schooling. Mrs. Bauer describes the Classical approach as learning that takes place in three stages: the early years are spent absorbing facts, the middle grades are focused on teaching students to think through arguments, and the high school years are focused on learning to express themselves. She describes the approach as being focused around history, taking history as an organizing outline for linking all fields of study together. Her book suggests three repetitions of the same four year pattern covering the periods of: Ancient History, the Middle Ages, Renaissance & Reformation, and Modern Times.

    Mrs. Bauer, as well other advocates, such as Douglas Wilson, Fritz Hinrichs (of Escondido Tutorial Services), and Michael Farris, urge a thorough study of the "great books" as a key part of this education. These include classics of ancient Greece and Rome, the great books of the Middle Ages, and on through modern literature. Michael Farris urges the addition of a heavy dose of the literature and history of the Founding Fathers.

Variations in the Classical Approach

    As with any approach, there are an infinite number of variations possible upon this theme, as the leading advocates differ somewhat in their approaches and different families follow their prescriptions to varying degrees. Some will argue for extensive study of Latin, Greek, and possibly other foreign languages in the early years. Others will view Latin and Greek as optional. Some will advocate returning to the true classical subjects and not teaching math or science at all until after the Trivium is completed. However, most encourage teaching most of the subjects typically covered in schools today, but with dividing each subject into its grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.

    In selecting the "Great Books" to study, some will include many from the Greek and Roman period, while others will place more emphasis on Christian works such as the writings of the Church Fathers and the Reformers. Likewise there are many ideas of how best to integrate the Christian portion into the classical curriculum.

Goals of a Christian Classical Education

    For what reasons does one choose the Classical Approach? In many cases it is parents who hope to prepare their children to be future leaders and scholars, whether in politics, academia, law, journalism, or as well trained ministers. Many look to the examples of the Puritans and of the American Founding Fathers, seeing an "eloquence and depth of thought" that puts us to shame.

    Many simply wish to ensure their children learn to think well for themselves and adopt a thoroughly Christian worldview. Others are simply seeking a superior education for their children. Still others are doubtless following a fad of sorts, seeking the approval of other home schoolers, who themselves have carefully considered their options and truly believe this is the superior way to educate your children.

Special Challenges of Teaching Using the Classical Approach

    The Classical approach was developed contemplating instruction within a classroom setting by expert teachers. True scholars discoursed, motivated, and challenged their young pupils in the classroom. How does one truly teach the intricacies of Latin Grammar without a thorough knowledge oneself? Or how does a parent instruct in the Great Books without first having read and thoroughly studied all of the same, being prepared to lead a lively discussion and to critique the interpretations of the students?

    Is it not also difficult to know exactly how to proceed with such instruction without having experienced something similar yourself? And how does a home schooling mother with children spread over many ages and maybe a baby to care for, devote the time to both prepare and teach children at varying levels using this method?

    These are serious challenges for bringing classical education into the home school world, but some are creating solutions that work for more and more families. Fritz Hinrichs of Escondido Tutorial Services, advocates the use of videos and video conferencing to provide the expert teachers and teacher / student interaction needed in the upper grades. According to Mr. Hinrichs, many top lecturers from the various Ivy League colleges have been recruited to record lectures in their areas of specialization. With the Internet, video conferencing between instructor and students also becomes possible at a minimal cost. Others have or are developing Classical curriculums especially for home school use, in order to ease the challenges home schoolers experience. One of these is David Quineís World Views of the Western World, published by the Cornerstone Curriculum Project. Likewise increasing numbers of curriculum resources are being developed specifically with the Classical approach in mind.

Some of the Best Features / Strengths of the Classical Method

    Some of the best features or strengths of the classical method are:

1) Emphasis on teaching logic and independent thinking, with a goal of developing children well able to detect logical fallacies and weak arguments, who will thoroughly question and search out matters for themselves.

2) Sequence of progressing from concrete thinking and learning facts in the early years, to logic, questioning and abstract thought, then culminating in learning to think and express your own views well in written and spoken form.

3) The perspective that comes with a thorough knowledge of history and great literature, including familiarity with a wide range of past thought and the lessons of history.

4) Development of strong communication and persuasion skills, useful in many areas, but especially in law, journalism, politics, academia, and in a preaching/teaching ministry.

Some Possible Weaknesses or Criticisms

    Some of the possible weaknesses or criticisms of the classical method are:

1) Emphasis of this approach is heavily on formal academics, often valuing these endeavors far above the learning of practical skills, trades, or even technical fields.

2) This approach usually involves a large quantity of desk time and lends itself more towards a lecture approach than self-study.

3) Emphasis on so much classical literature, history and languages, may limit the time available for both study of the Bible and practical service / ministry experience. Classical learning may come to be seen as more important than study of Godís Word.

4) The demands of so much teaching can crowd out other key parts of the motherís (or fatherís) role. With so much time required for teaching, study and preparation, and critiquing the studentís work, it can be difficult for the home school parent to maintain balance and get it all done, without hiring others to take over many household responsibilities.

5) The demands of the classical method encourage parents to delegate more of their childrenís instruction to others, whether through hired instructors, video courses, or co-op classes. Sometimes the solution chosen is to send at least older children away from home to a private school. Delegating too much of your childrenís education to others compromises some of the key goals parents have with home schooling. Other teachers may not fully teach your beliefs and values, which you wish to impart to your children.

6) The success of this approach is perhaps more dependent on the ability of the teacher than some other methods. Parents more highly educated in languages, history, literature, and logic have distinct advantages over those with more average educations. The knowledge, insights and instructional skill of the teacher can make a big difference in the quality of the education. A lot of teacher stimulation may be required for the process of analyzing and thinking through the great books. More outside help may be required for the average home schooling parent.

7) The Classical Approach brings with it certain additional risks of pride and feelings of elitism. It is easy to become proud concerning having read many "great books" that others havenít and knowing the past language of scholars (Latin), which few study today. A pride in oneís superior education and looking down on the "ignorant, less educated masses," can result without adequate care to prevent it.

Our Experience

    When we began home schooling over 20 years ago, we started with a philosophy similar to that of the present Classical Approach. I described it more as a desire for a "good liberal arts education," one that would train our children to be scholars. While in college, I had become enamored with the sort of classical education still provided by a few elite schools, and which was more widely available to the upper class in previous centuries.

    However, trying to follow this pattern within a homeschool was difficult. My degree had been in history, I had the advantage of unusual instruction in honors classes and had chosen to take Latin and a very little Greek. I had read most of the "Great Books" and defended my views with the Honors faculty. Yet despite these advantages, I was not adequately prepared to teach as I desired without a great deal of further study or help. Even if I was, it was Lori who had the time to teach as I was working full time and going to night school as well. Loriís education had not been focused in this direction, thus this was a considerable challenge for her.

    We had some success, but not nearly to the extent we hoped. We made little progress with the Latin materials we had available. We did better with great literature, but with inadequate discussion and analysis. We had to adapt our instruction to what we truly could do. We did enjoy the gratification of having children several years ahead in their studies compared to their age peers. This also gave us a little security if our home schooling was legally challenged (this was in the 1980s when home schooling was more risky).

    Yet over the years, we came to question some of our motives and emphasis. Had we been taken in a bit by the allure of having "superior" children? This was of the world, not of the Lord. Had our emphasis been placed too heavily on the academic so as to exclude other matters of great importance in their upbringing? Were we guilty, even a little, of "worshiping" education the way so much of the world does?

    So midstream we began changing our focus, trying to compensate for the things we had too little emphasized. We gave more attention to in depth Bible study, learning practical skills, and encouraging ministry to others. We encouraged practical work experiences for our sons through their teenage years. We tried to reorient their values even as ours were being reoriented.

Conclusions:

Not for Everyone

    The Classical approach offers many excellent insights into education and can be the ideal approach for some families and some individual children. However, it is not for everyone. For some Christian families and their children, it may represent the wrong emphasis and a poor preparation for the life God is calling them to. Yet all may benefit by borrowing some insights and techniques of the classical method, even while utilizing different methods in the main.

    What sort of preparation do your children need? How has God gifted them and motivated them? What elements is the Lord leading you to emphasize with your family? To what extent should your approach and emphasis differ between boys and girls and between one child and another? Pray about what sort of future, God may have in mind for your child. Most will not be statesmen or scholars. Some will be called to more simple lives, working in average jobs, or having their own small business. Some may even farm for a living. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being a truck driver, or a carpenter (Jesus was trained as one), or a tent maker (like Paul), or a rancher (like Abraham). Only Paul seems to have received the more "classical" education of his day. There are many trades and life purposes for which much of a classical education might have little applicability and might crowd out other more useful training.

    Are you encouraging your daughters towards working at home, being wives and mothers rather than having a career? If so, what preparation is most critical for them Ė classical scholarship or practical skills, mothering and ministry to others? Some may be destined to raise sons to be great scholars, but perhaps not most.

Teaching Thinking & Communication

    Teaching your children to think and careful evaluate what they read and hear is very important. We live in a world filled with lies and with liars who would seek to manipulate us. We all need to learn wisdom and the ability to evaluate what we are told. The Classical Approach can be very helpful in this regard. Yet much can be accomplished in this realm without the extensive study of the classics. How? Use the issues of today to provoke thought and careful study. Teach your children to study the Bible very carefully and to weigh the differing arguments of others concerning proper interpretation and differing doctrines. Work through difficult issues of politics and ethics together, applying the Word of God to each. Use newspaper and magazine articles or published opinions on the Internet as starting points for discussion. Expose the lies of cults and false philosophies of the day by examining their arguments and measuring them against the truth in Godís Word.

    Study Christian apologetics and give your children practice defending the faith both verbally and in writing. You can do the same with the topic of Creationism vs. Evolution. In these ways you can accomplish some of the key goals of teaching your children to think carefully for themselves and to express themselves well, without so much labor over the classics, and ancient languages, which may have little future usefulness to your children.

Valuing Education

    Consider just what value you place on a formal education and what value you are communicating to your children. Is your value solidly grounded in the Word of God? Or is it based on the values of others? I once valued a classical education very highly, as the mark of truly being educated. Now, much later in life, Iíve come to have much more respect for some of the simple farmers, pioneers and others folks with little formal education, yet who often had a lot of common sense, wisdom, creativity and a wide range of practical skills. God sometimes greatly uses the highly educated like Jonathan Edwards, but at other times He chooses such as Dwight Moody, a shoe salesman. God often uses those who are humble in their background and education to demonstrate His power to the world. Jesusí own choice of apostles were mostly uneducated men before learning from Jesus.

Having the Greatest Impact on the World for Christ

    Some choose a Christian Classical approach in the hopes of maximizing their childrenís impact on the world for Christ. Is this the way to prepare your child to have the greatest impact? It all depends on just where and how the Lord intends to use your children. For some, this will be the best possible preparation. For others, a different preparation may best serve Godís purposes. We have many examples of great servants of God who were not greatly educated at all Ė at least to the best of our knowledge. So I fear we may be deceiving ourselves if we expect a classical education to make the difference between mediocrity and greatness.

What Is Important

    In the end, we must ask what is truly most important in the raising of our children. Just what is the key determinant of how our children turn out? Is it the educational philosophy we follow? I think not. Our first concern must be with their heart and their dedication to our Lord, and then with their Christian growth and consistent close walk with our Lord. We must also be concerned to see good character traits and habits molded within their lives, that they might truly walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord. More important than vast amounts of factual knowledge or amazing reasoning ability and argumentative skill, is the development of godly wisdom and prudence, coupled with a daily dependence on the Lord.

    Whatever educational methods we use or academic goals we pursue, we must not lose sight of these most important things. We would do better to accomplish much in the realm of Christian walk, and accomplish little with their academic instruction, than the reverse. Though of course we prefer to succeed with both. Beware lest your passion for academic excellence and/or mastery of the Trivium, distract you from these more critical matters.

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