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What is Classical Education?

 

Classical Conversations is a leader in the home-centered education movement. It is a mission: To know God and to make Him known. It is a model: Classical Conversations combines the classical method of learning with a biblical worldview. It is a method: Classical Conversations families meet in communities where parents train parents to implement home-centered education well.

 

There are two ways in which Classical Conversations "combines classical learning with a biblical worldview." The first is the more significant: classical education is a methodology. In important ways, it is not content-based—although excellent content must of course be chosen. It is a method, and its methodology is expressed through the Trivium, three of the seven Liberal Arts. "Liberal," in this case, stems from the Latin word liber, meaning "free." Education by means of the seven Liberal Arts nurtures children in ways that ensure they mature into free human beings.

 

What is the Trivium?

 

The Trivium consists of three stages: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Grammar is the art of learning the terms and facts associated with a subject. Dialectic is the art of contemplating ideas within and across subjects. Rhetoric is the art of clearly communicating the grammar and dialectic of a subject. Classical Conversations understands that learners move through each of these stages every time they learn something new. Young learners also move through these three stages as they mature into adults. Hence, generally speaking, elementary-aged students need to spend most of their time simply learning the grammar of subjects. This is perfect for them because they instinctively enjoy repetition. Preteens and early teens need to spend most of their time learning those subjects at the more advanced dialectic level, thinking through and pondering concepts and ideas. This harmonizes well with them because the dialectic stage requires conversation and interaction; learners at this age tend to be more argumentative and this is an outlet for them to be so, yet learn to be so respectfully. Teenagers need to spend most of their time learning at the more advanced rhetoric level. At this age, they are beginning to care about how they appear to others. The rhetoric stage emphasizes not only that students learn how to articulate themselves clearly, but that they learn to do so beautifully and well; in other words, it focuses on instructing them about audience perceptions and sensitivities, and on teaching students the rhetorical skills of understanding how they appear to others.

 

The three paths of the Trivium also mirror the biblical pattern of learning expressed by Proverbs 24:3-4: knowledge—the grammar—fills the metaphorical house of the soul with treasures; understanding—the dialectic—is what holds the house together, giving it integrity; wisdom—the rhetoric—is what builds it, providing it with its final purpose. In addition, the Trivium reflects the ancient Hebraic model of education, in which a student first memorized the grammar of his heritage (the Old Testament), then engaged in dialectical conversation about it in the Temple, and finally, became the disciple of a rabbi in order to be trained rhetorically as a master.

 

How is the Trivium Applied?

 

The second way in which Classical Conversations "combines classical learning with a biblical worldview" is with its intentionality in the selection of curriculum content. In teaching with a biblical worldview, Classical Conversations introduces biblical facts into grammar, biblical ideas and discussion into dialectic, and biblical beauty and respect into rhetoric. Classical education does not necessarily require Classical Conversations to teach the classics and their pagan authors, but when we do choose to do so, we do not do it exclusively: We intentionally combine classical content with a firm biblical worldview.

 

Classical, Christian educators do include pagan literature in their curricula—and therefore they teach information about pagan gods and goddesses. However, it is important to note that they do so in light of the Scriptures. Classical Conversations is no exception; we do not teach the Bible independently of historical facts, thereby relegating the revelation of God to just another one of the subjects we learn. Rather, the Bible is the integrating factor of all that we learn (for example, history is fully integrated in our Classical Acts and Facts History Timeline Cards, just as it was when we used the history timeline cards produced by our friends at Veritas Press).

 

It is even possible that when historical information is suppressed, a significant difficulty can arise: To teach the Bible apart from the general revelation of God's creation and what His creatures have experienced, thought, and produced throughout the generations prevents students from fully engaging in the dialectic. If we insulate our children from historical facts, we must be aware of the risk we take. When our children grow up, they may look back on the education we gave them and interpret our withholding of "pagan" knowledge from them as a form of dishonesty. This perception that we have been dishonest with them may make them skeptical, causing them to wonder what other information we might have withheld and what our motives may have been. It may even drive them into an appreciation of pagan concepts and worldviews, and leave them unprotected by the safe dialectic about these ideas that they would have had with their parents and peers had they not been isolated from such historical realities.

 

What is the Difference Between Classical Education and Classicism?

 

Classical Conversations believes it is important to maintain a proper understanding of the grammar of classical learning, namely that classical learning is primarily about the methodology of the Trivium. To oppose classical education is therefore to oppose the Trivium as a methodology and by extension to oppose the biblical ideas of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. To oppose the Trivium using arguments against pagan classics is also to conflate a secondary aspect of classical learning with its primary purpose. If one opposes the use of pagan classics in education, this position can serve as the basis for a fruitful conversation. It is not, however, an argument against classical education as methodology. The Trivium must not be conflated with classicism, lest in our zeal to purge what we suppose to be harmful we rid ourselves of the tools needed to learn, to know God, and to make Him known.

 

With regard to the secondary aspect of classical learning, Classical Conversations does not wish to summarily judge the classics to be harmful. Without having deeply engaged in a dialectical conversation about the classics, we cannot have the knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to discern their harmfulness or beneficence faithfully. We have to have a conversation in which we engage the question Louise Cowan asks in Invitation to the Classics, "But why in particular should followers of Christ be interested in the classics? Is Scripture not sufficient in itself for all occasions? What interest do Christians have in the propagation of the masterworks? The answer is as I indicated at the beginning of this essay: Many of us in the contemporary world have been misled by the secularism of our epoch; we expect proof if we are to believe in the existence of a spiritual order. Our dry, reductionist reason leads us astray, so that we harden our hearts against the presence of the holy. Something apart from family or church must act as mediator, to restore our full humanity, to endow us with the imagination and the heart to believe" (Cowan, Louise and Guinness, Os, eds. Invitation to the Classics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998, p. 23).

 

After all, this is what Christian educators are ultimately after—or should be after. Classical Conversations seeks to help parents who want to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We want children to have "the imagination and the heart to believe," to know God and to make Him known. In fact, this is what classical educators of centuries past were after, which is why the seven Liberal Arts culminated in the study of theology. They were handmaidens to the queen of the arts, theology. And what is theology if not the study of God that we might know Him and make Him known?

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