A Classic Education

Wise, et al (2004) in their book The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, talk about what a classical education is:

…But they’ve been done a great disservice. Their schools gave them few tools; their minds are filled with the raw materials needed for success, but they have to dig with their hands.

I was ahead of them when I was their age – not because of superior mental abilities but because I’d been equipped with a closetful of mental tools. My mother taught us the way she’d been taught at home. Our education was language-centered, not image-centered; we read and listened and wrote, but we rarely watched. She spent the early years of school giving us facts, systematically laying the foundation for advanced study. She taught us to think through arguments, and then she taught us how to express ourselves. This is the classical pattern of the trivium, the three part process of training the mind.

(The definition of trivium is: Etymologically, the Latin word trivium means “the place where three roads meet” (tri + via); hence, the subjects of the trivium are the foundation for the quadrivium, the upper division of the medieval education in the liberal arts, which comprised of; arithmetic – numbers; geometry – numbers in space; and music – numbers in time) 

The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage” – not because you spend four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation for language. In elementary-school years – grades 1 through 4 – the mind is ready to absorb information since children at this age actually find memorization fun. During this period education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts: rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics – the list goes on. This information makes up the “grammar” for the second stage of education.

By fifth grade, a child’s mind begins to think more analytically. Middle-school students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “logic stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the relationships among different fields of knowledge, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework.

A student is ready for the logic stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student learns algebra and logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and support of a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story; the logic of science requires the child to learn the scientific method.

The final phase of a classical education, the “rhetoric stage,” builds on the first two. At this point, the high-school student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses her conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language. The student also begins to specialize in whatever branch of knowledge attracts her; these are the years for art camps, college courses, foreign travel, apprenticeships, and other forms of specialized training.

A classical education is more than just a pattern of learning, though. First, it is language-focused: learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken, rather than through images (pictures, videos, and television).

Why is this important? Language learning and image learning require very different habits of thought. Language requires the mind to work harder; in reading, the brain is forced to translate a symbol (words on the page) into a concept. Images, such as those on videos and television, allow the mind to be passive. In from of a video screen, the brain can “sit back” and relax; faced with the written page, the mind is required to roll its sleeves up and get to work.

Second, a classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions.

Third, to the classical mind, all knowledge is interrelated. Astronomy, for example, isn’t studied in isolation; it’s learned along with the history of scientific discovery, which leads into the church’s relationship to science and from there to the intricacies of medieval church history. The reading of the Odyssey allows the student to consider Greek history, the nature of heroism, the development of the epic, and humankind understands of the divine.

This is easier said than done. The world is full of knowledge, and finding the links between fields of study can be a mind-twisting task. With history, a classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its organizing outline, beginning with the ancients and progressing forward to the moderns in history, science, literature, art, and music.

We suggest that the twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: the ancients (5000 B.C. – A.D. 400), the medieval period through the early Renaissance (400-1600), the late Renaissance through early modern times (1600-1850), and modern times (1850-present). The child studies these four time periods at varying levels – simple for grades 1 through 4, more difficult in grades 5 through 8 (when the student begins to read original sources), and taking an even more complex approach in grades 9 through 12, when the student works through these time periods using original sources (from Homer to Hitler) and also has the opportunity to pursue a particular interest (music, dance, technology, medicine, biology, creative writing) in depth. The other subject areas of the curriculum can also be linked to history studies (p.13-15).

Rudolf Steiner (1923) lectured that “Elementary school is a time for students to accumulate non-opinionated knowledge through primarily images and parables. Math basics should be taught using fingers as devices and then drilled for memory accumulation. The arts should introduce in preschool and first integrated with course work in Kindergarten on through 12th grade. (see: INNOVATIVE METHODOLOGIES; Arts Education Methodology) In K-9 themes of Inquiry, analysis and solutions, abstract ideas, the faculty of knowledge, and independent thought should be introduced and taught.