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Classical Education Made Much Easier

By Diane Lockman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #91, 2009.

An introduction to classical education made easier
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Diane Lockman

I wanted to educate my children using the classical method. I thought this would be very hard and time-consuming. This turned out not to be the case. Let me share my journey with you.

12 Rigorous Years?

When I began my journey toward an authentic, classical, Christian home education, I initially welcomed the strict boundaries about which I had heard so much. “Classical education has three stages of four years each: four years apiece for the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages”—so I had been told. Since I had not been classically educated, I needed someone to tell me what to do and how to do it, and trusted what I heard.

The twelve-year structure helped me get my mind around the whole process, but I have to admit that I struggled with the layers and layers of rigorous academic requirements. There was so much to do!

In my zeal to craft well-trained minds, I dutifully piled on the work. Subjects like grammar, literature, handwriting, Bible, history, math, science, Latin, logic, art, and composers crowded out the pleasures of childhood as my kids completed task after task. With a sense of accomplishment, I closed out year one of the Grammar stage, only to begin feverishly preparing for Grammar stage, year two. I purchased oodles of curriculum that never seemed to meet our needs, and relentlessly squeezed more and more into each jam-packed day.

Time marched on as we ticked off the early years and approached the Logic stage with a distant glimpse of the Rhetoric stage. How would we ever get it all done? My kids slaved away daily, and I even created weekly schedules that were segregated by subject down to the hour. Talk about uptight!

Being obedient little troopers, my children never complained about the heavy load. But inwardly I grieved over the daily burden that I had placed on these innocent little shoulders. What in the world was I doing?

Although I had good intentions when I began homeschooling, all I had really done was to change my children’s environment and to tack on more subjects, such as Latin, logic, and classic literature. My “classical” homeschool looked like public school on steroids.

This wasn’t satisfying, so I decided to research the history of education in hopes of discovering the distinguishing features of a real classical education.

What I discovered was not a simple fix; it was a complete paradigm shift that was both shocking and exhilarating. An authentic classical Christian education, as developed during the ancient Greco-Roman world and later refined by the Western Europeans and American colonists, involved mastering three fundamental skills so that the student could then explore the deeper meaning of abstract ideas for the purpose of influencing society. Three chronological stages were never part of the original interpretation.

Focusing on Ideas

Born in ancient Greece, classical education flourished for nearly a thousand years in the West until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. In this “original” classical education, learning was seen as the path to a higher nature through the exploration of abstract concepts such as truth, goodness, and beauty. The expectation was that such examination would lead to noble character and gracious behavior.

The Greek word for instruction or discipline, paideia (“pie-DAY-uh”), refers to the process of forming an enlightened, mature mind. The paideia of a Greek child began with reading and writing; however, the spoken word took precedence over the written word. Literature was written to be read aloud. Entire passages of The Iliad and The Odyssey, epic poems by Homer, were committed to memory for later recital.

Classic literature was selected for study (usually Homer, Euripides, Menander, or Demosthenes), and the student copied the text in Attic Greek. Next, the text was read aloud, with particular attention to effective delivery of meaning and meter. Then the text was translated from Attic Greek to Koine Greek (the spoken language), and certain passages were committed to memory. Finally, the moral of the passage was evaluated. Once the classic was thoroughly read and understood, three written paraphrases were composed: strict, freer, and original.

Aspiring young leaders studied rhetoric, philosophy, medicine, or law. Every leader was expected to publicly discuss any subject with skill, so training in rhetoric was rigorous. Once the extensive rules of rhetoric were mastered, young men analyzed model passages of famous orators and practiced writing their own versions. Eventually, they were equipped to write their own stylish speeches.

The philosopher Socrates, whose teaching methods were unveiled in the pages of Plato’s writings, was the most famous educator of ancient Greece. He employed a form of inquiry known as “Socratic dialogue.” In its purest form, Socratic dialogue is a series of leading questions posed by the teacher or tutor that assist the student in self-discovery and understanding.

Mastering the Skills

Adopting the Greek idea of paideia, the Romans created a system of study known as the “seven liberal arts.” These were divided into two phases: the trivium (which literally means “an intersection of three roads”) and the quadrivium (“an intersection of four roads”). Young patricians pursued the first level of learning: the trivium. This included simultaneous acquisition of three skills: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Once these three skills were substantially mastered, students studied arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music theory, which together comprised the more difficult and mathematically-oriented quadrivium.

Roman students followed Greek methods for learning how to read, write, and deliver orations. In addition to translating the Greek classics, Roman children memorized the Latin writings of Virgil, Terence, Cicero, and Horace. The speeches of Cicero, Livy, Cato, and the Gracchi were studied and imitated. Buildings were not set aside for education; rather, a few pupils gathered around a learned man in the courtyard.

During Jesus’ life, the Roman Empire occupied Palestine. The influence of the Greco-Roman concept of education was so pervasive that some rabbis worried that their Jewish heritage would be obliterated. Their concerns were misplaced, however, as the skills of the classical trivium were adopted by Jews to translate, study, memorize, and recite their classic text, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Interestingly, anyone familiar with the classical trivium will recognize a fellow rhetorician in the Apostle Paul, as his letters are full of classical rhetorical devices. Christian leaders in the late Roman Empire, particularly clergy, were regularly trained in the classical model.

Adding Christian Content

Appalled by the fact that only ecclesiastics could read, during the 9th century A.D. Emperor Charlemagne established the “Palace School” in Western Europe for himself, his family, and young noblemen. The skills of the trivium and quadrivium were both taught. Believing that ancient classical education could not serve its true purpose unless integrated with Christian teaching and writing, Charlemagne also required study of the Old and New Testaments, the writings of the early Church fathers, liturgical books, biographies of the saints, and canon law along with the ancient Greek and Roman texts. Thus, the mind was enlightened by studying great writers and their books, not discrete subjects.

Like the Greeks, Romans, and Jews before them, these students translated source documents from the original language to their vernacular language. Young men of this period learned Greek and Latin for the purpose of reading the original texts. A Koine Greek translation of the Old Testament, created in Alexandria during the third to first centuries B.C., allowed Palace School scholars to bypass Hebrew if they wanted, since they could read the entire Scriptures in Greek.

Some monastic orders emulated the Palace School and opened monastic schools throughout the realm. These schools enabled many members of the peasant class to become literate. Thus, Charlemagne ignited the spread of classical Christian education beyond the palace, though his goal was only to perfect leaders through the study of Greek, Roman, and Christian thinkers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Preparing for Leadership

In the 1600s, Massachusetts Puritans were the first to establish public and private schools to educate the general population in Christian ethics and prepare young men for leadership positions in church and state. Puritan sons pursued a rigorous classical education. Ancient Greek and Latin classics were read in the original language; extensive knowledge of western history and literature was acquired. Additionally, advanced arithmetic and specialized occupational training in surveying and navigation were taught. Key writings of the Protestant Reformation augmented the curriculum. Similar elite schools opened in New York and Charleston.

Schools in the Southern colonies were rare due to the rural dispersion of population, so young men of social status were initially home educated, then privately tutored in ancient languages and classic literature.

The Switch to Training for

As the immigrant population increased to 2.5 million during the mid-1800s, a group of educational reformers advocated for tuition-free “common schools” and compulsory attendance for all American children. In 1852 the first compulsory school law was passed. Although there were pockets of resistance nationwide, such opposition was generally localized, and by 1918, every state in the union had ratified compulsory education.

During the early stages of American public education, a philosophical debate arose as to whether secondary education should prepare the student for college or for a vocation. In 1892, the National Council of Education recommended 12 years of total study (six years elementary, three years junior, and three years senior) in four curricula tracks, two of which were for college-bound students. All four tracks resembled a classical Christian education in that western literature, composition, and the histories of Greece, Rome, England, France, and America were taught.

Were it not for the lack of qualified teachers and the persuasive educational bureaucrats who argued against the classical model, a secularized version of a classical education might still exist in the American public school system. However, in 1918 the U.S. Department of the Interior rewrote the principles of public education and effectively replaced the classical model with pragmatic aptitude training, with a focus on preparing students for eventual employment.

A New Way of Thinking

Once the reality of what I was learning began to percolate in my mind and heart, I was delighted with my new discovery. Classical education, as originally interpreted, was exactly what my husband and I wanted for our children. My home became an educational laboratory as I began to try out various ways to teach the three skills of the classical trivium. Creative, efficient learning now happened year-round in our home. My preteens were soon ready to move beyond the trivium to exploring ideas within the confines of their unique interests and our family’s preferred themes. Now we have a vision for raising thinkers who will truly influence their culture, just as their Western ancestors did so long ago.

Adopting the original interpretation of classical education is much easier than you may think. If you have been operating under the three-stage model for any length of time, the freedom of a real classical Christian education is liberating. Released from the imposed structure, you can relax and enjoy your children as you teach three simple skills: language, thought, and speech.

If you recall, the ancient definition of the classical trivium is the intersection of three roads. Each of the three skills represents a road. Each of the roads culminates in a point which I call “substantial mastery.” Over the years, you teach your child each of the three skills, performing periodic evaluations to assess mastery. This process will take years, but depending on when you start and how your child progresses, you will eventually reach the intersection of substantial mastery.

The potential for creative learning is only limited by your imagination and inspiration. No longer bound to certain methods, curriculum, or artificial structure, you are free to teach the three skills of language, critical thinking, and communication in ways that uniquely meet the needs of your family.

Upon mastery of the three skills, your role as parent shifts from that of teacher to guide. The teen who has substantially mastered the three skills of the trivium has all the necessary tools to study any discipline in depth.

Authentic classical education has always been primarily interested in meaning, so your first task is to give your children the tools for learning, and your second task is to supervise the discussion and interpretation of ideas during the post-trivium years.

In future columns, I’ll show you how to teach the three skills of the trivium as well as how to establish criteria for examining and evaluating ideas during the high-school years.

Diane Lockman, author of Trivium Mastery, practiced nine years as a CPA before cheerfully coming home to be with Meredith and Connor until they were old enough for school. When Meredith was in first grade, Diane heard about homeschooling. She looked into it and a few weeks later, persuaded David to let her pull the kids out of school. Diane is the founder of The Classical Scholar (classicalscholar.com), a site for teaching other homeschool parents how to teach in the classical style. When she’s not reading, writing, managing the kids’ education, or teaching live classes, Diane enjoys sewing period costumes.

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