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Introduction to Classical Education

By Fritz Hinrichs
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #12, 1996.

Fritz Hinrichs outlines "What is Classical Education?" and tells us what makes Great Books great.
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Fritz Hinrichs


Christian education has become something of a lost science. Not only have Christians done very little to prepare their children to become godly intellects, but intellectual incompetence has been seen as the true helpmate of vital spirituality. A soft mind has been seen as a vital tool in the pursuit of a soft heart. In our day, mental rigor and a vigorous intellectual pursuit have became equated with doctrinal rigidity and cold spirituality.

However, by God's grace, with the increasing interest in classical education, we are seeing a revival of the Christian intellectual tradition.

What Is Classical Education?

Classical education differs from most educational philosophies in that it attempts to step back from the parade of educational theories that seem to keep us in a state of continual bewilderment and asks,

  • "What was education like in the past?"
  • "What books were used?"
  • "What goals were thought important?"

Dorothy Sayers, in her well-known essay "The Lost Tools of Learning," attempted to answer these questions, and in so doing gave us some very sage advice for education in our own day. She began by investigating the medieval model of education and found that it was composed of two parts: the first was called the Trivium and the second, the Quadrivium.

The Trivium contained three areas: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. Each of these three areas were specifically suited to one of the stages in a child's mental development.

The Grammar Period. During his early years, a child studies the Grammar portion of the Trivium. The Grammar period (ages 9<11) includes learning a language - preferably an ancient language, such as Latin or Greek - that will require the child to spend a great deal of time learning and memorizing its grammatical structure.

During their younger years, children possess a great natural ability to memorize large amounts of material, even though they may not understand its significance. This is the time to fill them full of facts, such as the multiplication table, geography, dates, events, plant and animal classifications: anything that lends itself to easy repetition and assimilation by the mind.

The Dialectic Period. During the second period, the Dialectic period (ages 12<14), the child begins to understand that which he has learned and begins to use his reason to ask questions based on the information that he has gathered in the grammar stage.

The Rhetoric Period. The third period Sayer mentions is that of Rhetoric (ages 14<16). During this period the child moves from merely grasping the logical sequence of arguments to learning how to present them in an persuasive, aesthetically pleasing form.

Learning to Learn

In modern education, we have put the proverbial cart before the horse by expecting students to master a great number of subjects before they have mastered the tools of learning. Even though the study of language and logic may seem dull in themselves, they are the tools that one needs to develop to be able to approach the task of mastering any particular subject whether it be Scottish political history or carburetor maintenance. Sayers ends her essay with this line: "The sole true end of education is simply this; to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain."

"Learning to learn for oneself" certainly well summarizes the pedagogical goal of classical education. However, once you can learn on your own, where do you go from there?

Great Books of the Western World

Another educational truism is helpful: "Education is merely selling someone on books." To this end we must ask, "Which books are worthy teachers?" The answer to this question usually lies in what we are attempting to learn. If we merely ask in general "Which are the truly great books?" we find there is actually a fairly broad agreement on the answer to this question. Throughout history, certain books have generally come to be viewed as central to the development of Western culture and have had an unusually large impact due to the profundity and eloquence with which they have expressed their ideas. These books form the core of the Western intellectual tradition. The ideas contained in them have formed the saga that we know as Western History.

Anyone who has grown up in the West - by which I mean Greece, Rome, and Israel, and the cultures descended from them, which include America, the British Commonwealth nations, and Western Europe - and desires to understand the cultural milieu in which they have been raised, should read these books.

In order to come to a self-conscious understanding of the ideas that have shaped the culture around us, we need to face the ideas at the source from which they came. Francis Schaeffer had an excellent sense for the top-down flow of ideas. He was fond of explaining how ideas began with the philosophers, worked down through the universities, into the popular media, and finally into the general culture. Because ideas progress in this manner, it behooves us to become acquainted with ideas at their fount so that we may understand their manifestations in our present culture. Thus, reading the great books serves an important apologetical function for Christians; the books allow us to grapple with the ideas that have shaped the thinking of those around us. Before we can minister as evangelists, we have to know what our neighbors already believe.

We live in the continuum of Western history. In order to evaluate this stream that we are part of, we must step back from it and discern the ideas that have shaped it. To attempt to ignore the ideas that have shaped our cultural history is to guarantee ourselves not only cultural irrelevance but also entrenchment in the Christian ghetto. This position not only will lead to our own intellectual poverty but also will disgrace the Sovereign God who needs not be mocked by the cowardice of His children. The King's children do not hide in the alleys but walk confidently knowing that the sun that shines belongs to their Father.

Digging Deeper

For more information on the use of the Trivium in a classical curriculum, Fritz invites you to peruse his Web page - http://www.gbt.org. You might also be interested in obtaining a copy of Dorothy Sayer's "Lost Art of Learning" essay. This may be found in her book Are Women Human?, which can be ordered through your local bookstore.

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