August 3, 2010

Regents Daily News:
August 3, 2010

The “Classical” in Classical Christian Education

Regents Academy is a Classical Christian school. I find that people often don’t understand what that means, even people who are actively involved in the school. What does it mean to be Classical and Christian? First, some thoughts on what it means to be Classical. In a later post I will offer some thoughts on what it means to be Christian.

Being a Classical school might call to some people’s minds a repressed, austere boys school like in Dead Poets’ Society, where creativity and independent thought are suppressed in the name of rigor and tradition. Others may think of nuns slapping the back of boys’ and girls’ hands with rulers or of tearful students with endless piles of homework.

But a Classical education is an education bequeathed from the riches of Western civilization. It gathers the best of the ancients – the truly classical cultures of Greece and Rome that sought to produce the ideal man through contemplation and philosophy – and the medievals, who were in love with the idea of integrating all thought into a coherent whole. Classical education builds on the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. By studying these disciplines, students learn the great thoughts of their predecessors, comprehend how language works, grow in their ability to read, speak and write intelligently, and are cultivated in wisdom and virtue. The disciplines of the Trivium (and the accompanying disciplines of the Quadrivium) were called the “liberal arts” because they freed the mind and were a fitting education for free men.

Consider the words of educator Paul Lehninger:

These liberal arts, as distinguished from the servile arts (and, in the middle ages, mechanical arts), were liberal because they freed the citizen from captivity to his own inner perspective to join in the exchange of ideas in the larger culture. In this sense, they were true education: a leading out of the mind from the darkness of subjective ignorance to the light of truth.

So to say we are a Classical school is to say that we have a certain kind of curriculum – one that is built on the classical disciplines that aim to expose children’s minds to man’s greatest thoughts and aspirations from his greatest works of literature, science, and art. It is to say also that our education aims toward a certain goal. The ancients conceived of education as producing the model citizen who conformed to ideals of virtue. We likewise have a model in mind – the biblical ideal of Christlikeness. Being conformed to Christ is to be conformed to the new humanity who is being remade in His image in true knowledge and righteousness.

Dorothy Sayers famously added to the discussion of Classical education the insight that the Trivium corresponds to the natural stages of a child’s development. The grammar stage, when children are young, is when they soak up great amounts of information, especially through jingles and rhymes. The logic stage, when children are young teenagers, is when they are learning how to argue and wanting to know how assertions are justified and how ideas interconnect with other ideas. The rhetoric stage is when children begin to learn how to speak and write winsomely and persuasively, building on their previous grammatical and logical (or dialectical) instruction. So to say that we are Classical, in this sense, is to say that we “cut with the grain,” as Mrs. Sayers put it. We teach according to the God-given frames of our children, from young kindergarteners who memorize readily to later teenagers reason logically and speak beautifully.

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