Monday, May 23, 2016

Classical Education and the Catholic School

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about classical education. Our oldest daughter is set to start kindergarten in the fall, and the rationale behind the trajectory of our modern educational system—what we teach our children, how, and when—suddenly seems much more relevant to me. My foray into teaching 8th grade this past year (a new level for our high school) has also piqued my interest in the purpose of the lower grades—how, for example, the structure of elementary and middle school points toward high school, college, and adulthood. My wife went to a classical high school, so I was already somewhat familiar with its basic principles.

The two resources I’ve found most useful are Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” and the much more comprehensive The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (pictured above; the link should take you to the book's website). The latter is geared toward homeschoolers and contains lots of details about the particulars of applying the classical model to the homeschool setting, but its outline and explanation of the classical Trivium are worth the price of admission.

Briefly, the classical model is divided into seven traditional “liberal arts” that progress, in two stages, from the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) and to the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy). The Quadrivium served as specialized learning in its time (the origins of classical education stretch back to Ancient Greece) and its four subjects, while not unimportant, certainly carry less relevance in our age than the fundamental Trivium, which seeks not to teach specific skills about a certain subject, but rather—and this is what Sayers implies in the title of her essay—the “tools” that will help a student learn for life.

The Grammar stage of the Trivium corresponds, loosely, with the elementary grades (no coincidence that they were not long ago referred to as “grammar” school). This stage of learning emphasizes rote knowledge, as it works with the sponge-like quality of a young child’s mind and their enthusiasm for learning new things. The Well-Trained Mind suggests that this is the best time to guide children, in their eagerness, to foundational content—those pieces of information that will become, as they grow, the touchstones of their world: historical epochs, biological classifications, geography, Latin, spelling and grammar, etc. Memorization has gone out of fashion in our current educational system, but the idea behind its emphasis in the classical model is that students will begin to recognize what they’ve memorized all around them—in the news, books, etc—and culture will constantly reinforce the relevance of this information outside of school.

The Logic stage occurs during the middle-school years. The student, armed in the grammar stage with lots of important information, now starts to understand how it all fits together. “Why?” is the question that guides the Logic curriculum. Students learn relationships between things, and get a firmer understanding of the wholes that give sensibility to the parts they’ve learned in the younger grades. Really—and my experience teaching high school bears this out—the middle-school grades are the beginning of understanding. They are the time in a child’s life when inquisitiveness comes naturally, and if that questioning spirit is not massaged and encouraged during the short window of early adolescence, it is very hard to resuscitate in the later high school years. If inquisitiveness does not animate a student’s mind, apathy quickly takes up residence, and no matter what a teacher does, learning will never be anything to that student but pieces of information to be gathered, begrudgingly, and released to achieve a satisfactory grade.

Rhetoric is the final stage in the Trivium and corresponds with high school, especially the upper grades. In this stage students begin to find their voices, and start to participate in the great world of ideas that they have been studying. Appropriately, the capstone of these years is the thesis, which a student writes and successfully defends as a requirement for graduation. Most schools have a remnant of this in a junior- or senior-year argumentative research paper that is a prerequisite for matriculation. Like the earlier two stages, this last one taps into the natural strengths of students at that period of their development. What more does a 16- or 17-year-old want to do but express himself or herself? This is the time of life where teenagers self-style: do they want to be seen as hipsters or athletes? Runway models or intellectuals? This desire for self-expression is one of the reasons that teens flock to social media—it gives them a space to craft their own image and project it to the world.

The Rhetoric stage channels this natural desire into the expression of ideas, and helps a student speak his or her mind in an effective way. The study of rhetoric itself as a subject is often part of this stage. Students are also exposed to great writing and great writers—they not only get an overview of the history of ideas but ideally during this stage they would be directly introduced to the work of the world’s most influential thinkers (what high school History classes, for example, now often call “primary sources,” as if they were novelties added onto the curriculum rather than the basis for the curriculum itself). Student writing, which was primarily concerned with summary during the grammar stage, and synthesis during the logic stage, now moves into argument, which, if done well, utilizes summary and synthesis in the service of persuasion. What contribution will students make to the world of ideas? The rhetoric stage helps them discover what they have to say, and helps them say it well.

It probably goes without saying that each stage is not isolated in focus. That is, the Grammar stage does not “drill and kill” with memorization activities at the expense of inquiry or expression, nor does the Rhetoric stage eschew the teaching of important dates or terms in order to focus entirely on persuasive training. Rather, the names of the three stages indicate the emphasis of each, the overarching purpose that corresponds with the natural tendencies of children at their various levels of development. I find such a clear trajectory refreshing in an age when a K-12 education, from a bird’s-eye, looks like an archipelago of grade levels and subjects that has been strafed, rather uniformly, with buoyant terms like “skill building” and “critical thinking.” Knowledge-as-information largely reigns. Perhaps it is the legacy of John Dewey or maybe it stretches back even further, but, in simple terms, the modern school offers no coherent vision of how everything fits together.

For all intensive purposes, an authentically classical education is almost unworkable in our age, outside of homeschools and small institutions whose students largely come from like-minded families. The entire classical sequence, from the early grammar years on through upper rhetoric, contains too many interconnected levels for someone to just open up a classical high school and take all comers. Unless students come from families with feverish reading habits and have gained a working knowledge of Western history, hopping into the classical system in 9th grade won’t really work. Furthermore, classical schools require small classes and teachers schooled in the classical tradition, and the typical large Catholic high school (at least here in the Northeast) is simply not set up for such an operation.

That’s not to say that Catholic schools have nothing to learn from the classical model. In fact, its unity of focus is of great value to a faith that professes that all truth is one. A classical education takes for granted that children are drawn to the beauty of the world around them. This manifests itself first as a desire to soak up the world in wonder, to take in everything they can. Children don’t need to be taught to learn; they need to be pointed in the right direction—toward something beautiful—and their natural instincts take over. Language acquisition happens this way, at a very young age, and I’d argue that all learning follows suit, especially in the early grades. Given the right conditions, children need to be steered, not pushed, in the direction educators want them to go.

The classical model proceeds from desire, which is something I’ve written about recently in my posts on modern education (here and here). If all learning is but acquiring information, as the modern view would have it, how can we expect students to desire it? We can’t: we must turn learning into a symbol for something else—a successful career, money, prestige, character, etc—and thus convince them that as they build their knowledge of the world around them what they’re really doing is building a better future for themselves. True enough, but it should be no surprise when students turn into automatons, concerned only with earning good grades, since grades are the only thing that has any intrinsic value. In the Trivium, acquiring information is less important than understanding, and the impulse to understand is assumed to be built into students, something that emerges as they enter into a more mature relationship with the world around them. Desire follows beauty, and the beauty of the world seems to me to be the one thing that bestows unity, and thus sense, to the three stages of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

It would be impractical, if not impossible, for most Catholic schools to do much with the classical system structurally, for the reasons I mentioned above. Yet our faith also takes for granted the inherent sensibility of the world—the logos—and its goodness. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins put it, and in such a world the appropriate response is wonder. The broad principles of the Trivium can guide us in channeling our students’ wonder in order to develop individuals who know much, think deeply, and communicate well.


  1. I enjoyed reading this piece on classical education and would like to read more on the role of the Quadrivium;

    American research, academic and pop culture are driven by statistical information -- if just marketing analyses and details; numbers and counting are frequently our first encounter with symbols (one thumb, two fingers, ten digits, etc.) before we are able to sense or comprehend the trinity;

    but numbering and science may not provide the intense "meaning" derived from letters and art. Placing mathematics and the sciences in second place, behind language and the arts, shortchanges the learning child and fails to provide her the skills necessary to appreciate Hopkins' "grandeur of God."

    Correct interpretation of scientific information, hypothesizing in and about new discoveries, basic appreciation of the classical musical tradition, and comprehension of the place of life in the cosmos -- all faithful to the Catholic tradition -- cannot be achieved or put into practice without a mastery of the arithmetic basis of learning;

    what is a voice without numbers? a repetition of prior sounds or a new distinct train of thought: the difference between 0 and 1.


    1. Thanks for reading, Gretchen, and I appreciate your comments. I'd agree with you that my post largely ignores the math/science arena--as a literature teacher I'm really only qualified to address the humanities side of the equation. A few thoughts in regard to your post:
      -First, you're right to call out the dearth of attention paid to math and science, and, in my experience, it is the weak spot of many classical schools. They are often founded and run by educators whose background is in the humanities (like myself) and don't have much to offer for the upper-level sciences, especially (science-labs are often laughable in classical schools).
      -I'd encourage you to check out The Well-Trained Mind. The book offers specific suggestions for math/science instruction in the classical model and demonstrates that the classical student need not be deficient in those areas. Actually, he/she is often stronger than the traditionally educated student, especially when it comes to Geometry, Logic, etc.
      -All this being said, the ability to process data and information always relies on some kind of narrative to give it sense, and I think this is where the classical model is at its strongest. So much of the direction of modern education is geared toward processing information yet so little of it demands that students think about the big question, about why all of this data matters and what assumptions underlie our interpretation. The classical model, when it succeeds, helps teaches students to think well, which gives them an advantage in all subjects, I think.

      Thanks again for your comments.

    2. Thank you for posting this "dialogue" and taking the time to examine some of the thoughts. I appreciate especially your reference to "The Well-Trained Mind," which I intend to read, if just to promote my own recognition and organization of your larger topic here.