Classical Education: Lutheran Schools Should Take A Closer Look
Written by Rachel Timmermann
Are current classrooms barren of Western heritage? If so, is this lack of classical recognition worth changing? Classical education, with roots in time-proven skills, is an option to successfully educate the next generation of responsible citizens.
First, let’s lay out a clear picture of classical education. Gene Veith broadly describes what is considered historical classical education: “[T]he Seven Liberal Arts, as further developed in the Middle Ages, consisted of two parts: the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium of mathematics, music, astronomy, and geometry” (p. 11). More clearly:
The trivium is a paradigm for the mastery of language. But it applies to far more than language. Every subject has its grammar, logic, and rhetoric. To be educated in any discipline, you must 1) know its basic facts (grammar); 2) be able to reason clearly about it (logic); and 3) communicate its ideas and apply it effectively (rhetoric) (Veith, p. 12).
The quadrivium shows four different content areas. This is the basic way to understand the components of classical education.
In a classical school grades one through four are commonly named the grammar stage, and in these years facts are memorized. This stage lays the foundation of learning. After mastery, children move to the logic phase, typically grades five through eight. Students are encouraged to notice the cause and effect in the world and figure out why, thus creating a logical framework. (Wise, J. & Bauer, S., p.43- 44). Finally, in the rhetoric stage of the high school years, the classical student “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” (Wise, J. & Bauer, S., p. 44). Developing expression allows students to convey their thoughts and knowledge in an effective manner. This is the skeleton of classical learning.
Three main arguments exist in opposition to classical education: its perceived confining nature, its separation of knowledge from its utility, and its perceived support of rationalism. First, compared to contemporary progressive education, where socialization and individual strengths are considered at every stage, the pedagogy of classical education is regarded as developmentally inappropriate and confining. Next, critics disagree with grammar students memorizing facts before they use them in daily lessons, claiming young children cannot remember information they do not understand (VanDamme, 2007). Lastly, progressive educators critique classical education’s perceived tendency towards and support of rationalism. Rationalism, it is suggested, is supported by classical education because of its non-holistic educational approach—its emphasis on cognitive capabilities over against emotional, moral, and societal interaction. These points highlight the main criticisms of classical education.
In defense—or even encouragement—of a classical education, there are at least three arguments: teaching a love for learning, potentially improving test scores, and immersing students in their cultural heritage. First, proponents state, “Classical education nourishes wonder; it provokes the curiosity and inquisitiveness that leads to scientific discovery; and it inclines the mind to ultimate questions of religious faith” (Veith, p. 117). Next, classical schools show higher test scores on standardized tests in the first studies that have been completed. Success is initially credited to the early study of Latin. Lastly, classical education aims at “not socialization or vocational training, but initiation into a cultural heritage, induction into the ongoing conversation of Western Civilization” (Leithart, p. 5). In the high-stakes test culture of today’s schools, it is hard not to yearn for education for the sake of knowledge and beauty rather than a number. Students should not be denied their roots for the sake of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education. Classical education equips children to enter the world ready to participate with a full breadth of great ideas and knowledge.
A closing thought: The total transition to a classical model may be unnecessary to reap benefits. Lutheran schools could consider expanding their reading lists to include classical literature and teaching Latin at a young age. Another option, perhaps already in use, is Saxon math, which encourages memorizing math tables and chanting math facts. Older students should have opportunities to debate on a variety of topics and identify common logical fallacies. Education should fully prepare students to share our rich cultural history with future generations. Classical education equips children to enter the world with a full arsenal of ideas and knowledge, while acknowledging the beauty of knowledge.
Rachel Timmermann is an MLC graduate student. She and her husband taught English in China for Friends of China. Their love of languages motivates her interest in Classical Education. You may read more of Rachel’s thoughts in her paper “Classical Education: Does it Belong in Our Schools?”