04 March, 2006

Traditional Classical Homeschool (part 2)

A traditional classical education is, in many ways, a completely different animal from a neo-classical one. Traditionally, an education could not be classical unless it centered around the classics. From the ancient Greeks until the 1800's, there was no need to use the term "traditional" or even the term "classical." One would simply call it an education. It was assumed that any learned person would know Latin and Greek, would have read Caesar, Aquinas, Herodotus, et al. For example, when Harvard was founded one could be accepted if he were at least 14 and could translate a passage from Greek into Latin.

Most modern 30 year olds could not do today what was expected of a teenager 200 years ago. Is this because life for teens is so much more complicated today? Because of a general breakdown in the family and community structure? No. The reason that today most adults never do what was expected of a colonial child is because we have shifted our expectations. We are now generalists. We spend at least 13 years in schooling learning dribs and drabs about everything under the sun. The 18th Century man was a specialist. He specialized in the classics and learned about and from the Greeks and Romans. And that was all he learned, at least formally.

Neo-classicism can fall into the same trap the institutional schools do. There are 6,000 years of human development to study (more if you go and look at things like australiopithicenes). When one uses history as the centering subject in his school, he then has to go out and study all the different accomplishments of mankind throughout history. If you read even half of the 1,000 good books through 13 years of education, that comes out to just over 38 books a year. I read a lot, but I don't think I've ever read nearly that many books in a year. Now, most neo-classicists don't read nearly that many books, but I would argue that even 10 books a year for an elementary age student is too many.

The key is to go "further up and further in" to quote C. S. Lewis again. Take just a few books (we are doing 2 this year) and really study them. A good education is not broad; it is deep. Learn a few things well and you will be able to learn anything you wish. As Miss Sayers said, the disciplines of the trivium are the "tools of learning." They do give us a pattern for thinking and analyzing. We can take them and apply them to any subject at any time, after we have them mastered. And this is the key. We have to master these tools for them to be of the best use. Can we master the trivium without applying it in the way it was designed to be used?

I would say no. The reason the trivium works so well is not simply because it follows the way we learn and grow, but also because of the subjects to which it is applied. Greek and Latin provide training and formation for the mind. Latin is a highly inflected language and is extremely logical. When a young child studies Latin grammar, her mind is being trained into the patterns of thought necessary for the study of logic. When she learns Greek, she prepares herself for elegance of expression. When she translates a passage from one to the other she uses all her faculties to their utmost.

Latin also teaches economy of words. A four word sentence in Latin might translate to 10 words in English. I myself never received a classical education as a child, and I find myself often saying in six words what I could have said as well in two. Read Lewis, Tolkien, Simmons, or any other classically trained writer and you will discover a beauty and an exactitude of language not found in the writings of those who have not been so trained.

This beauty in speaking is representative of an appreciation of beauty in general. For classical students do not just learn in the classical languages, they learn about the classical people. Greek and Rome in many ways represent a golden age the history of mankind. And, not only is there beauty to be found with the ancients, but purity of thought as well. St. Paul was a classically trained scholar and he brings all of the rhetoric and logic from his training into his writing.

Which brings us to question of whether we should learn about the classical peoples and societies. Christians often worry about exposing their children to pagan thought at too young an age (or sometimes at any age at all), but nearly all the giants of Christianity throughout the millennia were classically trained. When St. Paul declaims gnosticism, he can do so because he knows what and why gnostics think the way they do. When he tells the Corinthians that the wisdom of God is foolishness to men, he does so because he understands what Greeks thought and believed. To understand the Bible, we must understand the culture at the time it was written. So, in order to become a great apologist, one had best study the classics. Studying the classics also gives us a grounding for understanding our own political processes. The founding fathers took the best that the Ancients had to offer and combined it into our Republic. When we study the classics, we study ourselves.

As we see the benefit that learning about the Greeks and Romans and learning their languages impart, we can see how that they cannot merely be a nice "add-on" to an already full schoolday. Neo-classicists see Greek and Latin as a good way to enrich one's studies, but they do not see them as being central to study. Even as little as a hundred years ago, any classicist would have thought this idea laughable. Neo-classicists give the curricular supremacy once held by Grammar to history. Historical studies define and connect the various subjects in the school day.
But in order to do History well, we have a lot to cover. We need to get through 6,000-8,000 years of mankind's story every few years. We need to read as many of the great thinkers as possible. And we need to do so while balancing all the other subjects necessary to produce an educated person. That is a lot of plates to keep spinning. A neo-classical education is like a spider, it has many legs that support it. Take out one, and the education can still stand, if not as well, but take out more than a few and you get no where.

A traditional classical education is centered in the liberal arts. We take our children down the two paths of the trivium and quadrivium in our school day. These subjects, along with Classical Studies, form the three legs of our education. A traditional Classical education is a tripod. Pull out one leg, and it falls, but it only needs three legs to stand. It is simple and effecient, but complete.

Often, a traditional classical education is referred to as a "Latin-centered education." We take the focus away from history and place it on Latin and/or Greek. The Latin grammar is much less complex than the flow of history, yet it provides us with more than enough rabbit trails to follow. As we learn the words for the various provinces of the Roman empire, we learn their modern names and geography. When we come across a Latin phrase we learn its historical background. When we study words used in science we can take the time to learn about those studies. There is no need for separate English grammar, as long as the teacher understands it well enough to draw the comparisons between Latin and English (or has a good grammar reference that will allow her to do so).

So, in a trad classical course of study, Grammar is paramount, and the other parts of the trivium are added in as appropriate. Rhetoric is studied via the Progymnasmata, a series of writing exercises designed to both model good writing and encourage creative thought. This begins near the same time grammar study is initiated. Logic is taught first through Socratic questioning, then through formal and material logic as the student is ready. Instead of seeing grammar, logic, and rhetoric as separate stages of development, they are seen as a continuum with studies in the three waxing and waning as a student matures.

Likewise, studies in the quadrivium continue throughout the years of schooling. We no longer send our children out into the world as young teens, so it makes sense that subjects earlier reserved for college study are now taught to children before they leave home. Thus, the second leg of trad classical ed is arithmetic and, later, the higher maths and the sciences (including music and art theory).

The third leg of trad classical ed is Classics. We study about the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christian societies formed as the influence of Rome retreated. One cannot learn a language in a vaccum. Language is a reflection of the values and mores of a people. The study of the one complements and reinforces the study of the other. This is the study that provides us with a chest, with heart. We learn the tenets of our religion and we learn from the people who created the highest works of art and literature in Western history. It also allows us to fully immerse ourselves in the study of the languages. Studying the culture helps with the study of the language and the study of the language helps with studying the culture. The two are inseperable. Here is where our focus should be, if we truly wish to master the trivium.

But, you may ask, what about U. S. (or whatever your country) history? What about State history? Don't we also need to know these things? Of course we do, but I advocate learning them incidentally. History of oneself is best learned by experiencing one's culture and community. Visit the historical sites in your area, talk to the older people in your community, take a vacation to Washington D. C. Cultivate your student's interest in his own history and you won't have to teach it. He will apply the tools of learning naturally to a subject that interests him. Our family reenacts several periods of history (American War for Independence, the Scottish Rising of 1745, WWII) and I can guarantee that a child will learn more history in one day at a historical site than in a year of history class, and he will enjoy it much more.

The Classics are our starting point. Once we have learned to apply the tools of learning to their proper subjects, we can move on and apply them to other things. After we have written cheria we can easily learn the five-paragraph essay. After we have learned Latin and Greek, modern languages are easy. With a mastery of classical literary references we can read Milton, Donne, or Shakespeare without footnote. Studying classical government informs us about modern government. By doing a few things well, we learn the other things we need to know along the way.

1 comment:

Maribel said...


I found your interesting post referrening progymnasmata interesting.