Last week I touched briefly on the matter of classical education in The Purpose of Mankind and the more I read about that ancient and only recently abandoned approach to developing the mind, the more I am convinced that we are short-changing our children and short-circuiting the future.
To appreciate the classical approach, you must first understand that central to the classical mind is the idea that all knowledge is interrelated. This organic and holistic view of knowledge itself stands in stark contrast to the more specialized, fragmented lens through which we view it today.
Medical education since the early 1900s, for instance, reflects this new standard. The typical medical school organizes its curricula into pre-clinical and clinical studies and specialization occurs quite early on in the process. The delivery systems for medical care are also organized along these specialized lines, and if you’ve had to deal with a medical issue lately, you have probably experienced how narrowly focused each doctor’s practice is and how hard it is to find anyone who can provide an overview by linking the specialists’ perspectives together.
The classical pattern of education, called Trivium, consisted, as its name suggests, of three primary phases: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Just as grammar is the foundation for language, the “grammar” phase focuses on learning facts. The rules of grammar, lists of vocabulary words, the facts of mathematics, descriptions of plants and animals, historical facts and so on are gathered for use in the next phase, logic, which dawns when the child reaches roughly fifth grade.
The capacity for logic is facilitated by the capacity for abstract thinking, which begins to develop in most children around the age of ten. Demanding too much in the way of logic prior to that is unreasonable and given the reality of childhood development, illogical. During this phase, the facts are arranged into a logical framework. An understanding of the function of the organs of the body, for instance, is expanded upon so that the student begins to comprehend the interrelationship of the body’s systems.
You may remember learning to write book reports, for instance, where grammar and logic are put together in relation to a thesis. The cultivation of critical thinking skills is vital to this stage as is the refinement of the ability to analyze arguments in relation to any subject matter.
The third phase of classical education, the “rhetoric” stage, builds on the first two, grammar and logic. In this phase, students learn to articulate – in spoken and written form – their original thinking on the topics at hand.
The entire process is heavily language-focused and was traditionally centered around the languages of Latin and Greek. I recall that in my education most of the grammar I learned came from the study of foreign languages, not my native tongue. This would have likely horrified educators in the classical pattern.
Knowledge and information become a bottomless pit if we fail to develop the capacity in our children to navigate and make sense of it. In my estimation the linkages between the fields of study are as important (if not more) than the individual facts and figures, as it is extremely easy to lose the forest for the trees when the trees are so abundant and accessible with tools like the internet at our disposal.
I look forward to exploring this topic further with you in future posts. In the meantime, I appreciate your thoughts and experiences in relation to this topic!