Classical Education: A Primer

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!

The Purpose of Mankind

What would you say is the purpose of mankind?

I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with a friend of mine about classical education, 18th and 19th century American history, the great pendulum upon which humanity seems to swing and finally, what we both do for a living and why.

My friend, a classically trained equestrian and trainer, lives a life different from my own. His daily responsibilities, privileges and challenges bear no resemblance to mine, yet we discovered today that we share a fundamental and twofold concern to bring: (1) order out of chaos and (2) balance where there is imbalance.

The tools we use to achieve those goals are also unique, yet we both recognize the value of establishing a foundational understanding in both principle and application of the fundamentals. The challenge with foundation-building is that most people underestimate the importance of the phase and it is quite often difficult to perceive holes in the foundation when it is being laid.

Most holes show up later, when the pressure increases. In riding, for instance, slight imperfections in the rider’s seat are not likely to appear as problematic when walking around the ring, but raise the stakes and canter and the imperfections are likely to be magnified, revealing the need to go back a few steps to repair the faulty foundation.

Academic education is no exception to this rule. Classical educators understood the need for a mastery of the basics, the building blocks for all learning. Hence the rigorous focus on Latin and Greek grammar in the early years of schooling. Grammar was followed by logic and logic by rhetoric. The ability to reason was assembled meticulously, piece by piece, and the goal was to create students capable of tackling any question, any issue, any challenge.

Specialization coupled with a narrow focus on the scientific perspective (as opposed to the humanities) completely changed the way we are taught and the way we approach life, which in turn affected how we view life itself. Based on your education up until now, what would you say is your purpose in life? If you’re not sure, do you feels you were given the tools to discover the answer or do you still have a lot to learn?

If your education was anything like mine, that question was probably left unanswered if it was ever even raised. Classical education, on the other hand, had as its central aim the cultivation of a sense of meaning and purpose, coupled with the critical thinking skills necessary to put theory squarely into practice.

Americans in the 18th and 19th century were educated within the framework of classical education. As such, the thread of continuity placed in their hands led back through antiquity, with a particular emphasis on the great leaders and thinkers of both recent and distant history. That thread of continuity, woven into the fabric of their lives, provided a gateway through which resolve, original thinking and the impressive ability to “git’r done” manifested with grace and aplomb in ways that are marvelous to us even now, in our supposedly evolved and advanced state.

Consider the men in the First Continental Congress, for example. They represented the rabble of civilized humanity at the time and yet the delegates found a way to galvanize those for whom they were responsible in an almost unthinkable fashion through the establishment of a new nation. They forged this new nation on the anvil of time, using principles, systems and foundational underpinnings that were utterly foreign to the dominant governing systems of their era (most were monarchies), yet commonly understood and frequently employed by Romans and Greeks who lived thousands of years earlier.

Classical horseback riding follows this pattern. Despite the many fads and popular trends that sweep through the art and science of the equestrian art, the fundamentals remain eerily consistent with those articulated and perfected not just decades or centuries, but ages ago! You cannot gloss over the basics and expect to succeed in the advanced stages of any undertaking.

A strong grasp of the fundamentals greatly decreases the likelihood of veering off course. Humanity, at times, seems to lose sight of the basics and the result is catastrophic. Fanatical regimes rise to power, crazy ideas gain prominence and bickering and feuding take the place of harmonious, complementary and collaborative function.

The challenge throughout history has been to inspire men and women to recognize, dwell in and contribute to the advancement of the sweet spot, the balanced life that sits betwixt the extremes. No matter what you job or role may be at any given time, you as a member of the body of humanity, can help bring order out of chaos, and restore balance where there is imbalance.

Your value, your meaning and the fulfillment of your purpose hang in the balance!

Your Relationship with Language

I had a friend many years ago who swore she recalled her first minutes out of the womb.  The bright lights, the movement, the suddenly unmuted sounds and the large creatures who made rhythmic noises to one another and in her direction all formed her first memories!  From the moment you emerged from the warmth and relative  safety of the womb, you likely encountered similar stimuli, all of which your body was marvelously capable of translating into an increasingly complex understanding of the world around you.

Mae West
Mae West once said: “I speak two languages, Body and English.”  Human communication is a remarkably rich field, worthy of individual exploration.  What you say, how you say what you say and what gestures and emotions you use to empower your words are all part of your unique expression.  Some emphasize quantity while others prefer to focus on quality of expression.  Either way, every word shapes the future and contributes to your legacy.

There seem to be two types of people: those who embrace language and those who put up with it by necessity.  Whether it is due to nature or nurture or a combination of the two, your relationship to language is what it is, and there is no better time than the present to make improvements.  If you’re already good, you can get better.  If you have been too afraid or embarrassed to address this area of your expression, have courage and take baby steps in the direction of greater eloquence and succinctness. 

There are tons of useful and free resources on the web that provide useful launch pads for your passionate study of language.  Here are just a few:

  1. (for men or women)