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30 January 2010

Faith, Arts, and Education: Classical Ed. part 2

In yesterday’s post, I promised to talk about the advantages of the Classical method of education. I believe that there are four major advantages of this method over any other I’ve ever encountered or heard described. They are as follows.

1) The Classical method is highly organized and structured, but allows lots of creativity and freedom (for both teachers and students) within its structure. Once a school decides what chronological structure to use, the order of courses is set. Students then proceed through the courses in a logical, systematic manner. Each class builds on the specific foundational elements laid in previous courses. As students grow older and more mature, and as they master more and more of the simple facts and ideas presented to them, they can take on more and more independence and exercise their own creativity within the historical contexts outlined by the rotation.
2) The Classical Trivium is designed to fit the stages of a child’s mental development. When children are very young, from around age 5 until maybe 9 or 10, they love rhymes, jingles, sing-song stories, metrical patterns, repetitions of sounds and gestures, and all things conducive to great feats of memory. Children can memorize enormous portions of Scripture at this age and can absorb a second language almost as easily as their native tongue. This is the time to study Latin or a modern language (or a few!) and to discipline students to repeat, repeat, repeat all kinds of tables, charts, and lists. When children get a little older and begin to develop abstract reasoning skills, they will no longer be content with the simple repetition of facts. There are two totally obvious symptoms of a student’s having reached this stage: s/he’ll be embarrassed by the cheesy rhymes and jingles, and s/he’ll start asking “Why?” about everything. Not every child reaches this second stage at the same time, so teachers and administrators need to be alert, sensitive, and flexible: they need to be ready to push a child ahead as soon as s/he exhibits those “dialectic” symptoms. Right now I teach a class of mixed ages, 11 to 17 all in one room. And there are 4 students in the class who have not reached Dialectic. They are not, interestingly enough, the 4 youngest. One of them is in 10th grade, but he has not yet developed abstract reasoning. One barely 11 year old has reached that stage. So if we were in an ideal Classical school, some of those older kids would be in the Grammar phase, while some of the younger ones would have moved on to Dialectic/Logic. The third phase, Rhetoric, capitalizes on teenagers’ need for independence and self-expression. My teaching experiences and observations suggest that this three-phase cycle is the best method for teaching to children’s developmental phases. But it has to be flexible and not lump kids in based on their age or grade.
3) The historical presentation of all courses makes the learning of history (both events and movements) natural. Since everything—and I mean everything, math and science along with the rest—is [ideally] presented in chronological order over a four, six, or eight year span, students don’t have to try to remember what came first: it’s whatever they studied first! And their social interactions and all school experiences will go together to helping them build an internal timeline. I can imagine conversations in which older teenagers try to recall when a certain historical event happened, and they’d say things like, “It must have been in the Baroque, because that’s when you weren’t talking to so-and-so, but you had to work with her in a group, remember?” or “That was in the Ancient period, because remember, we had Mr. So-and-So that year.”
4) Similarly, the unity of all subjects with one another through their historical contexts promotes synthesis. I remember being shocked to discover (way too late in life; I won’t admit when!) that Mozart, Wordsworth, and George Washington were contemporaries (Wordsworth was born a bit later than the other two, but they overlapped). Mozart seemed very old-fashioned to me: witness the symmetry, balance, and apparent “simplicity” of many of his works to the superficial listener. George Washington seemed even longer-ago; I mean, he founded this ancient country in which I live! But Wordsworth, with his long, lush lines, natural meters, and soaring sublimity, seemed much later. I remember being astonished to find that Richard Strauss died the year my mother was born (sorry, Mom!); I thought, since he wrote “Classical” music [really just “good” music] that he had to have lived hundreds of years ago! And experiences like that abound. It wasn’t until college that I was first asked to think about how ideas affected events and vice-versa, or how mental movements became distinguishing marks of time periods, or how currents of thought washed across continents and over oceans to influence several cultures, or how the events of one period set in motion causes whose effects could be seen centuries later. The one purpose of a Classical education, at least as I imagine it in its ideal form, is to create a synthesized understanding of all [Western] subjects, through their historical contexts, in its students.

In later posts I’ll discuss the various historical time-period rotations that can be used, methods for integrating math and science, examples of interdisciplinary lessons, and observations of the Classical school I visited. I'll also compare the homeschool program where I now teach, and maybe investigate some other schools.

1 comment:

Annelise Holwerda said...

The fourth point is my favourite. When I was at school, I think there was an effort to co-ordinate History and English courses for each year, but to have everything done carefully like so would really give an impression of the real history on which the present is based- not just the many things taken out of the past for study. Where movements and cultures all fit together, and suddenly make so much more sense.

I think this system, just for having the resonances it does, would give a real sense of creative pride, style and enjoyment, for certain children. Being 'cultured' isn't all a terrible thing :)