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Classical Education
Veritas Press

By Marlin Detweiler

I’ve written and spoken frequently on classical Christian education and I never tire of doing so—it’s that important. However, it’s a bit tricky to address both folks who are new to the idea and those who are veterans in the same effort. Let’s give it a try.

I was first introduced to this educational model when R.C. Sproul recommended I read Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson. This book impresses the reader with both the superiority of the classical model and the necessity of a Christian education for children of Christian parents. It was both convicting and motivating.

Calling something superior today is both bold and politically incorrect so an explanation is in order.

The term classical when used in education has become quite popular. When an idea becomes popular, many seek to use and even redefine the term to various ends. Consequently, defining the strain of classical education promoted here is necessary. The definition pertains to both method and content in education.

Classical educational method (pedagogy) makes use of the first three of the seven liberal arts -- grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric. In times past it was understood that the learning of every discipline or subject involved first getting the basic facts (grammar). As an example, the Who, What, Where, and When of history would be the “grammar” of history. Notably absent, for now, are the How and Why. The second stage, the dialectic stage, takes the mastery of the facts in the grammar stage and seeks to help the learner understand how and why they relate. Just how was the War for Independence related to the War Between the States? Or, what was the connection between Alexander and Socrates? The rhetoric stage builds on the factual mastery of the grammar stage and the logical connections made in the dialectic stage. It is characterized by taking this mastery and teaching the learner to be winsomely articulate and persuasive when discussing a topic. Listeners are more easily persuaded when material is presented to them in an enjoyable way.

Classical education should also be understood to include certain content. Today, as was common in classical education of the past, learning Latin is very important. Here we must understand that we are not primarily learning Latin as a foreign language instead of Spanish or French. A large majority of our English vocabulary comes from Latin. So, knowing Latin helps us master English vocabulary. Additionally, Latin helps master English Grammar, Latin is logical and teaches us how to think, Latin is the key to many modern languages, and, pragmatically speaking, Latin students perform exceptionally well on standardized tests for college entrance. Summarily, Latin is a tool of leverage for mastering our own language -- a key to the grammar stage.

In addition to making connections, the dialectic stage should include the study of logic as a subject. Studying formal and informal logic results in the student’s learning to think clearly and error-free. You’ve no doubt heard it said, “We just don’t teach children to think anymore.” Teaching logic is the most important aspect of teaching clear thinking. Some examples might help. Formal logic is fairly mathematical. “‘A’ cannot be ‘A’ and ‘not A’ at the same time and in the same relationship” is a basic axiom of formal logic. Informal logic is the study of logical fallacies. One popular fallacy is the “ad hominem” fallacy. Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person. “You can’t believe him, he’s a cat-lover” would be an ad hominem fallacy.

Rhetoric becomes the capstone discipline in classical education, and it is taught, naturally, during the rhetoric stage. This discipline focuses on teaching the learner to communicate so as to move the listener to action. Much, much more than public speaking, an expert in rhetoric will find he is able to assume positions of power and influence because he can exert power and influence.

Finally, classical education should include reading the “Great Books.” Mortimer Adler popularized the idea of “participating in the Great Conversation.” Learning from and building on the past, enjoying the time-proven works, and identifying good and bad ideas in the present, are all results one can expect from this kind of study. It’s quite a shame that much of education today fails to learn from those who went before us, dooming us to repeat their mistakes.

What’s even more amazing in classical education is that it neatly coincides with child development, making it the perfect tool for teaching our children. Grammar school age children (kindergarten – 6th grade) are naturally inquisitive and need little reason why they should learn something. Make it fun and interesting, and they will devour enormous quantities of data. At this age, they’re naturally geared to memorizing, and classical education hits them at their strength. As they get older, say the junior high years of 7th – 9th grade, they become more pert or argumentative. That is the natural, albeit a dangerous, time to teach them to argue well through the mastery of logic. Thankfully, they continue to mature and become more image conscious in the high school years, say 10th – 12th grade. They are then ripe for the learning of rhetoric.

Thus far, I’ve sought to make the case for continuing the recovery of a very rigorous and time-proven approach to education. Yet the most important part of this great educational model is still missing. Imagine a person with an extraordinary grasp of the facts in many fields, an ability to argue flawlessly with regard to his logic, and a winsome, highly-developed sense of rhetoric, all-the-while having no moral scruples nor being willing to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. What a disaster. That is why the purposes we promote at Veritas Press are classical Christian education.

Furthermore, it’s important to see education as one of the most religious things we do. The popular myth that education is morally neutral is a lie. It matters who tells the story of history, who writes the science book, and who describes how things came to be. By what standard do we determine what ought to be? This “oughtness,” as C.S. Lewis calls it in Mere Christianity, is a God-given sense that needs to be accompanied by knowing the God of the Bible. Anything else is less than the complete truth. We cannot honestly expect our children to be educated by the godless and then to turn out godly. Christian children need a Christian education.

One last concern. It’s the idea that classical Christian education can be easy or rigorous and good, but not both. I must admit that some time ago this was a tradeoff one needed to consider. Not anymore. Along with many other purveyors of tools to educate your children classically, we have made it our mission at Veritas Press to help you give your children the best education available without compromise. Online education, planning tools, curricular options, and consulting all contribute to making classical Christian education not only the best option but a very easily executed one. MD
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Mr. Detweiler is the president and founder of Veritas Press (www.veritaspress.com). He and his wife, Laurie, have four boys (ages 19 – 24) and a border collie. They live in Lancaster County, PA.

 

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