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Classical Education: My First Acquaintance

My First Acquaintance

My first acquaintance with Classical Education was during a visit to a family friend’s house. This highly competent mother was homeschooling four kids about ten years ago and she was the very first to introduce me to classical education. Needless to say, I was mind-blown.

I borrowed her earliest editions of the Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, Teaching the Trivium by the Bluedorns, and Repairing the Ruins which was edited by Douglas Wilson. These books introduced me to the Trivium. The very ideas resounded with my own impoverished old soul. I was yearning for something more substantial in a pragmatic world that only wanted results, and I thought that Classical Education made a lot of sense.

The Lost Tools of Learning

So I went down the rabbit hole, and discovered Dorothy Sayer’s 1947 Oxford lecture entitled, “The Lost Tools of Learning.[1] Up until that time, I had no idea who she was. But I was thoroughly impressed that she was an honorary member of the Inklings, the informal writing club that literary giants like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, actually started. In that essay, I learned about the Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric which made up the Trivium.

Trivium Pursuit

Trivium springs from the Latin words tri and via, means “the place where three roads meet.” It was all age-old practice with ancient roots. Sayers relates the three stages of the Trivium to three ages:

Grammar

The Poll-parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age one readily memorises the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things.

Logic

The Pert Age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent) is only too familiar to all who have to do with children: it is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders), and the propounding of conundrums (especially the kind with a nasty verbal catch in them).

Rhetoric

The Poetic Age is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching-out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.

Sayers presented a hypothetical educational psychology[2] that resonated with my own observations, and I gobbled it up. Armed with this new knowledge, my husband and I were convinced that this was the way we wanted to educate our daughter.

By the time our first child was almost three years and a half, the Lord blessed us with another child. So we enrolled our preschooler to the next best thing, a non-sectarian Classical school. Or so we thought. This fledgling school is classical in name, but quite progressive in their practice. It was less than ideal, but the small class size very much appealed to us so we stayed with them for two and a half years.

Fast forward to 2018, our daughter was diagnosed with ADHD and specific learning disability in letters and numbers. That means she has dyslexia and dyscalculia, along with focus issues. We found that she needed more attention than the therapy and intervention classes she was already receiving. She would come home tired and worn from school, with no real help and hope from schoolteachers who probably did not understand her condition or were not properly equipped with the knowledge and tools to help her. So in January of 2019, we decided to pull her out in the middle of the Kindergarten, and jumped right into homeschooling.

Rediscovering the True, Good and Beautiful

I was immersing myself in literature about what it means to teach classically. But I was getting overwhelmed with the whole process while trying to keep up with the Trivium in our own homeschool. I bought the Claritas Christian curriculum that was designed for the Grammar Stage and we memorized facts after facts because I thought that was how it should be done.

I began to backtrack my steps and found that what I was doing was actually more accurately described as the Neo-Classical movement. The ages and stages approach of the Trivium is relatively new, which drew inspiration from Dorothy Sayers’ lecture and further developed by Douglas Wilson in the Logos schools. Diane Lockman in her book Trivium Mastery notes,

Classical scholars did not impose a twelve-year trivium on their apprentices. Grade levels were nonexistent. Apprentices joined masters rather late in childhood (between the ages of eleven and fourteen) at which point they quickly mastered the three skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Once having perfected these skills, they were able to study discrete ideas in depth. For them, the body of knowledge was limited to a few disciplines; for our teens, the possibilities for in-depth exploration of ideas are virtually limitless.[3]

While it is certainly true that our children need a receptacle of information where they can draw knowledge from in order interact with other ideas, I was more concerned with the content and methodology, than the overall philosophy and end goal of what constitutes as a true Classical education. I failed to realize that the overall important aim of Classical education is not only to fill the mind and train the student to learn for himself from the seven liberal arts and the Great Books, but to cultivate wisdom and virtue. It is educate not a brain, if you will, but a person, an image bearer of God. It is to educate not simply a body or a clump of cells, but an embodied soul that will last forever.

My family and I been on a journey with Classical Christian education for many years before even homeschooling, but it was when we decided to start with homeschooling that our journey began to take off.


[1] Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” https://www.pccs.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/LostToolsOfLearning-DorothySayers.pdf [Accessed 29 April 2020]

[2] “What if the psychology of the child progresses through the three stages of the trivium?”

[3] Diane Lockman, Trivium Mastery: The Intersection of Three Roads (Outskirts, CO: 2008), Kindle Edition: location 5s28.

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