Classical Education is all about the liberal arts tradition and the greats—great books, great men, and great artifacts of the Western civilization—armed with the noble purpose of cultivating wisdom and virtue in the student. This great tradition stems from the ancients with big names like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. The liberal arts aren’t “subjects” per se, but intellectual skills and/or virtues that train to student to become what it means to be truly human—a created being capable of reason and inclined to worship.
The Classic 3Rs
If the liberal arts aren’t subjects, where do you begin? How do you start teaching in the early years? How do I homeschool my Pre-K or K students?
I understand those questions. Before we delve into the practice, I’d like to provide the philosophy of why we’re doing this. I hear and learn about the all-important three Rs of education, that is reading, writing and arithmetic. I believe that these three spring from the classical tradition as they provide the fundamental skills that are fostered in the seven liberal arts, that is the Trivium (mastery in letters and language) and the Quadrivium (mastery in numbers and matter).
Saint Augustine alluded to this in his Confessions,
But why I did so much hate the Greek, which I studied as a boy? I do not yet fully know. For the Latin I loved; not what my first masters, but what the so-called grammarians taught me. For those first lessons, reading, writing and arithmetic, I thought as a great burden and penalty as any Greek.Book 1.XIII.20 (emphasis mine)
Recently, as I was searching for resources to include in our curriculum, I found this curious account in Alfred J. Church’s Three Greek Children: A Story of Home in Old Time:
She made the letters in the wax with the sharp end, and when she wanted to rub any thing out, she took the flat end, made the wax all smooth, and wrote the word again. All the words were written in capital letters, and there were no stops…. When Gorgo had written the verses down, her mother would correct them, and then the girl learnt them by heart. Rhodium had an easier lesson of the same kind. Then they learnt arithmetic. This they did by means of a kind of counting board… With this they used little pieces of wood or ivory, like the “men” on a draught-board or a backgammon-board. Any piece that was put into the division marked “1” counted for 100,000, in “2” it counted for 10,000, and so on till in “6” it counted for one only. When they wanted to add or subtract, they did not “do it in their heads,” but really put other pieces in, or took them out. They could multiply and divide in the same way, but it would take too long to explain how. You must ask your teacher to do it, or perhaps, you might see a counting-board, for they are still some- times made, only with differently colored balls strung upon wires.
Granted that the Three Greek Children is historical fiction, I was nevertheless glad to find chapter five, which Rev. Church entitled as “Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.” I am very much reminded of what I gleaned from reading Institutio Oratoria. Similarly, there is writing on wax tablets, reading, and arithmetic in this short story and you’ll find like themes in Quintilian‘s Institutes with regard to training orators and early literacy.
More than the 3Rs
But since reading Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain’s second edition of The Liberal Arts Tradition, I’ve become more convinced that a robust classical education does not merely begin and end with the seven liberal arts comprised of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. (You can learn more about the Liberal Arts here.) Clark and Jain propose that Piety, Gymnastic and Music education provide strong foundations in the liberal arts tradition and culminate in Philosophy and Theology:
Our summary of the classical curriculum adopted by the medieval Christian universities and schools can be represented by the ordering of the six curricular categories we have mentioned, each subsequent one depending on and expanding upon the prior. These categories are piety, gymnastic, music, liberal arts, philosophy, and theology, reflected by the acronym “PGMAPT” (the A stands for “liberal arts”). Drawing from these categories, one can then offer a brief definition of Christian classical education. Grounded in piety, Christian classical education is the transmission of the culture of the Church through a faculty of friends who love the truth by cultivating virtue in the students in body, heart, and mind, and nurturing their love for wisdom and faithful service of the Lord Jesus Christ.Clark & Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition (emphasis mine)
I have been ruminating on this idea for a while now since I believe that movement plays an important aspect in the overall development of children, particularly those with special needs. This has overwhelming support in research and science as well.
I have been likewise toying with the idea of play or paidia in Greek (παιδιά) in relation to paideia (παιδεία) or education or enculturation. Thus, building on the thesis of Clark and Jain, I wish to incorporate Gymnastic education for the body and Musical education for the soul in order provide an embodied and wholistic education, also reflecting what Plato said in his very last book:
Education has two branches,—one of gymnastic, which is concerned with the body, and the other of music, which is designed for the improvement of the soul.Plato, Laws, Book VIII
Piety, Gymnastic and Music
Clark and Jain provide a compelling basis for Piety, Gymnastic and Music education in the first few chapters of their excellent book. During the heat of the summer and quarantine of 2020, I shared with a few potential homeschoolers that I wish to add another R to the 3Rs of education. I proposed that Religion is the overarching world and life view in the classical Christian tradition. I would also argue that religion comprises the ideals of paideia from the Greeks and pietas from the Romans.
But as I was designing a Pre-K and K classical curriculum a few months after that first talk, I instinctively added another R, that is Rhythm which represented movement. I realized that this idea of Rhythm is very much tied to the Gymnasium and Musical education presented by the ancients. Musical education comprises more than just song and tunes, but include history, poetry, music, et. al, similar to the nine muses of Apollo.
Contrary to the ancient emphasis on the soul and the modern polar opposite emphasis on the physical or the senses alone, the message of Christianity shapes our understanding of man as an embodied soul, bridging two worlds (the ancient and the modern) together and elevating it to a more rich and robust educational tradition.
Religion and Rhythm
Religion and Rhythm is an attempt to incorporate that Piety, Gymnastic and Musical education that Clark and Jain have been proposing. And if you look closely, one could also find the Greek life view of paideia or enculturation in all of these:
Education comes from a Latin word, but the original Greek word used in the New Testament was paideia. An education that was true paideia meant not just passing along ideas but enculturation: passing along the entire culture. What culture was being passed along? It was the culture of the Church, which sought to cultivate piety, virtue, and wisdom, as the students would grow in the grace of Christ.Clark & Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition
This is why I’ve revised the 3Rs of education in the classical curriculum and made it into the 5Rs classical Christian education:
- Religion (Piety and Paideia)
- Rhythm (Gymnastic and Music)
This is the big picture of my developing philosophy for early Classical Christian Education. I wish to tackle the practica for another time. And if I am able to do these things with my children in any homeschooling day, it would have been good and right already. Thus, I place the 5Rs at the forefront of our everyday homeschool life, specifically our schedule.