WISDOM OF THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION
In the past twenty-five years, America has seen an increase in places of learning known as “classical schools,” and in particular “classical Christian schools.” St. Andrew’s Academy is in this category, and therefore would like to explain what a Christian, classical education is. As with any group, members of the classical school movement differ a good deal between themselves, but it is generally fair to say that most explanations of classical education focus on the implementation of the Trivium. Though these first three of the ancient liberal arts are certainly important, the training of a well-educated and well-governed mind also requires a disciplined study of classical languages and a broad exposure to “The Great Conversation” – that is, the great ideas that we have received in the classical literature of Western Civilization.
Most basically, the Trivium is a group of three (hence the name tri-vium) subjects, Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, which work with the natural development of the student’s mind to teach also the process of learning. A student trained in the subjects of the Trivium will be better able to learn a new subject because he or she understands how to learn.
Grammar: Every area of knowledge has basic facts which must be mastered: these we call the grammar. “Grammar” in this sense might be numbers (in mathematics), letters (in English or Greek), dates and names of people (in history), or definitions (in science). These must be mastered before any further learning can happen.
Logic: Next comes the logic phase, in which a student learns how these facts relate to one another. What happens, for example, when the numbers 10 and 12 are put into the relationship we call multiplication? Or, in history, how were Generals Lee and Grant alike, and how were they different? Or, as middle school boys love, what happens when elemental sodium meets H20 and why?
Rhetoric: Finally, the rhetoric phase occurs when students begin to think “so what?” and to connect the knowledge they have to other parts of life, and to present their own evaluations of these connections. Now they must draw together all the facts and relationships, and synthesize and articulate them beautifully. This phase is dependent upon the solid foundation of logic and grammar beforehand.
The beauty of the Trivium is that students love a particular stage the most when they are most ready to go through it. We have to learn our ABC’s before we can read paragraphs, and who loves the alphabet song more than a small child? In the logic stage, when children are usually at their most argumentative, they begin to learn how ideas relate to each other properly, and what is a good rational argument and a poor one. And older students just yearn to express themselves. If they have learned the facts and logic of knowledge in younger years, they are ready and willing to be trained to express their thoughts well.
LATIN AND GREEK
As to specific content in classical education, many classical schools require Greek and Latin. Some educators have noticed that the grades a student earns in Latin or Greek indicate that student’s aptitude as a scholar in general. This is because the study of Latin and Greek requires both precision and diligence, two very important traits in any scholarly pursuit. Furthermore, language shapes our thoughts, and the knowledge of ancient languages enables students to understand the world-view of the ancients most closely. More practically, Latin and Greek help in understanding most modern Western languages, and the study of any foreign language gives an understanding of the structure of language in general. The study of these ancient languages greatly enhances a student’s ability to communicate effectively.
St. Andrew’s Academy also integrates the writings of the ancients into her curriculum. This is because to understand the foundations of our culture, we must wrestle with the thoughts of those who came before us. Much of the best which has been thought and said was said by our Greek, Roman, and Hebrew predecessors. And in the same way that travel and knowledge of other cultures will work against provincialism, encountering the best thoughts of our forebears prevents an ignorant complacency in the culture in which we ourselves live. This breadth of knowledge provides a context for evaluating the actions of contemporary societies and individuals and then the actions of one’s own life.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPINNINGS OF CLASSICAL, CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
So we have examined many facets of a classical education. It teaches precision; it teaches diligence. It helps the student evaluate his own actions and others’ with intelligence. It provides the student with tools for life-long learning.
But even with this image of our ideal graduate, the question remains, “Why?” Do we provide classical education so our students can get the best jobs? So they can have careers in politics? Live lives of philanthropy? Understand all the inside jokes? The answer to “why?” is found by examining the world-view of the ancients.
If we look at the Greeks, especially great thinkers such as Socrates and his intellectual successors, we see in them a very strong desire to pursue knowledge and truth. They asked profound questions and expected to wrestle intellectually until they found the answers. If answers couldn’t be found, this was due to man’s limitations, not reality’s ultimate inaccessibility. They saw reality as both objective and knowable, and mankind as incomplete if not engaging it.
Furthermore, it was the Hebrews who had specific revelation about God, the Creator and therefore the Definer of reality. The Hebrews, ultimately through Christ, provided the right answers to the questions which the Greeks had posed. The Hebrews gave insight into the created nature of man as a united physical and spiritual being. They knew that man’s rebellion had left him, and the creation he was to caretake, in a fallen state desperately needing redemption. In the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, this redemption is found.
So then, as the Greeks saw men to be most fully human when seeking truth, we too seek truth in trying to live up to our full potential. And as the Greek philosophy was not complete without the revelation of God through Christ, education is incomplete without Christ, including His body, the Church. As Christ came to restore humanity, we are able to be His helpers in this mission. Education serves all these goals.