Laura Berquist describes how classical education develops habits of thought which enable students to make right judgments.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Classical education provides both information and formation. The latter is primarily about developing habits of thought that make it possible to use information rightly. An intellectually well-formed man is able to think about any subject he chooses, for he can acquire the information necessary when he desires it, and his habit of thought will make it possible for him to follow an argument, as well as make reasonable deductions and right judgments about it. In a certain way, that is what education is for: right judgment.

What is Classical Education?

In a way we who offer classical education are like the monasteries in the so-called Dark Ages. Those ages were dark, in certain ways, much as our time is dark. Civilization was crumbling. Uncivilized hordes were taking over previously civilized nations, and the moral code was being eroded. There were great saints and there were great movements in the Church during this time, just as there are now, but there was chaos in the culture and the monasteries were places where the truth was preserved, the moral order was recognized and lived by, and the love of God ruled. When we teach our students in the classical model we have the opportunity to do likewise. We can pass on to our children the great truths of the Faith, the moral values that accompany those doctrines, and we can model for them how one lives in the love of God.

I homeschooled my six children through high school. I knew that in my homeschool I wanted classical education, as I wanted my children to have the wonderful good I had been given at Thomas Aquinas College. The program at TAC was started by those with great experience, graduates of Laval University, taught in the Aristotelian, Thomistic tradition. They had been involved in the integrated program at St. Mary’s in Moraga, CA, and some of them had also, additionally, worked in the honors program at Santa Clara University, in Santa Clara, CA.

My husband was involved in all of those enterprises. He had a wealth of knowledge about classical education in its fullness and a great deal of experience in seeing which backgrounds best prepared children to undertake this kind of education. So the content of the classical program was never an issue for us. We profited from my husband’s experience in our homeschool, though not as much as one might hope, originally, due largely to me, and the fact that there is an appropriate methodology to classical education as well as a content. You see, I always wanted to move my children on to what I regarded as the exciting stuff.

I love analysis, and that is what I wanted them to do. I remember I would say, “So, honey, what is the main point of this story?” to my fourth grader, and she would look at me and say, “Well, mom, first this happens and then this happens, and then this….” I would say, “Yes, yes, that’s true, but what is the author trying to tell us in that sequence of events, dear?” My little girl would look at me and say, again, “Um, at the beginning there is a girl who….” I thought to myself, “Poor child, what is she going to do with her life? She can’t think!”

Then at about sixth grade, when my child said, spontaneously, “Mom, don’t you think this story is pushing a point of view?” I thought, “See what a good teacher can do, if she just persists.” I didn’t understand the stages of intellectual formation as I now do. It wasn’t until the third child did the same thing at the same age that I realized it wasn’t me, it was them. Just as there are stages in physical formation, there are stages in intellectual formation. Skill in sequencing is necessary for learning how to order thoughts. One has to be adept at a chronological order of first, second, third, and beginning, middle and end, before he is able to order according to importance, or analyze a whole in the light of one principle.

This information about the stages of formation is important in effective classical formation, because it is not enough to give children classical materials; one also has to keep in mind the right way and time to use those materials. No materials, however good in themselves, will be effective if they are not used properly, in the way the child is naturally inclined at his particular stage of formation.

There is a concrete example of the inefficiency of doing something children are not ready to do, in Ruth Beechik’s book, You Can Teach Your Child Successfully. Two groups of children were tracked for four years. The first group concentrated on learning to read in kindergarten. That was the primary focus of their time in the classroom. The second group had no reading instruction at all in kindergarten. There was an alphabet strip around the wall of the classroom, but no mention was made of it. These children did not learn the sounds or names of the letters. The primary focus of the instruction of this group was hands-on projects. They planted beans and watched them come up. They took long walks and observed nature. At the end of the year the two groups were tested. Of course the first group did better, because they could read the questions on the test. For the next three years these children were kept together in their respective groups. They were, from this point on, instructed in much the same way. At the end of first grade the ‘reading’ group was still ahead of the other group on their standardized tests. At the end of second grade, however, they were at parity. And at the end of third grade the ‘non-reading’ group had pulled significantly ahead.

This story illustrates two things. The first is that we should concentrate on what children are ready to doat any given point. The ‘non-reading’ group spent their kindergarten year sharpening their observational skills, which is what they were ready to concentrate on. It wasn’t that they couldn’t have learned to read, it was that learning to read at that point would have taken so much of their time that they wouldn’t also work on the skills more appropriate to their level. Since they worked on those skills at the right time, they were in fact ahead of the game in the long run. Work on the right formation activities at the right time, and you reap the most benefit educationally. Second, we learn that we shouldn’t be anxious to move ahead. Moving ahead may actually slow us down in terms of our ultimate goals. So, in determining what to concentrate on in your curriculum, don’t be too anxious to move ahead to the next stage.

Over time, then, I began to see what children are ready to do when. My husband, Mark, told me from the beginning to remember St. Thomas’ injunction to wait to do philosophy until one had the right experience and preparation. Mark reminded me that St. Thomas said, specifically, that philosophy was an adult activity. But Mark also didn’t know what, in particular, would best prepare the children. We knew they needed a foundation, so that they would be able to make the right distinctions at the right time, but it wasn’t clear what that meant for the young child and the high school student in math and science, language arts, and history. My husband also told me from the beginning that the best students he worked with in college were smart children who had read a great deal of history and literature, and he wanted his children to do that.

So I experimented on our guinea pigs. For about ten years I experimented, and by then I had a better idea of what worked. As I said, I always had a clear idea of where we wanted to go, educationally, because I thought then, and I think now, that liberal education is the education for a man as a man, and all men should have it.

Classical education is the education that all educated people in Western civilization once received, and it is an education that is ordered to teaching men how to think well about the highest and noblest objects. It uses the best part of a man, that faculty that distinguishes him from the lower animals, his mind, to think about the highest things, and in thinking about them, become in some measure like them. Classical education allows one to order his life, because it gives him the principles in the light of which such an ordering is possible. It begins in wonder and ends in wisdom, which means it ends in an understanding of the causes of things. That is why it is the education of judgment. The man who knows facts, that certain things are so, knows something about reality, but the man who understands the causes or the principles of those facts can order them, see the relation of each to each, and he can make judgments about them. This is why classical education is properly called liberal education, for it is an education that frees. “Liberal” comes from the Latin “liberare” “to free”. In having it, the educated man has acquired an understanding of the universal principles and causes of things, and a knowledge of the end of human life and the right order of human action with respect to that end. He has a knowledge of what is most worth knowing, and he is able to direct his own life and the life of the community.

I saw all of that, and I knew it was important, but I needed experience to see how best to get there with my young and growing family. After the first ten years I had a better idea.

In college classical education includes the liberal arts in their perfection (the Trivium: Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic and the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy). Students in a classical program also study the sciences to which the arts are ordered, such as the Physics (the study of nature), the study of the soul (De Anima), the Ethics and Politics, then natural theology (Metaphysics) and ultimately Sacred Theology. This is classical education as St. Thomas understands it, and as he outlines it in his commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate.

Before the student gets to this level, though, he should prepare for these disciplines by doing the beginning of every one of the liberal arts and sciences and by developing his intellectual powers and his habits of thought. Both aspects are important. This is the beginning of classical education, so it is classical education for children in grades one through twelve.

I would like to discuss the beginning of the arts and sciences first, and then talk about developing the students’ intellectual powers and habits of thought. All learning is cyclical. We learn first on an introductory level and then we come back to the same objects at a deeper level. This is easiest to see, I think, in mathematics. After one masters counting, the very next step is to learn the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) with respect to whole numbers. The rest of one’s mathematical career is spent learning the power of those operations. One adds, subtracts, multiples and divides fractions, then decimals and percents, then algebraic expressions, then trigonometric functions and then he uses them in calculus. This process is clearly a deepening of one’s understanding of what is first learned on a very simple level. All of this pertains to the foundation of the liberal art of arithmetic.

We follow the same process in every field. What young children do, if those who direct them are knowledgeable of the ends of classical education, are exercises that will prepare their minds and hearts for the deepest level of natural, and, finally, supernatural, knowledge.

The children learn the basis of all arithmetic, develop an acquaintance with the geometric figures, are exposed to great music, and study God’s effects in nature, including in the heavens. These are the beginnings of the arts of the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). They learn the basis of all language arts, reading and writing, which constitutes the beginning of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic).

As the student matures, he continues to perfect these methods and subjects; he keeps coming back to them at a deeper level, developing his habits of thought. For example, in language arts preparation one is clearly preparing for the Trivium done in its fullness. The Trivium, as we have noted, consists of the arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. It is worth also noting that all of these have to do with speech in some way or another. Grammar is concerned with the construction of the sentence, and its principles are the ways of signifying that determine the parts of speech.

Logic concerns the common method of procedure in all the sciences, and principally considers definition and reasoning, both of which are carried on through speech. Rhetoric is the art of speaking persuasively. In all of these there is a sort of making: one makes a statement, one makes an argument, and one makes a speech. In every course in our curriculum we work on perfecting these first connections with the arts that will lead to the sciences that will lead to natural and sacred theology.

Further, young students work on argumentation, so that they can eventually use rhetoric in the service of the truly noble. We teach our students to summarize, which is to order items according to importance instead of chronology, we teach them to identify an argument and then construct their own arguments. We teach them to develop their thoughts in paragraphs, so that they can develop them later in essays and papers using the rhetorical modes: exposition, argumentation, description and narration.

We explicitly, with our older children, introduce the ends of rhetoric into their regular assignments. I have found this to be very important for the high school student and I will talk about it later on in more detail. Rhetoric is of three kinds: the political, the forensic and the ceremonial. The political aims at establishing whether a proposed course of action is expedient or inexpedient; the forensic, whether an action done was just or unjust; and the ceremonial, whether someone deserves praise or blame. In our high school program we discuss and write about all three types of actions and characters. In my experience, the student in the rhetorical stage is interested in the high and noble, he cares about what is good and bad, and about what is blameworthy and praiseworthy. So the ends of rhetoric are by nature of interest to the high school student. This is a very real preparation for, and participation in, the Art of Rhetoric.

In the commentary of St. Thomas on Boethius’ De Trinitate, previously referenced, St. Thomas notes that the arts of the Trivium are used to produce compositions, and discourses, as well as syllogisms. We work on those throughout the curriculum.

We prepare for the sciences I have mentioned, too, such as the Physics, the De Anima, the Ethics, the Politics and the Metaphysics. We introduce our children to great literature. Through these works the student gains a sort of experience. The great works of literature appeal to the imagination and move the affections rightly. They present or imply profoundly important views of human life and reality as a whole. Similarly, the great works of history provide vicarious moral experience, a conception of human society, and an awareness of the greatest issues mankind faces. Such experience is necessary for judgment. All of this prepares the student well to read the more difficult things, such as Plato’s Dialogues, and then the Ethics and the Politics of Aristotle, at the right time. We introduce our children to the arguments our Founding Fathers had regarding the nature of the republic, and the particular “incarnation” of the form of mixed government that was appropriate to us, in this new land. This is the beginning of the study of the Politics. We have the children study natural science, particularly animal behavior, as a beginning to the study of the soul. For those of us who are consciously aware of the fullness of the classical curriculum, there is an intentional ordering of the parts of our curricula to that curriculum, so that the fullness of the classical curriculum can be achieved as excellently as possible when the time is right.

As regards the highest object of the classical curriculum, God Himself, the end of natural and supernatural theology, we are preparing our children for that knowledge from the moment they are born. We do that by the way we live, by the example we give them of Fatherhood, and of sacrificial love, and by the doctrine we teach them as soon as they are able to reason. All of this is their first introduction to the greatest truths, and to the object they will, with God’s grace, contemplate in eternity.

So the first point about classical education for children is that it is an education that prepares students for the content of the classical program in its fullness by giving them the beginning of every one of the disciplines: the Liberal Arts, the sciences, metaphysics and Sacred Theology. We prepare the children to do those arts and sciences fully by giving them the beginning of every one. These arts and sciences are ordered to an understanding of the causes of reality in the different disciplines, and all of it is ordered to an understanding of the Cause, Himself, in so far as that is possible in this life, through the study of metaphysics and ultimately Sacred Theology.

There is another point to consider, however. I have alluded to it already when I talked about intellectual powers and habits. To make this clear I want to talk about the difference between excellence and perfection. I think classical education is not only or even primarily an excellent education, but rather it is a way of perfecting the intellect, and there is an order in that process that has to be observed. Let me explain.

I once heard a speaker at a conference talking about excellence in education – her view was that more is better. More work, more facts, more expectations for the student. She didn’t want to hear any talk about flexibility – she thought that was simply a way of excusing mediocrity. Listening to her made me think about the word excellence, and how it should apply to education. It also made me wonder about the difference between perfection and excellence.

When we say something is excellent, like an excellent apple pie, we are saying that it is very good, but there is room for variation. Your apple pie and my apple pie may both be excellent, even though they are not identical. Or think about student papers. I often receive several excellent papers on the same topic, but they are certainly not the same. There can be different excellences in one order.

Perfection is different. God is perfect, not merely excellent. I can draw an excellent circle, one that is nearly perfect, or I can draw a perfect circle. (Well, I can’t, but if I could it would be something more than excellent.) Perfect has the notion of complete in it. When something is perfect, it can’t get any better. That means there is no potential in the subject that has not been actualized.

This is an important concept, both in itself and for our discussion of classical education. Potency is the ability to be, either to be simply, or to be in a certain respect. The wood of a tree, for example, has the ability to be a chair. It does not have the ability to be a knife. When the wood becomes a chair, it has been perfected in that respect – that is, its ability to be a chair has been actualized.

Now a student has the ability to learn, and when he actually learns we can say that he has perfected that ability. His intellect has a certain ability, or potency, with regard to knowledge, and as he learns, he perfects, or actualizes, that ability.

So when we talk about excellent education there are two notions we should consider. One is excellence – something that is very good in its order. And by itself, that notion allows for quite a lot of variation. But the other notion is education itself – which is the movement from ignorance to knowledge, the perfecting of the intellect. That seems to me the more important idea. How does one perfect the intellect? What is the best way to move the mind from ignorance to knowledge?

[Part II of this article on Perfecting the Intellect will appear in the next issue of The Journal.]