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?

There are two basic views of education, or at least there are two basic views of education that I encounter among serious advocates of classical education. One is the “work hard, accumulate data, discipline the mind, strive for more and better” school of thought. And there is much to be said for this view. I agree with it in many ways. Here the underlying idea is that since the intellect is perfected by knowing, the more it knows, the more perfect it is. That makes sense. We certainly respect those who know in any field, and we really respect those rare individuals who seem to know a great deal in many fields. Further, we know that it is good for people to work hard. We want to see our children able to work hard. They learn perseverance, and they learn to accomplish goals.

However, there is a problem, both in theory and in practice, with the view that the best way to perfect the intellect is to simply do more, learn more facts, and work really hard. In the third book of the De Anima Aristotle argues to the immateriality of the soul, and finally to its immortality, from the fact that the mind can know an infinite number of things. If the perfection of the intellect lies in learning facts, then we are doomed to failure. No one can know an infinite number of things. If this is how we are to perfect the intellect, we can’t get very far.

Further, and very importantly, we are like a man who is blindly following directions to a goal he doesn’t see. How do you order the facts that you accumulate if you don’t have an idea of education that goes beyond those particular facts?

There is another view, however, one that sees the perfection of the intellect in another light. This view, I think, is fundamental to classical education. There is a way to perfect the power of the mind, so that it is universally capable of knowing the objects of knowledge. To illustrate:
I have a certain ability to lift heavy objects. Say I want to perfect this ability. I can exercise my muscles so that they get stronger. Eventually, if I stick with it, they become as strong as they can be. Then, though I don’t in fact lift every heavy object I can, I am capable of lifting all of them. My power has been perfected. Or, I have some ability to resist tempting chocolates. If I exercise that ability, it gets stronger. It is easier and easier for me to pass by the chocolate left on my counter by my children. After a while, I can pass by any chocolate. I don’t have to pass by them all in order to accomplish this. I only need to strengthen the power to pass them by.

The view of education I am proposing starts out with something similar to this. We don’t have to know everything there is to know in order to perfect our knowing power (good thing, since we can’t know everything, at least not in this life). What we have to do is exercise our power to know. We do that by learning particular things, so in that way the two views are alike. But the initial goal of education in this second view is not to simply accumulate more information, but to perfect the power of knowing, so that one can use it whenever one desires, especially
with respect to the objects most worth knowing. Thus, the exercise is not seen as an end in itself, but as a means to further perfection. Much of what we do as we educate our children we do in order to accomplish this first step. We are helping them perfect their ability to know, using particular facts, but directing the accumulation of data to two ends: exercising, increasing, and perfecting the ability of the child to know, and doing that in such a way and with such matter as to help the student eventually achieve the true goal of all knowing: wisdom.

Where we want to go finally, in terms of education, is to wisdom. We want to know not only the facts, but the reasons for the facts so that we can develop right judgment. We want to think about the highest things, the most noble, the most interesting in themselves. We need a knowing power that is up to the challenge. It is my belief that the curriculum one uses should have this end specifically in mind. So, classical education for children should develop the foundation of the liberal arts, the sciences to which they are ordered and Sacred Theology, and it should do it in such a way that the student’s intellectual powers are strengthened.

Now, one more point. The first step in perfecting the intellectual powers of the students involves strengthening the imagination, or power of making images, as all thinking for us requires the use of images, or phantasms.

The exposition I am about to give as to how one thinks comes from the De Anima of Aristotle, and it comes from a remarkably complex series of considerations. I am summarizing the conclusions of that involved argument, and therefore, necessarily, won’t do justice to the whole. Nonetheless, as I think every teacher should have at least a general understanding of this process, I am going to give the summary, defective as it may be.

First, one receives the form of external objects by means of his five senses. He sees, hears, smells, tastes or touches the objects around him. That information is received by one or more of the five proper senses and passed on to what Aristotle calls the common sense. He reasons to the existence of this faculty because he sees that, though the eyes can tell, for example, that the object on the table is white, and the tongue can tell that it is sweet, the eyes can’t tell that it is sweet, and the tongue can’t tell that it is white. Yet the person knows that it is the same object that is both white and sweet. Therefore, there must be some place in one where this information is integrated, and Aristotle calls that place the common sense.

Then, just as the proper senses receive from the external objects, and the common sense receives from the proper senses, the imagination receives the integrated form from the common sense. But this power (the imagination) retains what it has received, unlike the proper senses, so that we can produce at will images of the objects we have sensed.

The power of imagination may be compared to a slate. The forms which come from the senses are like seals, pressed into the wax. Sometimes the wax is too hard and the seal has to be pressed over and over in order to make the image. Sometimes the wax is too soft and the seal makes an impression the first time, but the wax mushes and the image is gone. Sometimes the wax is just the right consistency and then the image is nice and clear, sharp around the edges, a faithful image of the original.

Next, this integrated object is passed on (via nerves, I suppose) to what Aristotle calls the vis cogitativa, or ‘thinking power’. The function of this power is to sort the objects into like kinds. It doesn’t require universal knowledge, but only deals with the particulars in front of it, simply sorting them. An analogy that occurs to me is the way the baby uses that sorting toy that has holes on the top in the shape of a triangle, a rectangle, and a circle. He picks up the block in the shape of a triangle and sees that it fits with the triangle-shaped hole, so he puts the block in there. Similarly, he sees that the circle-shaped cylinder fits in the circle-shaped hole, and puts it in. He doesn’t need to make some general consideration of ‘triangularity’ or ‘circleness’ to do that, he just sees a likeness in two particular things. The vis cogitativa works something like that.

Now, there is more to the process of thinking. These images, retained in the imagination, and sorted into like kinds, are used by what Aristotle calls “the agent intellect”, the active power of the mind, which, so to speak, shines a light on the images in the imagination. In virtue of this light, the universal form of the object is received into “the possible intellect”. In that reception, understanding takes place. Given this process, clearly, the condition of the image is of great importance in the effectiveness of the understanding. Even concepts concerning immaterial objects like truth and beauty require an image. (De Anima, Bk III, Ch 7, 15). When one considers the highest objects, which are immaterial, he uses a sense image.

So, as educators we must be concerned about perfecting whatever we can of every part of the process of thinking. There is not much one can do about the way the common sense works, or how the form is initially received, (though it is those things that the special education teacher largely concerns himself with), but the formation of the imagination is something that one can and should address.

To develop the imagination, the student should memorize, observe and sequence in his early years, Kindergarten through 5th grade. This both strengthens and makes docile his imagination, so that in the next stage of learning, usually 6th through 9th grade, he will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. In turn, it is essential to this education that when the student is capable of grasping and marshaling arguments, he should practice doing so (In 7th through 9th grade the desire for argument is often noticeable!). If he does, then the last stage, the rhetorical, can be given to articulating those arguments elegantly, in the service of the truly noble. The student should, at these various stages, have the opportunity to consider much of the same material in a different light, based on his ability, interest, and level of formation.

As we consider the curriculum as a whole we want to keep these considerations in mind. At each stage of development we should respect the level of content and methodological formation appropriate to the particular student. We should make sure that the specific assignments pave the way for the next stage of formation, gathering material that can be formed in a particular way later on.

Now, one could go too far with this insight. One doesn’t only acquire information in the grammatical stage, or only analyze in the dialectical stage. Rather, these are the activities that characterize the stage. The student in the early stages of formation, for example, is consciously, consistently, and with delight, using the method that pertains to this time of life. He loves to memorize and is much better at it than most of us are. He observes closely, and naturally practices sequencing. He can analyze, too, and does so, certainly if he is using an analytic phonics program, but his intellectual life is not characterized by analysis. He doesn’t do it naturally, all the time, with everything. The student in the analytical, or dialectical, stage does analyze and argue naturally, all the time and about everything. He delights in it.

In the last years of our schooling, 10-12th grade, the student, in my opinion, is well served by working on a large argument developed over time, an argument that works with the ends of rhetoric. One could do this in a number of ways; in my program we have a four-year conversation in history about the nature of government, as well as a four- year conversation in science about substance and accident. In religion we work on the motives of credibility over a four year period. Throughout these courses of study the children are asked to consider matters in the light of the expedient and inexpedient, the just and unjust and the praiseworthy and otherwise. They write both papers and essays on these questions and discuss the matters. They are encouraged to make a judgment and explain it convincingly. Thus, the whole four years is ordered to an understanding that comes to fruition in 12th grade.

As educators interested in classical education, the education that built Western Civilization, we want to prepare our students for the life to come, both in this world and the next. To do that we give children the tools they need in two ways. We use a method which strengthens
the intellectual powers of the student and we arrange educational content that lays the foundation for classical education in its fullness and provides the principles for judgment.