The fourth graders were learning about the American Civil War and the Gettysburg Address. The exercise on the day I observed had students re-writing Lincoln’s immortal speech in their own words. A simple, common assignment, but something about it didn’t sit well with me.
After a few minutes, I realized that in learning the speech by re-writing it, the students were losing Lincoln’s words. The ideas in the “Gettysburg Address” are not original. It is a eulogy. I could have written that eulogy, any fourth grader could have written it, if our only concern was to get some ideas across—the sorrow of loss, the hope of a united nation, the symbolic struggle for freedom.
But the Gettysburg Address is beautiful. The words and the way Lincoln strung them together are even beatific. And that’s the point.
The classical classroom is oriented around big ideas and important events. But this is only our starting point. Our focus extends from important content—Who was Abraham Lincoln? What was he doing at Gettysburg?—to the importance of how the ideas that shape events are captured by the great statesmen and poets in our tradition. To lose Lincoln’s words in a flurry of fourth grade paraphrases is to undermine the real educational value of his speech.
In the movie Broadcast News, Holly Hunter’s journalist character recalls how her father developed the habit in her of looking for a better word, a better way to say everything. In the movie character, the constant pursuit of a better word produced neuroses that made her interesting to movie goers. In our students, however, the search for better words, for more beautiful words, is the mark of a classical education.
Next time you read a famous work by a famous person with your students, ask the question: Why is this work famous? Examine the words, and lead your students in a discussion of the beauty of the words and the choices that the author made in order to make them lovely.
The heart of classical learning is eloquence, and the heart of a classical classroom is learning to recognize and use beautiful words.