Education as an Education of Judgement, Part II: Perfecting the Intellect

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.

Classical Education as an Education of Judgment, Part 1

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.]