Humanism is NOT the Problem

I have read that in the process of freezing to death, it is when you begin to feel warm that you know you are dying. So it is with the decline of the culture: The further we descend into cultural chaos and incoherence, the better we feel, and the better we feel, the less we realize that we have a problem.

Up until fairly recently it was common to hear about the “crisis of the West.” This was when we were still feeling the cold. Numerous books were written on the subject, the most famous of which was probably Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. But there have been others: Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and James Burnham’s Suicide of the West ―all, in one way or another, prophesied the coming doom of Western civilization. Spengler, in fact, uses the term “wintertime” to describe the phase our culture
is now experiencing: a time of mental exhaustion, irreligiousness, and meaninglessness in art.

But now, as we fall into the last stages of our decline, we don’t hear so much about the crisis of the West anymore and we get–instead of cold prophecies of doom– the warmer comfort of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, in which we will all become economic and social liberals and live happily ever after in a secular version of the Millennial Kingdom.

Will Fukuyama’s “Last Man” please turn out the lights?

Those of us who still feel the frigid cultural air can be excused for trying to do something to avoid getting to the point where the cold is so severe that it feels warm. What is it that we should do to save Western civilization? There are several things that anyone on such a Quixotic quest should think about, the first of which is the question of what Western civilization is.

Spengler famously believed that even using the term “Western civilization” betrayed a sense of hopelessness, since, he said, civilization is what a culture becomes once it atrophies. So maybe “Western culture” is the better expression. With an understanding nod to Spengler we will use the terms interchangeably.

What precisely is Western culture? In a nutshell, it is the civilization that derives from the cultures of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, which was conquered and transformed by Christianity and which has been handed down through the centuries by an education system that has historically been referred to as “classical education.”

The Greeks represented philosophical and literary man. They produced the greatest philosophers and playwrights. With the possible exception of St. Thomas or Hegel, there is no philosopher who compares in insight and comprehensiveness with Plato or Aristotle. And there are no playwrights comparable to Aeschylus and Sophocles, although a few people would make the argument that Shakespeare is their rival.

The Greeks were humanists, a term we Christians often view with undue severity. I was recently in a panel discussion on classical education and one of the other panelists, when asked what was wrong with modern education, said, “humanism.” Humanism is exactly what is not wrong, either with the modern world or with modern education. We would be a lot better off if it were.

In his book The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton speaks of the sophistry that drives much of modern secular thought, a sophistry that works “first to soften the sharp transition from animals to men, and then to soften the sharp transition from heathens to Christians.” In other words, there are two distinctions essential to the Christian view of the world: that between man and nature and that between God and man. It is these distinctions that modern thought obfuscates.

What we need to understand about the Greeks is that they at least, unlike their pagan predecessors, got the first part of this right. While the pagans who surrounded them were worshiping man-beasts fashioned out of stone ―an idol with the body of a man and head of a bird, or with the head of a man and the body of a lion―the Greeks alone among the pagans idealized the human form. “Wonderful are the world’s wonders,” said Sophocles, “but none more wonderful than man.” Try to find in Greek statuary any such mongrel deities as those of the Egyptians or Babylonians and you will look in vain.

The only exception to this was the Centaur, a mythical creature (but not a god) with the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man. But the Greek’s fascination with this creature is probably due to the high regard in which the Greeks viewed the horse, an animal whose nobility has always attracted the admiration of men and which, even today, is the common companion of aristocrats (horse racing, we are still told, is the “sport of kings”). “The ancients,” said Thomas Bulfinch, “were too fond of a horse to consider the union of his nature with man’s as forming a very degraded compound, and accordingly the Centaur is the only one of the fancied monsters of antiquity to which good traits are assigned.” The Centaur also served the symbolic purpose of representing the nature of man at his wildest and most bestial.

The main problem with the paganism of the Greeks was not that it was wrong, but that it was incomplete. This is something that we forget at our peril. It is not wrong to say that man is the highest and noblest of material creatures. He is, in fact, made in the image and likeness of God, and, therefore, he is all this―and more. The entire creation story in Genesis is a scaffolding for the construction of man.

The Greeks understood the proper metaphysical location of man―above the beast and below the gods. He was, as religious historian Mircea Eliade pointed out, the one animal who walked erect, a sign of his higher possibilities. Their gods were ill-conceived: products of their imaginations and projections of themselves. They were deities made in their own image because they had no access to the revelation of the God in whose image they were made without their knowing it―no revelation, that is, other than the natural revelation, which could only take them so far. But it was a revelation.

This understanding of man was an essential aspect of the classical worldview that was shared by Christian thinkers from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to Richard Hooker, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It is why these thinkers are often called “Christian humanists.”

The Greeks believed in something they called arête. It has many shades of meaning, but it generally has the sense of some kind of human or moral excellence. To have arête was to live according to your human essence or nature: It was the art of being human. This assumed, of course, some kind of human ideal to which men were expected to approximate. The closer they approximated this ideal, the more they were said to have arête.

The Greeks were not wrong that there was such an arête or human ideal, they were only wrong about how this arête was defined. To the Greeks human perfection involved two things primarily: strength and stratagem. These two traits were on prominent display in the two books which articulated their ideals: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus―the stories of these figures in various ways expressed the ideals of the Greeks. They were exemplars of arête.

It isn’t humanism that is the problem today, but anti-humanism. “This teaching about the place and special dignity of man is today on the defensive,” says Leon Kass in his great commentary on the book of Genesis The Beginning of Wisdom:

It has been attacked as both false and dangerous. Some say it expresses merely an anthropocentric prejudice, vulgarly called ‘speciesism” by some advocates of animal rights. Others, appealing to evolutionary theory, allege that far from being godly, man does not even differ fundamentally from other animals: since all life is in the same business― survival and reproduction―man’s difference is merely superficial, a difference not of kind but only of degree.

The Greeks had it half right; the moderns have it all wrong.

The Romans, like the Greeks, were humanists. The Latin equivalent of the Greek arête was the Roman humanitas. They too believed in a human ideal, although it was slightly different from that of the Greeks. The old Romans were people of civil, filial, and sacred obligation. Unlike the Greeks, who speculated about the good, the Romans were people of practical virtue. They brought Greek philosophy down to earth. Theirs was an ethical culture, with Aeneas as their model. The “pious Aeneas,” he was called. There were other Romans too who exemplified their ideal of man. You can read about them in Plutarch’s Lives.

Although the Romans bowed to the superiority of the Greeks in philosophy and art, they excelled them in administration and efficiency. The study of the Romans is a study in political and ethical man. The Romans, said Russell Kirk, “were a people of strong classical endowments, grand engineers, tireless political administrators, organizers of military success; most of all they were men of law and strong social institutions, who gave the world the pax romana, the Roman peace.”

But to this recipe for Western civilization, we must add the ingredient of the Hebrews. If the Greeks were speculative man in miniature, and the Romans practical man, the Hebrews were the spiritual. The Greeks were literary and philosophical; the Romans political. But we look to the Hebrews for how God deals directly with individuals and with nations. The Greeks speculated on the nature of wisdom and virtue; the Romans attempted to practice them; the Hebrews alone among men knew their author. The Greeks and Romans were the stepchildren of truth; the Hebrews were its natural children.

Christianity came historically out of Judaism. But when the classical cultures of Greece and Rome were subsumed in Christianity, the fathers of the Church did not reject the concept of an ideal man. While they reviled the vices of the Romans, they did not reject their virtues. The cardinal virtues theorized about by the Greeks and practiced by the Romans―justice, temperance, courage, and prudence―were fully accepted by Christian thinkers. But at the same time they saw their insufficiency. Rather than rejecting the concept of an ideal man, the Christians informed the concept with new life. To the cardinal virtues of the ancients they added the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

To the Christians, the ideal man was Christ, the second Adam. While Homer’s Achilles was born of a mortal father and an immortal mother, Christ was born of a mortal mother and the immortal Father; while fictional Achilles was half god, half man, the historical Christ was fully God and fully man.

When G. K. Chesterton said that Christianity was the “fulfillment of paganism,” this is what he meant: not that Christianity was a further development of ancient paganism, but that ancient paganism (or at least the Greek and Roman form of it) was a stunted form of a truth that they, as men made in the image of God, knew was there but didn’t have direct access to.

This is what Lewis meant too when he contrasted paganism and modern secularism, saying that paganism was as a virgin and modern secularism like a divorceé in relation to Christianity. Modern secularism rejects the truth it knows; the paganism of the Greeks and Romans accepted a truth they had no way of knowing.

And one of the truths modern secularism rejects is the existence of any human ideal. It cannot accept the concept of an ideal man because it does not believe in man, but only in men. In fact, it rejects all transcendent truth. This is part of the reason that the classical education that was once taught in schools has been abandoned: because it was a scandal to the modern mind. This is why, in the course of about two decades around the turn of the 20th century, a new philosophy of education took control of schools. In several waves, beginning in the 1920’s, first progressivism, whose goal is to change the culture, and then pragmatism, whose goal is to fit children to the culture, took control of schools. The goal of passing on a culture passed away. Latin, the chief means of learning grammar, the first of the liberal arts, was made a specialty subject in high schools and then eliminated altogether. Classic literature and history―the primary means of teaching cultural values―still hangs on, but only by a thread. These subjects cannot meet the new (and mostly meaningless) criterion of “career readiness.”

Modern schools talk about “cooperation,” after having abandoned the literature that once taught students how human beings related to one another. They champion “creativity” in the very act of stifling the imagination. They rattle on about “critical thinking skills” after having abandoned the only program that has any right to the title: the liberal arts.

If you want to conduct an interesting experiment, there is a very simple question you can ask the next time your educator friend tells you how much he thinks we need to teach critical thinking skills. Let him finish his sermon, and then ask, “Could you define critical thinking skills for me?”

You will never see a blanker stare.

Modern educators have abandoned the very things that are required to accomplish the goals they profess to admire. They have, in Lewis’ words, removed the organ whose function they demand. “They castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Classical education is not only the best way to educate children classically, it is the only way to educate them at all. It is not just the best form of Christian education, it is the only kind of education that can accomplish the purpose of secular education.

“It is only Christian men,” said Chesterton, that “guard even heathen things.”

While we look down our noses at the Greeks and Romans because they worshiped man, we burn incense to the basest god of all: the Self.

The Glory that was Zulu, the Grandeur that was Papua

Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”
— Chanted by Stanford University protestors in 1988

Besides: Monotheism Code of laws Philosophy Mathematics Literacy Chemistry Physics
Modern Medicine Sanitation Electricity Transportation Electronics Computers and Space Travel

What has Western Civilization ever done for the world? — Question posed by a poster produced by ProtestWarrior.com

If an essay on the essentialness of teaching Western Civilization is needed for Christian classical educators, the ramifications may be too much to bear. Nevertheless, even if this preaching is for the choir, defending the need for instruction in Western Civilization should still prove profitable for as Elizabeth Kantor states, if “you had to name one thing that the vandals who’ve seized control of our college campuses don’t want their students to learn, it would be Western civilization.”1 Sadly, parents must now assume that freshman studies, if it includes Western Civilization at all, will do so only in the form of criticism, denigration, and blame. Therefore, if the precious gifts bequeathed to this generation by their forefathers are to be retained, elementary and secondary educators across the country have a lot of work to do. As such, let these words serve as an encouragement to fulfill duty and these facts as some defense against the postmodern barbarians that wish to dismiss Western Civilization altogether.

Arguing to abolish such courses, historian Page Smith actually provides a valuable working definition of “Western Civilization” that encapsulates its precious nature. He wrote in 1990 that the Classical Christian Consciousness was the fruit of two thousand years of a fascinating and intricate process. At its center was, first, a set of deeply held convictions about man and society and man’s relation to the gods held by the Greeks. This culture may be said to have virtually invented abstract thought. It was followed by the “driving force of Western Civilization,” the medieval Church, the Renaissance, and, most important of all for an understanding of the modern world, the Protestant Reformation. To put the matter as succinctly as possible: when you agitate for Western Civ programs, you are asking the Secular Democratic Consciousness to teach the Classical Christian Consciousness, and that is, obviously, a losing proposition.2

Smith goes on to say that “if our ‘Western Civilization’ advocates were to be more candid—and more accurate— and offered their course as ‘Western Christendom,’ they would find far fewer supporters.”3

As Page Smith knew even in 1990, the assumptions of contemporary higher academia run counter to the idea of teaching Western Civilization. As such, waning since the late 1960s, required Western Civilization courses have now essentially disappeared.4 Philosophical relativism inspired the attack, demanding the removal of Western Civilization for two primary reasons. The first and most referenced revolves around so-called “Eurocentrism” – the critique that European culture should not be celebrated because all cultures are equal and it is therefore inherently offensive, particularly to people from other cultures, to do so. More subtly, relativism stands opposed because the teaching of Western Civilization inherently supposes a fixed, rather than evolving, nature of man. In other words, the concerns of Socrates, Cicero, Paul, Dante, and Shakespeare are important today because the fundamental nature of man does not change with time. Even more notably (and more offensive to the relativist) is the assumption that the truths discovered by Socrates, Cicero, Paul, Dante, and Shakespeare are equally valid today because truth does not change with time.

If one rejects relativistic assumptions, removing Western Civilization from a core curriculum loses philosophical merit. Nevertheless, practical concerns, which may or may not reflect relativistic assumptions, might remain. The argument here, particularly in the United States, is that in the 21st century, the United States has been filled with non-Westerners and thereby a broader cultural milieu should be learned and appreciated. Moreover, the “shrinking” of the world through technology might demand a more multicultural approach. Therefore, the typically proposed course of action is not merely to drop Western Civ but to replace it with something better. That “something better” is almost always World History.

These practical concerns can appear quite convincing and perhaps the most compelling argument for a World History course even stems from a Christian perspective. Considering Smith’s description for instance, the Christian is not interested only in “Western Christianity” but the whole of Christianity – God’s unfolding redemptive plan, not just for Western man, but all of mankind. Furthermore, the teaching of Western Civilization and World History are not mutually exclusive so teaching both may be the best route. However, since time precludes schools from covering all of history, priorities must invariably be set. The argument here is that when in conflict, an American school, and particularly one bearing the names of Christian and classical, ought to grant precedence to Western Civilization over World History.

The flawed nature of teaching “World History” begins the proof of the superiority of Western Civilization. As has already been indicated, World History courses (and, very importantly, the textbooks that support them) are generally designed to endorse relativism at best and undermine Christianity at worst. World History courses almost invariably devolve into a collection of cultural snippets where evaluation is abjured. This fact is interrelated with the other endemic flaws of teaching World History and that is the impossibility of narrative; the subject is simply too abstract and unwieldy. How can one tell the disparate story of the entire world? And, if there is no “story,” there is no “hi-story.” World History by its very nature devolves into a hodgepodge collection of “they did this, these others folks did that, and who cares?” This pedagogical nightmare structurally embodies relativism while snuffing out interest in actual history by burying narrative in a mountain of meaningless happenstances. Henry Ford actually would have been right if he had just said World “history is just one damn thing after another.” Successful history courses need an organizing narrative and World History typically cannot provide one. In fact, that very reason was why Western Civilization courses began at the beginning of the 20th century as educators attempted to reform the failure of World History at both the secondary and undergraduate levels.5 At the end of the 19th century, World History had already proven itself to be pedagogically untenable. How ironic that the academy seems to have forgotten its own history and is now seemingly doomed to repeat past mistakes.

Even if World History was not deeply flawed in its very nature, the strengths of teaching Western Civilization would still demand its predominance. The uniquely valuable nature of history is that it is the one discipline that can unite and encompass all of the others. Just as snippets of past events cannot hold one’s interest without an organizing story, scraps of subjects lose their potency when learned in isolation. A weakness of modern schooling (deserving far more attention and concern) is the breakdown of knowledge into artificial specialties. Students learn math, language arts, science, art, theology, and music in intellectual vacuums rather than seeing the interconnectedness of it all. While it might require an impossible reorganization of schooling to ensure students fully understand the interrelations of these disciplines, within today’s commonly used structures, a strong sense of history is the only hope students have of seeing how art, science, philosophy, and theology all developed alongside one another. Christian classical schools have committed to teaching the theology, art, literature, and science of the Christian and classical world (and this journal is exploring the wisdom of such a commitment). The teaching of Western Civilization is the way for students to see how their subjects interrelate. In other words, not only can Western Civilization be taught narratively, but it provides a narrative into which all the other subjects fit.

Though taboo to say, another crucial reason Western Civilization should have priority is because it is the best civilization. As R.V. Young writes, this fact ought to be self-evident to any disinterested observer whose vision is not warped by ideological astigmatism. Any rational, impartial evaluation will judge the material comfort and prosperity characteristic of the modern era, along with the rule of law and administrative prowess that make them possible, to be unique achievements of Western civilization. Moreover, their emergence in the West are not fortuitous, random phenomena: the sheer physical fact of triumphant modernity is directly attributable to the convergence of Greek thought and Judeo-Christian revelation in the formation of European culture. Imperialism, slavery, oppression, and violence – the sins with which the West has been saddled – are common to all civilizations; the industrial revolution, scientific medicine, the symphony orchestra – these benefits and countless others are exclusive creations of the West. To ignore this manifest reality requires a credence in coincidence verging on superstition.6

Though obviously not perfect, Western Civilization has proven itself the greatest civilization to stride the earth and thereby deserves veneration and study.

Even if Western exceptionalism is rejected, Western power cannot be ignored. On a purely pragmatic analysis, Western Civilization must be studied because it has become the dominant civilization of the world. E.D. Hirsch Jr. has spent over three decades proving the essentialness of “cultural literacy” especially to the disadvantaged.7 The international language of business is English and the culture spreading across the globe is Western. For better or worse, for the foreseeable future, those fluent in the West have advantages over those not conversant in it. It would be yet another painful irony if the children of the West were actually the most illiterate of it.

Perhaps the West’s greatest trait is its willingness to be self-critical. Its harshest critics seem to always miss the paradox that their freedom to criticize the West, while living in and enjoying the West, would generally not be tolerated anywhere else. Nevertheless, to protect Western Civilization, to improve it, to fulfill its promise will require love, and love requires time, thought, understanding, and exploration. Anthony Esolen bluntly describes the contrary designs evinced in a multicultural World History approach. He writes:

The very purpose of what is miscalled multiculturalism is to destroy culture, by teaching students to dismiss their own and to patronize the rest. Hence the antidote to love of this place is not only a hatred of this place, but a phony engagement with any other place. Multiculturalism in this sense is like going a-whoring. Pretending to love every woman you meet, you love none at all. Nor do you genuinely get to know any of them, since it never occurs to you that there are any depths to learn to appreciate.8

A legitimate and necessary role of school is to develop the lover of place. This lover of place, this patriot, is not the one who ignores faults, but is the only one who will do the hard work of improving and defending a place, a culture, a civilization. In contrast, the craven, the ingrate, and the abuser all operate on the fundamental assumption that one place is as good as another.

Twenty-first century American children need to learn to appreciate the unique blessings that they benefit from if their children will have any hope of enjoying them too. If the unique nature of the West is not understood, these blessings will be lost from both erosion within and attack without. The benefits of the West are not automatic, as so many sadly assume. Samuel Huntington explains All civilizations go through similar processes of emergence, rise, and decline. The West differs from other civilizations not in the way it has developed but in the distinctive character of its values and institutions. These include most notably its Christianity, pluralism, individualism, and rule of law, which made it possible for the West to invent modernity, expand throughout the world, and become the envy of other societies…. Western civilization is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique.9

There are few more important lessons for teachers to teach today than Western Civilization. As Niall Ferguson argues, “at its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation…the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”10 that all Christian classical schools should naturally recognize.11 As Western Civilization courses sadly disappear from almost all course catalogs, it is all the more crucial that Christian classical schools step once again into the breach to provide, not the trendy education, but the needed one.

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.]

The Formula Heard ‘Round the World

Revolutions tend to be noted for radical breaks with tradition and bold new courses set. However, the term “revolution” can also mean a return to an earlier position. Perhaps then, the most radical of revolutions combine elements of both by rejecting the cult of the new, spurning assumed progress, and breaking from the path not for new frontiers but a wise reclaiming of older customs and timeworn wisdom. Revolutionary or not, at the very least, if one finds himself on the wrong path, the only wise course is to simply turn around. The Christian Classical school movement is just such an example. American schooling has been on the wrong road for a very long time, and classical and Christian educators are attempting to turn around and return to wiser approaches to education. In this effort, a formula known as the Trivium has played, and continues to play, an essential part.

Surveying the physical and cultural destruction of Europe in 1947, popular author Dorothy Sayers composed and presented at Oxford her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which shockingly argued that for Western Civilization to truly advance in education, it needed to return to the Medieval Age.1 Her essay emphasized the failings of modern education in preparing people to think and to learn. The abandoned tools of education to Sayers were encapsulated by the medieval commitment to the Trivium. Comprised of grammar, logic/dialectic, and rhetoric, Sayers believed the Trivium held the key for reviving an effective and proven form of learning. Though powerful and persuasive, Sayers’ essay and revolutionary formula would require several more decades before her advocated return gained much traction.

In 1991, Douglas Wilson published the book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and thereby effectively launched the contemporary Classical-Christian school movement.2 At the time of its publishing, Wilson had already worked to apply insights from Sayers’ essay into the private Logos School in Moscow, Idaho. With the publication of his book, many more would look to advance their own children’s education by returning to “old ways.” The Trivium as a formula for education was about to start a revolution.

Revolutions depend on revolutionaries; and, both Sayers and Wilson are essential to this revolution’s success. However, true revolutions are not ultimately defined, controlled, or contained by even crucial individuals and the Classical-Christian school movement is no exception, so it must be understood at the outset that Classical- Christian schooling is not restricted to the thoughts of Sayers or Wilson.3 Likewise, revolutions rarely respect history, even ones inspired by it. Here again, the Classical- Christian school movement follows this revolutionary law. Consequently, exactly how “classical” or “medieval” the movement actually is historically is up for significant debate. Socrates and Aquinas, just to name a few, would not necessarily recognize all that goes on at “classical” schools or even claim them as their own. Nevertheless, history, through the modern interpretation of Sayers and Wilson and others, has provided a very attractive formula for education, which has been enthusiastically adopted in a large and growing number of private schools. And so, to understand what is taking place at these classical academies, one should be aware of how the Trivium is being applied for it arguably remains the distinguishing mark of the contemporary classical school.

Interestingly, the Trivium as applied by schools today has actually taken three main forms. The most obvious and least surprising way is their embrace of the three official subjects of the Trivium. While it would be rare to find a modern public school labeling a course, or perhaps even a lesson, as grammar or logic or rhetoric, one will find all three at contemporary classical schools. Mastering the construction of sentences, memorizing logical fallacies, and effectively using words orally are not only skills emphasized within familiar classes on history or science, they are entire stand-alone courses, oftentimes taken at multiple grade levels, at classical schools.

The second way the Trivium is typically applied at a classical school is far more interpretive. Here, the Trivium is used as a formula for learning any subject. In other words, mastery of a topic will always need to move through three ascending stages of mastery represented by the subjects that comprise the Trivium. If one is to master U.S. history or biology for instance, one must begin by learning the “grammar” of the subject. This grammar is the basic facts, terms, formulas, and language needed to ultimately understand and converse on the topic. Once students have mastered the basic facts, they move to the “dialectic” phase that concentrates on grasping how these facts interrelate. Ideally then, the student moves from a base, or even rote, knowledge to understanding. Finally, mastery requires a concluding step, rhetoric. Here, students progress from understanding a subject for themselves, to being able to effectively communicate the subject to others. For anyone who has ever taught even the most rudimentary of skills, it is obvious that it is one thing to “know” something for yourself, but quite another to be able to explain it effectively to another. The rhetoric phase is an acknowledgement that true mastery of a subject requires that final step of ability. Furthermore, rhetoric at this level also means applying the knowledge (grammar) and understanding (dialectic) already gained across disciplines into practical life. Thereby, the Trivium, applied to any subject, can mark the crucial transitions from ignorance to knowledge, from knowledge to understanding, and finally from understanding to wisdom.

The final way the Trivium is regularly interpreted in contemporary classical schools is as a formula for child development. Simply put, this belief holds that the typical child goes through grammar, dialectic, and rhetorical stages on the road to adulthood. Implicit in this application is that both the teacher and school ought to work with, rather than against, these natural stages of life and learning.

In this child development interpretation, the child begins in a grammar stage that roughly corresponds to the elementary school years. The fact that elementary school used to be widely called “grammar school” is not considered coincidental. As noted above, to master subjects students need to know basic facts about the subject. Conveniently, young children have proven to be outstanding at memorization. Even more remarkable, young children like memorization. Even nonsense words can be mastered with ease and enjoyment by elementary age children, particularly if put to music or chants. For the modern classical educator then, such an opportunity is not to be missed. In contrast, the typical contemporary school philosophy assumes that elementary school students will have plenty of time to learn basic facts in the future or will just naturally learn them through time. Consequently, most elementary schools embrace “play” as the activity de jure for their charges. The classical school instead capitalizes on the young child’s affinity for memorization and gives him a solid diet of significant material on which to work. While unfairly and inaccurately derided as “drill and kill” by advocates of the “play” approach, classical educators seek to have students leave elementary school with a substantial amount of invaluable knowledge stored in their memories. Both history and now contemporary classical schools have more than proven that this knowledge can be mastered in an effective and even pleasurable way especially since the elementary years are the ideal times in which to do it.

In considering the dialectic phase, it perhaps helps to start with a cultural fact: junior high kids are insufferable little wisenheimers. Put more generously, one notes middle schoolers’ propensity for argumentation, contradiction, and verbal gaffes. While educators throughout time have frequently been tempted to deal with this phase by locking them in their rooms until humans can stand to be around them, the contemporary classical educator takes a different course. Though an obviously dangerous act, the classical educator insists that if one wants to argue, then at least one should argue well. So, this “dialectic” stage at the classical school is characterized by instruction in logic, reasoning, and argumentation. While undoubtedly parents must at times regret the arming of these young madmen with more effective verbal weapons, the child’s personality merely demonstrates that the time is developmentally right to do so. Not incidentally, if these young debaters have been brought up with the Trivium, they already have a vast store of valuable knowledge to consider, which makes their verbal wrangling much more palatable and productive. In contrast, their public school peers, who have played their way through elementary school, while still determined
to verbally joust, have nothing to tilt but pop culture windmills.

Finally, according to the developmental approach to the Trivium, after passing through the challenging dialectic phase, young adults arrive at the “rhetorical” phase. In sum, the mark of teenagers is their desire to “express” themselves. However, as one can sadly witness in every mall in America, they are not very good at it. This truth remains despite the fact there are few items that fire the hearts of the typical American public school teacher more than self-expression. However, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, most high school instructors, though enthusiastic, are unknowingly urging the geldings to be fruitful.

Having never given or demanded knowledge of their charges, much less clear thinking in earlier years, most youth, have, like, you know, little to say. In contrast, the classical educator is not left with empty pleas to “express yourself,” since the student brought up in the Trivium has been given the knowledge and understanding along the way necessary for the development of wisdom worth professing. And, here again, the classical educator looks to work with, rather than against, the grain. With students eager to communicate, instruction at classical schools in these teen years focuses on effective expression through, among other things, the spoken and written word. As with the dialectic phase, if a student has been educated throughout in this Trivium model, this focus on expression is potentially delightful because the child actually has a vast array of knowledge and understanding to articulate. While the modern’s obsession with self-expression reflects the fact that essentially all educators desire to produce rhetoricians – wise, eloquent adults – it is the classical Trivium model that actually provides a workable and proven formula to produce them.

In considering the Trivium as a formula for learning and child development, it should be noted that these ought to be understood as broad, general categories not rigidly fixed lines. All courses at all age levels typically would contain grammatical, logical, and rhetorical elements, assignments, and emphases. Again, the Trivium approach argues that mastering any subject necessitates going through these three stages of learning so newly introduced subjects will always require grammatical essentials even for adults. The Trivium is a useful formula, not an inflexible one. Much of the Trivium’s revolutionary power lies in its simplicity and clarity, but also its versatility. Thereby, those seeking to be classical in contemporary times should not feel compelled to follow narrowly a fixed formula to qualify.

When considering accurate labeling, the Trivium has also served to justify the very naming of classical schooling. However, while certainly historically rooted, the Trivium as an organized system of learning is far more medieval than classical. However, no one needs a marketing department to tell them that calling for a return to medieval times proves a much more difficult sales job, so “classical” was, not surprisingly, adopted instead. Since the overwhelming percentage of classical schools are first and foremost Christian schools, this accommodation to modern sensibilities is at least mildly lamentable for it is the medievals who attempted to build a civilization infused with Christianity rather than the ancient pagans of Greece and Rome. Furthermore, while all truth is God’s truth, there is nothing inherently Christian per se in the Trivium especially if your emphasis is on its classical origins which again would mark it as the product of pagans. Nevertheless, because almost all classical schools in the United States are Christian, the terms“Classical-Christian,” or now the more appropriate “Christian-classical,” have become so conjoined that they easily roll off the tongue. Thereby, perhaps our Christian brothers and sisters of medieval times will forgive our snub, if our efforts to provide a truly Christian education to our children run true. And, applying the medieval Trivium to the specifically Christian nature of Christian-classical schools offers one final area of potential application.

Author Stratford Caldecott’s 2012 book Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education argues that the Trivium actually reflects the triune nature of God, and he challenges Christian, and particularly Catholic, schools to incorporate this understanding into their schools’ organization and curriculum. Caldecott implicitly criticizes the “tools” metaphor both Sayers and Wilson associated with the Trivium by making the “central idea” of his book “that education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’
in the conventional sense…. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of the word).”4 Caldecott’s work suggests the Trivium’s value as a formula could easily surpass the three primary ways described above by helping students and adults
alike understand the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Caldecott, in fact, offers the following “eight threes” inspired from the Trivium for educators to consider and apply:

Mythos Grammar Remembering Music/Dance One

True Given Father

Logos Dialectic Thinking Visual Arts True

Good Received Son

Ethos Rhetoric Speaking Drama Good Beautiful Shared Spirit5

A detailed account of Caldecott’s argument for these “eight threes” is beyond the scope of this brief essay, but at a minimum Caldecott’s work demonstrates that the revolutionary power of this “simple” formula known as the Trivium shows no sign of losing its potency or applicability. As committed Christians continue to mine the wisdom of the past and the Trivium’s formulaic potential, the prospects for truly Christian education to flourish only brighten.6 As a productive revolution, the Christian-classical movement, with the help of authors such as Dorothy Sayers and Douglas Wilson, has helped many parents and concerned citizens recognize that American education is hurtling down the wrong path. Thankfully, the Trivium has served as a simple but powerful formula of return to a better and more proven course. Through the insights of Caldecott and others, the Trivium should continue to provide an even more robust vision of an education worthy of creatures made in the image of God.

Viva la Revolucion!