In my last blog I touched on the parroting aspect of the grammar level of classical schooling. If you were to continue schooling your child this way all the way through high school, you will have failed miserably. Education runs aground if it ends in parroting. Without the growth and expansion of the dialectical and rhetoric stages of education, a student will not know how to handle the information he has learned all along, and he turns out no better than his public-schooled peers.
Dorothy Sayers, in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” asked her readers if they were not disturbed by certain signs of modern education:
Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?
Sayers, in her post-World-War-II thinking, is asking how an educated people could have succumbed to the propaganda of such madmen as Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. What would she say today about our political-correctness run amok? Where people spout empty philosophies that sound so great but are completely meaningless? Or where people spew forth ideas full of the failings of philosophies past (i.e. socialism)?
You will be easily led down the wrong path if all you can do is parrot back what you have learned. If you cannot plumb the depths of what you study, if you cannot separate emotion from fact, and analyze the information that is coming at you, if you cannot then articulate your beliefs, you run the risk of falling into the trap of whoever holds power. This is why we teach our students how to think, analyze, process, make connections, read for themselves the ideas of the past. This is why we educate classically.
Thus we begin a discussion of Classical Schooling at the upper level. The standards suddenly just got higher, didn’t they? When you look for curriculum for your teenager, you need to discern what is being taught. Is it more rote learning? Is it empty of meaning? Then discard it. Does it teach a student to make connections between disciplines? In other words, does it encourage the reader to study the philosopher and the age in which he lived, and then look at the impact of that philosophy on the age that followed? Does the curriculum walk a student through history to make a point? Does it bring in the writings of great thinkers (both good and bad) in their own words?
One very impactful part of high school Classical schooling comes when students make connections that startle them and get them thinking. I have my students read “The Communist Manifesto” and then Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. They are stunned to see ideas put forth in FDR that they had just read in Marx. It’s those kinds of connections we want to see.
Some Classical curricula just piles on the work, pumping students full of learning but never encouraging them to pause and contemplate the connections they need to make during these crucial teenage years. If there is no directed learning, just a lot of reading, discard it. Does that mean there needs to be a teacher at the other end? Maybe. If there is no teacher material that helps you, the parent, to direct your child’s thinking and make significant conclusions about the material, then perhaps this isn’t the curriculum for you.
Over the years I have encountered six or seven key brands of curriculum that consider themselves classical, and perhaps a handful more of classical schooling brands that tout an online form of some sort. Evaluate them carefully. Ask questions.
If this is an online or face-to-face learning experience, ask lots of questions. Hold them to a high level of accountability, because they are probably asking for a lot of money. Will there be someone to direct my student’s thinking, to help my student break down the information he is consuming? Will someone give my student directed feedback at regular intervals so that his learning/writing will improve and grow? Is this taught from a biblical or secular worldview? Is it learning just for the sake of learning, or is this learning in order to produce a thoughtful young man or woman? What will they be reading? Will there be plenty of primary resources to read?
Focus on writing. Be sure that you begin their writing in their earlier years, and be sure to continue at a high level throughout the Dialectic and Rhetoric level. They should be done with grammar by (or including) 9th grade or so, and they should be able to focus on writing well from then on. Ensure that the student gets directed feedback on his writing from someone who can hold his feet to the flames, so that he can grow as a writer. Do not ignore his writing! A purposeful Rhetoric curriculum will improve his writing as well. By the end of his high school career he should have learned how to express his thoughts beautifully, both written and orally.
A thoughtful, purposeful Classical educator will look at the young child and envision him as a high school senior, and the parent/teacher will begin to pour into him those things that will form him into the thoughtful human being God has created him to become. Isn’t that the goal of parenting anyway?
In my next blog I will talk about the hazards of Classical schooling.