Thursday, January 18, 2007

Just What Does “Classical Education” Mean, Anyway?

So, just what is Classical Education? Does it mean that you address history chronologically and in four year cycles? Or maybe that you focus on Great Books? Perhaps it means a literature-based education. Then again, maybe it just means a concentration Latin and/or Greek? Or that your family adheres to a more Humanities-based interpretation.

There are probably as many opinions as to the proper composition of a Classical Education as there are interested parties. And how one feels on the subject may well be influenced by how one came to the classical ed table in the first place.

Andrew Campbell of Memoria Press’ The Classical Teacher recently published an article entitled “Multum non Multa” or, not many things but much. In it he suggests that most of what is termed “education” today is more time-wasting overkill than useful tools for learning. I nodded along eagerly, thrilled to be reading an opinion that so closely echoed my own, until I read a sentence that brought me up short. After relaying a quote from Tracy Lee Simmons’ Climbing Parnassus in which Simmons calls American public schools “cut rate education malls for the intellectually lame” Campbell asserts, “Unfortunately, this trend is noticeable even among home schoolers.”

What he means is that in the zeal to fill a child’s mind with useful knowledge, and both an ability to learn and love of learning, perhaps the days become packed with so much science, history, geography, grammar, music, logic and so on that the mind clutters and has no room for the simple time spent with Latin or Greek that would enable the child to delve deeply into all these subjects and more by reading original works.

Susan Wise Bauer ties Classical Education to the trivium, a three-part cycle that builds the goals of one part upon those of the preceding. Furthermore, she frequently uses the word “systematic” to describe the method of education she espouses and stresses that it is language based and hooks her texts on the study of chronological history.

Laura M. Berquist also stresses the trivium and the direct influence of Dorothy Sayers’ beliefs that children must be taught how to think over instruction in any given subject-specific area. Berquist has said that Classical Education may be accomplished with a variety of texts, in fact any that is appropriate for the student’s position in the trivium could be considered classical.

So, which is it? What are the qualifying features of a Classical Education? The question may never be resolved with consensus and our perspectives are likely colored by the introduction we had to the subject, augmented by further readings. I have met numerous families who read and were inspired by The Well-Trained Mind and resolved to organize their children’s educations around its pages “but without the Latin.” Checking back with them a year later finds them including not only Latin but perhaps Aramaic as well on the recommendation of subsequent authors consulted. That Classical Ed families are seemingly so willing and able to learn and adapt as their knowledge grows can only be seen as a good thing. When it comes to Classical Education and homeschooling, ad libitum may well be the order of the day.

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