Classical Education and Freedom - Jennifer Courtney
For centuries, the classical model of education prepared generations of young adults for the challenges of leadership and government. The goal was to produce virtuous leaders and citizens, not to produce skilled workers. This focus on free thinking and self-government is especially crucial to the life of a democracy. A classical education focuses on critical thinking skills, logic, debate, and rhetoric, i.e., the art of expressing the best ideas in the best way. In the true sense of the liberal arts, the lessons in a classical education are designed to make men and women more free. As Americans search for solutions to current issues, we should address past educational models that worked.
With its focus on critical thinking skills and practice in eloquent oral and written communication, a classical education prepares students in a democracy to be informed, self-governing citizens. In his book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future, Mark Bauerlein notes Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of the link between freedom and an educated populace: “Education would preserve the sovereignty of the people, and without it, the very system designed to represent them would descend into yet another tyranny in the dismayingly predictable course of nations” (2008, 212). Modern schools aim to produce good workers, a form of utilitarianism, while turning their back on the important task of raising adults who understand human nature and the complexities of human institutions.
Classical education is steadily gaining momentum as more and more classical schools open around the country. Likewise, many home-educating families have turned to this model, and they seek to educate their children with excellence. Leigh A. Bortins has founded a company to address these needs. Her corporation, Classical Conversations, has established classical communities across the country to support families who wish to give their students a classical education. Students meet once a week to discuss great literature, debate current events, conduct science experiments, present philosophy lectures, and generally sharpen one another’s thinking and communication skills. In her book, The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, Ms. Bortins outlines the goals of a classical education: “Both factory and computer education rob a child of the need to think and replace loving, caring mentors with a machine or a system. The classical model emphasizes that learning feeds the soul and edifies the person rather than producing employees to work an assembly line” (2010, 5).
Now that the goals of a classical education are established, the method itself can be examined. To summarize briefly, the classical model occurs in three phases of learning known as the Trivium, which is Latin for “three roads.” Grammar, the first stage, roughly corresponds to our elementary schools, lasting until the student is 11 or 12. This stage involves memorization of the rudimentary facts of any subject. Memorization comes easily to these young students and is critical preparation for the higher orders of thinking. The goal of this stage is not rote memorization or cramming of meaningless facts that will soon be forgotten; in contrast, parents and educators train students to acquire a base of facts that they will use in later studies and to develop a mental system for organizing and retaining those facts.
Logic (or dialectic) comprises the next stage, corresponding to the junior high school grades. Students naturally become interested in asking why, debating issues, and reconciling ideas. The classical model complements their natural tendencies by teaching them formal logic and debate. In preparation for their own debates, they must be equipped to recognize and avoid errors in logic. Classical educators work with a student’s natural developmental tendencies at this stage by facilitating Socratic discussions of history, literature, philosophy, and science while helping them hone mental discipline through studies of Latin, formal logic, debate, and higher math.
Grammar and logic, the first stages of a classical education, have prepared the student for the final phase of the Trivium―rhetoric. By the end of the rhetoric stage, students should be able to speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic they have studied. One of the fundamental premises of a classical education is that words are important. During the logic stage, instructors teach students not to fall prey to the words of others. During the rhetoric stage, classical educators teach students to captivate others with their words. Like logic students, rhetoric students continue to discuss big ideas through history, literature, philosophy, and science. In addition, they now cultivate the best means of communicating these ideas through writing and speaking. They are not working to create clever or catchy sound bites (this is our modern conception of rhetoric); rather, they are honing their skills of recognizing what is true, good, and beautiful, and persuasively and eloquently communicating their knowledge to others.
A concrete example will help to illustrate the Trivium. A grammar stage student will learn that George Washington was the first president of the United States, that he was inaugurated in Philadelphia in 1793, and that the Constitution gave him certain powers as the leader of the executive branch. A logic stage student may delve more deeply into the reasons the Founding Fathers felt so strongly about separation of powers and checks and balances and may discover why Washington voluntarily stepped down after two terms. A rhetoric student will apply Washington’s leadership lessons to a position in a student legislature, deliver speeches about presidential precedents, or debate current events and legislation in light of Washington’s presidency.
In addition to employing a methodology that works with the mental and spiritual developmental stages of students, a classical education embraces material that prepares students to understand the philosophers, political leaders, authors, and artists who have influenced our culture. Perhaps it is time for American educators to re-examine the classical methodology in order to produce leaders who are prepared to preserve and re-energize our democratic society. Perhaps we could aspire to John Milton’s vision in Of Education by stirring our students to have “high hopes of living to be brave men and worthy patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages.”
Jennifer Courtney, with her husband Tim, has been classically home educating her four precious children for six years. She currently serves as the Oklahoma State Manager for Classical Conversations, Inc. In this role, she recruits and trains directors in the establishment of classical home education communities. She also writes classical education articles and speaks to parents and other educators who want to understand and implement a classical education. Jennifer graduated summa cum laude from Oklahoma State University with an Honors degree in English. Her background in the liberal arts inspired her to encourage others who desire to mentor young people as they explore the great ideas of the past in preparation for the future.