On Classical Education

The Influence of Dorothy Sayers

The modern resurgence of classical education can be attributed to an essay written by Dorothy Sayers. Dorothy Sayers was an English writer who graduated from Oxford. In 1947 while at Oxford, Sayers presented an essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In the early 90's her essay captured the attention of educators and has become one of the most widely read essays on classical education. Although Sayers was not an educator herself, she does address the problems of modern education in terms that speak to the heart and mind of those who have passed through the system and found their education inadequate. She also gives parents a type of syllabus to follow. Her essay has proven to be a wonderful starting point for those seeking a better way to teach and be taught.

The classical approach to education is based upon the medieval scheme of education. The medieval syllabus consists of seven disciplines of academic study: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. This approach teaches students to think well in all of areas knowledge and to come to the realization that all areas of knowledge are interconnected. Although the aim of the medieval scholars was not to understand God, these "subjects," or pieces of knowledge, teach some of the communicable attributes of God in a way that His finite image-bearers can, whether intentionally or unintentionally, reflect His character.

Moving from Parts to Whole

The scope of these disciplines may seem far too grand for the young students to approach; yet when approached incrementally, moving from parts to whole, they are not. Classical pedagogy begins with the end in mind and maps out the coursework moving downward to the starting point - there students begin to learn. At this point, with the rudiments of each subject being taught incrementally, the students carefully move from part to whole until they reach the level of required mastery, or the “end.”

For example, classical education does not simply teach students to read; instead, literacy begins by teaching the students that a word is made up of phonograms, that when combined carry meaning in written and spoken language. The students first learn the foundational phonograms as well as corresponding spelling rules. Once they are able to identify these phonograms in writing and are shown how to decode, they naturally begin to read. Because the average child has a vocabulary of thousands of words, using this technique allows the teacher to introduce a limited number of spelling words containing vital spelling patterns and spelling rules, resulting in a student who can read and write well beyond the words taught to him. Each student learns that language is a code and that he can master the steps to decode and encode his language. These foundational tools of language enable students to not only decipher the printed word, but to spell. This approach makes it possible for the students to not only remember what they have learned, but just as important, they know how to learn independently and are equipped to read and write for a lifetime. With this knowledge they are able to move from the simple to the complex without difficulty, transferring these intellectual skills to other subjects that must be mastered.

Philosophy of Public Education

Man is the center of reality. Truth is relative to man. Knowledge of subjects or things (including man himself) is random, detached, and changing.

Philosophy of Christian Classical Education

God is the center of reality. Truth is defined by God. Knowledge of subjects or things (including man himself) is unified, rational, and consistent.

The Trivium Explained

Often, classical education is thought of as a defined three-stage process called the trivium. A closer look reveals that the trivium is an instructional method that includes the three elements of the classical disciplines. These elements are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This pedagogy is applied from the earliest lessons, both formal and informal. Parents and teachers alike realize that all humans, regardless of age, experience changing stages of development. In order to meet the needs of the developing students so that they can gradually comprehend, the best teachers instruct by applying the three elements as they are appropriate for the students apart from age.

The Elements of the Trivium

  • Grammar

    Although the three parts of the trivium are applied to all learning for all students, regardless of age, they are most often understood in application to the developmental age of the students. The first stage, grammar, is not the “subject” of grammar; rather, it is the study of the basic facts of different subjects. This stage applies to children of approximately six to ten years old, the stage when children are the most receptive to information and will readily memorize. Focus is placed on reading, writing, and spelling; an elementary study of Latin; basic math skills; and developing observation, listening, and memorization skills. Since SCA is a school for Christians, the students are given a general overview of history through a biblical worldview as well as a study of the major stories of the Bible. Science is taught through observation of the world so that the students can appreciate the vastness of God’s creation around them. In this way, science fulfills the students' curiosity and deepens their awesome wonder of the world. The aim at this stage is to give the students the tools to master the elements of language and to develop a general framework of knowledge. Along the way the students are taught and expected to make application of logic and rhetoric so that as each student matures, mastery of these elements will emerge.
  • Logic

    The maturing students naturally begin to demonstrate independent or abstract thought initiating the next stage of development for children ages eleven through thirteen or fourteen. Commonly called the logic stage, students of this age often express sincere questions and a desire to search for the reasons behind long-held principles and truths. Building upon the foundational skills, the wise teacher will recognize this tendency to question and to debate, and utilize it as a tool to mold and to shape the students' mind. This will be done by teaching logical discussion, engaging in debates, and demonstrating how to draw correct conclusions and support them with facts. The pedagogy equips students with language and thinking skills, making them capable of detecting fallacies in an argument. This is the stage in which the students begin to actually pick up and to use the tools mastered in the earlier years of learning. They begin to develop the skills to define their terms, to make accurate statements, to construct an argument, and, at times, much to the chagrin of parents, to see fallacies in the arguments of others. This molding of thought and communication skills is not to promote in students a superior, critical, or negative attitude, but to cultivate discerning and thoughtful students, students who know when to follow and when to lead.
  • Rhetoric

    The maturing students begin to master the skills of language and logic. The rhetoric stage emerges in students at approximately age fourteen and above. As the students advance in the trivium, they can use language, both written and spoken, eloquently and persuasively, to express what they think; a natural yearning for young adults. With God’s grace and “good guidance this stage should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do one thing in preference to all others.” In other words, the maturing students have some leading as to where their real interest lies in this world. And hopefully, as Christians, they will want to use this knowledge to further advance the Kingdom of God, their primary goal being to persuade others to follow Christ. For the Christian, a life of holiness and sacrifice will always speak louder than words. However, when such a life has been properly equipped to use the great tools of communication - persuasive speech and writing - God’s glory is known all the more.

The Key Ingredient: A Biblical Worldview

This liberal arts education is meant to produce a well educated and well-rounded individual. For this reason, SCA is committed to the belief that the classical approach to education is the best approach to education when taught from a biblical worldview. SCA guides its students to think biblically with the hope that they will submit their lives to the authority of Christ and use their intellectual competency for the purposes of God.

An Added Advantage: A Second Opportunity for Parents

In conclusion, it is important to point out one of the greatest advantages of educating children at home; the parents have a second chance to receive the education that may have been missed. Even the well educated learn profoundly more the second time around. It is well known that the best way to learn is to be forced to teach! When parents are intrinsically involved in the teaching of their children, they often find that they enjoy learning some Latin, discussing the classics, working with their children to examine more closely his conclusions in scientific research, and applying the logical steps of mathematical thought. Parents using the classical approach to education to educate their child at home find that a whole new world of knowing and understanding begins to open for them and their children as well. This is the education that all Christian parents should desire for their children because as G.K. Chesterton so aptly said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”