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What is Classical Education?

I was preparing to write a post on Classical Education when I went back and looked at “The Well Trained Mind”, published first edition in 1999. I then went to the Word Press blog called “The Well Trained Mind“, and read a piece by Susan Wise Bauer. I have copied it in its entirety for my readers as it is the most thought provoking discussion available on the subject of What is Classical Education?

This will alter the way you perceive education in our American public school systems. It will stop you in your tracks, make you turn and reflect upon your education and that of your children. It will bring an understanding of where we went wrong and why American schools are failing to produce literate, articulate, creative, lateral thinkers in this highly competitive global economy.

BEHOLD THIS ENLIGHTENING SUMMARY BY SUSAN WISE BAUER:
Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium.

The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage” — not because you spend four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation for language. In the elementary school years — what we commonly think of as grades one through four — the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun. So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts. Rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics — the list goes on. This information makes up the “grammar,” or the basic building blocks, for the second stage of education.

By fifth grade, a child’s mind begins to think more analytically. Middle-school students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “Logic Stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the relationships between different fields of knowledge relate, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework.

A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and learning to support a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story; the logic of science requires that the child learn the scientific method.

The final phase of a classical education, the “Rhetoric Stage,” builds on the first two. At this point, the high school student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language. Students also begin to specialize in whatever branch of knowledge attracts them; these are the years for art camps, college courses, foreign travel, apprenticeships, and other forms of specialized training.

A classical education is more than simply a pattern of learning, though. Classical education is language-focused; learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken, rather than through images (pictures, videos, and television).

Why is this important? Language-learning and image-learning require very different habits of thought. Language requires the mind to work harder; in reading, the brain is forced to translate a symbol (words on the page) into a concept. Images, such as those on videos and television, allow the mind to be passive. In front of a video screen, the brain can “sit back” and relax; faced with the written page, the mind is required to roll its sleeves up and get back to work.

A classical education, then, has two important aspects. It is language-focused. And it follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.

But that isn’t all. To the classical mind, all knowledge is interrelated. Astronomy (for example) isn’t studied in isolation; it’s learned along with the history of scientific discovery, which leads into the church’s relationship to science and from there to the intricacies of medieval church history. The reading of the Odyssey leads the student into the consideration of Greek history, the nature of heroism, the development of the epic, and man’s understanding of the divine.

This is easier said than done. The world is full of knowledge, and finding the links between fields of study can be a mind-twisting task. A classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its organizing outline — beginning with the ancients and progressing forward to the moderns in history, science, literature, art and music.

We suggest that the twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: Ancients, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and Modern Times. The child studies these four time periods at varying levels — simple for grades 1-4, more difficult in grades 5-8 (when the student begins to read original sources), and taking an even more complex approach in grades 9-12, when the student works through these time periods using original sources (from Homer to Hitler) and also has the opportunity to pursue a particular interest (music, dance, technology, medicine, biology, creative writing) in depth.

The other subject areas of the curriculum are linked to history studies. The student who is working on ancient history will read Greek and Roman mythology, the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey, early medieval writings, Chinese and Japanese fairy tales, and (for the older student) the classical texts of Plato, Herodotus, Virgil, Aristotle. She’ll read Beowulf, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare the following year, when she’s studying medieval and early Renaissance history. When the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are studied, she starts with Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and ends with Dickens; finally, she reads modern literature as she is studying modern history.

The sciences are studied in a four-year pattern that roughly corresponds to the periods of scientific discovery: biology, classification and the human body (subjects known to the ancients); earth science and basic astronomy (which flowered during the early Renaissance); chemistry (which came into its own during the early modern period); and then basic physics and computer science (very modern subjects).

This pattern lends coherence to the study of history, science, and literature — subjects that are too often fragmented and confusing. The pattern widens and deepens as the student progresses in maturity and learning. For example, a first grader listens to you read the story of the Iliad from one of the picture book versions available at any public library. Four years later, the fifth grader reads one of the popular middle-grade adaptations — Olivia Coolidge’s The Trojan War, or Roger Lancelyn Greene’s Tales of Troy. Four more years go by, and the ninth grader — faced with the Iliad itself — plunges right in, undaunted.

The classical education is, above all, systematic — in direct contrast to the scattered, unorganized nature of so much secondary education. This systematic, rigorous study has two purposes.

Rigorous study develops virtue in the student. Aristotle defined virtue as the ability to act in accordance to what one knows to be right. The virtuous man (or woman) can force himself to do what he knows to be right, even when it runs against his inclinations. The classical education continually asks a student to work against his baser inclinations (laziness, or the desire to watch another half hour of TV) in order to reach a goal — mastery of a subject.

Systematic study also allows the student to join what Mortimer Adler calls the “Great Conversation” — the ongoing conversation of great minds down through the ages. Much modern education is so eclectic that the student has little opportunity to make connections between past events and the flood of current information. “The beauty of the classical curriculum,” writes classical schoolmaster David Hicks, “is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolism, plots, and motifs.”

Brilliant, thought provoking analysis! I could never had said it better!

And, if you have not seen “Akeelah and the Bee” please rent it for its amazing discourse on the power of language, its origins, and structure.

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An Argument for Classical Education

July 6, 2012 1 comment

“One of the functions of a teacher is to raise the dead.”
Peter Kreeft, Author, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College

Great leaders from our past were men of unyielding convictions in their beliefs, values, and ideals. They fought a war and crafted the Declaration of Independence; they framed the Constitution and formed a nation. They were giants on the world’s stage whose intellect was highly developed and whose thoughts and spoken language reached an uncommon level of eloquence.

What made them different? What grounded their thoughts and determination? With all the technological advances and easy access to the world’s knowledge, why are our leaders today, who are more “educated”, so obviously less literate and  uncommonly inelegant than our Founding Fathers? Could it be that our Founding Fathers were the result of a Classical Education, something our leaders do not have today?

Mike Myatt, managing director and chief strategy officer at N2growth, eloquently states, “Nations rise and fall with the quality of their leaders, and their leaders succeed and fail based upon who they are at their core – what they believe, how they think, and what they do. Nothing shapes a leader or a society like their education or lack thereof. Let me be clear: when I refer to an education, I’m not referencing earning a degree, I’m talking about developing a rich intellect – they are not always one in the same.” He asserts that we have lowered our standards and expect too little of our children. Go to the local Mall after school and see what the children of our nations parents are doing to increase their intellect and satiate their natural creative curiosity.

How is it that the Colonists in the 1770’s, who had little formal education, had an expansive vocabulary, a wider range of literacy, and a mastery of many subjects than our students have today? How is it that the graduates of these one room school houses produced these intellectually literate men and women who became the bedrock entrepreneurs of our society? I am reminded of a film I saw that illustrates this point, TRUE GRIT with Jeff Bridges. I was stunned by the vocabulary of Matty Ross the 14 year old girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Her character is the product of a one room school house education. If you haven’t seen the film, rent it and listen to her dialogue. Point made!

We spend more money and award more degrees to students who spend more time in school than ever before, most of whom are unable to read and comprehend the language of many of our historical documents or classic books. We are a one dimensional nation with a one dimensional educational system turning out test takers who are unable to have intellectually civil discourse. Should we return to the Classical studies?

Could you pass this 1895 eighth grade exam administered to the the one room schoolhouse students in Kansas? Point Made!

  The following quote by Leigh A. Bortins sums up the crossroads we currently face as a nation:
“…the current culture of education has displaced parents as the primary instructors of children in favor of professionals who try their best to recreate the home environment at school; has the federal government rather than the community determining the structure of equal educational opportunity; has deserted the idea that memorization trains the brain; has fostered a loss of literacy by replacing the study of original writings with abridged textbooks; and has created a populace unable to engage in reasonable discourse. We have rejected the historically successful model of rigorous, classical education in favor of entertainment and job training.”

Studying grammar, memorizing multiplication tables and historical events and reading original sources is no longer politically correct. Instead our students read from abridged textbooks and write their thoughts in 140 characters or less. We are a nation who believes education should be “entertaining and fun”. It should not be hard work. We are less literate and less educated than our global competitors. To succeed we need to start again to develop our greatest national treasure, the intellect of our children, who are the future of our nation.

Education as Our National Currency

July 4, 2012 2 comments

What do Taiwan, South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Israel and Japan have in common with each other?

They have no oil, diamonds, gold, or other valuable natural resources. As the Bible tells us Moses led his people through the desert for 40 years to bring them to the only piece of real estate in the Middle East that has no oil.  The foreign countries with the most companies listed on the NASDAQ are Israel, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, South Korea and Singapore, none of which can live off natural resources.

Now what does this have to do with education?

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published an interesting study which maps the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. Every two years PISA tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries and at the same time they correlate the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. for each participating country.  How well do your high school kids do in science compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?

The results indicated there is “a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school population,” said Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA exams for the O.E.C.D. “This is a global pattern that holds across 65 countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment.” Oil, diamonds, gold and student success and achievement don’t mix.

The latest PISA results reveal that students in Singapore, Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan stand out as having high PISA scores and few natural resources. Qatar and Kazakhstan stand out as having the highest oil rents and the lowest PISA scores. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Syria stood out the same way in a similar 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Students from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which are Middle East states with few natural resources, scored better. Also lagging in recent PISA scores were students in many of the resource-rich countries of Latin America; Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Africa was not tested.

What these numbers say is that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students. Schleicher states, “Today’s learning outcomes at school are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.” Societies addicted to their natural resources seem to develop parents and young people who lose their important  basic instincts, habits and incentives for academic success.

Schleicher further concludes, “in countries with little in the way of natural resources — Finland, Singapore or Japan — education has strong outcomes and a high status, at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills and that these depend on the quality of education. … Every parent and child in these countries knows that skills will decide the life chances of the child and nothing else is going to rescue them, so they build a whole culture and education system around it.” Teachers are held in high regard and are not unionized, parents are very involved and participate in their local schools, and children are expected to excel, no excuses accepted.

Knowledge and skills have become the global currency in this century. It is currency we can’t print. It begins with parents in the home who are determined their children will have every opportunity they can avail themselves to in order to succeed. This knowledge currency is propagated by highly effective teachers who are turned loose to innovate in their classrooms, free from administrators, unions, and regulations. It carries on with committed students who developed habits and a strong desire to learn aided by the guidance of their parents and teachers.

This is the only currency, an educated, competitive population, that will renew itself when all the oil wells, diamond mines and gold are gone from the ground.

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