Introducing Classical Education

Photo Courtesy of Casey M Photography http://www.caseymphoto.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/CaseyMphoto/
This week my school is putting on an open house. This is something private schools do every year for families who might be interested in enrolling their children. 

I will be speaking at the open house, sharing my thoughts on Classical Christian Education. While my talk will not be this long, here is everything I would say to someone who asks "What is Classical Education?" This is as concise of a general overview that I can give. 

What do we want for our kids?
It’s simple really. I’m sure we could all agree on a general list.

We want them to know the right things. We want them to do the right things, and for the right reasons.
We also want them to do great things, things that make a difference in our world.

At Aletheia we offer a basic approach to accomplishing these goals. They are basic goals but they are not easily accomplished. 

Much of modern education honors the student by placing them at the center of their education. Their thoughts, feelings, interests, and giftings take precedence. We mould education around the student. The education, both its material and its method adapts to them. 

Aletheia is known as a Classical and Christian school and therefore we honor our students with a different approach. Instead of the modern way, we bend down and look in the same direction as they are. We bend down and point off in the distance, saying “Look over there. Do you see those people? Go and be like them. Walk with me. I’ll show you how.” We care so much about our kids that we realize in order for them to be great, they will need to become like those who have come before us. We fashion ourselves around the great thinkers and achievers of our world. We seek after the greatest thoughts and learn from them. Sometimes, with much discernment, we even consider the world’s worst thoughts and learn how not to be.

And so we begin even our youngest children on this great journey. But great journeys can be exhausting and if you ask someone to do more than they are capable of too soon they will give up. They will become overburdened, confused, bitter, and eventually despair. “I can’t do this! It is too hard!” they will cry and they will probably be right. They have to be equipped properly for the journey.

This is exactly what Classical Education attempts to do in the academic and moral life of a child. We do not introduce thoughts that are beyond their capabilities. Instead, we meet them at their intellectual level and continually call them upward and onward.

The main way we describe this is that we give them “the tools for learning.” If you have a tool to teach you how to learn, then you will always be able to learn something new, whether it is a skill or a new field of knowledge. The “tools” for learning are not knowledge itself, but the ability to first learn knowledge and then the ability to know what to do with the knowledge you now have.

What this means for us is that early on we spend lots of time teaching our kids the skills of language and then how to themselves communicate with language. They learn how to spell and how to fashion complete thoughts. They learn how to talk about the things they have read and they learn how to memorize big chunks of (important) words. We call this the Grammar stage of learning because learning the grammar of any subject means learning all the individual parts of a subject. When our kids are young they are great at acquiring all the parts of our world, from knowing the names of animals, to working with simple numbers, to knowing the characters and events in history, to being able to memorize entire paragraphs at a time. 

Here is the great thing about developing the “tools” for learning. Once you get good enough at using those tools you eventually forget you even have them in your hand (or in this case, your mind). The tools become second nature, become a part of you. You are now ready to move on to a higher stage of learning.

Eventually our kids want to make more sense of the individual parts of subjects our “tools for learning” have helped us acquire. They start asking lots of questions about how things work and why things are the way they are in our world. As their questions grow, so does their capacity to comprehend the answers to their questions. We call this the Logic stage of learning and it is where we really begin to order our students’ world and help them make connections. Indeed, a Classical Education is all about making connections. We show them how our histories and scientific discoveries and artistic works and mathematical findings and spiritual principals are all interconnected. They are all part of a larger, grander story.

All along the way we keep exposing our students to the Great Works of our world. We want to immerse them in greatness.

However, our world is not perfect, and even great works contain errors, half-truths, and sometimes great evils. So, as much as we desire our students to be knowledgeable, even more we desire them to possess the ability to know when knowledge has reached its limit. “Truth” will eventually need to go beyond the bare-bones facts. Our lives need to also be filled with goodness, beauty, and love.

This is where Aletheia’s Christian identity comes in. If the center of our education is not the student, we might be tempted to think it is the subjects themselves (Math, Science, Language, History, Music, Literature…). But as Christians, we also cannot let this be. Our center is the Triune God who made our world, revealed himself in the Scriptures, sent his Son as our redeemer, and graced us with his Spirit to fill us and walk with us. “For from him and to him and through him come all things” and “in him we live and move and have our being.” Our God and the words of life he gave us in the Bible permeate everything we do in our school. As followers of Christ our identities are in Christ and this acts as the filter for how we see the world and how we move about in it.

Which leads to our final stage of learning. Somewhere along the way in their education our children begin to get good at something. They begin to know more about some things than others and begin to grow more efficient at those things. They begin to enter into a “rhetoric” stage of learning where they become masters at a skill or trade. Students in the rhetoric stage of learning not only know the parts of their subject of expertise (grammar), and they not only know how to order those parts (logic), but they also know how to work creatively and solve problems within that field.

One day our children will be sent out into the world on their own. Our goal is for our students to be as fully formed as possible: morally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically in whatever skill or field of knowledge they find themselves pursuing. At Aletheia, we are a group of parents and teachers committed to seeing this happen. It is no easy task. The journey is nearly always arduous for both the teacher and the student and we certainly do not produce perfect people. In fact, it would be a great error to get lost in a pursuit for perfection. There is no lasting joy in pure perfection—we need much more than that, which is why we are always pointing away from ourselves to the great things. There are so many big thoughts and great works of art to lose ourselves in we will never be able to get to it all in our lifetime. This is an overwhelmingly joyous pursuit. And the ultimate pursuit is even greater than all of this—to pursue God’s glory and to immerse ourselves in his love and goodness. If anything, it is in this humble task that we at Aletheia humbly strive towards every day in the lives of our students.

[End note: I was able to interview one of the founders of Classical Education as a movement in America, Pastor Douglas Wilson. You can stream that interview here:

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