Last week I was asked to speak to the parents involved in our homeschooling co-op, Coram Deo, about what Classical Christian Education is. Below is the text of my brief explanation. Certainly more can be said about the value and distinctiveness of Classical Ed, but this was my 5-minute pitch.
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Nelson Mandela has rightly said that education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use to change the world. As homeschooling parents we not only have the opportunity to directly influence what our children learn, we also have the opportunity to mold them into young men and women who will be equipped to change the world. We want their education to be the absolute best it can be.
Our homeschool co-op believes the best way to educate our children is to use a model of Classical Christian Education, tapping into the rich tradition of education we’ve inherited as Christians in our western culture.
We need to ask: What is Classical Christian Education? This is important for any parent involved in a Classical Ed co-op or school to understand.
Three Stages of Classical Christian Education
The first distinctive of Classical Christian Education is that it holds to the idea that children go through three basic stages of educational development, and these stages we call grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This has been called in Latin, “the trivium,” meaning “the three ways,” or “the three roads.” This very loosely corresponds to the public school grade levels of elementary, junior high, and high school. This is why Coram Deo divides all of its classes this way.
This is important for all of us as parents to understand because this classical model is a time-tested understanding of how our kids learn best. In the grammar phase, they are not just learning the grammar of language, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives; they are also learning the “grammar,” or the piece-parts, of every subject. In math they are learning how to count and memorizing times tables. In history they are learning significant dates and places and people. In science they are learning the names of planets and parts of our human anatomy. At this stage your child’s brain is like a sponge: it can soak up massive amounts of information.
As the Talmud says, from the age of 6, when kids become pupils, we are to stuff them with knowledge like an ox.
In our co-op, our grammar classes emphasize memorization of facts, but it is impossible for any one-day-a-week enrichment classes to do this adequately. If you have children in this age range: take delight in the way God has made their minds and stuff them full at home. Everything from math facts to memorizing Bible events, from poems to parts of speech—take advantage of this time and fill their minds with truth.
Next, the logic phase, also called the dialectic phase, roughly corresponds to 7th to 9th grade. In this phase, your student is learning about how the parts of their studies fit together. For instance, how does knowing about the political climate in America in the mid-19th century influence how we read the poems of Longfellow? What do the religious systems of ancient Egypt have to do with Israel’s exodus? What’s the relationship between the geography around the Deleware River and George Washington’s famous Battle of Trenton?
The Logic level classes our co-up offers are meant to help your students understand these kinds of relationships. So matter what your student is studying this year—math or Latin or writing or the history of the Middle Ages—this is the time for you to encourage them to see those connections in everything they are learning. Engage them in discussion about their homework. Ask them critical questions. Help them to sharpen their thinking about what they are learning. Encourage their natural curiosity about the way the world works.
In the last phase, the rhetoric phase, students are learning how to apply what they learn, to explain it to others, and to defend their thoughts. The hope for any rhetoric class is that students move beyond just memorization of facts to real analysis: writing clear and persuasive papers, having debates, giving speeches.
As a parent, if you have 10th through 12th graders, this is the phase of learning where you can encourage them in their personal interests. In this phase, more than the other phases, students should be learning how to communicate what they are learning, so take time at home to ask your children what they are learning about. Help them to think critically. Right now your son or daughter is more concerned with appearance then they have ever been. So shape that desire into a drive to present themselves well, to know how to present what they know in a worthy fashion.
Emphasis on Language Mastery
This leads to another key distinctive of Classical Christian Education. Classical education includes certain subjects that you don’t typically see in modern schools, but they have been a part of Western classical education for centuries. These are subjects that help your student to master language. These include classes like Latin or persuasive writing and speech.
Mastery of language is at the heart of classical education because we prize accurate and imaginative communication. We worship a communicating God. We worship a God who spoke the world into being, who spoke through prophets, and who inspired written words on the pages of Scripture. We worship a God gave us his word made flesh.
And in the classical education tradition, we get to freely celebrate that we are beings made in his image: we are communicating beings. And by speaking and communicating well, we can shape and change our world. We are made in the image of a God who creates beauty and order by his spoken word: and by our words, we also create beauty and order in our world. Classical education in the West has produced some of the sharpest thinkers and greatest communicators in the history of the world.
A Christian Worldview
And as you can see, the last distinctive of Classical Education is that approaches everything from a Christian worldview. We don’t believe there is such a thing as a truly secular education, because God is the origin of all knowledge. In classical education, theology is not just one subject among many: it is the queen of the sciences. And the other subjects are not mere subjects: they are God’s subjects. We can do math because God created a mathematical world. We can do biology because God is the designer of all living things. We can do history because God is the sovereign Lord of history: he is driving human history to its purposeful end.
This is the vision we want to impart to our kids. That’s because the ultimate goal of education is not just to inform, but to inspire. We want our children not just to know things, but to love knowledge, not just to learn, but to love learning.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” This is what we, as homeschooling parents, get to do: we don’t just give them busy work and quizzes and tasks; we teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea of knowledge. We inspire them to love the knowledge of God and his world. We as homeschool parents can teach our children this kind of longing.