Methods: Classical Education

Two other movements

Two other movements form the climax of the Church's activity during the Middle Ages. The development of Scholasticism meant the revival of Greek philosophy, and in particular of Aristotle; but it also meant that philosophy was now to serve the cause of Christian truth. Men of faith and learning like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, far from dreading or scorning the products of Greek thought, sought to make them the rational basis of belief. A synthesis was thus effected between the highest speculation of the pagan world and the teachings of theology. Scholasticism, moreover, was a distinct advance in the work of education; it was an intellectual training in method, in systematic thought, in severe logical reasoning, and in accuracy of statement. But taken as a whole, it furnished a great object-lesson, the purport of which was that, for the keenest intellect, the findings of reason and the truths of Revelation could be harmonized. Having used the subtilities of Greek thought to sharpen the student's mind, the Church thereupon presented to him her dogmas without the least fear of contradiction. She thus united in a consistent whole whatever was best in pagan science and culture with the doctrine entrusted to her by Christ. If education be rightly defined as "the transmission of our intellectual and spiritual inheritance" (Butler), this definition is fully exemplified in the work of the Church during the Middle Ages.
- from the entry on Education in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia

The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education

Author(s):
Leigh A. Bortins
Copyright:
2010
Publisher:
Palgrave Macmillan
Number of pages:
238 pages
Subject(s):
Methods: Classical Education
Grade / Age level:
Adults
Review:

The Core is a practical guide to those who are new to the idea of classical education and are looking for an outline of what to teach in different subject areas. Leigh Bortins has written this book for all parents and teachers--those in a regular school setting as well as those who are homeschooling--but her methods would work particularly well within a home education environment. Bortins uses the ideas laid out in Dorothy Sayers’ oft quoted 1947 essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, as a guide upon which to build her lists of necessary skills for students of the trivium.

Trivium is Latin for the “place where three roads meet.” The trivium comes from the medieval idea of education, and represents the lower level of the liberal arts: grammar, logic and rhetoric. The main emphasis of this book is to show educators how to take modern subjects, i.e. reading, writing, math, geography, history, science and fine arts, and teach students the fundamentals of these subjects through memorization of basic facts. Bortins explains how this corresponds to the grammatical stage of the trivium. Every language has its structure, i.e. grammar, which is key to understanding and developing good reading, writing and speaking skills. Likewise, the other subjects also have their grammar, which are the foundational rules of the subject.

The subtitle of the book is not just an afterthought. This book is about the foundations of a classical education. And this foundation is memorization. This method, although simple and nearly free from textbooks, requires a lot of adult involvement. If you’re not interested in helping your child memorize things, then read no further. This book is all about acquiring facts, information and skills through memorization. Bortins doesn’t try to sugarcoat it; memorization is hard work for both teacher and student:

The purpose of a classical education is to strengthen one’s mind, body, and character in order to develop the ability to learn anything. This requires consistent discipleship or mentoring by a concerned adult over a long period of time with very specific academic goals. For eventually, the child wants to know why she must learn so much terminology and what to do with what she has learned. These natural questions lead children into dialectic and rhetorical studies.

Bortins tells us the modern educational system, with its emphasis on things like “critical thinking skills” and “experiential learning” has demeaned the traditional method of having children learn things through imitation and memorization. She says:

Though critical thinking skills and experiential learning are very valuable, the education associations forgot two things: first, that students needed to memorize information so they would have something in their brain to critically think about or to compare to their experiences, and second, that the brain needs to be intentionally trained in order to think well.

We readily accept the idea that to learn to play an instrument or to do a sport, students must first memorize certain fundamentals. Yet in many, if not most, schools today children are expected to analyze a book or write their own story without first being made to memorize, or even copy, good examples of prose or poetry.

Bortins did her undergraduate studies in aerospace engineering and her love of math comes through especially well in her chapter on teaching the grammar of math. Most educators would probably agree that a child must first acquire the basic math facts—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division—before moving on to more complex mathematical equations. Bortins not only advises all students memorize the multiplication tables through 20 x 20, but she also advocates students learn to quickly multiply and divide double digit numbers in their heads, and memorize the common squares and cubes, among other things. These fundamentals, she says, are the grammar of mathematics. Some authors point out the growing illiteracy of the American public, and Bortins speaks of the massive innumeracy of our culture that depends upon calculators, cash registers and computers to do all of our basic computations for us. A person learning a foreign language must wrestle with the grammatical rules of that new language, and so must students of mathematics learn the rules and grammar of math in order to become fluent in the language of math.

The other subject areas get similar treatment, and Bortins offers practical advice for parents and teachers, with lists of things to have students memorize in order to become competent learners. For example, in the chapter on science, Bortins admits it would be an impossible task to memorize all the science facts, but she offers an impressive list to get us started. When she was devising the lists for science for her own students, she arranged them as a series of questions, similar to the “ancient catechisms used in the schools in Alexandria during the first three centuries A.D.” (If you’re like me, you’re thinking, Baltimore Catechism!) Bortins tells us, “The term ‘catechism,’ [although] usually associated with religious instruction…is actually a classical method of memorization for any subject, in which a preconstructed set of questions and answers are used to teach precision in responses.” The emphasis in all subjects should be on understanding the fundamentals of the subject, through memorization, prior to moving on to the higher levels of learning in the logic and rhetoric stages.

Bortins gives us a general, yet very practical, outline of lists of things to have our students memorize. However, she has not given us all the particulars of those lists. Instead she gives us topics and tips to get us started either making our own lists, or seeking out lists from other sources. She gives some suggestions for further reading and sources in the back of the book.

The author is the founder of Classical Conversations, a Protestant curriculum provider and structured co-op. There is nothing in this book that is anti-Catholic, though the author makes a huge leap when discussing the origins of classical education from the early Fathers of the Church and the monastic universities to the Reformation with no mention at all of the Catholic Church(!), the reader should be aware that some of Classical Conversations’ materials, particularly history timeline cards related to the time of the Reformation, are biased against the Catholic Church. Additionally, paid tutors of the Classical Conversations program must sign a Statement of Faith which declares “All Scripture is self-attesting…the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified witness…[and]…the Bible…is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks...”

Perspective:
Protestant
Additional notes:
Reviewed by Debbie Nowak
Review Date:
5-3-2011

Designing your Own Classical Curriculum

Book cover: 'Designing your Own Classical Curriculum'
Author(s):
Laura Berquist
Copyright:
1998
Publisher:
Ignatius Press
Binding:
Softcover
Number of pages:
265 pages
Subject(s):
Methods: Classical Education
Books About Curriculum
Books about Homeschooling
Review:

DYOCC is quite a bit different from the other books on Catholic Homeschooling. Instead of simply discussing homeschooling, as the other books do, Mrs. Berquist outlines an entire homeschool curriculum you can use with your children or adjust to your liking. She includes suggestions for putting together your own curriculum and a grade by grade outline which includes recommended texts, sample weekly schedules, a number of study guides, lists of important dates and people, poetry suggestions and extensive lists of appropriate literature and history stories. I found her introduction very helpful in fine-tuning my educational goals for my children. Even parents who are happily using another curriculum will find this book a very valuable source of supplemental resources and tips for making homeschooling more interesting and more successful. Some homeschoolers consider her to be much stronger in the history, literature and religion areas and a little weaker on Science and Math. To learn more about the classical liberal arts curriculum as described in her book, you can also read Dorothy Sayers' "The Lost Tools of Learning."

Perspective:
Catholic
Additional notes:
Binding details: sewn softcover
Reviewed By:
Alicia Van Hecke
Review Date:
1999
Available From:
Adoremus Books
Available From:
Aquinas and More
Available From:
By Way of the Family
Available From:
Catholic Shopper
Available From:
Emmanuel Books
Available From:
RC History
Available From:
St. John Fisher Forum

Implementation of an Ignatian Education in the Home

Author(s):
Francis Crotty
Copyright:
1995
Publisher:
Kolbe Academy
Number of pages:
49 pages
Subject(s):
Methods: Classical Education
Teaching methods
Review:

The focus of this booklet is on the method of teaching. Mr. Crotty goes through the timeless and time-tested Jesuit philosophy of education and applies it to homeschooling. He has put together an outline that could be successfully applied to any curriculum. The ideas will be especialy helpful for parents who are homeschooling their teens, but it is useful to consider such important goals even when our children are very young.. Although it's a short booklet, the reading is rather heavy. I think you'll find it well worth the effort. Mr. Crotty recommends that reading The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius will make the booklet much more understandable. He recommends the translation by Anthony Mottola which is published by Image Books. The booklet lends itself to group discussion - and such a discussion would help to hash out some of the meanings and details.

Perspective:
Catholic
Reviewed By:
Alicia Van Hecke
Review Date:
1999
Available From:
Kolbe Academy

Poetic Knowledge

Book cover: 'Poetic Knowledge'
Author(s):
James S. Taylor
Copyright:
1998
Publisher:
SUNY Press
Binding:
Sewn Hardcover
Subject(s):
Methods: Classical Education
Teaching methods
Review:

Poetic Knowledge, by James Taylor, is a difficult read. He wishes to present, from both history and philosophy, a solid argument for an education that is more intuitive and interior than what we find in the schools today. His background and bibliography are impressive, including a period of study with John Senior in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, famous as an early ferment in the revival of classical education.

However, Taylor's argument is flawed both as a whole and in several of its parts. He resists making clear definitions, he is very negative about science and technology, his historical perspective is distorted, and his writing is problematic.

Resistance to clear definitions is a serious problem. From the start, Taylor speaks of poetic knowledge both as a "degree" of knowledge and as a "mode" of knowledge. By confusing these definitions (and others) Taylor undercuts his central argument with equivocation. As a "degree of knowledge," poetic knowledge is immediate to the knowing person, and may be likened to the lowest rungs of a ladder, the first rungs we climb and the ones we use to climb higher. Understood as a degree of knowledge, poetic knowledge makes a constant contribution to all other forms of knowledge, including scientific knowledge.

As a "mode of knowledge", the poetic is the spontaneous knowledge of an interior view, rather than the measured and outward knowledge of rationality. The poetic as a "mode" of knowledge is the opposite of the "scientific mode". Of course, just as one would be impoverished by looking only east and never west, one would be impoverished if one were to employ only one of two possible modes of knowledge. But they remain opposites.

There are good philosophical reasons and good historical precedents (many of which Taylor produces) for either definition of the term "poetic knowledge," -- and even for using both definitions in various ways. But the definitions cannot be interchanged during an argument, and this is what takes place in Taylor's essay. Simply put, his argument is that poetic knowledge (definition 1) is a form of knowledge essential to humanity. But poetic knowledge (definition 2) is the opposite -- and the antagonist -- of scientific knowledge. By equivocation, poetic knowledge is essential to all knowledge and a powerful human good in opposition to science.

While Taylor does not actually call science an evil, he spares no opportunity to disparage both science and technology. This negativity about science would be comic if it were not encased in an erudite argument for the poetic approach to knowledge in education. Unfortunately, the intuitive and poetic approaches to knowledge are naturally open to romanticism and gnosticism unless they are properly balanced with rationality. Taylor has no balance in this matter. His negativity about rationality overflows even onto sentence diagramming and phonics. He quotes with approval the assertion that "authors teach children to read," and that reading is "imitative". If he merely pointed out that phonics is not enough; you need to have authors that children will enjoy, I would agree. But to scorn phonics? The depth of Taylor's impracticality is simply breathtaking.

A note on history is also in order, for Taylor makes repeated reference to the time of the Reformation and Renaissance, before which the poetic was accepted in Western thought. The correct association for the negative attitude towards intuitive knowledge is the seventeenth century, starting with Descartes, 1596-1650. This is the "Enlightenment" or the "Age of Reason", two names for the time that followed the Renaissance and the Reformation. (Taylor does refer to Descartes as the culprit, but never clarifies his place in history.)

First of all, the Renaissance long preceded the Reformation. It was not a single event, of course, but the starting date sometimes given is 1250, sometimes earlier. Certainly the architectural triumphs of the cathedrals belong to the Renaissance, as do, for example, Dante (1265-1321), Buridan (1300's), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and Copernicus (1473-1543). The early Renaissance is the time of the birth of modern science. It predates by hundreds of years the problem that Taylor speaks of. This fact alone should make clear that the rise of science is not the culprit in the loss of respect for poetic knowledge. Something else happened. This is not the place to say what, but only to urge in the strongest terms that no implication against science be received from Taylor's references to the Renaissance.

It may be that Taylor has confused the Renaissance with the Enlightenment. This would explain why he constantly pairs Reformation and Renaissance in the opposite of their historical order, which was Renaissance first, and then later on, the Reformation.

Finally, though it may seem trivial to close on a grammatical note, I shall complain about Taylor's sentence structure. The topic is difficult enough without the distraction of errors of grammar and construction which appear throughout his book. Usually, when a reader is confused about the structure of a sentence, it is his clue that he has not properly followed the author's argument. But in Taylor, it is just a reminder that this author regards analysis as an inferior mode of thought, and wants his argument accepted intuitively.

Because I love science and feed my wonder on the delights of a well-crafted physical argument as much as on violets and poetry, and because I strongly desire that science and faith be understood harmoniously, I cannot recommend this book as a resource for the classical revival in education.

Perspective:
Catholic
Reviewed By:
Mary Daly
Review Date:
4-23-01

Poetic Knowledge

Book cover: 'Poetic Knowledge'
Author(s):
James Taylor
Copyright:
1998
Publisher:
SUNY Press
Binding:
Sewn Hardcover
Subject(s):
Methods: Classical Education
Review:

(Additional Review, in response to the one above)

"There are relatively few persons who can analyze as clearly and as lucidly the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and Aquinas as does this author. Like Taylor's educational philosophy, he seeks to move his readers' affections and will as well as their intellects, and he does this successfully." - Richard Harp, University of Nebraska

When discussing "poetic knowledge" (which is not the knowledge of poetry "but rather a poetic experience of reality"), we are entering into the realm of an intuitive, obscure and somewhat mysterious way of knowing reality that therefor does not lend itself to strict analytical dissection. Nevertheless, in Poetic Knowledge Taylor has managed "with pithy brevity...to provide a history of the treatment of poetic knowledge and to develop his own very persuasive account" -- Ralph McInerny (U. of Notre Dame). He cannot reasonably be faulted for failing to make human emotions and intuitions as readily understandable as an isosceles triangle or an elementary rule of grammar - there is more to it than is "dreamt of in our philosophy."

Ironically, it is precisely that relentless demand of modern man (since Descartes) - that all be broken down into parts and pieces for study under a magnifying glass - that Taylor is warning against in his book. A flower loses its beauty when it is hacked into tiny pieces for too close observation; "whatever the sun is, it is not just a mass of burning gasses", though strict analysis might yield just that answer.

Indeed, in writing this book for a modern audience drunk on statistics and mathematical calculation, Taylor assumed the risk of betraying the very thing he was trying to save - the rest of man: his sense, his intuitions, his love of beauty, his integrity and very ability to love. Happily, like a good diagnostic physician,Taylor managed to poke and probe only deeply enough to give us the outlines, to reveal the essentials of the matter without killing the patient in the process.

Like a multi-faceted diamond, poetic knowledge may be viewed from different perspectives, with differing results. Thus it can be considered as both a "degree" of knowledge and as a "mode" of knowledge. As a "mode" of knowledge, poetic knowledge differs from "scientific knowledge" in that is it non-analytical, nor is it about the "outside" of things as observational science is. Rather, it is sensory-emotional, intuitive and deals with the goodness or "inside" of things. It begins with the immediate, direct apprehension of reality that inspires wonder and awe. As a degree of knowledge, it is less certain that mathematical knowledge, but more certain than a mere guess or coin-flip. In short, it is of one certain degree or order, and not of another. A mere review such as this cannot do justice to those distinctions, but that should suffice to account for the fact that Taylor may reasonably approach the matter from different angles without being guilty of the charge of causing needless confusion. No diamond-cutter would do less before striking the blow, and Taylor is writing about more than a mere diamond, he is writing about why women love the beauty and "poetic" meaning of diamond gifts and why men love certain women enough to buy them diamonds.

Taylor makes the point that we live in a world dominated by scientism, by mathematical formulae, which knows the price of all things and the worth of nothing.

He rightly traces this domination back to Descartes, who was a superb mathematician. But Descartes, in promoting his liberal arts of preference - the quadrivium, neglected the rest - the trivium. In stating the obvious - that our world is terribly imbalanced towards the empirical sciences and away from its heart and soul (which is closer to the subject of the trivium) Taylor does us no disservice, nor does he thereby libel the sciences. He is merely trying to restore the balance before science and math bereft of love and beauty calculate us into greater mechanistic slavery or thermonuclear oblivion. One who rights a tottering man ought not be accused of favoring the right over the left, or up over down. Indeed, for left or down to have any meaning, right and up must be preserved as well. Science and math have no future if man has no future. Taylor seeks to restore our future as men and women, not merely as "consumer units" or "human resources".

The Renaissance is a vague term, with a vague start. But out if it did indeed spring modern empirical science as a reaction against the domination of the early Renaissance by rhetorical teachers of the trivium such as Petrarch. Descartes, building on Galileo (1564-1642), and his mathematical arts of the quadrivium, were the ultimate victors in the Renaissance Battle of the Arts, which therefor did triumph - not in the early Renaissance - but in the period of the late Renaissance and Reformation when the trivium and poetic knowledge began to be neglected precisely because of the rise of the quadrivium at that time.

Just as in the late Renaissance, the Battle of the Arts rages and the mathematical sciences still hold the upper hand. They hardly need any more defenders. But like the teacher Keating in the movie Dead Poets Society, Taylor calls us to arms against the tyranny of modern science:

"This is battle...War! And the casualties could be your hearts and your souls...One reads poetry because he is a member of the human race and the human race is filled with passion! Medicine, law, banking - these are necessary to sustain life - but poetry, romance, love, beauty! These are what we stay alive for!"

Restore the balance and the war ends. Then science and faith can indeed be understood harmoniously, but they certainly are not so understood by those in the thrall of modern scientism. In Poetic Knowledge Taylor shows us the way to restore the balance - in the recovery of authentic classical education.

Perspective:
Catholic
Additional notes:
The reviewer is director of the Angelicum Academy Homeschool Program
Reviewed By:
Patrick Carmack
Review Date:
2001

The Restoration of Christian Culture

Book cover: 'The Restoration of Christian Culture'
Author(s):
John Senior
Copyright:
1983
Publisher:
Roman Catholic Books
Number of pages:
244 pages
Subject(s):
Methods: Classical Education
Teaching methods
Review:

This book, originally published by Ignatius Press (with ecclesiastical approval) is available in print once again from Roman Catholic books. John Senior, an eminent great books scholar and Catholic writer of the recent past, here addresses what Christian Culture is, why it has nearly disappeared (particularly in America today) and what is required to bring it back. According to Professor Senior, society's removal from nature and manual labor, and particularly our heavy dependence on technology, have removed man from the most basic processes of learning and understanding that God planned for man to acquire by his natural surroundings. Humanistic philosophies are rooted in an emphasis on the greatness of man and his "creations" (i.e. technology) rather than glorying in God's Creation. According to Mr. Senior, a truly Christian culture requires a return to a basic understanding of the "stuff of life" by a far lessened and more controlled use of technology and other changes such as a return to the beauty and truth of the liturgy as it was celebrated in the past (the author respectfully argues that the traditional Latin Mass is a superior alternative to the Novus Ordo as it has commonly been implemented in the U.S. since Vatican II).

Even if you find his contempt for modern technology somewhat extreme, I would recommend reading his ideas in order to make yourself aware of how significantly our lives are impacted by technology today. Although it's not often talked about, I think it's vitally important for parents to understand that the problems with television for children go beyond simple concerns with regard to morally offensive content. People were not designed to sit in front of a box (be it a computer or a television). Although movies and computer games can enhance a child's education, they should be used in moderation or avoided. (You may also be interested in following this link in order to read Pope John Paul II's address on Television and the Media.

The author also addresses, in some detail, certain educational philosophies from a Catholic perspective. In particular, parents may find interesting a discussion of what literature is appropriate for Catholic children to read. I was particularly fascinated by his discussions of St. Benedict and traditional monastic life. I've always had a certain admiration for and interest in the idea of cloistered life (and even more so since reading Saint Benedict by Mary Fabyan Windeatt). I would like in some way to imitate the order, the motto of oro et laboro (I pray and I work) and the genuine sense of community within my own family. But I digress...

His remedy, involving a certain amount of good old-fashioned common sense and a return to a simpler life, is crowned by a rather splendid explanation of the necessary and central role of a return to a culture of Mary, the Mother of God and a strong devotion to her. He explains how this would be in imitation of the devotion of those simple people of the Middle Ages who spent their lives working to honor God through his Blessed Mother with beautiful cathedrals and artwork. The author contrasts this with the modern humanistic focus (if not "worship") of man-made objects (technology) which often reach no higher than utility and a glorification of what man can do.

I found this book surprisingly readable and delightfully filled with truth. Although parts of the book have a somewhat pessimistic flavor (and I don't agree with absolutely everything in the book), this is always tempered with a proper sense of hope and trust in God's providence. As a point of interest, John Senior's philosophies were apparently quite influential in the development of two of today's Catholic homeschool programs - Kolbe Academy and the Angelicum Academy.

Perspective:
Catholic
Reviewed By:
Alicia Van Hecke
Review Date:
7-8-2000
Available From:
RC History

The Trivium: the Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric

Book cover: 'The Trivium: the Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric'
Author(s):
Sister Miriam Joseph, C.S.C.
ISBN:
2147483647
Publisher:
Paul Dry Books
Number of pages:
292 pages
Subject(s):
Methods: Classical Education
Teaching methods
Review:

This little gem was used as a freshman college course after the author met philosopher Mortimer Adler and understood the importance of teaching basic language skills as the foundation of other learning. After some years of study, she put together this course in the Trivium, the three language arts -- of word relations (grammar), concept relations (logic), and composition (rhetoric). The result is a primer in Aristotle's Categories, a demanding course in logic, and a prerequisite to good composition. It is not, mind you, a course in grammar conceived as the study of commas, periods, and subjunctive verbs, though it might lead to insight into these matters. Not is it a course in "symbolic logic", the modern logic stripped of thought and studied simply as a form of mathematics. Rather, Sister Miriam offers a prerequisite to philosophy and writing, for this is a course in clear thought and the right use of language.

With all this, The Trivium is demanding, yet it is very accessible. Despite its original use as a freshman college course, it reminded me very strongly of my high school logic text, which, like this, was the work of an obscure nun who had studied Aristotle and wanted his clarity to form the minds entrusted to her care. I look forward to the opportunity to use it at the high school level.

Not only is the volume accessible, but one must delight in its literacy. The illustrations are taken from the great literature of western culture -- so the mind is always lifted. It is a pleasure to read, and study is always rewarding, because every step sparkles with beauty and interest as well as clarity. Many of Sister Miriam's examples were originally taken from great literature; her loving editor Marguerite McGlinn has taken the liberty of replacing those illustrations which were time-bound with even more good literature so as to move the book into its rightful place as a timeless resource.

For those who know and love Dorothy Sayers' little essay on the trivium, it may be appropriate to warn that this is not in any sense a resource for primary or middle school children.

Perspective:
Catholic
Reviewed By:
Mary Daly
Review Date:
10-4-02
Available From:
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