“So what is classical education?”
That’s a question that I get quite often, as you can imagine. While there are many directions that I could go in response, my answer typically starts with the Trivium, which refers to the three liberal arts of GRAMMAR, LOGIC, and RHETORIC (in Latin, “trivium” literally means “three paths” or “crossroad”). At Redeemer Classical School, the Trivium is more than just a set of subjects that we study. For us, the Trivium forms the very framework of human learning, and so our entire curriculum is organized according to this pattern. That plays itself out in a couple of significant ways, which I’ll explain shortly. First, it’s necessary to unpack what grammar, logic, and rhetoric are and how they related to human learning.
What does it take to learn?
All human learning, whether it is conceptual or skill-based, has three basic stages:
We collect new information.
We seek to make sense out of that new information — to understand it — by analyzing the information and connecting it to prior knowledge.
We seek to apply what we have learned.
In the case of a skill, this means practicing it ourselves. In the case of a concept, this means articulating it in our own words and sharing it effectively (i.e. they understand us) with others. The late Mortimer Adler described these three stages as “(1) acquisition of new knowledge, (2) critical interaction, and (3) meaningful expression.” (cited in Wisdom and Eloquence, p. 164)
These three stages of learning correspond to the Trivium. The Grammar stage is focused on knowledge acquisition. The Logic stage is concerned primarily with critical interaction. And the Rhetoric stage deals with meaningful expression. Let’s take a closer look at each of these stages of learning at Redeemer.
Grammar (grades PK-5)
At the Grammar stage students are forming the foundation upon which the immense and ornate structure of their lifetime of learning will be built. Students — especially in the early grammar years — spend a great deal of time exploring and observing the world around them. During these years, students’ minds are like sponges, able to soak up large amounts of new information quickly and easily. We use this to our advantage through a systematic and purposeful course of memorization that includes Bible verses, poems, speeches, narrative excerpts, mathematical rules, scientific orders, and historical timelines. Furthermore, teachers incorporate songs, chants, repetition, and mnemonic devices into their instruction, essentially drafting an intellectual blueprint in students’ minds that allows them to incorporate new material with greater ease as they progress in their learning.
Logic (grades 6-8)
Next comes the Logic stage. Here students are challenged to see the interrelated nature of all knowledge (i.e. how one kernel of truth impacts and influences another) so that they can begin to understand the meaning of what they are studying. In other words, we want students to start thinking critically by analyzing the ideas and information with which they are presented. Doing this requires students to take a closer look at the foundation that was laid at the Grammar level, while at the same time adding to the edifice through new knowledge acquisition. For example, we show students what makes an analytical question a good one, and then encourage them to pose their own questions as an integral part of class instruction. Our goal here is to help students develop a more consistent and coherent way of thinking. This will enable them to know where to place more complex information within the larger structure of their overall thinking.
Rhetoric* (grades 9-12)
In the Rhetoric stage we want students to start forming their own conclusions and articulating their ideas effectively in both writing and speech. Here students are given ample time to think freely, to form ideas, and to practice effective communication. It is also important that students’ conclusions are challenged by others, so that they have the opportunity to practice defending their viewpoints and knowing when it is time to cede the point. Ultimately, we want students to know what they believe, why they believe it, and to be willing to stand up for and share those beliefs. We want them to learn to respect others’ viewpoints while winsomely defending and persuasively arguing for their own.
Big Picture, Small Picture
While the Trivium represents different stages of learning, it is wrong to assume that students only operate in one of these stages at a time. Whether they are in kindergarten or twelfth grade students are constantly acquiring new knowledge, thinking critically about it, and learning to express their thoughts clearly.
The reason why we call the early grades the “grammar stage” is because knowledge acquisition is where most, not all, of their time is spent. The same goes for the other two stages. In reality, the Trivium is more like a spiral, with students moving through the three stages of learning over and over again as they go deeper into their knowledge of and experience with truth, goodness, and beauty.
(* At this point Redeemer Classical School does not have a Rhetoric school, but we will soon!)
A podcast interview (on the Art of Manliness, believe it or not) with Susan Wise Bauer in which she discusses the trivium (amongst many other things).