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P R E S I D E N T ’ S   P A G E

Classical Education Comes Home

     Some schooling parents have the same kind of educational aspirations for their children as other parents. We want our children to have a solid grounding in the basics of learning. We want our children to be able to think logically and to present their thoughts in coherent prose and speech. We want our children to understand the history of our nation and the roots of our culture. We want our children to master the tools of learning so that they can meet the challenges of adult life. And we especially want our children to integrate and test all knowledge and learning with the values and worldview that we, as parents, hold.
     In the early 1980s, a few thousand brave parents looked at the multiple choices available for their children and decided to select “none of the above.” Instead, they chose home schooling because the alternatives available failed to deliver an education that was consistent with their aspirations.
     The result has been phenomenal. Home schooled children now are 1.2 million strong in the United States—and that number is steadily growing. And the academic achievement of home schooled children far surpasses that of any of the alternatives. In the latest and largest national study, home school children scored an average of 37 percentile points above the national average for public schools on nationally­normed standardized achievement tests.
     But, many experienced home schooling parents have a vague sense that there is yet more that can be done to fulfill the dreams they have for their children. I believe that the “something more” that many home schooling parents are looking for is classical education. Our movement loves to recite the fact that George Washington, Patrick Henry, and John Quincy Adams were home schooled for all or a significant part of their education. We want our children to become like these men when they are grown. But, we need to realize that the success of these men was not due solely to the methodology of home schooling. The content of their studies was important as well. They were grounded in the three Rs. They were taught formal courses in Latin and logic. They read the great literature that had shaped our culture. They knew history—both facts and meaning. They were taught to speak and write and debate. And it was all wrapped in a package that reinforced the Christian worldview.
     The modern home schooling movement is poised to take its second great step. We have already embraced the right methodology and many of the components of the kind of education that Patrick Henry received from his father. In the next five to ten years, I believe that tens of thousands of home schooling families will embrace the balance of Patrick Henry’s education by adopting the intellectual rigors, emphasis on logic and presentation skills, and worldview training that comprises classical education.
     There is little question that home schooled children are doing very well indeed compared to their public school counterparts. But . . . we want our children to achieve both academically and morally at the highest levels rather than merely being better than the competition. It is this yearning in the hearts of successful parents that is going to lead many home schoolers in the next five to ten years to include the main components of classical education in their children’s education.
     The “patron saint” of most advocates of classical education is Dorothy Sayers. Her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” is considered the manifesto of the movement. Miss Sayers argues that a good education teaches men and women how to learn for themselves. “For the sole true end of education,” she wrote, “is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves, and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”
     Classical education is generally divided into two main components, the trivium (primary and secondary education) and the quadrivium (university training). The trivium is composed of three subparts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. In simple terms, Grammar teaches facts, Dialectic teaches reasoning, and Rhetoric teaches presentation.
     After the basic skills of reading, writing, and math are begun, the child is ready at about age nine to launch into the Grammar stage. Children need to memorize the basic facts of grammar, history, geography, art, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division simply because they are the necessary tools for further learning—not as an end in itself, but as a foundation for life­long learning.
     Around age 11, most children are ready to move on to the second stage of classical education—the Dialectic. In the first stage, we focused on the child’s observation and memory. In this stage, the emphasis is on a child’s ability to engage in discursive reason.
     A formal course in logic is ideal at this stage of a child’s education. It is time to teach cause and effect, steps of reasoning, and how to make proper inferences.
     The sentence most used by a teaching parent during the Dialectic period should be, “Why do you say that?” Our children should be taught to present a logical and defensible explanation for every assertion they make.
     The heaviest academic content for the Dialectic period should be the study of the Great Books, blending a study of literature with the relevant historical periods. A student should learn ancient Greek history at the same time he is reading the Iliad and the Odyssey so that the issues and the events presented in the literature can be both understood and debated in their historical context. During the Dialectic period the goal is to shape lessons so that they fit a coherent whole and are not merely disjointed studies presented without coherence.
     In the Rhetoric stage children should be asked two questions, “How can you say that more clearly?” and “How can you say that in a manner your audience will find more pleasing?”
     “During this period,” writes Fritz Hinrichs, speaking of 14­ to 16­year­olds, “The child moves from merely grasping the logical sequence of arguments to learning how to present them in a persuasive, aesthetically pleasing form.” Hinrichs authored the provocative essay, “Why Classical Education?”and is headmaster of Escondido Tutorial Program.
     Dorothy Sayers also calls this period the poetic age, because “the student develops the skill of organizing the information he has learned into a well­reasoned format that will be both pleasing and logical.” Miss Sayers continues, “. . . any child who already shows a disposition to specialize should be given his head: for, when the use of the tools has been well and truly learned, it is available for any study whatever.”
     In my opinion, home schooling is the only form of education that has the flexibility to bring to students the kind of individualization that Sayers espouses.
     Students who are inclined toward the sciences and mathematics should be encouraged to begin their specialization, while still studying some literature and history. And the reverse is true for those gifted in the humanities.
     Although it is my experience that many of our home­schooled children aspire to careers in the “public square,” not all of them will. Some won’t want to become ministers, lawyers, statesmen, or journalists. Not everyone requires the same degree of polished rhetorical skills so essential in the public arena. But all adults need to be able to communicate ideas and information in a rational and pleasing manner. Such skills are useful in any job, in situations as diverse as talking to an appliance repairman or interacting with other members of a church board.
     Some components of classical education may leave a lot of experienced home schoolers—especially Christians—with a few nagging doubts. The leaders of the Renaissance, which embraced humanism and rationality to the exclusion of the Christian faith, were predominantly educated in the classical manner, with a heavy influence of Greek and Roman philosophers. Our goal is not to produce a New Renaissance. We want our children to be more like the leaders of the Reformation, who were also schooled in the classical style. The leaders of the Renaissance received the Greek and Roman thought as truth, while the leaders of the Reformation took certain lessons from ancient history and then superimposed the teachings of Scripture over them.
     I would not be interested in any classical program for my own children unless it was founded on a solidly Christian worldview. Yes, I would like my children to read Plato, but not in order to adopt Plato’s views in most areas. Rather, by understanding what Plato said, they can grasp both how it influenced society and how it can refute the errors that Plato injected into the philosophy of Western civilization.
     Christian classical education is not neutral. It takes definite philosophical sides. And all that is old is not necessarily good.
     Not only should classical material be read through the critical eyes of a Christian, but care should be taken to ensure that our students read more material that is positive and reinforces our views rather than competing views.
     Additionally, classical education must be Americanized to some considerable extent if we are going to do our job of producing leaders for this country. Yes, we are a part of western civilization, but we live in a particular branch of that civilization. A heavy dose in the literature and history of the Founding Fathers as well as the writings of great Americans in the intervening years must be included to make a truly ideal program for the modern American home schooler.
     I firmly believe that, if home schoolers adopt a program of classical education, we will achieve our aspirations of raising young men and women who are truly as capable as Patrick Henry. We will earn a great spot in history if we can train the next generation of great leaders that this nation so desperately needs.