I have read a number of articles now comparing the classical and Charlotte Mason methods of homeschooling and asking if Charlotte Mason was indeed classical or not. Too often I find that these articles spend a lot of time talking about the particulars –dictation, copywork, and the like– and they do not address the philosophies behind these approaches. So as a part of my series on the different philosophies of education available to us homeschoolers, I would like to try to look at classical education with regard to the following questions:
1. What do they assume about how learning works?
2. How do they view children?
3. How do they view human nature?
4. What do they believe is the goal of education?
Before we begin, we need to define “classical education.” It is a pretty broadly used term. If you look up just “classical education” on Wikipedia, what you find is a list of links to other more specific topics. “Classical” can refer to historical educational practices in ancient Greece and Rome or in the Middle Ages. When the topic “is Charlotte Mason a classical educator?” comes up one is usually talking about how she relates to these older, historical methods. I know very little about them, though I have read some convincing arguments that, yes, Miss Mason did have a lot in common with them and obviously was well-versed in classical education of this sort. (See AfterThoughts on this topic here and here.)
But when most homeschoolers speak of “classical education,” what they mean is the modern classical education movement. This movement is based upon the classical education on the Middle Ages. It has been revived by Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” It has since been further defined by the Core Knowledge Foundation created by E. D. Hirsch, the “Great Books” movement of Mortimer Adler, and, most popular in homeschool circles, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s book The Well-Trained Mind. One of the best summaries of these three modern approaches I have found is in “The False Promise of Classical Education” by Lisa VanDamme. It will be these modern approaches that I have in mind when I discuss the philosophy behind the classical approach to homeschooling.
So what are the assumptions behind the modern classical (I love oxymorons, don’t you? Perhaps we should say “neo-classical”) homeschooling movement? Just looking at the names of these three major schools of thought gives us a clue. “Core Knowledge”, “Great Books”, “Well-Trained Mind”– what do these tell us? The first two allude to the fact that there is a set body of knowledge which one should learn. The classical approach believes that there are some books and ideas and bodies of knowledge which are inherently more valuable and worth learning. They are foundational to our (western) civilization and therefore should be learned by all students. Van Damme puts it well when she says,
“Great Books promises to give students the crucial knowledge and thinking skills they need for adult life—with an emphasis on exposure to, and grappling with, the great works of the great minds of Western civilization.” [Van Damme, False Promise]
The difference between the Core Knowledge and Great Books programs is one of degree:
“We can see in Hirsch [of the Core Knowledge approach] a greater emphasis on cultural communication than in Adler [of Great Books fame], whose emphasis is more on the cultivation of the intellect. Yet both share an obvious affinity for a content-filled core curriculum and a disdain for much of the nonsense of progressive education.” [Van Damme, False Promise]
The goal then of learning this common body of knowledge is to provide the knowledge and skills needed for life and particularly for good citizenship. The introduction to the What Your . . . Grader Needs to Know series lists three reasons why core knowledge is needed:
“1. Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling more effective.”
“2. Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling fairer and more democratic.”
“3. Commonly shared knowledge helps create cooperation and solidarity in our schools and nation.”
[E.D. Hirsch, What Your Second Grader Needs to Know (New York: Core Knowledge Foundation, 1998) pp. XVIII-XIX]
Notice the concerns here. They are not about the individual student. They focus on what is good and fair for society as a whole.
The title of Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s book alludes to another aspect of the classical movement, not the body of knowledge to be learned but to the understanding of the mind. It must be “well-trained.” The classical method is not just about knowledge but about teaching how to think and reason as well. The assumption here is that children’s minds are not fully developed and must be trained in the paths they should take. While there is still a common body of knowledge to be learned, Wise Bauer adds onto this the framework of a three stage journey of learning. In the elementary years, children are fed facts. In the middle years, logic is introduced, and finally in the high school years, the focus is on rhetoric:
“[A] classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions.”
[Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Trained Mind (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), p. 45]
While Wise Bauer would say that absorbing facts comes naturally to the younger child, as they grow they must be taught to use logic and to speak convincingly. I have heard it said that this three stage regime, especially the sequential nature of the stages, was not part of classical classical education. That is, that though they may have spoken of grammar, logic and rhetoric, they would not have separated them out as isolated processes in this way. I can’t vouch for the truth of that, but it does appear that Sayer’s lecture reignited the classical movement and either initiated or revived the three stage idea.
There is a large burden on the parent or teacher in the classical method, as the size of Wise Bauer’s book and its many lesson plans attest:
“As your child’s teacher, you’ll serve as a source of information . . . This process –which we’ll outline in detail for each area of the curriculum– will train him to grasp facts and express them in his own words.” [p. 54]
This is not the picture of a child who learns naturally (beyond the early years in which they presumably love to learn facts and do so quite easily). Rather they are presented with a formidable course of study through which their minds must be trained in how to think.
Which brings me to answering one of my questions: What is the goal of classical education?
As we have seen for the Core Knowledge school, it is to have kids learn a fixed body of knowledge for the good of the society in which they live. While they no doubt wish success for the students, the goal of that success seems to be for the furthering of the whole community rather than the individual.
I know least about the Great Books school. They seem to have more of an emphasis on the individual’s intellect, the development of which serves to prepare one for “adult life.” I do not know what they would say the goal of that life would be. Is it worldly success? The ability to hold a job? Being able to participate in democratic society?
The Well-Trained Mind does not have as clear a statement of purpose as I would like (at least not that I found). But I did find this:
“Remember, classical education teaches a child how to learn. The child who knows how to learn will grow into a well-rounded –and well-equipped –adult . . . ” [p. 55]
Again I am left wondering what the ultimate purpose is. Is the well-rounded, well-equipped adult made so so that they can serve society as a whole? So that they can fend for themselves? Hold a job? For myself as a Christian, I find these goals less than satisfying. They seem to be education for education’s sake and give no hint as to the higher purposes of a man’s (or woman’s) life.
If I can get off topic for a minute, I would say the goal of my children’s education is to enable them to know their Creator and to serve Him in whatever ways He calls them to. So if we learn grammar it is to that they can communicate well enough to tell others about Christ. If we learn math, it is so that they can be good stewards of what God has given them. If we learn art, is to appreciate the beauty that God has given us. And some things we learn just because I don’t know what their specific callings will be and I want them to be prepared for whatever He has for them. And it saddens me a little to see so many Christians putting so much time into their kids’ education without first thinking about why they are doing it and what is really necessary.
But back to the topic of classical education. The next question I set myself to answer is: What do they assume about how learning works? I think I have already done much to answer this. There is the assumption that learning is a three-tiered process. And behind this is the assumption that younger children are not capable of logical thought and rhetoric. Wise Bauer says,
“The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument. The critical and logical faculty simply doesn’t develop until later on . . . Children like lists at this age. They like rattling off rote information, even if they don’t understand it . . . Don’t make K-4 students dig for information. ” [p. 54]
The emphasis, in the early years at least, is on much rote learning, “even if they don’t understand it”! The idea of forming relationships with the material which is at the core of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is not present here. Children are to learn facts first, without much context or understanding, then later to learn the logic behind the facts which helps them make sense and finally to learn to argue for one position or another.
So we turn to the next question: What does this say about the classical view of children? What I hear when I read all this is that children are incomplete. They are not born nor do they for many years have all their faculties. In order to develop these faculties, they must be trained. It is an intensely hands-on process for the teacher in which the child is molded into a logical, thinking adult.
And so lastly, I have to say that as far as human nature goes, I think the modern classical approach sells children short. Children are not viewed as fully formed people. They are not as Miss Mason would say “born persons.” And the goal of thinking adult life is also less than I would wish for. It seems to be merely to be a functioning, able adult.
None of the books I have looked at on classical education, the Core Knowledge series and The Well-Trained Mind in particular, have a Christian or biblical foundation, and, frankly, it shows. I know that there are Christian classical methods out there so perhaps I need to look into those more. But I will say of all the many Christian classical homeschoolers I have met nigh onto 100% would say they take The Well-Trained Mind as their guidebook.
So I may do another post or two on classical education. And I still have other, less common approaches to tackle like Waldorf and Montessori. Stay tuned for more.