Classical Education: A Biblical Pattern
About three years ago my wife and I made two big changes in the education of our children that, unbeknownst to me at the time, were remarkably linked. First, we enrolled our children in Classical Conversations. We had been homeschooling the previous few years and had decided from the beginning that we would use the classical model, but up until we joined Classical Conversations, we had basically used a hodge-podge of curriculum and resources. The second was in regards to our family worship. Up until this point I had simply read through random books of the Bible – a gospel here, a Paul’s letter there, maybe a short OT book thrown in every once in a while – but as my oldest child was now 6, I wanted to start incorporating simple questions for her to answer that were related to the night’s readings. At the same time, in my own theological/biblical training, I was becoming increasingly aware of certain patterns in the Bible and realized that the key to understanding much of the scriptures was to first become familiar with the first five books of the Bible. This seemed a little daunting at first, especially once we got out of Genesis and into the more obscure stuff, but my goal from the outset was to simply familiarize my children with certain re-occurring words, numbers, or phrases. So, for example, if the number 40 appeared in our reading (as it often does in the Bible), I wanted my kids to take note.
About a year into our new schedule is when the connection dawned on me. While we had familiarized ourselves with the basics of classical education enough to know that’s what we wanted for our children, it wasn’t until we joined Classical Conversations and got deeply involved in their wonderful program that everything started making sense. As I came to understand the practical reasons for the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), I also became more aware of the similarities in what we were doing for family worship. In order to explain this, though, perhaps it would be best to briefly explain the Trivium first.
As I mentioned, there are three stages of the Trivium: Grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The idea behind the Trivium is that each stage is particularly suited to the way a child learns (or receives) information at each stage of their physical/mental development. So, for instance, little children are really adept at memorizing lots of information. The grammar stage, then, is essentially one big information dump. The teacher/parent fills their little heads with tons of facts: states and capitals, historical events, biological processes, poetry, skip counting (2,4,6,8, etc. or 5,10,15,20, etc.) – information from every subject, including Latin. The point is not that the children need to understand this information, but simply to memorize it. That’s it. Once they have all of this information inside of them and are able to recite/recall it quickly, then they are ready to move to the logic stage, where they begin to connect all of this information together in a well rounded way and make sense of it. So, for instance, the states and capitals are connected with geography and historical events. It’s much easier to see the full picture when all the components are easily accessible… if all the body parts are memorized, then it’s much easier to understand how the body works. Finally, in the rhetoric stage, the student is able to take all the information they’ve learned and instruct/persuade others. Here’s a simplistic way to think about it: First you become familiar with all the individual parts of a car, then you put it together and learn how it works, and finally you get to drive it.
This is, essentially, how the Bible works. It’s hard to understand this because the modern tendency is to start in the New Testament and then move through the rest of the Bible. Think about it – if you grew up in church, what were you taught as a child? John 3:16, The Romans Road, the gospel stories. In terms of the Old Testament, we got all of the major stories (Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, etc. ). Sometimes, because the connection is so obvious, we are taught how a particular OT story shows us Christ or foreshadows His work on the cross, but often these stories are simply used as morality tales that teach us how to act in a situation. So, for example, the story of Noah is often taught as “how we are to obey God, even when the task is great, and the world is mocking us.” There’s certainly an element of truth to that, but there is so much more that we miss out on because we haven’t been saturated in the foundations of scripture. To put it another way, reading the Bible with the NT as your foundation is like skipping the grammar stage in classical education and jumping right into the logic stage (and in some cases, the rhetoric stage). Here’s another way to put it: those of us that have chosen a classical education for our children have done so because we are dissatisfied with the other educational approaches that are used in public and many private institutions… yet, we are perfectly satisfied for our children to receive this type of theological education.
The good thing is that God is gracious and will bless those who are obedient to His Word, even if the method is not the best. Most of us did just fine with a public school education, because that was all our parents knew. There really wasn’t a big homeschool movement when we were growing up – not to mention classical education. Still, for many of us, even though we look back at our time in public school and see many things we’d avoid or do differently with our children, God used our education to bring us to where we are now. That’s not to say that we should be satisfied to give our children what we had, and obviously, in the Classical Conversations community, we do not fall into that trap. The goal, of course, is to learn from our past – taking the good and discarding the bad – and mature to the next level, giving our children better opportunities and experiences than we had (as is possible). We research and experiment, glean wisdom from other, more experienced and knowledgable people, and weigh the options. None of us came to Classical Conversations lightly, but we are all (based on what I’m reading on the CC Message boards and Facebook pages) experiencing the fruit of our decisions. Well, the same process is true for how we understand the Bible. God has used the way we were taught growing up (or even up till now), and we have all matured in the faith (to varying degrees) at least enough to understand how important it is to give our children a well rounded Christian education… but we shouldn’t be satisfied with doing things the way our parents (or sunday school teachers, or pastors, etc…) did them. We should build upon those experiences – taking the good and discarding the bad – and give our children (and really, ourselves as well) a better opportunity at understanding God’s Word.
About a year ago, as I was teaching through Acts for the children’s Sunday school class at our church, I bore witness to some of the fruit this type of teaching produces. The chapter for that week was Acts 27. When I got to verse 27 (and, specifically, verses 27 – 38), my daughter pointed out that the fourteenth day was when Passover occurred. This had never occurred to me, so I made a mental note to investigate this further when I had a chance. Sure enough, the fourteenth day (which is mentioned twice in the passage) as well as other key words and phrases, sheds light on what is occurring in the passage. If we come to the passage with our theology having been based primarily in the NT (and without having a solid grounding in the OT), then this passage wouldn’t make sense to us – it would seem incidental. In fact, when I consulted a number of commentaries (including a trip to LifeWay to investigate the more popular commentaries), I found that none of the writers made the connection and if they did reference the fourteenth day, it was simply to highlight how hungry or tired the men on the boat were. Of course, we had already spent a couple of years reading through the Pentateuch and my daughter was familiar with Leviticus 23. Remember, the point of reading through these books was not for them to understand all the details, but to familiarize them. So I emphasized the times that the feasts occurred, what season they were observed in, and what part of the day it was (midnight, twilight, dawn, etc…). Because I have been studying and saturating myself in the OT along with my children, I have noticed that my understanding of the scriptures has greatly increased. Still, this example shows me how important the “classical model” is for our children. I’m sure all of the parents in Classical Conversations have grown in their knowledge as they’ve taught their children through the curriculum. And I’m sure they can also attest to the fact that their children pick this stuff up much faster and easier in most cases. As an adult who was taught theology “the old way,” and even academically trained to translate the scriptures and think through them, I find it difficult to understand how Paul, on a boat with a bunch of Gentiles, taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it and eating it at midnight on the fourteenth day is pertinent to our theology of the Lord’s Supper… but somehow it is. What I’m excited about, though, is that my children, as they grow in their knowledge of the Word and reach the logic stage of their biblical training, will already have all the grammar of the Bible in their heads and will be able to draw from all of scripture… which will allow them to be powerful and thoughtful apologists for the Kingdom when they reach the rhetoric stage.
If you would like to know the basics of the classical model of education, check out this article: http://www.welltrainedmind.com/classical-education/
However, if you would like to delve deeper into understanding the classical model and would like to find out more about Classical Conversations, please visit this site: http://www.classicalconversations.com/