by Laura Berquist – © 2011

Download this talk: Classical Formation

In previous articles I have discussed various approaches to writing, Latin, and fine arts. I've made recommendations about resources to use in those areas. This article is going to take a slightly different tack; it is primarily about what not to use.

When I was thirteen I read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. That is, I read the words. I thought I read the story, but didn't realize until ten years later that reading the words is not necessarily the same as reading the story. I was too young to understand Anna, because I didn't have the experience required to read the book profitably. I knew it was about an adulterous woman, but I didn't see the full gravity of Anna's sin, and the kind of consequences that are only to be expected in such a situation.

In college I read War and Peace, also by Tolstoy, and thought I was in a position to compare these two works. After all, I said to myself, I had read them both. Then I went back to Anna Karenina, and found a work that had a richness I had completely missed. It was not about the external actions of a sinful woman, but about the internal and gradual corruption of a soul, and about the possible alternative behaviors, embodied in other characters.

Reading that book when I was thirteen was a mistake on my part. I should have been reading other books, more suitable to my age that would have prepared and disposed me to read Anna well later on. Further, I thought for ten years that I had read one of the 'great' books, when I had completely missed the point. Fortunately, I read it again, but not before I had made some very foolish comparisons between this book and War and Peace.

This experience is something I try to keep in mind when planning the curriculum of my children. "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (Eccl. 3:1) There is a right time for thinking about subjects, and a right way to think about them at a given time. This right time depends on more than the ability to perform the action. The child may be able to read the words, but understanding comes with maturity, and maturity comes from experience and a reflection on experience that requires a certain amount of time.

There is often a temptation, when planning curriculum, to include material that is too difficult. We want to see the children moving on to the next stage of development. We want them to excel, and we don't want them to miss out on the 'classics'. But when we include difficult material before the children are ready to do it, they won't do it well. They may, or may not, realize that the material is too hard for them, but the chances are good that they won't enjoy it. They are also apt to make the mistake that I made, and think that they have understood something they haven't. This is not necessarily a question of intelligence. It is a question of experience, maturity, and reflection.

One might think, for example, that reading Plato's Dialogues at length in early adolescence would whet the appetite for more, in subsequent years, when one is actually ready to do philosophy. Unfortunately, my experience is that doing difficult material of this kind, before a child is ready to think about it in the right way, tends to make him less likely to do it well, or at all, later on. Partly, this is because he thinks he's already done it, and partly it's because the work doesn't engage his interest until it speaks to an experience the child has had himself.

The questions raised in Plato's Meno are really interesting to someone who has considered the nature of learning. Or even for someone who hasn't yet thought about it, but who has had experiences of different types of learning, and can reflect on how learning takes place. Reading the Meno too early doesn't dispose a child to read it well later; he's inclined to think it's uninteresting or silly. Or he may like it, but he won't yet have given much thought to how virtue is taught, and thus he won't bring to a consideration of the dialogue the essential ingredient. If you want your child to read the Meno, intelligently, at the right time of life, you would be better advised to have him read lots of history, with examples of virtuous fathers and their offspring. Plutarch's Lives would be fine, if you want to use classical literature, but William Thomas Walsh's books would also do well. It's the acquaintance with history, and wondering why virtuous fathers do not often have virtuous children that is advantageous.

I live in a college community, one where the great books of Western civilization are read as a matter of course. Such books are taken seriously, and the general opinion is that one's education is not complete without an acquaintance with them. Yet, the considered view among many of those who deal on a daily basis with college students is that the best students are not those who come to the college already having read the books included in the program. Rather, for the most part, the best students are those who have read history, literature, natural history, and who have done basic astronomy, as well as Latin or another inflected language. A reasonable study of these disciplines will make the harder courses easy when the time comes.

These studies are better preparation for the difficult considerations appropriate to college students than trying to do the college material itself would be. The study of history expands the experience of children vicariously, and great literature presents truths about reality that children would not be apt to see themselves. Natural history, the study of animals and plants, makes students aware of the workings of nature, which prepares them for a philosophical study of nature. These are the types of materials that we should include in our curriculum, because they equip the student to do more difficult studies by helping him acquire experience, and encouraging reflection on that experience.

We should also allow time for reflection, time for the children to wonder about reality, and to investigate their areas of interest. A curriculum can be too difficult because it doesn't allow the student enough time to really think, as well as by using material that is not proportioned to his abilities.

One might ask, then, what happens to the classical curriculum this column is supposed to consider? How can one have a classical curriculum without reading the classics? The answer is one can't have a classical curriculum in the fullest and most perfect sense until one has students who are capable of the kind of abstract thinking required for a study of the subjects of the Trivium: grammar, logic, rhetoric; and the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. To do these subjects fully one needs to be able to read Martin of Denmark and Thomas of Erfert on speculative grammar, Aristotle on the Prior and Posterior Analytics and Rhetoric, Euclid's Elements, Plato's Timaeus, and Ptolemy's Almagest. Further, these studies are ordered to philosophy and theology, which involve reading Plato's Dialogues, Aristotle's Physics, De Anima, Ethics, and Metaphysics, St. Augustine's City of God, the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, and various other treatises.

These are hard subjects, really exciting, but abstract. Even more than Anna Karenina, they require preparation: experience, maturity, and a disposing formation.

It is the disposing formation which occupies our attention as homeschooling parents. This formation, because it is a preparation for a classical education, can in an extended sense be said to be classical education. It is not classical education in the fullest sense, but it may still be truly called classical, both because it leads to such an education, and because it employs the method of such an education. It is this beginning of a classical education that we should keep in mind as we design our children's course of studies.

There is a beginning to the study of grammar that involves learning the vocabulary and forms of language and parsing sentences. Memory and observation characterize this stage of formation, which distinguishes the student up to sixth grade. The freshman in college who studies speculative grammar is employing those same powers, but in an abstract consideration. He will be better off for having worked on grammar earlier in the way that was commensurate with his talents at that time.

Similarly, there is a beginning to the study of logic that involves simply becoming familiar with intellectual argument. Questions like, "What is the main point in this paragraph?" and "How did the author arrive at this conclusion?" will teach children to recognize an argument and tell whether a conclusion follows from its premises. The seventh to ninth grader who works with argument in this way will have a wealth of experience for use in the abstract considerations of the Prior Analytics. He would be cheated of this natural, easy and interesting preparation by rushing into the technical consideration of formal logic. When the time is right, and with an appropriate background, those formal considerations come easily and with a certain real grasp. Then the student can attach the names, and see that this or that argument is an instance of the middle not being properly distributed, or that the error here is an improper conversion of the universal affirmative.

The science of rhetoric begins with an ability to assemble thoughts and ideas and present them well. This requires attention to the power of language, and that requires a certain experience of good and bad rhetoric. The study of poetry (not poetry in translation), and the reading of various authors who intend to convince their audience of a particular position, are very helpful in seeing why what Aristotole says in the Rhetoric is true.

This is the classical curriculum for children as Dorothy Sayers envisions it in her landmark essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning." Such an education is about formation rather than information, and depends more on the method used with the texts, than on which particular texts are used. One still looks for good texts, and some texts are better than others, both in themselves and for a particular child. There are a number of subjects which should be addressed in every curriculum, primarily those subjects mentioned above. Every curriculum should include the truths of the Faith at each stage of development. Chances are good that your student won't like all these disciplines equally, but he should nonetheless develop the different powers of the soul. All of this having been said, it is still true that the formation of this education comes chiefly from the method employed in the study of the subjects.

This formation develops habits of thought that make it possible to use information rightly. A consideration of what kind of logical study is appropriate for the seventh to ninth grade student will illustrate the difference between the two modes of 'classical education'. Children in these years are ready to think about argument. They can see that this premise either follows, or doesn't, from that one. But it is a mistake to assume that this means they are ready for the abstract considerations required for formal logic. Before they start thinking about whether the universal affirmative converts universally they should have followed arguments in which that relationship is illustrated.

This is why Dorothy Sayers, in her article, uses the following example of what is a fitting study for the student in the logical stage of development, "All events are food for such an appetite. An umpire's decision; the degree to which one may transgress the spirit of a regulation without being trapped by the letter: on such questions as these, children are born causists, and their natural propensity only needs to be developed and trained - and, especially, be brought into intelligible relationship with events in the grown-up world."

The junior high and high school student who has looked at and thought about a number of intellectual arguments will be in a stronger position to study formal logic when the time comes. Picking a speech from a period in history that is of interest, outlining it, laying the outline aside for a few days, and then using it to reproduce the speech helps the student think about the argument present in the speech. Jumbling the order of the outline and then later trying to reduce the confusion to the best possible sequence also enables him to think about what comes first and why.

After a number of such exercises, the student can write a paper defending a controversial position, using the techniques he has learned by his close examination of various speeches. Further, his attention can be directed to the argument present in whatever materials he is using for his school subjects. Does this follow from that? Where is this said? Is there an implication here? What are the four major sentences in this four paragraph essay? Asking these kinds of questions in every subject is the way to form the intelligence. The subjects provide material for that formation, and discussion and analysis form the heart of the curriculum.

Such a preparation will make the theoretical treatment of logic in Aristotle, or even in a textbook about formal logic, much more intelligible and therefore more fruitful for the student. For a parent designing a classical curriculum, it is better to concentrate on exercises like those mentioned above than to buy a textbook about teaching logic to your children.

If you do this you will both prepare your children to think about the harder and more abstract subjects when they are ready to do so, and you will be helping them develop the habits of thought that enable them to think well about any subject they choose when they want to know more about it. They will have the 'tools of learning' and can go on to study the Trivium and the Quadrivium in its fullness, or any other area of interest.

Since it is the method of thinking about subjects that is most essential, Dorothy Sayers says of the high school student, "The doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will. The things once learned by rote will be seen in new contexts; the things once coldly analyzed can now be brought together to form a new synthesis; here and there a sudden insight will bring about that most exciting of all discoveries: the realization that a truism is true.... 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."

The goal of the high school curriculum is to help the child express himself elegantly and persuasively. Doing this requires practice; in terms of writing it means writing, and rewriting, cutting down, rephrasing, and rewriting again. It also means encouraging discussion where the student tries to present an sequenced position about his understanding of a text. What the subject matter of the papers is, or what the discussion centers around, may vary from student to student. Your curriculum may reflect your interests and those of your students, but the method is essential and should remain the same for all students of this age.

My point is that we should not think that a classical curriculum for children, a curriculum which prepares them for thinking about high and noble things, depends on doing Greek and Roman classical texts exclusively, or even predominantly. Nor is it helpful to assign excessively difficult texts. In fact, such texts may be detrimental to intellectual development, and all really difficult texts should be chosen carefully for their suitability and used in moderation, leaving plenty of time for reflection.

I have a friend who taught swimming to small children. She found that at a certain age the children would begin to retain what they had learned from one summer to the next, and could build on the previously acquired skills. Before that point they would have to start over each summer, getting used to the water and learning to float anew. She finally began to say to the parents of small children, when they asked her to teach swimming to their children, "I'll be happy to accept your money, and play with your children, but if it is learning to swim that you have in mind, I advise you to wait for a few years."

Patience is a virtue that is employed in many ways in the raising of children, including the development of their curriculum. The tools of learning are acquired by concentrating, at each stage, on the areas of development that are appropriate to that stage. It is not essential to use ancient authors to have this kind of a classical curriculum. What is essential is that the children do what is appropriate at each stage of learning. They should memorize at the grammatical stage. This strengthens and makes docile their imagination so that in the next stage of learning, the logical, they will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. In turn, it is essential to this education that when the children are capable of grasping and marshaling arguments, they should practice doing so. If they do, then the last stage, the rhetorical, will be able to be given to articulating those arguments elegantly, in the service of the truly noble. This formation will give them the tools of learning, a formation that may be truly called classical and which will dispose them to a formal study of the highest and best subjects, at the proper time.