Gravitas: The Lost Art of Taking School Seriously

In the early twentieth century, Dorothy Sayers gave birth to the modern classical education movement in a much-quoted speech at Oxford in which she cast the abstract concepts of the liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric as stages of learning. These three stages have given structure and clarity to the long and somewhat inscrutable process of K-12 education, giving teachers and parents the confidence to start a revolution in education. Ms. Sayers also demonstrated the power of rhetoric: a simple truth expressed in an unforgettable way.

While we are still in the process of figuring out exactly how to implement these three stages, and how to flesh out the true potential of classical education, I would like to suggest we think about the unthinkable: adding another stage before our trivium—the primary stage. The primary stage, K-2, has been traditional in education for many years, but it has not received the attention it deserves by classical educators. It has been more or less subsumed, mistakenly I think, into the grammar stage.

We would do well to focus on the primary stage in order to see how we can improve instruction and build a better foundation for the trivium that follows. Having taught everything from phonics to Caesar, I can affirm that the skills acquired in the beginning years are of vital importance to the later years. If you are a high school teacher you probably experience every day the results of inattention to basic skills in K-2. Our students will not achieve the excellence we desire unless we come to a better appreciation of the primary school and recognize that life-long habits are formed there, good and bad.

I realized from the beginning that the primary school was very important and deserved special attention, so when I started Highlands Latin School I divided it into three levels: not those of the trivium, but rather primary, grammar, and upper schools. The primary school is K-2, the grammar school is 3-6, and the upper school combines the logic and rhetoric stages in grades 7-12. At each level students make an important transition, which at our school is made visible by an eagerly-anticipated uniform change.

The classical curriculum begins in earnest in the grammar school, where students memorize the Latin grammar, followed by the logic stage in grades 7-8, where they study syntax and translation, and finally grades 9-12, where students read Latin literature. The trivium is a perfect fit for the study of Latin.

But the primary years don’t fit neatly in the trivium paradigm—and they shouldn’t. At the time of the Renaissance, when classical education as we know it was born, students began their education at what was called a Dame School or Petty School, where students learned the rudiments of English before moving on to the Grammar School and the study of Latin and Greek. I think this is a good model for us today. Historically, the importance of this stage has been acknowledged by giving it a name, so let us follow suit and turn our attention to the content and goals of the primary school.

The first question that faces us in the primary school is what to do about kindergarten, a transitional stage between preschool and real school. The five-year-old is not quite mature enough to sit still and focus at the level needed for real school. The solution for most schools has been to intersperse academics with lots of play and preschool activities to fill out the day.

But a comment I overheard many years ago has always made this option unacceptable to me. I guess my ears have always been attuned to education, for I cannot account for why I should have noted, nor long remembered, a comment I overheard as a young child. A teacher, who had taught first grade for many years, complained to my mother that the introduction of kindergarten in her school was having a negative effect on her first grade class. The ears of this future teacher perked up.

The teacher went on to give the reason: The children who had spent a year in kindergarten enter first grade thinking that school is play. As a result, teachers had to expend much time and energy in teaching children that school is not play, but serious work. She went on to explain that children used to come to first grade in awe of school. Now they come, she said, with unrealistic expectations that school should be fun, and that first grade is not a big step in growing up but just another year of school which happily involves lots of things, only some of which are school work.

Because of that voice of experience so many years ago, I have always thought that it is a good thing that young ones be in awe of the big step of going to school. So what to do about kindergarten? One solution would have been to just eliminate kindergarten in our school, but I didn’t feel that I could overcome the expectation of this firmly-established tradition of modern American education. So I decided to compromise by designing an academics-only kindergarten, but in a reduced two-day schedule. The content is academic and age-appropriate, and the limited number of days makes allowance for the younger age and limited attention span of the five-year-old, who still has plenty of time for play at home.

Kindergarten has introduced into our education culture a profound confusion between preschool methods of learning and formal methods of learning. Play and exploration are the way the pre-rational child learns. But the methods that are appropriate for the pre-school child, unfortunately, have been introduced up through the grades as if there is a continuum between preschool and school, and no difference in the proper learning activities of the two.

The essence of the preschool learning model is the preschool explorer. The preschool child learns by play and random, non-systematic exploration of his surroundings. The essence of formal education, however, is just the opposite. Once the child is old enough to learn through reason, he is able to acquire the artificial, abstract tools of human learning: letters and numbers. The methods proper to formal education are not play, discovery, and exploration, but rather systematic instruction.

This model of the happy preschool explorer eagerly investigating his surroundings and making discoveries through his own untrammeled curiosity is the rationale for the progressive discovery method of learning. The progressive educator tries to convince the unsuspecting parent that only through continuing with these methods can the joy of learning be maintained permanently in the education process.

This is the essence of progressive education and is the single most destructive influence in education today. It has infected the very air we breathe, and there are few, even among classical educators, who are immune to it. The romantic notion that the joy of learning that is characteristic of the preschool child is the model of learning for the formal education of the classroom is the siren song of progressive education. It is sheer nonsense. Until educators and parents realize this, we will never achieve excellence in education.

Instead of the mistaken notion of learning as fun and exploration, we must return gravitas to the classroom. Gravitas is the element most lacking in the K-12 classroom today. American culture today is so shallow and pleasure-sodden that we don’t really know what gravitas is anymore. It is not a word heard often. Gravitas is a sense of seriousness about what we are doing. Our work, in Christian terms, is a high calling from God. The Romans had gravitas. As Christians we should have it too, but with the added element of joy.

What does gravitas look like in the primary classroom? Gravitas is not severe or grim, but it is serious. Our K-2 teachers are at the front of the classroom with a podium, like all of our teachers. The podium is not a place to lecture at this age, but rather a place to put curriculum materials so the teacher can be organized and teach effectively. All desks face the front of the classroom as all students, instructed by the teacher, are working on the same skills together. K-2 students do activities and games to practice skills, but the classroom is always quiet and orderly, because all are engaged in purposeful activity that is an efficient use of time.

It is only with gravitas that we can return awe to education, and at the same time make our primary years—as well as all the years that follow—models of true excellence. Gravitas is concerned not only with a school’s culture, but also with its curriculum. I believe that gravitas in the primary school means that we take very seriously those important foundational skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I often tell my primary teachers that they are doing the most important work in our school, and that all that we accomplish in the higher grades depends on what they achieve in those first few years.

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