The Language of Learning

Can you discuss progressive, pragmatic, and classical education and why classical education is a valuable option?

Each of these sees the purpose of education differently. Progressivism is the idea that education is a means to accomplish the end of changing a culture. Pragmatism does not want to change culture by using students, like progressivism; rather, it wants to change students to fit the current culture. The current stress on vocationalism in schools is an example of pragmatism.

Classical education differs from both of these in that it sees as its purpose the passing on of a particular culture, namely Western culture. According to the classical Western view, education is the cultivation of wisdom, the inculcation of virtue, and the training of the affections through meditation on the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is composed of a set of intellectual skills, called the “liberal arts,” and a body of cultural knowledge, called “Western civilization.”

Generally, when you talk about Western civilization in presentations you mention something called the “Three Cultures.” What are the Three Cultures?

I point out that Western civilization, as that term has traditionally been used, is the study of three cultures: Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. These are the cultures that have attempted to give answers to the question “What is the good, the true, and the beautiful?”

By “Athens,” I mean the study of Greek culture. The Greeks are speculative man in miniature. Practically every great idea—good and bad—can be traced to some ancient Greek thinker. The Greeks asked the great questions. They didn’t always get the right answer—and they did not have access to the Revelation of God—but they asked a lot of the right questions.

By “Rome,” I mean the culture of ancient Rome. The Romans were political man in miniature. They were the great administrators and road-builders of ancient times. They were concerned with the practical. The American Founders, in fact, who had a justifiably low regard for the government of the Greeks, looked to the old Roman republic as an organizational model.

And by “Jerusalem,” I mean the history and culture of the Hebrews. The Hebrews were spiritual man in miniature. By studying the record of their culture we learn how God deals with individuals and nations.

If you look at history, you discover that classical culture—the culture of the Greeks and Romans—was dumped into the laps of the early Christians (many of whom were Jews) when the empire of Rome was falling apart. So it was sort of like having an old member of the family pass away and having to go through their attic trying to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. The church found some things in the attic of the dead classical culture that it threw away. But there were a lot of things that it found useful and kept. The part that it kept and passed on to us—and what it added to and refined—is what we call Western civilization.

You also mentioned the “liberal arts,” a term a lot of people have heard but can’t define. What are the liberal arts, and what role do they play in classical education?

Traditionally, there were considered to be seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The first three of these—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—were called the trivium (Latin for “the three ways”). The last four—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—were called the quadrivium (or, “the four ways”).

The trivium skills were language skills, and the quadrivium skills were math skills. The liberal arts were the generalized academic skills—linguistic and mathematical—that every learned person was expected to know.

Piggybacking on the pragmatic aspect you mentioned, could you discuss how receiving a classical education is, indeed, helpful and useful for a student’s future?

I would say that classical education is the best preparation to do anything. Vocational training—which is different from education—
trains a person to do certain things well. If you are going into carpentry, then working with a hammer and a saw are going to help you do that. If you’re going to be an accountant, you’re going to have to master debits and credits.

What classical education does is something very different from vocational training. Whereas vocational training teaches you to do one thing well (and woe be unto you if it’s not the thing that you end up doing with your life), classical education trains you to do anything well. Mortimer Adler, the late executive editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, once said something to the effect that, although everyone is not a scientist and everyone is not an accountant, everyone is a citizen and everyone is a philosopher. We might add that we are all made in the image of God as well. We all operate in a social and political culture, and we all must ask the great questions about life and reality—and about our relationship to God. That’s what classical education is about.

Classical education doesn’t try to guess what specific set of skills you are going to need for a specialty that you might want to engage in later in life; the guess is likely to be wrong anyway. Who could have predicted the computer revolution, for example? Instead it teaches you a set of academic skills, called the liberal arts, and a body of cultural knowledge, called Western civilization, that prepare you for anything you might do in life.

What role does Latin play in classical education? Why is it considered so important in classical education?

Up until the first two decades of the twentieth century, if you went to a good school you had to learn Latin and Greek at a fairly early age. The reason for this was that there was a great stress on grammar, the first trivium skill. That’s why schools for the elementary grades were called “grammar schools.”

The reason for learning Latin and Greek was that it was considered the best way to learn grammar. Learning grammar in your own language is very hard. But when you study another language, grammar all of a sudden becomes very important. This is particularly true with Latin because, unlike modern languages like Spanish and French, it is a highly grammatical language. It is also very regular: The rules almost always apply, so you can see the grammatical structure of language—any language—in clear relief.

When most people think of the benefits of Latin, they think of the vocabulary benefits. That’s true also. Latin is the root of about sixty percent of academic English, and it’s still the language of the sciences. It’s still the language of learning.

What do you say to homeschooling parents who don’t have any background in subjects like Latin and logic?

If you don’t have access to someone who can teach this, then you can teach it to your own children even though you don’t know it yourself. Of course, that requires having a program that assumes the teacher doesn’t know the material and teaches the teacher as it goes along. That’s what Memoria Press Latin programs do. They are designed for homeschool mothers (and teachers) who don’t know the material. This is the case for our logic programs, too, but since logic is taught to an older child (seventh grade and up), it can also be used as a self-instructed course for the student. The book effectively becomes the teacher. And of course, we have DVDs for all of our Latin and logic courses. That helps too.

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