The Liberating Arts

Some parents and educators have the misconception that classical education is only for “smart kids.” It is easy to understand why someone might think this way. Latin at age eight? Homer by fourteen? With such standards, one might reason, surely classical education is only for born geniuses—the brightest and best of our children. But what about those children who are not born geniuses? What about those who, far from being intellectually gifted, are living with cognitive challenges, language disorders, or physical disabilities? Does classical education have anything to offer them? Can classical education benefit any child?

No doubt Helen Keller’s concerned parents asked the same question back in 1887. Their young daughter was deaf, blind, and severely “behaviorally disordered.” Distraught and fearful for the little girl’s future, as most parents would be, the Kellers hoped that Helen might somehow receive an education. In the late 1800s, this meant a classical education. Helen Keller began her adapted classical education at the age of six with her private teacher, Annie Sullivan. Although no one could predict the eventual outcome, the Keller family embarked on this ambitious, beautiful journey nonetheless. And the world received captivating evidence that classical education truly can benefit any child.

As soon as language unlocked Helen’s young mind, Annie Sullivan taught Helen the same academic content other classically educated children learn, but through patient, untiring finger-spelling into Helen’s hand. From ages eight to ten Helen studied geography and history. She read of Greek heroes and the classical ancient civilizations. She enjoyed beautiful language through good literature. She read poetic selections from the Old and New Testaments, Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, Dickens’ A Child’s History of England, Little Women, Heidi, The Swiss Family Robinson, and countless other books which can still be found on the library shelves of any classical school today. Helen treasured her books: “I accepted them as we accept the sunshine and the love of our friends.”

From the ages of eleven to thirteen, Helen learned Latin from a Latin scholar and French in raised print. She studied more advanced histories of Greece, Rome, and the United States, as Annie continued to spell lessons into her hand. By age sixteen, Helen read works in the original Latin and German, and at age twenty she enrolled at Radcliffe, where she read literature in French, studied world history, read poetry critically, and learned advanced English composition.

Looking back over her education, Helen wrote, “From ‘Greek Heroes’ to the Iliad [read in Greek] was no day’s journey, nor was it altogether pleasant. One could have traveled round the world many times while I trudged my weary way through the labyrinthine mazes of grammars and dictionaries ….” Helen received a remarkable classical education because her parents and her teachers bonded together to help her, and she persevered. Although her disabilities remained with her all her life, so did her love for literature: “When I read the finest passages of the Iliad, I am conscious of a soul-sense that lifts me above the narrow, cramping circumstances of my life. My physical limitations are forgotten—my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!”

If classical education could give Helen Keller the tools to overcome great obstacles and embrace the “sweep of the heavens” so many years ago, why do less-severely challenged children with special needs fail to receive such a bountiful classical education today? The answer is simply historical timing. At the turn of the century, as special education grew in acceptance, classical education began to wane. In the 1930s, “the height of classical study in the United States in sheer numbers,” nearly one million students studied Latin annually. By the 1970s, so-called progressivism and experimentalism had come to dominate education. About this same time, just as classical education had all but disappeared, the landmark special education legislation Public Law 94-142 passed in the United States. This law mandated public education for all handicapped children. Public, yes, but often much less effective and far less beautiful.

Today, much of “regular education” has strayed so far from the pursuit of that which is significantly true, good, and beautiful that many children with challenges and special needs who have been placed in remedial or even age-based classrooms receive little that is inspiring, excellent, or formative. In the past, even “basic” education meant purposeful instruction in the three arts of language: grammar, logic or dialectic, and rhetoric. A good liberal arts education also involved the four arts of mathematics: arithmetic (discrete number), geometry (continuous number and number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time). These seven liberal arts developed the mind and provided the student with essential tools for learning. Intrinsic to his education, the student also studied history, good literature, and art, all for the formation of a strong mind and noble character. Throughout the centuries, catechesis—teaching the Christian faith—has also been urged alongside the liberal arts, for matters of the soul.

In some special education teacher training programs, not only do progressivism and pragmatism reign, but fatalistic, dehumanizing behaviorism dominates. The child’s mind and soul are forgotten.

The humanity of the child with special needs—the humanity of any child—must determine the education he receives. Some suggest that as many as one in four children have special educational needs. Each of these children is a human being, created in the image of God. Shall we assign all of these students to a menial, servile education and deny them the riches of a beautiful, humane, liberating education? And, worse, shall we base our deterministic placements on early testing, with no regard to what the child might be able to overcome with the aid of an excellent teacher?

Regardless of his challenges, any child is called to do more than receive services; he is called to love his neighbor. Even if he is never able to hold a full-time paying “job,” classical education can help the child with special needs bring purpose, love, or comfort to those around him. He is a student with lessons to learn, teachers to respect, and parents to honor. Perhaps the child will eventually prove incapable of progressing to advanced levels in one area or in every area; however, if taught slowly, patiently, and systematically, even those children who are identified with or suspected of having “special learning needs” can receive a substantial, elevating, and beautiful education. Any child is a son or daughter, brother or sister, grandchild, or friend, with the high calling of gracious and tender service, as God works through the child for His loving purposes.

Classical education can address any child’s challenges and cultivate in him a lifelong appreciation for lasting truth, beauty, and goodness. Be encouraged. Any child can receive these great benefits of classical education: greater self-knowledge, timeless tools for learning, a more disciplined mind, a love of study, and a dedicated life of service. Classical education is an excellent education and a beautiful gift to your child, so he can say with Helen Keller, “My world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!”

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