Are we teaching too many books too soon?

Classical education

I was asked by someone in a post on Memoria Press’ forum to comment on an article by Douglas Wilson, author of Rediscovering the Lost Tools of Learning, the book that jump-started the Neoclassical schools movement in the United States in the late 1980s. The article is about an academic criticism he has of classical schools in America based on his extensive observations of these schools.

His main criticism, he says, is that many of these schools “emphasize text over timing.” By that he means that many schools not only believe that they should teach the great books, but that the earlier they teach them the better.

His first criticism is that this practice flies in the face of Dorothy Sayers’ developmental paradigm of the three stages of learning—the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. The whole idea of Sayers’ insight–the insight that started the modern classical education movement—is that children go through developmental stages that should dictate what we teach them and when. And to teach Boethius to sixth graders (Wilson’s example) is exactly the kind of thing that we should NOT do.

[T]o accelerate the pace of learning in this way is to disregard Dorothy Sayers’ great insight on the timing relevance of each stage of the Trivium. A big part of the reason why classical education can get such powerful results when done right is that you deliver the right material at the right time. It is not enough to have the right tennis ball. It needs to hit the sweet spot on the racket. A thorough classical education in a Christian context is about both material and pacing. We are talking about both texts and timing.

One problem is that the students choke on it. And the problem is not the book itself, the problem is the timing. If material from the dialectic stage is pushed down into the grammar stage, the kids will not process it well. The same is true of material from the rhetoric stage pushed earlier. What would be edifying and enjoyable when taught at the appropriate time becomes at best a chore, and at worst an affliction.

I completely agree with this criticism. I have made it myself, only with different terminology. I have made the distinction (one I learned from James Daniels, a classical educator himself) between the order of knowledge and the order of learning. The “order of knowledge” is a prioritization of something according to what is the most important to know. The “order of learning” is a prioritization according to what should be approached first.

If I were asked what the best books in English are, I might rank them this way:

Et cetera. (With the KJV as the best and the others in order of decreasing quality.)

But if I were asked which books should be read first, I would order these books very differently. In fact, the order of learning is so different from the order of knowledge that I would have a completely different list altogether:

Et cetera. (With Goodnight Moon first and Mike Mulligan later.) I would be sacrificing the order of learning to the order of knowledge if I started my two-year-old in Shakespeare or Moby Dick, rather than Mother Goose or Green Eggs and Ham.

Wilson’s “text and timing” distinction is really the same distinction. We should not order our curricula using only the order of knowledge; we should also order it according to the order of learning. We may know what the best books are, but we should know when they are best taught.

Wilson also addresses why he thinks we violate this distinction. First, we tend to put “text” before “timing”:

If the students stick around through their logic course in junior high, they will learn, or should learn, what is happening to them. The fallacy is called affirming the consequent. True classical learning is hard. This thing I am doing right now is hard. Therefore, this thing I am doing right now is true classical learning. But it followeth no way. Eating a bowl of driveway gravel is also hard, but that is not true classical learning either.

But it is not only that schools mistake difficulty for quality, but it is that they think having a difficult curriculum brings them prestige. If the program at your school is harder than that of the school down the road, then your school must be better. Wilson rightly points out that this is not true.

Finally, he alludes to the tendency of many classical schools to try to cover an inordinately large amount of material above all else. Although Wilson doesn’t put it this way, this is an issue of quantity over quality. Schools want to have a long list of good books which they expect their students to blow through like they are in a race to see who can read the greatest number of great books.

When they graduate from their classical Christian high school in this frame of mind, they do so believing that they have now “done that.” It has been checked off the list. They have read Homer. Sure, they did it before they could mentally chew and digest and enjoy any of it, but they did it. When the prospect of going to a school like New St. Andrews is raised, they recoil. You expect me to do all that again? That reaction misses the point almost entirely, and it is an indicator that the school providing such alums may also be missing the point almost entirely.

Again, Wilson is correct here. Schools need to slow down. Students need to study fewer books more deeply. Reading books is not a matter of checking off a list, but of nurturing a soul. And notice I said “study fewer books more deeply.” They can continue to read a longer list of books outside the ones they study. But the very best books warrant time and attention in a way that many other bookswhich may still be profitable to read more quicklydo not.

I have only one amendment to what Wilson says, and I think he would probably agree with it. It is that when a student should be exposed to a certain book is not just a factor of how old he may be. It is also a factor of the extent of his knowledge and how well developed his ability to learn is. If a school properly prepares its students in earlier grades, they will be capable earlier of handling great books with profit. If a school has a good curriculum which does this, it can expose students to great works that may be well beyond the ability of a student in the same grade at another school which does not do this. A sixth grader at a good school may be able to profit from works that a twelfth grader at another school cannot because the sixth grader received preparation and the twelfth grader never did.

Educational maturity is not just a matter of time, but of well-thought-out and intentional development, which is why a coherent curriculum whose developers have thought these issues through is so important.

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