I was asked to speak to a gathering of classical educators recently on the issue of “pedagogy,” the science of how to teach and a word to which modern educators are very attached.
One of the major points I made in my speech was this: Pedagogy is not the most important thing in education. It’s not that learning how to teach is unimportant; it’s just that as educators—whether we’re professional teachers or homeschoolers—we need to remind ourselves that the “how” of education is a secondary and not a primary thing. Within the context of a traditional classroom, the most important thing in education is not the how, but the what. Classical educators should be most concerned with what children learn, not how they are to learn it.
“The aim of education,” said H. I. Marrou, is “the formation of adults, not the development of the child.” For classical educators, the method of educating children is pretty straightforward. It involves two things: First, taking the knowledge we want children to learn and getting it into their heads and, second, taking the skills we want them to master and training their minds to use them. That’s what is meant by the “arts and sciences.” The “sciences” are the various bodies of knowledge to be learned and the “arts” are skills to be mastered. Everything else in education follows from this.
There was once a well-understood body of literary and historical works that everyone was expected to know, stories of history and imagination that gave us good examples to follow and bad examples to avoid. But the emphasis on so-called “thinking skills” and “problem-solving” and test prep has pushed books out of the curriculum in many schools. It was once taken for granted that students read books in school. Those days are gone.
And not only have teaching techniques supplanted the teaching of content, but this emphasis on the “how” has done something else: It has encouraged us to forget the things our children should know. This is not too pronounced in mathematics and the natural sciences because our culture still values these things. But when it comes to history and literature—the subjects that bear most closely on our development as human beings who are created in the image of God and on our roles as citizens—the obsession over method has been almost fatal.
In the early grades, a focus on the “arts and sciences” means memorizing basic arithmetical procedures and grammatical paradigms (best done in the study of Latin) and learning how to write. It also means memorizing facts and dates and snatches of poetry and literature. These basic skills of memorization and drill are the foundation for the study of higher arithmetic, history, and literature in the grammar school, and then in high school for the study of mathematics, the sciences, and an increasingly sophisticated study of the history and great literature of our cultural heritage—literature that students are expected to read and understand, and then imitate in their own writing. In fact, one way of summarizing classical education is to say that it is the imitation of great things.
None of these things—memorization, drill, imitation—require any kind of expertise in developmental psychology. All they require is a little common sense.