Why Classical Education is Confusing!

in Blabber, Philosophy

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Meet Jean Piaget.  Isn’t he CUTE?  He’s this great French scientist that formalized the terms for the developmental stages of children.  He did a lot of work on babies.  People have fussed over whether or not you can nail it down to the month or whatever (all kids are different, right?), but his Big Kid stuff is GREAT!  Also, it’s important to know that his work wasn’t translated into English until a few years after Dorothy Sayers’s “Lost Tools of Learning.”

Who cares?  You do. Lemme back up.

Medieval Trivium/Quadrivium Nutshell

  • To “understand the truth of things” requires certain skills, information, and habits of mind.
  • These skills and habits were developed and standardized into a dependable, time-tested high school/university curriculum exactly AGES & AGES AGO, called Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric
  • These skills were then practiced at university on other “languages”: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, (Quadrivium) hopefully culminating in a person who could reason rightly about anything in the universe, up to and including the highest and most abstract Divine Truths.

Got it?  Great.  None of this has to do with your five year old.  There is no medieval curriculum for your Kindergartner.  Or third grader.  Maybe seventh.  Certainly tenth.

The Confusion

The IMPORTANT piece of information that you will miss, if you, like me, wait YEARS to read the Letter from the Director, is that the overlap in naming our stages after the Medieval Trivium subjects is just that.  An overlap.

It’s totally confusing! Remember that cute old man up there at the top?  If Ms. Sayers had given her talk ten years later, she would have likely used what are now the standard psychology terms:  Pre-Operational, Concrete Operational, Formal Operations, Late Formal.  These correspond almost exactly with our names.*

  • Primary = Pre-Operational
  • Grammar=Concrete Operational
  • Dialectic = Formal Operations
  • Rhetoric = Late Formal

*Not everyone who uses “classical ed” terminology can switch out the names one-to-one like this.  Some curricula have their stages pulled much earlier or omit the Primary Stage.  It doesn’t line up with brain development.

So, I used to say, “How can I dispose my child towards acquiring the Trivium Arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric while he’s in the Logic stage?”  Huh?  Now I can say “How can I dispose my child towards acquiring the Trivium Arts of Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric while he’s in early Formal Operations?”

But aren’t the STAGES what makes it Classical?

Nope.  Classical Education, as MODG uses the term, aims the child at acquiring wisdom according to the ancient well-worn paths.  But those paths aren’t drawn out for anyone under 13.  Current Classical Education folks are extrapolating back to include the younger kids.

Dorothy used the Trivium names for the stages, but I can use the truths of brain development to teach the child anything.  Just because we’re memorizing at the right stage doesn’t make it classical.  Just because I recognize that the child now has the ability to follow an argument doesn’t make it classical.  That just makes it “developmentally appropriate.”

And, you can have a “Classical” education that is totally developmentally inappropriate for K-8.  I think I’ve seen several versions of it already. Haven’t you? People use Dorothy’s names for the stages, but they’re 3-5 years EARLY for the actual brain development!  But I would still call it Classical, just developmentally inaccurate.

Thankfully, our curriculum has the stages and ages lined up right, but the overlap in terms can be really confusing, right? (Edit 7/2017: Beginning Latin moves the goal posts a bit. While keeping with (I hear) the Aristotelian sequence, this FANTASTIC curriculum requires adjustment to be developmentally appropriate for the under 12 crowd.)


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Alison December 11, 2015

Very, very well said!
I remember looking at other “classical” programs and thought they were nuts. My kids couldn’t write 500 word papers in the 3rd grade- heck, most of them had just learned to read!!!
Love your site. Keep up the good work!


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