Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Choosing Classical Education Over Common Core

Students at St. John Bosco, Rochester, NY
(Photo source: stjohnbosco.org.)
On April 28, the National Catholic Register published an article by Peter Jesserer Smith on the growing number of Catholic schools and systems converting from conventional progressive education to classical — or perhaps we should say neo-classical — liberal arts education. While one hundred American sees, just over half, have elected to conform to Common Core, widespread rejection of the controversial curriculum is creating greater demand for an alternative to homeschooling, leading to more charter and non-profit startups.

The Problem of Education

Catholics aren’t the only ones returning to the trivium. Philip Kilgore, director of the nonsectarian Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter Schools Initiative, told Smith that “[parental] dissatisfaction with contemporary education has been driving the demand for a return to the classical tradition.” Says Kilgore, “I speak with so many people from every corner of this land who are eager to do something about the problem of education.”

Many people from various ideological backgrounds agree that American K-12 education is failing. Some, like Prof. Jack Schneider, would contest this, pointing to tests of limited scope, like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, that purport to show American schools as doing well. Others, like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, seem to recognize the problem only insofar as it affects the production of hire-ready future employees, as if the only worthwhile goal of education were to generate Homo oeconomicus.

The most commonly-perceived problem, however, is that the current systems produce moral and cultural illiterates, that the systems have abandoned teaching children how to think in favor of teaching them what to think. Writes Patrick J. Deneen:

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. … Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

Dorothy Sayers and the Art of Learning

The fact is, pedagogy went off the rails when the goal of education was shifted in the early 20th century from the development of the human person to the acquisition of “skills”. By the time the Grande Dame of mystery fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers, wrote her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1947, the damage was already in progress in Great Britain:

Is not the great defect of our education to-day … that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play The Harmonious Blacksmith upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorised The Harmonious Blacksmith, he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle The Last Rose of Summer.

Educator Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg argues that modern education puts the cart before the horse. “The modern educational effort is to contrive artificial ways for students to focus on the acquisition of [the] attributes and ends of literacy instead of cultivating the intransitive arts [i.e., grammar, logic, and rhetoric] which comprise the means that enable the ends of literacy to bloom like the rose.”

In the same way, critical thinking isn’t a “skill” learned in a single-semester elective course but rather a virtuous habit of mind. If it is to develop properly, it must be cultivated over time as an intrinsic part of the education process. Before the student can learn any “subjects”, he must first learn how to learn. Otherwise, education simply becomes the exercise Ven. Abp. Fulton J. Sheen described as “the transferring of information from the teacher’s manual to the student’s notebook without passing through the mind of either.”

Sean Fitzpatrick, another educator, gives us this comparison:

The aim of classical education is to form the whole person according to timeless, intrinsic values, rather than train a whole people to conform to a contemporary set of uniform standards. Thus, classical education responds to the universal truths of man rather than to the specific particulars of the multitude. The Common Core shrinks learning into a one-size-fits-all centralized set of information designed to achieve success by narrowing the focus of human learning to basic facts for measurable recall. This requires a reduction of the human person to an empirical calculus and ends in a lowest-common-denominator paradigm. Contrarily, classical education lifts the minds of all students to the highest aspirations of man, encompassing a student’s capacity for imaginative and emotional appreciation of reality, as well as for analytic and scientific habits of mind, toward the formation of character.

Overview of the Trivium

The new classical schools’ curricula generally follow a three-stage pattern sketched by Sayers and later articulated by classical educators such as Susan Wise Bauer, Douglas Wilson, and Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

  • In the first stage, the “grammar” stage (usually grades 1 – 4), the concentration is on “learning the grammar of all subjects”. The students learn vast amounts of information through rote memorization, drills, songs, and stories.
  • In the second stage, the “logic” or “dialectic” stage (grades 5 – 8), the concentration is on reasoning, questioning, criticism, and the interior logic of the subjects. Students read primary sources rather than textbooks, and engage in discussion and debate.
  • In the “rhetoric” stage (grades 9 – 12), the focus is on self-expression. Students learn how to speak and write with force and originality, and begin to take courses in subjects that interest them.

In all three stages, the courses are taught as interrelated rather than isolated. Latin, and sometimes ancient Greek, are taught not only for their own sakes but also so students will learn about language — parts, structure, composition, and cultural elements; since they are taught right from the beginning, and taught to be spoken as well as read, students have less difficulty learning other foreign languages later. The emphasis on language in instruction rather than on visuals forces the brain to work harder, while the process of memorization insures longer retention of basic facts. Finally, since education in religion and morality is interconnected with the other disciplines, they’re more thoroughly understood; questions and doubts about the faith can be more easily hashed out when they arise, leading to higher retention.

The sciences, too, are taught from the very beginning. So are the fine arts; poetry, relatively abandoned in secular public schools, is celebrated in the classical school. Technology isn’t abandoned, but rather set in its proper place as a servant, its use disciplined. Classical schools generally combine the best in homeschooling with the social advantages of conventional schools. Above all, students are grounded in the Aristotelian-Thomist moral philosophy, in which the key to the good life is virtue.

Advancing in the Wrong Direction

The great advantage of the neo-classical education is that it’s connatural to the way children approach the mental world, by progressing from fact to theory and from the concrete to the abstract. Instead of being a passive recipient of an incessant barrage of words and images, the child is actively engaged; his mind is treated, not as a bucket to be filled, but as a muscle to be exercised. Classical education does this because it treats the student, not as “a cog in a machine”, but as a rational, moral, and social being.

Ironically, it also does a better job of filling the bucket.

Conventional progressive education theory doesn’t work because it doesn’t really seek to prepare children for adult life, or for any career beyond that of semi-skilled labor. If anything, it seeks, in the words of Michael Knox Beran, “to turn kids into little anarchs who — if the progressives’ daydreams come true — will grow up to overthrow the oppressive civilization into which they had the misfortune to be born.” In fact, the only thing saving our children from the most vapid excesses of constructionist theory is the good sense of teachers themselves, who care more about actually educating children than in producing the narcissistic Utopia of progressivist fantasies.

We have got into the bad habit of assuming that what’s new or modern is also better, even after direct experience has shown us it isn’t always so. We speak of “advances” and “progress”, forgetting that advancing and progressing are relative to where we start from rather than where we want to go. You can advance in the wrong direction; progress is easier, and sometimes faster, when you go downhill.

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In sum, charter and non-profit schools offering a neo-classical liberal education offer the greatest potential for breaking the progressivist hegemony on education and preserving the best of Western culture’s intellectual heritage. They also offer the Catholic Church in America the most effective response to the decline of religiosity among the young, equipping them with the habits of mind that can defeat both the New Atheism and moralistic therapeutic deism.

Best of all, we already know it works.