Classical Education

AN OVERVIEW OF THE CLASSICAL CURRICULUM AT ST. MONICA ACADEMY

St. Monica Academy students study religion taught in complete faithfulness to the magisterium of the Catholic Church. Because we are a classical academy our students also study Latin. Like students at most college preparatory schools, St. Monica Academy students study the subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, history, science, and so on. St. Monica Academy is different, however, in that we approach all the subjects through the framework of the classical trivium. The trivium consists of the liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. We focus on the trivium both as modes of learning and as developmental stages of learning. As Dorothy Sayers points out in “The Lost Tools of Learning,” grammar, logic and rhetoric are the fundamental modes of learning. By grammar we mean the facts, information and knowledge that form the basis of any subject of study. Examples of grammatical activities are the memorization of catechism questions, the correct spelling of words, the times tables, states and capitals, and poems. Logic means being able to think and reason correctly, so as to arrive at the truth. Discovering an idea in a short story, analyzing an argument, diagramming a sentence, proving the Pythagorean theory, and formulating and supporting a thesis in a composition are examples of logical activities. Rhetoric means effective communication. Speech and debate, writing a persuasive essay, and organizing the elements of a short story to build conflict are examples of rhetorical skills. Very importantly, the trivium also corresponds to the three basic natural developmental stages in the education of youth: imitative (grades K-5), analytical (grades 6-9), and rhetorical (grades 10-12). Young children have a facility for and take delight in absorbing new information. Adolescents discover in themselves the ability to reason and enjoy arguing for their point of view. Mature students are able to attend to communicating what they know and think in a way that can bring the truth to others. Attention to these modes of learning and stages of development determine our specific goals, methods, materials and means of assessment for each subject at each grade level. These can be viewed in detail in the St. Monica Academy Curriculum Handbook published at the beginning of each school year. The High School Charter of Principles outlines the philosophy and objectives of St. Monica Academy’s high school.

ARTICLES AND ESSAYS

Articles in this collection challenge conventional philosophies of education and describe the principles of a classical education. Why don’t students taught by modern methods know how to think? Explore this question with Dorothy Sayers, essayist and novelist, in The Lost Tools of Learning. A classical education teaches students how to learn by first studying the Trivium — grammar, dialectic and rhetoric — before tackling “subjects”, thus opening to the student a lifetime of ongoing education. Find out more in What is a Classical Education? Different conceptions of man’s nature result in different educational goals and means. Classical vs Modern Education by Patrick Carmack surveys these relationships.

Below is an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s introduction to On the Incarnation titled “On the Reading of Old Books.”  Go here to read the entire piece: On the Reading of Old Books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or
[Richard] Hooker or [Joseph] Butler, but M. [Nikolai] Berdyaev or M. [Jacques] Maritain or M. [Reinhold] Niebuhr or Miss [Dorothy] Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as [Richard] Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.