In 1947, British writer and Christian apologist Dorothy Sayers delivered an address entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” at Oxford University. In it she decried the modern state of education: “Is it not the great defect of our education today 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.” Though she believed that few, if any, would heed her message, Sayers then discussed the “mediaeval scheme of education,” outlining and defining the trivium and the quadrivium, and paralleling the trivium, in particular, with children’s natural intellectual developmental stages. Her efforts in one brief essay have, contrary to her expectations, encouraged and renewed interest in and desire to pursue the classical model of education.
While much of today’s education proposes to enhance self-esteem, to teach a limited body of content to all students as equally as possible, and ultimately to prepare students for the increasingly technological marketplace, the goals of the classical model of education are to prepare students for life, to encourage in them a passion for learning and for truth, and to teach them how to think about and discover real truth. Classical education embodies a return to the trivium, i.e., the “tools of learning,” a three-stage approach to learning consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. While all three stages work together as children learn, each is emphasized in the appropriate developmental stage.
The grammar stage is the grammar or fact base of all subjects, e.g., addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in math; rivers, countries, mountains, and continents in geography; people, dates, places, and battles in history; parts of speech, verb tenses, and punctuation in English. First and second grades focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic and begin laying the grammar foundation. The grammar stage continues through the fifth or sixth grade, what Sayers called the “poll parrot” developmental stage, the time when children recite and memorize quickly and easily. During this stage students commence studying Latin to begin to appreciate the English language and their classical cultural heritage. The study of Latin provides training in accuracy, application, memory, and reasoning, all of which are aides in school and throughout life. In short, students are concentrating on acquiring the languages of learning during the grammar stage.
During the middle school years, emphasis rests in the logic or dialectic stage of the trivium. Naturally inquisitive and argumentative at this age, the “pert” developmental stage, students learn how to think about the "languages" they have learned. They question, analyze, and draw conclusions as they study logic and argumentation and apply what they are learning in all subject areas.
The high school years, the “poetic” developmental stage, focus on the rhetoric stage of the trivium. Students, who know the “language” or grammar of knowledge and how to think about it, learn how to express it orally and in writing. Instruction encourages worthy expression of truth with precision, style, and clarity of thought.
Classical education values the contributions of great thinkers, leaders, writers, and teachers of the past, particularly in the rich heritage of western culture and civilization, as a means toward living with integrity in the present. All content areas are continually being integrated to provide a broad context for understanding the part(s) played by specific people and events. Additionally, academic rigor encourages students to
maximize their God-given abilities and talents as they move through the stages of the trivium.
The value of the foregoing notwithstanding, it is not enough for education to be accomplished using classical methodology—education must also be Christian. Because all people bear God’s image, they are able to think, reflect, and reason. However, these abilities do not exist in a vacuum—they are influenced at the most fundamental level by a worldview. A worldview is the “spectacles” through which man approaches the world as he interacts with it and tries to make sense of it. It is a grid through which man approaches the world as he interacts with it and tries to make sense of it. It is the grid through which he filters all his thoughts and actions, whether or not he is aware of it, i.e., his worldview informs everything he thinks, says, and does. From a scriptural perspective, a worldview can only be Christian or non-Christian. As people do not exist in a vacuum, neither does education. It, too, is influenced significantly and fundamentally by a worldview precisely because it is, in part, a result of man’s thought, reflection, and reasoning. Teachers operate from their personal worldviews, imparting them to their students. It is therefore imperative that education be planned and accomplished from a decidedly Christian worldview.
Modern educational theorists believe that education is neutral. They argue that it is the teacher’s function to present facts to students in a way that allows them to decide for themselves what is correct. Since everyone has a worldview, every teacher of necessity teaches from his worldview, no matter how hard he may try to remain neutral.
Therefore, because education cannot be neutral, Christian education must be saturated with a Christian worldview, simultaneously encouraging students to develop their own Christian worldview. Students must learn to be conscious of their own “spectacles” and to appreciate the influence their worldview has on all of life. As they begin to recognize their own worldview and the foundational truths upon which it is based, they can grow in their understanding that all subjects, facts, and truths are created, nurtured, and controlled by God and fit into His created order. As Robert Dabney, a nineteenth-century Christian philosopher and theologian, stated so eloquently in his tract, “On Secular Education,” “Every line of true knowledge must find its completeness as it converges on God, just as every beam of daylight leads the eye to the sun.”
It is essential that all knowledge be understood through the eyes of the unchangeable Word of God and of historical Christianity. Students must grapple with the fundamental questions of life, Who am I?, Why am I here?, How must I live?, with Scripture as a foundation. Classical and Christian education continually strives to integrate principles, thought, and events, and to understand them from a biblical perspective, framework, or worldview.