For, to truly take part in a conversation, one has not only to speak, but to hear the language.
For many teachers, classical education is a surprising discovery. Finding the liberal arts as the tools of learning, the great books as a truly integrated curriculum, and wisdom as the desired educational outcome, is like happening upon an educational oasis in a desert of test preparation, vapid content, and concern for status and material gain. Weary teachers come to the source and drink deeply, and, for a time, they think they have simply uncovered a new perspective. Refreshed, they return to their work as modern educators, only with a more effective approach to math and language arts, a richer curriculum, and a more noble educational vision. They are content, to change metaphors, to fill the old wineskins of modern teaching methods with the new wine of the classical curriculum. As both wine and teacher begin to mature, however, the old skins threaten to burst. Teachers must either spoil the vintage or else adopt teaching practices capacious enough for the robust curriculum of the liberal arts and the great books.
To grasp the logic of classical pedagogy, it is necessary to focus upon this moment of crisis. In so doing, we perceive both how classical education breaks decisively with merely modern education, and how adopting the great books as our curriculum, the liberal arts as our essential tools of learning, and wisdom as our goal, implies a distinct classical pedagogy.
See first what happens when we exchange the course content of the modern history and literature curriculum for the great books. The goal of instruction is no longer merely to provide students with skills of close reading, analysis, or critical thinking, as important as these may be. Much less is it to make the readings “interesting.” The classical teacher understands his task as nothing less than inviting students to join a great conversation. The demands of this task transform his pedagogy. In the earliest years, it means simply that students will learn to listen, to be attentive to language. Hence the familiar practices of dictation, copy work, memorization, and narration. For, to truly take part in a conversation, one has not only to speak, but to hear the language. As students progress, it means the study of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric—the liberal arts of language. As students learn to hear language, they hone their sensibilities to what and how words mean, training their minds to perceive truth and validity, and tuning their ears and voices to clarity of style and beauty of expression. In later years, it means Socratic questioning and dialogue. By continually putting them to the question, students are made both vigilant and humble interlocutors in the great conversation.
A similar transformation takes place when we exchange modern methods and techniques for teaching mathematics for the liberal art of mathematics. As with the fine and performing arts, such as dance and drawing, painting and piano, skill with the art of mathematics is acquired by joining understanding to imitative practice. This is why classical mathematics engages students in the discovery of mathematical principles in the world of experience and the application of mathematical reasoning, not as the culmination, but as the foundation of mathematics education. In early years, students will be measuring and comparing items in the class, field and garden, and imitating their teacher by drawing and constructing figures. As they progress, the teacher will lead them to make conjectures to solve puzzles they encounter, and to recapitulate important historical mathematical discoveries. As specifically liberal arts, the goal of instruction is to equip students to make free and creative application of the arts of learning, and to take part in the joy of discovering truth for themselves.
Coming finally to growth in wisdom, the goal of classical learning, we arrive in a sense at the beginning of the discussion of classical pedagogy. For at the beginning of our tradition, Aristotle reflects on the fact that the love of wisdom (philosophy) at first began and everywhere continues to begin, with wonder. Since the goal of classical education is to cultivate this love of wisdom, classical pedagogy must begin by awakening wonder. Importantly, this requires no expensive technology, no clever techniques, and no educational theatrics. Rather, the classical educator awakens wonder by directing students to the goodness, truth, and beauty of the things themselves. The natural world is wonderful, as is the story of human history and the works of human ingenuity and creativity. Classical pedagogy—as we have seen briefly, everywhere and in manifold ways—beckons students to these inexhaustible sources of wonder, bidding them to drink deeply.
With experience in Christian classical education spanning 17 years, Kevin Clark currently serves as the founder and president of the Ecclesial Schools Initiative. Kevin earned a doctorate from Georgetown University that focused on liberal arts education and interdisciplinary practice. He is the coauthor of the book The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, and he is a teaching fellow for the Master of Arts in Classical Teaching at the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University.