Friday, November 26, 2010

What is "Classical Education?"

Historically, in the US we have a long lineage of classically-influenced public schools, starting with Boston Latin in 1635. What you might not be aware of, I wasn't a week ago, is that there is a contemporary "classical education movement" with a distinct history and perspective. The seminal text here is The Lost Tools of Learning by mid-20th century British author and classicist Dorothy Sayers. In particular this text is the source of the framing of the trivium as stages in the intellectual development of a child and adolescent.

These ideas, combined with some Adler and other sources, have been formed into an approach to classical education popular with Christians, conservatives, homeschoolers, and Christian conservative homeschoolers. As with all education movements, there's a lot of internal variety in theory and implementation. One of the intellectual leaders of the movement is the CiRCE Institute.

I started looking at contemporary "classical education" after reading a post over at Core Knowledge on the subject and having the distinct impression I was reading a lot of coded signs whose meaning eluded me. If you look at the CiRCE What is Classical Education page, they make a point of confirming my suspicion:

We use a different vocabulary.

Different words are used and emphasized (e.g. trivium, quadrivium, virtue, etc.), while some of the words that are common to classical and contemporary education carry significantly richer meanings (e.g. science, liberal arts, etc.).

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

On the other hand, my post-modern worldview isn't exactly sync with their pre-modern one. Nor does it seem to me like anything Jesus Christ would actually be interested in.

What all this means in practical terms, I don't know. Certainly you could conclude by looking at ed school syllabi that America's classrooms are dominated by Paulo Freire's liberation pedagogy. You'd be wrong about that. All this "trivium" stuff may be just be the consultant and administrator edubabble of the conservative world. Who knows?

I can't actually parse, say, a 9th grade literature syllabus which says:

Throughout the course, we will revisit the virtue of temperance and judge the personalities we meet based on their ability (or inability) to evince this virtue...

The poet Horace might be the greatest voice for the lessons Ridgeview purports to teach: living life to its fullest, pursuing the good life, enjoying good conversation among good friends, simultaneously realizing our mortality and striving to transcend it.

Just be aware, gentle reader, that Classical Education movement has its own discourse community, and shift your frame of reference as needed.


Robert Pondiscio said...

<<< "popular with Christians, conservatives, homeschoolers, and Christian conservative homeschoolers."

You forgot Tea Partiers, birthers, and members of the John Birch Society, Tom. And klansmen. And members of the flat earth society.

Geez, stop phoning it in pal, will ya?

Tom Hoffman said...

Well, who else?

Tom Hoffman said...

Seriously though, my statement there is not controversial. The classical education movement as typified by, say CiRCE, is explicitly anti-liberal, at least in contemporary political terms and orients itself toward Christian values. There is no reason to think it is popular with people who are liberal non-Christians.

Robert Pondiscio said...

I've never heard of "CiRCE," so I can't say one way or the other what they represent. But you're committing a logical fallacy when you say "classical education movement as typified by CiRCE." What's your evidence that they "typify" anything? Would you write about Islam "as typified by Jihadis," for example? Unless you have hard evidence that there is some unanimity of opinion among those who seek classical education for their children, you're merely left with your opinion and dark murmurings about its "discourse community." You're free to do so, of course. It's just not persuasive.

Tom Hoffman said...

I'm not saying that all people choosing "classical education" are part of this group/movement, but that it exists, has organizations, conferences, writes books, runs schools, etc.

Sometimes when you read about "classical education," you're reading something written by people who are part of this community. And when you are, it is good to know that, because, as they unabashedly explain, when they are talking, words have different meanings. "Arts," "sciences," "logic," etc. are all defined differently in their system. It is certainly helpful to know that.

Stephen Downes said...

There might be a whole subtext that renders this problematic, but I think people could do much worse than to obtain a classical education.

Tom Hoffman said...


That's what's weirding me out about this -- I'm not against classical education per se.