How I Speak About Classical Christian Education: The Skill of Learning

By Ben Nolen

There are many draws to classical education and many ways that you can talk about it with others. The best way, of course, is to speak about your own experience: What drew you to classical education? What keeps you committed to classical education? What benefits for your child / children do you see in classical education? What do you like about RCA? Beyond your own experience, it is important to note the specific draws and benefits of classical education. The following is one way that I like to speak about classical education.

A classical education teaches students how to learn. Learning is a skill that must be acquired and therefore taught. It must be noted at this point that a child does not “naturally” learn (though, the child is naturally curious and human beings naturally want to know). As a parent, do you find yourself asking (in great frustration) “How many times do I have to tell you…!?” Exactly. Learning is a skill that must be acquired. It is not innate. If it were, parenting would be the easiest vocation on the planet. But it is not! It is the most difficult vocation (and consequently, the most rewarding)! One of the chief academic goals of classical education is to teach students how to learn. So, how does classical education achieve this goal?

Enter the trivium. The term “trivium” is Latin for “three ways.” “Trivium” is the word we use for the scaffolding of a classical education: the three ways of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Another way of speaking of the trivium is to say that the trivium is a method for learning: The “three ways” are sub-skills for the greater skill that we call “learning.” When one understands the inner workings of the trivium, one easily sees that, in one way or another, no man comes to learning except by the trivium.

The first stage is the Grammar stage. The Grammar stage is the stage of building blocks. It is the stage of acquiring basic knowledge about any given subject. In our day, we sometimes speak of “elementary” school. In our grandparents’ day, they spoke of “grammar” school. Why? Because at this stage we are acquiring the fundamental rules, facts, and definitions of any given subject. (“Elementary, my dear Watson.”) The young pianist must learn scales and play “chopsticks” before he can even begin to think about venturing toward Beethoven. The rising basketball star must learn how to dribble and handle the basketball properly long before he can play in his first Final Four. The student must learn Latin before he can really master English. (Did I just say that?) The student must learn Latin vocabulary and paradigms before he can translate Cicero. In order to acquire a new skill or understand a new subject, from fishing to physics, one must always come to an adequate understanding of the basic rules, facts, and definitions pertaining to that skill or subject. In classical education, this is known as the Grammar stage.

The second stage is the Logic stage. The Logic stage is the stage of construction. It is the stage that takes the rules, facts, and definitions learned in the Grammar stage and sees them in relation to one another. Why? and How? become operative questions. As the student explores these questions, he begins to formulate arguments to defend his position. (Middle school parents, where are you?) In doing so, he shows an understanding of all the “moving parts” of a subject. Therefore, students at this stage are taught Logic, sound reasoning. Now, proper conclusions about the facts and rules of the Grammar stage may be drawn. So, after learning the paradigms, the Latin student is ready to see how terms function together in sentences. After learning the fundamentals of dribbling and passing, our basketball player is now ready to learn a 1-3-1 offense and his role in it. After learning the scales and individual notes, the pianist begins to form major and minor chords, arranging them in a pleasing order. In order to develop competency in any new skill or subject, from art to accounting, one must be able to see how the basic rules, facts, and definitions work together and how they can be used logically. In classical education, this is known as the Logic stage.

The final stage is the Rhetoric stage. The Rhetoric stage is the stage of craftsmanship, of mastery. The Rhetoric stage takes the material learned in the Grammar and Logic stages and seeks to present it powerfully and persuasively. The ability to effectively instruct another is a mark of mastery. The Rhetoric stage cements the knowledge gained in the Grammar and Logic stages and presses the student to develop his own “voice” in how he thinks, feels, and speaks about his subject. Now, the Latin student begins to translate Cicero and Quintilian, and he becomes a more skillful (English!) orator as a result. Now, our basketball player not only performs skillfully on the court, but he is also able to guide others to do the same. Now, the pianist performs the concerto masterfully and begins composing his own work with his own unique flair. In order to develop mastery in any new skill or subject, from engineering to environmental science, one must be able to impart that skill or subject to others effectively. In classical education, this is known as the Rhetoric stage.

Thomas Jefferson received a Classical education. He began school at the age of nine and focused his studies on Classical languages, Greek and Latin. He continued this kind of education on into secondary school where he studied mathematics, literature, and science, all in a Classical environment (all under Christian pastors, by the way). Through his education, Jefferson acquired the skill of learning. With this skill of learning, he demonstrated the independence and productivity that can come with a classical education. Consider the wide variety of his accomplishments: He was the author of Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, master of at least half a dozen languages, organizer of the Lewis and Clark expedition, founder and chief architect of the University of Virginia (drafting the designs for each building), a famed agriculturalist (he especially loved tomatoes), inventor of the macaroni machine (TJ loved pasta!), and noted bibliophile. (He once said, “I cannot live without books.” Amen.) Jefferson learned how to learn, and as a result, he became accomplished in numerous fields. Oh, and he was the third President of the United States as well.

So, when speaking with someone about Classical education, one of the things I always mention is that the academic goal of Classical education is to help students “learn how to learn.” This is precisely why I believe that Classical education really is “practical.” If the student acquires the skill of learning, he is not limited to his training. Instead, the student is given the gift of an education, complete with the skill of learning and the intellectual strength needed to adapt to change. Classical education is more of a martial art to master than a terabyte download of information to ingest. Indeed, my fellow teachers are Jedi knights, passing down the ancient ways of our order to the next generation. I always make sure to mention that as well.

The mission of Redeemer Classical Academy is to mentor students toward virtue as learners, leaders, and agents of redemption for God’s glory.