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February 16, 2009

I was recently asked by someone who read my paper on the classical classroom for more clarity on the actual content for a classical curriculum.  This is why parents are so helpful and necessary for understanding classical education.

 As I understand it, the classical curriculum will consists of at least three things.

 1.  The ability to cultivate the skills and knowledge provided by the 7 liberal arts and 4 sciences.  The 7 liberal arts and 4 sciences are the objects of study.  They were the classical curriculum because they most closely appropriated the intellectual, physical, and moral skills necessary for the fully and truly formed adult who was free.  So while I have made the suggestion that the emphasis should not fall on the content, I am not by that implying the content is irrelevant.  In fact, just the opposite because if the emphasis falls upon the skills and knowledge afforded by the content only the right content will accomplish the appropriate task.  For example, we may not be teaching astronomy as one of the 7 liberal arts, but we should be teaching the skills afforded by the study of astronomy being the movement of physical shapes.  In effect this will answer a question about when to introduce a science because the development of skills involving the art of physical motion prepares a student for study in the science of physics.


2.  The ideas of truth, beauty, and goodness.  Whatever the curriculum may be it must be governed by these ideas.  The human ideal is ultimately one of honor, glory, and nobility.  It aspires to the highest end for which humanity was designed.  The beauty of Christianity is Jesus Christ because “he is the image of the invisible God.”  In Christ we witness the fullness of our humanity and that for which God designed it, and we are called to imitate Christ.  In his treatise on The Education of Children S. T. Coleridge notes that “we are commanded to imitate one who is inimitable.”  I will point out that Coleridge’s context is a greater argument for the educative role of the imagination, which is the only faculty that sufficiently and sensibly addresses our calling to which he refers.


3.  Effective and concrete models that embody wisdom and virtue.  Only the greatest material is capable of embodying the highest ideals.  I briefly mentioned in the paper, but it deserves more attention, that there are essentially four models that provide concrete images of wisdom and virtue.  Literature, art, nature, and living persons served as the material of contemplation that oriented the student toward imitation.  With regards to literature and art they are sometimes referred to as the “great books” and “great works of art,” or even as “classical literature” and “classical art.”  This may not be the final say in the matter, but it is a definite start.  As for nature, I do not believe that our industrial and technological age can easily comprehend how nature can serve as a curriculum for learning.  The endnote I provided in the paper by Coleridge is not generally understood.  Living persons may be anyone, but I am referring to the classical role of the paidagogos and by that suggesting that the teacher must be a model for the student.  In many ways the teacher serves as the curriculum.  


I am afraid that I have yet to be direct.  So I will try once more.  Let’s take the humane (moral) science of history for the 8th grade class as an example following the three points outlined above.


1.  As a moral science, history explores the nature and causes of human behavior.  An 8th grade student should be able to observe an event and identify the circumstances that contribute to a given outcome.  They will be able to discern between good and evil, and will be asked to examine and weigh the moral decisions made by individuals. 


2.  One particular idea may be authority as it took shape during the middle ages.

3.  One possible model may be William Shakespeare’s King Henry V.  As we study the man King Henry V we will explore the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Year’s War and ask whether King Henry V should risk the lives of his people over a land claim on French soil.

 My questioner also asked me about science, for which I will attempt another example at the 3rd grade level.  It is not that a physical science such as biology cannot be introduced early, but that it must be appropriate to the skills and knowledge possessed and developed by the student.  So for example in the 3rd grade I would venture to say (I am not speaking with certainty here—biology is not my field):


1.  biology is a natural science that investigates and measures the material (what something is made from) and efficient (what produces a thing) causes of things.  Considering my daughter who is in the 2nd grade, a 3rd grade student will be able to identify the genus and species of most, though not all, mammals.  They will have a general understanding of reproduction.

2.  the ideas I may focus on would be to begin with naming, describing, and sorting various species of mammals before moving on to the mobility, habits, and functions for the mammals learned.  So the main idea seems to be definition and this would be applied to defining mammals by their parts and actions.

3.  No better place or source than creation itself.  But we are in NYC?  Ok, we could do flora rather than fauna, but to stick with the fauna I would consider a domestic animal such as a horse, a wild animal native to America such as a bear, and a wild animal not native to America such as an elephant. 

 How I would teach this is something I will address in a subsequent paper, but I hope to have been a bit clearer as to the what.

 * I will unashamedly reference the CiRCE Institute as an incredible source of information and materials that have contributed to my thoughts as well as some of the points I have made above and in my paper on the classical classroom. 



From → Education

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