A utilitarian view of classical education

Classical education is distinctive in part because it has a prescribed path of study. Different classical educators have different paths, but I plan our program of instruction using the scope and sequence of the curricula mapped in the  Well-Trained Mind. 

This systematic approach is anathema to many public schoolers using weak standards, eclectic homeschoolers who just study whatever the parent deems important, and unschooling types who feel that dictating an area of study is doing violence upon their child, but I disagree for several reasons.

Unknown Unknowns

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. — Donald Rumsfeld

I believe that there are “unknown unknowns,” and that children, with their limited experience in the world naturally have a significantly higher number of unknown unknowns.

For example, I grew up in a house without regular electricity, and my mother always cleaned the antique stove with harsh chemicals when my sibling and I were out of the house. Therefore, as an adult I didn’t know that modern ovens had a cleaning setting until my husband and I bought a new stove. 

Prior Background Knowledge

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This calls the idea of having prior background knowledge into sharp relief. I couldn’t Google something I didn’t know existed. In fact, in 1988, two researchers from Marquette University completed a study, since thoroughly verified and replicated, that shows just how important background knowledge is for reading comprehension. Here’s a 3 minute, 50 second summary video. Go ahead, I’ll wait. 

Knowledge has a much bigger impact on reading comprehension than ability. — Schwartz

As per Aaron Tippin, “you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” In a study at the University of Connecticut, the vast majority of students fell for a hoax website about tree octopuses. Researchers blamed the lack of generic reading skills, but as per the baseball study we know that in fact, students didn’t have the prior background knowledge about the natural world to understand that octopuses can’t live in trees. They couldn’t push back against false information without reliable background knowledge. 

Since time is limited, what knowledge is most important?

Key Domains of Education

Modern educators recognize seven distinct core subject areas:

Classical educators tend to use the seven liberal arts (so-called because they liberate your mind.) According to Sister Miriam Joseph, they break down into science (knowledge) and art (action) that tend to correspond pretty well to modern subject areas:

Trivium: reading, writing, speaking, listening in English, Latin, and other languages about literature, history, and philosophy (natural, moral, and metaphysical)

    • logic — directive thinking
    • grammar — expressing thought
      • phonetics, spelling, sentence composition, paragraph and longer compositions, reasoning
    • rhetoric — correct, effective, truthful communication

Quadrivium: math and its applications

    • mathematics — number (arithmetic, calculus, etc)
    • music — application of arithmetic (discrete mathematics: harmonics, physics, chemistry, etc)
    • geometry — space (continuous mathematics: analytic geometry,  trigonometry, etc)
    • astronomy — application of geometry (architecture, geography, surveying, engineering)

The content areas I choose to cover in my homeschool tend to include, though are not limited to, the modern core subject areas, but I cover them in a classical, systematic way. For example, next school year my daughter is studying logic, math, science, history, geography, spelling, grammar, composition, Latin, Spanish, visual and music arts appreciation, and literature. 

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

While I think joining the “Great Conversation” is a good thing, I also believe that Lord Morley’s aphorism about truth is another excellent goal of education. 

An educated man is one who knows when a thing is proved and when it is not. An uneducated man does not know. — quoted in A Defence of Classical Education

If, in the end, my daughters end up with a honed ability to determine truth, beauty, and goodness, my homeschool efforts will have not been in vain.

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