Classical Education

Why Classical Must Be Essentially Christian

Augustine Classical Academy has, and remains committed to, a classical and a Christian approach to education. One can find schools that are classical and one can find schools that are Christian, but why do we insist on holding to both of these ideals in the same institution? 

One of the most powerful and alluring features of classical education is its integrated approach to learning. It recognizes that the world is not a disparate set of individual categories, but that everything is connected to everything else. History cannot and should not be understood apart from literature and science and math and ethics. Life is vibrantly integral; it is an interconnected whole. Classical education recognizes this about the world and adopts an approach to learning that embraces this sort of world. But such a view of the world comes from somewhere. A randomly generated universe gives us no reason to expect that anything is connected to anything else. But if we live in a created universe -- created by a Person who has done so with great intentionality, then we can reasonably expect to find a world where everything is connected to everything else. Science and history and math and morality and beauty all held together by a God who designed it that way. But such design requires a commitment to thinking about the world as one who believes in a God like this. Without this “religious” component to education, we lose one of Classical education’s greatest strengths.  

Secondly, classical education aims at the formation of human beings. It recognizes that education is formation. This is why ACA doesn’t simply exist to teach students to know truth, virtue and beauty, but to train students to love and practice these things as well.

The ideas of Truth, Virtue and Beauty require some basis in reality. They must to come from somewhere. Without some norm for these things, truth becomes nonsensical, goodness a matter of preference and beauty simply a matter of taste. Schools that attempt to divorce truth, goodness, and beauty from some objective standard are left without the most powerful and anchoring idea in all of education: the Why. Why does 2+2=4? Why does a triangle have to have 3 sides? Why is human cellular structure so complex? Why is it heroic when Bilbo deceives Thorin?  Why is it wrong to cheat on my spelling test? Christianity -- and importantly the whole view of the world which Christianity provides -- unapologetically answers all of these questions. Secular educational models (like what is found in all public schools and many private institutions) are left without any way to root what is taught in the classroom to anything outside of current social norms, or what seems to work. In other words, the transcendent is lost, and there is nothing to anchor life in outside of ourselves. Such an approach to education tends to turn all of society inward, producing a general drift towards rootlessness, triviality, and rampant individualism.

A Christian education is free to anchor the formation of our students in a transcendent view of the world. A world where there are actual things like truth, goodness and beauty. A Christian education is free to anchor this education in the beauty of grace: a God who is not only there, but who loves and redeems His people. The label Christian in classical Christian Education provides the overarching context for everything we teach, while classical provides the delivery method. We want our students to know, love, and practice truth, beauty, and goodness because we want our students to know, love, and obey the God has created those things and revealed them to the world. 

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Brian Brown is a founding Board member of Augustine Classical Academy, where all three of his children are enrolled, and planting pastor at Trinity Church Denver in Golden.

Why Study Latin?

When you study Latin, and even more so when you teach it, you will at some point be asked why. Why bother? What is the point, some benighted soul will ask you, of learning a language no one speaks? If they really want to vex you, they might even refer to it as a “dead language.”

And although I’d rather not, even I have to admit that it’s a fair question. I’ll also admit that it always baffles me a little. Not because I can’t think of reasons, no! But because I never know which one to pick first. Usually the people who ask this question want to know what practical benefit I find in Latin. And though I certainly do find practical benefits, those are not the reasons I love Latin, and not the reasons I hope you will, either. Nevertheless, I will lay out these reasons here, in order from most boringly practical to most sublime, and let you judge which you find the most compelling.

First, you may have heard that English is based on Latin. This is not entirely true, as English is a Germanic language, whereas Latin spawned the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, inter alia). English, however, was heavily influenced by Latin as well as by these Romance languages, so much so that around half our words have Latin origins, including most of the fanciest ones. This means that the study of Latin not only prepares you well to learn many other languages, but it teaches you a great deal about English, as well. This brings us to our most boringly practical reason to learn Latin: Latin students crush their SATs. This is just a fact.

Second, Latin is an ideal vehicle for the study of language itself. At Augustine Classical Academy, our kids learn English grammar through a wonderful grammar curriculum, and that is fantastic. But our kids already know English, which makes the abstract grammatical structures harder for them to see in English, since they use it so intuitively. Latin, on the other hand, is not just unfamiliar, it is highly inflected. This means that it shows grammatical structure through the endings of words and not through the order of the words, as English does. This forces students to think about grammar in a way that is unfamiliar and unintuitive, which assures that they then grasp it in a secure, high-level way.

Third, Latin is important throughout almost the entire history of Western Civilization. Ever since the Romans took charge of the Mediterranean world from the Greeks, Latin has been the language in which the most important conversations in history took place. More of the theology, philosophy, science, math, history, and literature that we study was written in Latin than in any other language. Anyone who wants a scholarly career in those fields will certainly need a knowledge of Latin.

And this brings me to my fourth, and favorite reason for learning Latin. That is the glory of the language itself, and the literature and culture it opens up to those who know it. From classical love poetry, to the high rhetoric of Cicero; from the sermons of Augustine to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Latin language contains much of the most beautiful and profound reading you will ever have the pleasure of doing.

But the barrier to entry into these texts is high. It takes years of study before the typical student can read Latin fluently enough that it constitutes a pleasure rather than a chore. If you have a child in the trenches of Latin-acquisition, it’s possible they might not always feel the labor is worth it. To encourage them, you might tell them how well Latin will help them perform on their college preparatory tests. You might remind them what an excellent grasp of language and grammar they are obtaining, how well they are training their minds, and how well-placed they will be to learn any other Romance language they might wish to learn in the future. These are all very good, very true things. But what I hope to give them, above all, is the feeling of accomplishment and joy that comes when, after years of hard work, the glories of the Latin language and its literature come alive before them.

The Trivium in Riddles

Let's make three quick mental pictures.  They're simple riddles of sorts, and each one is a picture of the Trivium.  However, each separate picture is incomplete in some way, lacking one or more of the Trivium's stages.  The question is this: Which stage is pictured, and which stages are missing?

1) First, picture a construction site, an apocalyptic expanse of gray dirt.  Piles of sand, rock, rebars, and I-beams flank the excavated abyss.  Workers in hard-hats examine clip-boards while growling cement trucks idle in the lot, waiting to pour. Finally, an artist's rendition of the finished building is posted on large sign -- a sneak-peak for everyone of the finished product, months away.  But then you hear the foreman say, "That'll do it, boys! Job well done." The site is abandoned and no more work ever done.

2) You see a carpenter at his bench with a magnificent array of tools spread in front of him.  Dovetail chisels, planers, coping saws, fretsaws, routers, carving knives, a lathe -- all of the finest quality.  The carpenter sets to work.  First, he picks up a delicate chisel and begins to hack a stone in two.  The chisel quickly dulls and snaps. Next, he picks up a carving knife, and, instead of setting it to wood, takes it to his garden and begins digging rows for his seeds.  When done, he returns to his work-bench and switches on the planer -- but his hand slips, and he neatly planes off his palm.

3) You are watching a televised debate. The issue at hand happens to be one you feel strongly about, and you listen closely.  However, you are soon disappointed: the debater arguing for the view you support is unquestionably the stronger speaker, but he is completely unlikeable.  In fact, he's disgusting. He chooses the perfect arguments, but he is perfectly arrogant.  He smirks and mocks his opponent. When the debate is finished, he has won hands-down, and truth has prevailed.  Or has it?  You realize suddenly that you had been hoping he would lose.

Traditional Classrooms and Student-Centered Learning

Depending on who you talk to about kids, you might encounter two different ideas about classroom structure: the traditional model and the student-directed model.  A classical school is one of many examples of the former, and a Montessori school might be an example of the latter.  The basic issue comes down to this: are teachers the primary drivers of what and how a child learns, or do the child's interests dictate what is taught, and how?

Though ACA is a traditional school, this is an important topic to think about. Is there anything a traditional classical school can learn from student-centered or student-directed methods, and vice-versa?

One of the benefits of nontraditional student-centered learning, for example, is the humility it fosters in teachers.  Teachers, particularly at more advanced academic levels, can easily become egotistical or self-centered.  They view themselves too highly and are too easily frustrated with, or disdainful toward, their students.  Student-centered learning, such as Montessori schools provide, force the teacher to constantly look outside of themselves.  Teachers are attuned to the student as an individual with unique interests, and they learn to respect and foster those interests.  This is a crucial skill for teachers to develop, as students learn best when they feel recognized, encouraged, and appreciated. They are humans, after all, and need love and validation.

On the flip side, a student-centered environment can be dangerous for children.  While it fosters affirmation on a personal, short-term level, it may not provide some important structures that all children need.  For example, when student choices are emphasized, this assumes students have a standard from which to make a good choice.  Would they rather learn to spell or play with blocks?  I would have rather played with blocks.  Would they like to draw or memorize the multiplication table?  I would have rather drawn.  This thought experiment does not mean that drawing or playing with blocks are bad (they're actually good), but it does mean that poor choices can be made.  For everything there is a season. Are teachers facilitating poor choices in their students by allowing student direction at inappropriate times?  One of the reasons we educate our children at all is because we know they don't yet know how to make good choices.  Allowing them to make repeated bad choices doesn't make them creative and independent; it just makes them even better at making more bad choices.

Another way of saying this is to think about your backyard fence.  Few parents release their kids to play outside without one.  With a fence in place, however, most parents do (and wisely) let their children roam at will.  They head for the sandbox, find sticks, dig in the dirt, and kick the ball -- all as they please.  But the fence is there the whole time.  So are other rules the parents have set up: don't throw baseballs at the window, and don't pick up fat black spiders.  With these structures in place, a child's freedoms get a whole lot better.  They're safe, and they're following the rules life comes with. In other words, fences facilitate freedom.  Without one, kids are in the street, and here comes the UPS truck driving too fast.

God made our children to love rules, and he also made parents to love their kids.  So when we ask our children, "Are you making the right choices?" we should first be sure they know what the right choices are

The Trivium in the Eyes of a Five-Year-Old

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As parents in classical education, we've all heard of the Trivium.  On the flip-side, because it's a Latin word, it also carries some measure of weirdness.  We know what the Trivium is . . . and yet we kinda don't.  How does the breakdown go again?  So sometimes it's helpful to think of classical education and the Trivium from a slightly different angle.

For instance, instead of trying to recite something like this:

The Trivium is an age-old method of teaching, highly revered among The Chosen of Parents, in which children ages 5-9 enjoy the Grammar Stage, a time of rigorous instruction in facts and figures, in drilling and in chants, and in the importance of discipline, discipline, discipline; and in which children ages 10-13 are exposed to the Logic Stage, namely, to the high mountain air of logic and sharp rationality, discerning truth, exposing falsehood, questioning, answering, and explaining, and, as good Saint Paul said, rightly dividing the word of truth; and in which children ages 14-18 discover the pristine Rhetoric Stage, learning to dance in the ecstasies of speech, persuasion, and beauty, recognizing the creative splendor in the world through the Author of All Things, together with the thrilling joy that comes from first gaining, then sorting, and then beautifying knowledge . . . .

we could instead (thank heaven), illustrate it like this:

"The Trivium in the Eyes of a Five-Year-Old, or, 15 Minutes Building a Lego Bullet-Castle":

Step One (The Grammar Stage): Dump out entire Lego set on kitchen table.  Allow good portion to spill onto floor.  Sort pieces into various lengths and colors while singing snippets of "Frozen" and "Green Grow the Rushes" repetitively. Name and handle each piece as you prepare to determine what you will build.

Step Two (The Logic Phase): Determine that you feel moved to build a castle, preferably one that "shoots bullets."  Begin building a square base, observing that pink Lego pieces are ill-advised for this project, and that Barbie dolls will not be the castle's inhabitants.  You'll want to assert publicly that this is not a rolling castle, like Ezekiel's throne-chariot, and therefore will take no wheels, and that neither is it a flying castle, as in Gulliver's Travels, and therefore will take no sails.  You should accordingly erect ramparts, turrets, and cannons only.

Step Three (The Rhetoric Phase): Construction nearly complete, you now confirm that all castle sections are of uniform color, that all flags are flying high, and that all cannons are aimed skyward.  Most importantly, you'll want to be sure to parade this castle around the house, showing it to parents, singing its praises, energetically pointing out its most notable features, referring to it regularly as "My Bullet-Castle," and firing off several exhibition rounds from the cannon.  It is your crowning achievement, your glory.  Just think if you had stopped along the way!  Part of a bullet-castle is no bullet castle at all.  And you've inspired your family and friends to similar great exploits.

The Common Core & Classical Education

One of the best ways to learn certain things is by not thinking very hard about them.  If these things are over-thought, the returns on learning immediately begin to go down.

For example, a valid outcry against the Common Core is its attempt to make young students "think conceptually" or to "think critically," or even to "think independently" in every possible setting, and way too soon.  The Common Core wants students not just to know their multiplication table, but also to know how numbers "relate to each other."  Here's what Diane Briars, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics says about it:

"Part of what we are trying to teach children is to become problem solvers and thinkers . . . We want students to understand what they're doing, not just get the right answer.''

Now this is an admirable vision, one we should all be happy to get behind.  But it has to have its place.  What if I asked a 1st-grader what the 9 planets were in order, and she answered correctly, but then I also said, "Now tell me how the proximity of Mars and Jupiter to the asteroid belt affects their respective environments, and whether you think it more likely that a terrestrial or Jovian planet might impact Earth's climate in future evolutionary epochs?" Maybe this is a good question for a high-schooler (then again, maybe not), but it certainly has no place in an elementary curriculum.  In the same way, we shouldn't muck up kids brains with the fact that numbers are really ideas and not things, and that "numeral" is really the proper word, and that even then, numerals are just adjectives.  No, they just need to memorize their multiplication table and go outside and climb a tree.  This is the old way, the way of our parents, and it works.

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and that goes for education.  This is precisely why we make our ACA littleuns memorize lots of stuff, good and solid, and why we only start asking them critical-thinking questions in the 5th-grade range. Why?  Because that's how their bodies work.  That's how God wired them up.  Slamming a 1st-grader with demands to "understand" and "conceptualize" all the time is like giving them a bottle of wine and expecting them to be able to handle it.  Jesus turned water into wine, and adults drink it, so it must be a good thing for all ages. Right?

To everything there is a season, said Solomon.  And as my mother always said, "A place for everything, and everything in its place."

Distinctions (and The Lost Tools of Learning)

In the older days of social media, I remember being amused whenever I would come across Facebook or Myspace profiles that listed favorite music as "I LIKE ALL KINDS OF MUSIC!!11!!xoxox!!!"  (Today, they might also list Jesus as their "bae.")

This of course only meant they liked no music at all.  Somewhat endearingly, they failed to realize that there is a difference between consuming something and truly enjoying it.  Or as the saying goes, "When everything is beautiful, nothing is."  Without standards, there are (oddly) no standards.

With Dorothy Sayers in her essay "The Lost Tools of Learning," we heartily affirm, "Distinguo!"  Distinguish.  Differentiate.  Discriminate.  With King Solomon in his prayer for wisdom, we want to "discern between good and evil" (1 Kings 3:9), between truth and falsehood.  When everything is true, nothing is.

And yet with Robert Louis Stevenson, we also know that

The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

So which is it?  Be choosy, or love a ton of things?  Both.  As we teach our children, we teach them to love as many things as possible (our neighbor, studying, hikes, the gospel, quilting, peanut butter, presidential biographies) and to hate a few things, too (lies, low standards, death, the Devil, and United Airlines).  But when we pursue interests and decide what we like, we must always remember the way God is: before anything else, he created a Garden full of countless Yesses with a single tree of No.  Which means, at the very least, that we should like most kinds of music.

Classical School: Filling the Void

The human mind doesn't like empty spaces.  Ask someone to articulate a hypothetical space in which there is nothing (really), and you won't get a good answer.  We can't properly conceive a true void; the closest we can get is to visualize a space without air that is black.

The human mind needs content.  Fortunately, this is the way God created it, but it means that we will always seek out content to give ourselves meaning.  On a simple level, we love to ingest information.  On a higher level, we adopt values and beliefs.  We look at the world and interpret it, Christians by the revelation of the gospel, others by their observations of the natural world or the traditions they have received from their cultures.  Where there is a question, humans want an answer.  Where there is a void, we fill it.  But with what?

Both grownups and children desire fullness.  For adults, our voids are often of loneliness or disillusionment, and so we turn to gossip, pornography, an illicit relationship, or another worldview.  We fill ourselves with what we think will provide satisfactory content to our empty spaces.  Our children do the same -- but usually not until the late high school years and college.  All through their growing-up years, they are subconsciously deciding what is meaningful and what is not, what is beautiful and what is distasteful to them.  Once they get a measure of independence, they either accept or reject the content they've been given. And -- here's the rub -- they finally make those decisions based on what has given them the most joy.

Our children are always famished.  So as parents or educators in a classical school, what are we feeding them?  Stale bread and tepid water?  Of course they will want more, and they will want what's forbidden.  But if we serve up feasts, good and often, and with plenty of laughter, why would they want to turn anywhere else?  Scripture, stories, art, music, crafts, projects, biographies, myths and legends, hymns and psalms, good food and dancing (yes), star-gazing, mathematical puzzles, discipline, joyful standards, the creeds of the faith, and a family unified -- serve these up (little by little, day by day, always-and-ever upward), and there will be no voids your children need to fill.  But when those empty spaces falsely demand attention, your children will know where to turn.  They serve a faithful God.

Our Cozy Time Machines

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In the May 2014 issue of "Old Roads Magazine," my brother, a musicology graduate from Stanford University, wrote an article on traditional versus contemporary music, specifically in terms of how we sing in church, or how we teach music in our schools or homes. Like the old Microsoft/Apple debates, we enjoy taking sides. Bach or the Beatles? Mozart or Messiaen? Taverner or Taylor Swift? And sometimes, the more conservative among us can get pretty miffed that pop music is just going to the dogs and that these darn kids today don't even know who Beethoven was.

True. A big problem. But there's a bigger problem than bad music: and that's getting miffed about it. Instead, we should act. Specifically, we should counter bad music by composing quality music for today, and not just by putting Bach on playlist-repeat.

And more broadly (cue segue), we should embrace this action plan in classical education as a whole as we seek to transform the ills of our culture. Act, don't react. Create, don't retract.

Classical education easily and naturally retracts. Into the past it goes, like a turtle into its shell. And no wonder: we recognize the godless, cultural malaise our children face, we bemoan the abysmal math and literacy scores our nation regularly chokes up, and we therefore retreat to the Renaissance. We jump into our safe and cozy time machines and head for the pristine past. We teach Latin, logic, philosophy, and classical literature -- and then we expect our kids to positively influence culture today.

Ain't gonna happen. If we are living in the past, we'll alienate our kids (who can't help but live in the present, bless their hearts). Unless we bring the treasures of the past into the present, they will be useless. We must use the past as a tool for the future. We must teach our children to be creators in the present for today. We are created to create, and so we must teach our children to compose, write, research, solve, and discover for today's world. That is how they will best glorify God, and that is how classical Christian education will truly transform culture, one generation at a time.

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A Night Sky Full of Promise

There are a few things you just don't want your kid coming home from school and telling you.

"Hey, Mom, we got to read a story about gang rape today.  And then they cut her up into pieces!"

That would be one of them.  If your child said that, you'd be right to jump on the phone with the school head and demand to know what was up.  Filthy literature in a Christian curriculum?  What happened to my child's innocence?  Are the classical pagans worth studying?  Even the ladies from "The Music Man" sang about how bad Chaucer and Rabelais were.

True.  Except there's a slight difficulty: the gang rape story story is from the Bible  (Judges 19:1-30), and the Bible is a book we call infallible. It's God's perfect word.  What should we do?  No wonder we don't find this doozy in The Jesus Storybook Bible.  And how are we supposed to deal with the remaining big chunks of grit and sin in the Old Testament?

The answer is that, as Christians, we must deal with those chunks.  But as a school, we must let you, as parents, deal with them first.  ACA is in the business of teaching God's whole counsels unapologetically, but it is not in the business of preempting your parental discretion and responsibility in key issues.  There is no part of the Bible that we are ashamed to read in school, but there are further discussions and deeper questions for parental authority only, particularly in the younger years.  Sometimes, the best answer is that you will explain more when they are older.  But the worst answer is to indefinitely ignore parts of the Bible because they are yucky, or because they have blood.

"All Scripture is breathed out by God . . . ." (2 Timothy 3:17)  All, not some.  The uplifting parts, and the dark parts.  At ACA, we embrace this truth wholeheartedly. But we also understand that kids are still kids.  So when it comes to selecting passages for students to memorize, we prioritize.  We do not avoid, or over-emphasize, but we are strategic.  All Scripture is breathed out by God, and some of its stories are good to teach early on.  Some of them not till later.

We also realize the glorious truth that Scripture is food even when we don't understand it.  While we're committed to not assigning students a passage out of context, like "My wounds stink and fester" (Psalm 38:5a), or "Chelub the brother of Shuah begat Mehir, which was the father of Eshton" (1 Chron. 4:11), we still acknowledge that our students' understanding will always be imperfect.  Yet the passages cannot fail to be life-giving.  We are confident that, as they work God's Word into their bones, he will work it out in them someday for his glory.

Our fundamental hope is that our children will learn to love the gospel, and over time, begin to grasp the simple and astonishing story-arc of the whole Bible: that like Abraham, we are old and weak under a night sky full of promise; that we are sinners in need of forgiveness, that the infinite-personal God became frail flesh, died, and rose for our sakes, and that he is coming again with glory to rule over a new Kingdom of Peace on earth.

Grace and Peace,

Nate Ahern