One of the first things people notice about Caldwell Academy is the names of our school divisions. “Grammar School” doesn’t really throw people off very much because some people still use it as a synonym for “Elementary School,” but if you start throwing around “Dialectic” and “Rhetoric,” people are likely to ask you to explain. If you find yourself unable to come up with an answer, I suggest you read “The Lost Tools of Learning,” by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is well worth your time. Sayers wrote the paper and read it at a Vacation Course in Education at Oxford in the summer of 1947. The plan for education suggested in her paper was used as a basis for the classical school movement in the United States.
When she wrote the essay Sayers did not imagine her ideas would actually be put into practice. In a line I like to use to illustrate the concept of irony, she said, “It is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.” Clearly, she didn’t consider what crazy, dreamy-eyed Americans might try 30 or more years after her death! The first classical Christian schools set out to follow Sayers' ideas as closely as possible. The school she proposed would be based on the Trivium of the Middle Ages. The Trivium includes three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, which is where we get the names of our school divisions. Sayers suggested the way students interact with material in each part of the Trivium actually fit very well with how children develop.
She called the Grammar stage “Poll-parrot” because young children enjoy learning things by rote. Learning by heart at this stage is easy, especially if the lessons learned are set to music, chanted in rhythm, and repeated over and over. Young children are like sponges and can learn by memory facts far beyond their ability to understand.
Somewhere around the middle of fourth grade, however, children begin to develop a natural tendency to question. No longer content with knowing what, where, and who, they begin to ask how and why much more often. This is a sign that they are ready to enter the Dialectic stage of their education. Now they want to debate, to compare and contrast, to argue, and critique. Sayers called this the “Pert Stage.” At this age children can take the facts learned in Grammar and get to know them thoroughly.
Dialectic takes students from knowledge to understanding. Understanding is good, but as Proverbs 3:5 warns us, we shouldn’t lean too heavily on understanding alone. We need to continue the process of education toward wisdom. Wisdom is the goal of the Rhetoric School. Students of this age should be able to take what they know and understand and begin to make it their own through writing, speaking, teaching, and other forms of expression.
The Rhetoric years are when students take what they have learned and start to solidify their own beliefs, learn to defend those beliefs, and then use all the tools they have developed to persuade others to their view. Sayers refers to Rhetoric as the “Poetic Stage.”
As schools tried to follow the plan, they quickly realized though Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric DO fit in very well with the way a child develops, trying to completely isolate the types of learning into three stages has some problems. For one thing, children don’t develop at exactly the same rate. You are always going to find the occasional third grader determined to find why or a fourth grader who really likes a good argument.
On the other end of the spectrum, some courses we teach in Rhetoric School must still present the subject's grammar. Math, for example, doesn’t really get out of the grammar stage until Pre-Calculus. Because of this, our curriculum is splattered with little dabs of Dialectic and Rhetoric in the Grammar School. Our young students write, speak, and explain why they think their answer is correct and our oldest students still learn and memorize facts, but at each stage the emphasis is placed on using the tools of learning in the way appropriate to the stage of the child’s development.
What does that actually look like in the classroom? As students progress through a classical school, they should find their teachers take on different roles. Grammar teachers are primarily coaches. They teach the children to use the tools of learning. They give them lots of facts on which to try those tools.
Teachers in the Dialectic School are more like conversationalists or facilitators. They guide students through new thought processes, continuing to hone their skill in using the tools they acquired in Grammar. Instead of asking what Corrie ten Boom DID in a chapter from The Hiding Place, the teacher will ask students why they think she acted as she did, whether it was the right thing to do, and it may also ask them to find a passage to support their answer from the text. When other students disagree, the teacher will moderate a lively debate between the students, and the assessment may include the same questions in written form.
Once students step into the Rhetoric School they will find that, more and more often, the teacher will take the role of an audience rather than acting as a coach or a facilitator. Now, students should be able to use the tools acquired in Grammar and Dialectic to produce their own work, to read, apply, express, and even teach on their own.
This last stage can be very difficult, especially in the modern world where knowledge is just a click away and Advanced Placement classes are considered the pinnacle of learning. Often students would rather be told exactly what a teacher wants them to know so they can memorize it and reproduce it on a test, but that is NOT what the Rhetoric School is all about. In the classical scheme of education, that type of education is elementary.
There are, of course, still facts to learn, poetry to memorize, and verbs to decline, but Rhetoric students must apply the facts, present the poetry expressively, and use the verbs to translate beautiful literature or create meaningful conversation. They learn the facts Civil War events, but they should also be able to read a primary source from the period and explain how the thinking of the day led to those events. They should be able to look at a piece of art and explain the worldview and philosophy that led the artist to create in just this way. Rhetoric students should be able to learn how two chemicals react, but they should also be able to come up with a theory about why this reaction takes place, and they should begin to understand the concepts learned in Algebra II are tools they will use in Calculus. All truth is God’s truth. All learning is part of a whole.
Transitions can be difficult. Dialectic learning may be more difficult for some students than Grammar-style learning. For others, it will be easier. Rhetoric-style learning can be even scarier. Writing persuasively is difficult and public speaking is nerve-wracking. Difficulty and struggle should not be the standard by which we determine whether a lesson, a student, or a teacher is accomplishing the goals. It’s often the difficult lesson in life, the one we must discipline ourselves to complete, or even face, that makes us into the people God wants. Hebrews 12:11 offers us great insight we can apply to education: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Classical education works. We know after 20 years of graduates that Caldwell students are well prepared for all walks of life. Our graduates can be found all over the world doing important and fulfilling work and, more importantly, they are wonderful people. The tears and struggles at the dining room table tonight will turn into the brilliant ideas at the board room table tomorrow. I promise. I’ve seen it happen.