I entered the teaching profession rather unexpectedly. As I wrapped up my degree in history at the University of Virginia, I was asked numerous times, “What are you going to do with a history degree, teach?”
“No!” I protested. “There are lots of things you can do with a history degree!”
In my mind, I was going to go to Washington, D.C., and be some sort of congressional aid, or speechwriter, or something. Whatever it was, I was going to change the world—oh, and I would be wearing a pencil skirt with heels and carrying a briefcase while doing it. But when the job offers didn’t come rolling in, I decided to help out at my sister’s school as a substitute teacher. My first gig was a long-term sub for Latin. I had never studied Latin a day in my life, but I studied the textbook, learned the material the best I could, and taught it to a class of middle schoolers the next day. And guess what, I enjoyed it! At that point, I knew God had a better plan for my life.
When an opportunity arose to join the mission field as a teacher in an American school in Lyon, France (the city where I had studied abroad a year before), I knew God paved this path just for me. The school also happened to be a classical Christian school. Thus my relationship with classical education was born. Fast forward 20 years, and here I am, still passionate about classical education and convinced this is the best way for a child to learn.
What do I love about classical education? When I first started experiencing classical education, I loved it for what I was able to teach as an upper school teacher. But now that I am a parent of grammar students, I also love it for what my children can learn.
First of all, the classical model honors a child’s development. Students need not explain or comprehend the why before the what. They only need to hone the skills they are ready and able to use. This is why our Grammar students do so much memorization. They’re so great at it! I’ve been blown away by the speeches my fourth-grade daughter rattles off at home. Can you recite Queen Elizabeth I’s Speech to the Troops at Tilbury? I sure can’t! But our fourth-graders can, along with Martin Luther’s “Here I Stand” speech and countless Bible verses. Memorization builds a strong foundation for thinking and synthesizing what comes down the road.
When students reach middle school (or the Dialectic School, as we call it), they are ready to analyze causes and effects, make comparisons, and consider the why. They do not stop memorizing and practicing the skills learned in Grammar School, but they build on them. When they reach the Rhetoric School, they continue to memorize and analyze but are also ready to create, evaluate, and make connections.
Secondly, classical education helps students recognize what is true and good and beautiful by allowing them to feast on the classics. You wouldn't exclusively feed your child junk food and expect him to grow and be physically healthy; you must provide nourishing food, even if that means putting green beans on his plate nightly for a year until he, at first, tolerates them and, finally, even enjoys them. So too with works of literature. For a work to be considered a classic, it must stand the test of time. Reading good books exposes students to a plethora of writing styles and ideas. Authors of great literature model beautiful writing and good ideas.
No one in my freshman Rhetoric class enjoys reading Aristotle. When I tell students to take out Aristotle, I am always met with groans and sighs. But I have had more than a few Caldwell alums visit after their first year of college and tell how they impressed their college professors by reading Aristotle and understanding ethos, pathos, and logos. Aristotle is their "greens"—not necessarily tasty at first, but good for you. After students graduate from Caldwell, they can choose to read what they like. However, they (hopefully!) will recognize beautiful writing, cogent arguments, and fallacious reasoning.
Finally, classical education helps students see the stained-glass window as a whole, not simply as individual panes. As a public high school student, my history and English classes jumped around from world history one year, to American history another year, with a random selection of literature sprinkled into each English course. Perish the thought of learning history and literature chronologically! I did learn things and read good books, but it was fragmented. I was not trained to consider these subjects as a whole or see them in light of each other.
Now, however, I get to help Caldwell students make connections between subjects. When we study the Industrial Revolution in history, students read the Romantic poets in literature and better understand these authors weren’t just “outdoorsy.” Instead, they loved nature because it was yet uncorrupted by industrialization. During our study of the Civil War, students read The Red Badge of Courage to better understand a Union soldier’s experience. I could go on with other examples. Caldwell students see the big picture.
After 20 years in classical education, I am convinced this style of education remains the best way to cultivate virtue and wisdom in the next generation. I can’t think of any other place I’d want my children to be.