Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The American Mind

Have you ever wondered why intellectual childhood is prolonged in our culture? Has it ever bothered you that fully grown adults are so susceptible to advertisements and the suggestions of mass media? Do you find it disturbing that many educated people are unable to follow logical arguments and speak to the question at hand, or that irrelevant material crops up in committee meetings, or that people regularly fail both to define their terms and stick to those definitions? Why do young people forget most of what they learned in school?

In her classic essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers raised many such questions and offered an obvious solution based on the history of education. Schools stopped teaching students how to think and how to learn for themselves in favor of making them memorize information. Educators stopped emphasizing the “method” of learning in favor of teaching “subjects” in hermetically sealed compartments. The result is that students who are most capable of memorization finish school with heads full of data, but their minds are not equipped to process, question, analyze, and draw conclusions about information. The social effect of such education is a public that is generally incapable of thinking clearly and critically about life. But, it was not always this way.

Dorothy Sayers reminds us that classical schools emphasized the “Trivium,” which is designed to teach students how to think, how to learn for themselves, and to become lifelong learners who love books and love learning. The Trivium is a three stage method of education that follows the normal course of childhood development.

When children are very young, their minds are like little sponges. They are most suited at this developmental stage to absorb large amounts of raw information. Classical education takes advantage of this by teaching them the grammar, or basic facts, of language, history, science, and math. This is called the grammar stage of the Trivium.

When they reach early adolescence, children begin to argue with their parents and to challenge the things they are told. At this stage of development, they are prepared to study formal logic. In the logic stage of the Trivium, they learn the rules of right thinking, logical fallacies, and are taught how to process information properly, to make fine distinctions, and to get behind the mere data to the presuppositions and philosophy underlying school subjects such as math, science, history, language, etc. No longer are students merely handed information on a platter to be stored in memory, but they are taught to think about what foundations undergird the information, the logical consistency of the information, and the logical implications of the information. Furthermore, the various subjects are integrated so that it is shown how science relates to history, how math relates to art, how science relates to literature, and so on. Our world is one great unified creation, the product of one divine mind. We need to be taught to think about all of it wholistically and in light of the total Christian world-and-life-view.

In their later years of schooling, youth become most concerned about appearances, what others think about them, and how they present themselves. Now, they are prepared to learn how to present their thoughts in ways that are attractive to others. They are ready to learn the art of beautiful communication from the best classic literary communicators of history. They are taught to write well, speak well, and read good books. It isn't enough to know the facts or to process the facts. They need to be taught how to communicate winsomely. This is called the rhetoric stage of the Trivium.

The Bible commands, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition” (Col 2:8), and Paul says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Classical Christian Education aims to help train children and young people to do this. This is the vision of Cornerstone Classical Christian Academy, which was born out of the vision of Morningview Baptist Church. I commend Cornerstone to your consideration for the education of your children.

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