Classical Education: A Direct Line to Truth

At St. Ambrose Academy in Madison, Wisc., classical education is grounded in the notion that training in the Trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – must precede specialized study in a particular field. The goal is for students to master the use of what Dorothy Sayers referred to as “The Lost Tools of Learning,” so that they can be self-learners for the rest of their lives.  These three “skill sets” are also commonly referred to as “stages,” because attention to the intellectual development of children shows that they pass through periods of growth that are more conducive to training in the different tools of the Trivium. Though we offer the same subjects, what truly sets a classical school apart is this commitment to training in the Trivium.

Grammar Stage

The grammar stage is geared toward building up a repository of knowledge from which a person can draw throughout their lives. In order to increase our intellectual inventory, we need to be adept at certain skills – observation, memorization, sequencing, categorization, and more. In early childhood, students are particularly adept at picking up these skills, as the world is full of wonder (observation) and their brains memorize new things with voracity. We focus on training in these skills and helping young children to build up a rich intellectual treasury from which to draw. In this stage, they learn the building blocks of every discipline – math facts, parts of speech, scientific terms, geography, historical dates, etc. Younger students are given the opportunity to speak their minds and to think creatively, but the focus of their training is on building up a treasury of content and experience, learning the methods by which they can make knowledge their own.

Logic Stage (Dialectic)

As students get older, they are less content with knowing that something is true and start to wonder why it is true. They begin to desire an explanation for things. Here they are trained in the skills of logic and taught how to unpack and analyze difficult material, searching for coherence and consistency. They are trained in the skills of analysis – paraphrase, summary, outlining, prioritizing, cause and effect, the structure of arguments and theorems. So many times, when teaching college courses, I’ve faced this heart-breaking situation. Having dutifully read an assigned passage, I ask the students what they thought of it, to which they reply, “I don’t know. I didn’t understand it.” This is not because the material was beyond their ability; it is because they lack the basic tools to unpack the logic of a text and discern its meaning. At St. Ambrose, we train our students to do just that, without leaving behind the goals of the grammar stage by building up their inventory with the classic and enduring texts of each age.

Rhetoric Stage

In the rhetoric stage, we turn more to the expression of ideas. Older students more naturally form their own opinions about what they are reading, but they need training in how to express these opinions in a principled, eloquent, and persuasive fashion. Again, without leaving behind the skills of the grammar or the logic stage, we focus on training in the five canons of rhetoric – invention, arrangement, elocution, memory, and delivery. Students are taught in seminar style classrooms, reading primary texts, and discussing content Socratically with their instructor or through dialogue and debate with their peers. They are then given ample opportunity for composition – both in paper and essay exam form – with dedicated feedback from their instructors.

In a college sophomore theology class, having studied Bonhoeffer’s plot to assassinate Hitler, I asked on a test, “What is your opinion of Bonhoeffer’s plan?” A student came up to my desk, pointed to the question, and said, “I can’t answer this. You haven’t told us yet.” St. Ambrose students are given ample opportunity to form sound opinions (that is, rooted in evidence and principles), as well as the training and experience to express them with elegance.

This is what it means to receive a “liberal education.” Such an education makes the mind “free” – free from the need always to be told what to think, free from the tyranny of propaganda and spin, free from the pressures of an ever-changing tide of public opinion, free to pursue and choose the true, the beautiful, the good, and the one.

In the Catholic context of St. Ambrose Academy, students are also free to pursue all truth as proceeding from and leading ultimately to Jesus Christ – to vivify their relationship with God, and to strengthen their commitment to serving the common good.

Dr. Constance Nielsen is director of classical education at St. Ambrose Academy in Madison, Wisc.

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