A Great Books Education
A brief description and history of the classical Christian approach

By Suzanne Reid

    One of the monumental tasks of practicing homeschooling is considering how to "practice" it. A mother may ask herself, "How do I organize twelve years of learning so that the education is comprehensive and develops as my child matures?" "How can I train my child's God-given talents for the highest and best use in God's kingdom?"
    One way to best answer these questions is to prayerfully evaluate family goals and select an educational approach that best suits the individuals of the family. An educational approach provides the homeschool a system within which to teach. The annual, overwhelming task of selecting curriculum disappears because the choice to follow an approach narrows the selection of curriculum. Selecting an educational approach automatically eliminates a myriad of publishers, which produce wonderful curriculum but do not follow the selected approach. While many approaches exist, this article addresses the classical and Christian approach, or Great Books education.

    Centuries old, the classical method has been the educational model of Western Civilization and has enjoyed a resurgence among Christian educators during the last thirty years. Reacting to society's popular educational model, which dumbs down learning for today's students, many Christian thinkers and educators are returning to the classical model. In an age when our citizenry struggles with reading a newspaper and analyzing political propaganda for itself, the pedagogical (of or relating to an education, ie. educational) goal of classical education is "to teach men how to learn for themselves," according to Dorothy Sayers.
    Dorothy Sayers, a prominent British author during the 1940s and friend to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, inspired this return to the classical method with her famous essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning." In her seminal essay, which she originally presented at Oxford in 1947, Miss Sayers laments the fact that the European education of her day was not producing thinking individuals and that society should return to the medieval "Trivium" model of education. She argues that the Trivium is a rigorous education that is best suited to basic human nature because it corresponds to a child's mental and developmental stages.
    The Trivium model of education contains three stages-Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. The Grammar stage occurs between ages 9-11 when a student possesses a natural ability to memorize large amounts of material, even though they may not understand its implication. At this level the student memorizes facts, multiplication tables, history dates, English grammar, Latin or Greek. As the child ages (12-14), she moves into the Dialectic stage where she begins to question the world around her, based on the information gathered in the Grammar stage. At this stage the child studies logic and complex writing skills. Accomplishing this level by ages 14-16, the child transitions into the final phase of the Classical Trivium-the Rhetoric period. Here the student moves beyond the logical sequence of arguments to learning how to present them in a persuasive oral form. At this level, the student would continue work in writing, and practicing speech and debate.
    The objectives of classicists such as Sayers resonate with many homeschoolers. Classicists oppose the educational values of the progressives, which became the foundation for our current public educational system. Early in the 20th century, progressives such as John Dewey believed education was a forum for experience and training in social enculturation. On the other hand, classicists believe that the goal of education is wisdom and virtue.
    Despite this quest for truth, classical education isn't without its faults. Douglas Wilson, a leader in the classical Christian movement does an excellent job describing the different types of classical education. He says three types emerge-pagan classicism, mixed classicism and Christian classicism. The last is the form we Christian homeschoolers want to practice. Doug says, "Many Christian parents rightly have a problem with an education that prominently features the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, pagan myths and heroes, etc." He says the biblical, classical education is the form we want to achieve, one where knowledge is based on the Bible and not on the insights of the great thinkers of Western Civilization. Once a student is trained to evaluate culture from the yardstick of the Bible, she can study history, literature, rhetoric and art-the breadth of human achievement-what some call the "Great Books," and learn from man's mistakes. As in every facet of life, classical education can only be successful when built upon the foundation of God's Word.
    Many inspirational leaders today teach that one of the major goals of homeschooling is to train up a generation of Christian thinkers who will impact our culture as leaders in media, law, medicine, the arts, etc. In looking how to do that, many parents are drawn to this Great Books approach that has prepared many of the leaders of Western Civilization for the last two thousand years, yet these parents feel unprepared to follow such a rigorous, demanding educational approach. The good news is that one does not have to follow the approach exactly as the local Classical Christian School. As homeschoolers, we have the privilege to pray and seek God's direction for each of our children. What a blessing! Additionally many wonderful families have gone before us with successful graduates of the classical Christian homeschool and have written books. One such family is the Bluedorns.
    Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn have been writing about the classical Christian approach to homeschooling since 1989, and their book Teaching the Trivium, Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style, is, in my opinion, the best resource for the homeschooler on this topic. From chapter two of the book, the Bluedorns give us this encouraging thought:

Homeschoolers are raising a generation of custom-built children - no factory models here. We want to keep it that way. The classical model and method for education leaves plenty of room for the several different approaches to homeschooling - from Charlotte Mason to Konos. The goal of a classical style of Homeschooling is to tutor children in those skills, which will make them able to teach themselves whatever they need to learn throughout their life. Our purpose is to show you that you can homeschool in a classical style with a Christian vision, and without buckling under the burden.

    With resources such as those that the Bluedorns offer, we homeschoolers actually can "try this at home." A classical Christian education is within our reach. With God's grace and our humble petitions before Him, He will do a beautiful work in our children's education and in our family life.
    As I think on God's Providence, I realize the importance of expressing the one important point regarding the classical method-the necessity of giving credit to Whom credit is due. It is vital that both the parents and the children remember their calling as they follow this educational approach. The children will grow in great knowledge of history and literature, not for the purpose of dominating their peers, but to serve their peers. The Bible cautions, "Knowledge puffs up." (1 Cor. 8:1) In this classical Christian method, many have grown to believe that they are superior, as many homeschoolers believe about themselves. We all need to daily remember that it is God who bestows our mental capabilities, and we are to serve Him with our talents.
    Looking at my family's homeschool past, I am blessed that God introduced me to homeschooling and to the classical Christian method. Studying alongside my children the chronological history, beginning with Genesis and using the Veritas history cards, along with the Shearer's history and other resources, I am amazed at how God has raised up men and women throughout history at the appropriate time-His time-to accomplish His work, for His glory! I realize I am a part of that history, preparing my children for His work. There is no better calling!
    When I first started this method twelve years ago, it was difficult to find resources with which to consult. Today, a myriad of websites, blogs, catalogs and curriculum exist to support the classical Christian homeschool. I have included just a few wonderful resources for you to research, to expand you homeschool, and to bless your efforts.


Reference Books
Teaching the Trivium, Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn. This 640-page book takes you by the hand, step-by-step, through the classical method. This is a fantastic, encouraging book, full of much wisdom and practical experience. To order this book, or learn more about the Bluedorns and how to classically train at home, go to their website, http://www.triviumpursuit.com/. You can read reviews of this book, blogs by Harvey and Laurie, and so much more.

The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. This 764-page book is second, in my mind, to the Bluedorn's. It carefully details how to practice the Trivium down to the selection of the very curriculum to purchase. My criticism with this book is its obvious void of establishing a Christian Worldview. Trying to appeal to a larger audience, the authors direct the reader to the practice of any religion in discussions of teaching ethics or theology. As suggested earlier in this article, teaching the classics without the anchor of a Christian worldview would fall under the category of pagan classicism.

Veritas Press, available at http://www.veritaspress.com/. Started by Martin Detweiler, this is an amazing resource for all of your classical curriculum needs.

Greenleaf Press, available at http://www.greenleafpress.com/. Founded by Rob and Cyndy Shearer and their family, this is a great resource of history and literature with a solid Christian worldview. I love these guys.

Escondido Tutorial Services, conducted by Fritz Hinrichs. Contact http://www.gbt.org/. Fritz has organized an amazing resource for classical education. He publishes great articles written by many leaders in the movement on why one would choose classical education. He offers resources, online tutorials, online monthly lectures, etc. If you are interested in enrolling your child in an online course, Fritz offers courses and recommends others on his website.

Veritas Press, available at http://www.veritaspress.com/. Just this last year, they have started online tutorials employing thoughtful Christian teachers. As with most of the resources recommended here, Veritas Press is available by phone to respond to your questions and support your quest for veritas (truth).

Suzanne Reid is a former board member of ICHE and long-time home school mom. She and her husband home educated their two children from inception through high school graduation. Now that her children have completed college and are married, Suzanne is enjoying dating her husband and being a homeschool grandma. She has also returned to her graphic design business and is building websites for small business owners.

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