Laying the Foundation

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A Catholic classical education seeks both to incorporate students into the wisdom of the Catholic tradition and to form certain habits and dispositions in the souls of students. This endeavor requires a distinct pedagogical approach, though it will obviously take a more developed form in the higher grades. It will fall to teachers in their expertise to tailor this approach to particular subjects and situations in age-appropriate ways. The following guidelines will help to cultivate those habits and dispositions. By working creatively within their parameters, teachers in the lower grades will lay a solid foundation for future work in the upper grades, while teachers in the upper grades will build upon this solid foundation.

 What You Don’t Know Hurts You Far Less Than What You Don’t Want to Know

Very few people teaching today are the beneficiaries of a classical education, and nowadays even those with some classical training have holes in their knowledge of the tradition. So it is natural to feel overwhelmed or intimidated at the prospect of such a demanding and ambitious approach, so foreign to common experience.

The nature studies program, for example, differs markedly from conventional introductions to science, and there are few resources in this area that are complete and readymade for this approach. Teachers in this as well as other areas will have to be thoughtful and creative in bending imperfect materials to fit this approach. But the most important ingredient in teaching a classical curriculum is not command of the tradition, though this is a worthy and desirable goal and should come with time. Rather, the most important thing is that "you become like this child," that teachers begin to think of themselves as students, that they fall in love with thinking and are gripped by the same fundamental human questions that animated our forebears in the tradition and created the greatness of Western and Christian culture.

Regardless of what ‘information’ a student may acquire, classical education has only truly succeeded when this desire, having become contagious, is passed from teachers to students. When this happens, teachers and students are incorporated into the ‘great conversation’ together and bound by a common love and common desire to discover the truth and make it one’s own.

 What They Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Them. (Yet.)

Remember that a classical education lays a foundation for future learning both by developing skills and by incorporating students into the great conversation of the tradition. The themes and texts introduced in the early years (e.g., Greek characters and themes) are foundational for the subsequent tradition. They will reappear frequently in later art and literature, and they will be covered again in later grades. It is therefore vital to introduce these texts and themes in the early grades even if students do not fully comprehend them. In doing so you will be cultivating dispositions, contributing to the culture and atmosphere of the school, and a common knowledge base that will be developed further later on in the curriculum. This knowledge, in turn, will deepen and perfect what is sometimes only imperfectly grasped at earlier stages.

 Stretching Minds by Stretching Language

From a very early age we want to establish a standard of excellence and promote the command and love of language. We want to nurture the ability to think about and discuss stories. We want to foster a capacity to remember and sustain attention and cultivate a love for what is noble and high. A good deal of instruction in the early grades will therefore consist in teachers reading great works of literature (e.g., children’s versions of Homer) to students over the course of a number of days. Often ‘age appropriate’ texts are less challenging (and inspiring) than great works which seem slightly out of reach. But when these texts are read slowly, with the teacher pausing to explain or discuss difficult phrases and ideas, children begin to discover the wonders of language, the power of big ideas, and to improve their own vocabulary. And they acquire a foundation for understanding most of the great Western art and literature they will encounter later in their studies and in life.

 Practice the Art of Memory

To cultivate memory, confidence, and good speaking, heavy and regular emphasis should be placed on memorization and recitation of phonics rules, math facts, and the narration and dictation of short poems, stories, and even history lessons. These skills and facts are the foundation for an active mind and set the pace for deeper learning.

 Homework: A Game the Whole Family Can Play

Because in the early grades memorization and narration precede the child’s ability to read, and because class sizes will not always allow children to perform their narrations and recitations in school, children will often have to practice narration at home with the help of a family member. Parents should be informed of this expectation in orientation prior to the start of classes, and teachers should remind parents of this responsibility at the onset of classes. This will help to achieve the additional goals of raising standards and expectations and involving parents more deeply in the education of their children.

 What Would Plato Do?

‘Socratic’ discussions should begin in the earliest grades and teach students to begin questioning and discussing stories, pictures, fables or proverbs according to four rules:

  1. Read the text carefully.
  2. Listen to what others say and don’t interrupt.
  3. Speak clearly.
  4. Give others your respect.

 Thinking With the Mind of the Ancients

As students advance in their ability, they should be encouraged to place themselves imaginatively within the historical period they are discussing in order to understand how that culture thought about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and the nature of God and man. The assignments included at the end of every chapter in Eva March Tappan’s The Story of the Greek People provide a good example that could be adapted to oral or written work.

 Is There a Text in This Class?

The use of textbooks should be minimized. This is for several reasons: to provide students a coherent history, to produce a more integrated curriculum, to introduce them to ‘primary sources’, to develop memory and a capacity for sustained attention, and to prepare them for reading great works of literature in later grades. Teachers may choose to use textbooks or other reference books for themselves in order to develop a narrative of historical continuity tailored to the school’s characteristic emphases, and some subjects (e.g., math) may require greater reliance on textbooks from students. Still, teachers should strive so far as possible for ‘textbook independence’ and to devise an oral presentation of historical material in ‘lecture’ form, as a thread on which to hang more targeted readings in primary source material, ideally, whole books.

 History and the Restless Heart

Teachers in the humanities should strive to integrate history, literature, religion and the arts so as to provide a comprehensive and coherent history which addresses the basic human questions: Who is God? Who and what is man? What is true, good, and beautiful?

 Forming the Soul One Sense at a Time

Developing what is peculiarly human in the souls of students means developing the art of noticing and the habit of attention. By definition this means developing one concentrated sense or capacity—seeing, listening, and reading— at a time. This allows students who excel at one particular ‘learning style’ to succeed, while also giving them opportunities to develop in weaker areas. Teachers should seek methods for cultivating these capacities one at a time, avoiding as far as possible multimedia presentations which dilute and diffuse attention. Instead, they should rely on a diverse range of activities (e.g., looking at artwork, listening to music, and reading of books) that develop concentration in diverse ways, ‘one sense at a time’.

 Humanizing Technology

Education develops what is most human in students: the capacity for wisdom and love which requires insightful reading, depth of thought, and the autonomy that comes from virtuous self-command. These, in turn, require disciplined habits of patience, attentiveness, memory and concentration, and a desire for what is truly good and beautiful.

The role of computers and information technologies should be critically assessed in light of these goals, and prudence should govern their use in instruction and the completion of assignments. These technologies are both a fact of contemporary life and a wonderful resource, providing access to sources of knowledge otherwise unavailable.

They should be utilized when appropriate and students should be taught to use them responsibly. However, premature or excessive use of these technologies undermines the very qualities and skills education seeks to cultivate: it inhibits the development of reading comprehension, alters the very processes of composition and calculation, and creates dependence on the technologies themselves. It also hampers the transmission of tradition by isolating students from previous generations and instilling the prejudice that new equals better. Furthermore, it isolates students from one another.

Real education therefore requires a space where children can experience a measure of freedom from these technologies and develop independently of them. Our pedagogy should help create this space by stressing personal interaction in instruction and ‘manual labor’ (e.g. handwriting) in the completion of assignments. We should encourage students to take time, attend patiently to detail, and correct mistakes. We should prioritize the insightful reading of books over the collection and manipulation of data and should use ‘instructional videos’ and other media sparingly after evaluating their quality and their effect on school culture.

Lastly, we should promote communal activity over computer games or movies during leisure time. The truly liberating answer to the problem of children's immersion in technology is not just a more responsible use of technology; it is to give them something better to love.