The poet T.S. Eliot once asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” It is helpful to think of classical education as an answer to Eliot’s lament. The stages of a classical education move students through the accumulation of information to the formation of knowledge, which is then directed toward the pursuit of wisdom through the cultivation of eloquence.
Educational reformers of various stripes have insisted on opposing the mastery of content to critical thinking or the acquisition of skills, and they pay no attention to beauty or wisdom. Classical education recognizes the value of each and incorporates them all into a model that seeks to cultivate informed, thoughtful, and articulate students.
The trivium—Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric—provides the structure of classical education. Chronologically, the three stages of the trivium roughly correspond with grammar school (K-6), middle school (7-8), and high school (9-12). At each stage, instruction emphasizes the skills that are developmentally appropriate for the students: memorization in the grammar stage, critical thinking in the dialectic stage, and compelling communication in the rhetoric stage. Naturally, the stages and skills are not neatly sequestered in each stage. Students in grammar stage will have occasion to practice rhetorical skills and critical thinking. Students in the rhetoric stage will still need to commit new knowledge to memory and hone their critical thinking.
We can also understand Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric as three layers of any discipline or subject that always overlap. Grammar stresses the accumulation of information and mastery of fundamentals. Dialectic emphasizes the passage from mere information to knowledge, which requires logic and critical thinking. Finally, Rhetoric trains students to communicate effectively and encourages them to apply their knowledge to the pursuit of wisdom.
While the trivium provides the general structure of a classical education, the goal is the moral formation of the student. In Greek culture, the goal of education was to align the soul with the transcendental order of the cosmos. There were three parts of the soul: thumos, logos, and eros. We might think of these, roughly, as our guts, mind, and heart or our capacity to achieve goodness, discover the truth, and enjoy the beautiful. These capacities corresponded to the three transcendent and eternal values, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, to which even the gods were subject. Christians adopted and adapted this model of education. The retained the emphasis on the formation of the soul and the ideal of conforming the soul to an eternal and transcendent standard. Christians, however, understood this standard to be grounded in the nature of God. Having been made in God’s image, human beings do have a capacity to achieve goodness, discover the truth, and enjoy the beautiful. In doing so, we learn that whatever truth, goodness, or beauty we encounter in this world is a reflection of the Triune God, whose character is the measure and source of all truth, goodness, and beauty.
The goal of a classical education at Smith Prep, then, is particularly ambitious: cultivating in our students a love for the good, the beautiful, and the true that will be a foundation for a life in service to God. Our program seeks to train the hearts and the minds of our students in order to furnish them with the tools necessary to glorify and enjoy God through their individual callings.
If you would like to know more about classical education, we recommend Dorothy Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning” and Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education.
Christian humanism affirms of the dignity of the human person because it first affirms the wisdom, grace, and goodness of God, our Creator and Redeemer. We seek truth because God is Truth; we pursue what is good because God is Good; we rejoice in what is beautiful because God is the source of all Beauty.
Unfortunately, humanism is a word that has fallen into disrepute among Christians by its recent association with the adjective secular. At Smith Prep, however, we are committed to the recovery of a distinctly Christian humanism. There can be, in fact, no truly secular humanism. As many astute thinkers have noted, the “death of God” leads finally to the death of man: the devaluing of the human person and the disarray of human culture. This is why we believe a recovery of Christian humanism is in order.
What we mean by Christian humanism is simple: a commitment to human flourishing informed by a biblical understanding of the human person. Our educational philosophy is grounded in this commitment.
As human beings made in God’s image, we are uniquely equipped to receive creation as God’s gift and return to Him our service, gratitude, and praise. We are, in other words, created to worship and enjoy God through our stewardship of His Creation. Work, family life, the arts, politics—the whole of human culture is a product of this mandate. Consequently, we believe an education ordered by the ideals of Christian humanism will lead students to appreciate, celebrate, and promote whatever is true, good, and beautiful in our cultural heritage. It will also equip students to faithfully and joyfully fulfill their own calling to love God and love their neighbors.