What To Teach
If we want to be a classical school, what should we teach?
Since education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, and since wisdom and virtue are cultivated when a soul is nourished on truth, goodness, and beauty, we must teach our children truth, goodness, and beauty. The wise person understands the world he lives in (natural science and history) and has standards by which to distinguish what is from what ought to be (ethics and politics). The wise person knows the causes of things, and therefore is able to order things rightly and to judge things justly. Wisdom appears at different levels and in different kinds. The virtuous person is disciplined, purposeful, and focused in his thinking and behavior. In education we cultivate the moral virtues, the physical virtues, and the intellectual virtues. By refining all of them, we are enabled to bring them into a harmony that we can justly call integrity. Young people become wise and virtuous when their souls feed on truth, goodness, and beauty. The only way a person can perceive truth, goodness, and beauty is if these virtues are embodied or incarnated and he is then disciplined in their imitation. For this reason, the classical school is careful to use books and artifacts that embody the true, the good, and the beautiful.
What does this look like in a curriculum?
Great books and works of art are those that most explicitly and vividly embody truth, goodness, and beauty. Therefore a classical school uses the great books and works of art that have been handed down to us. All learning can be said to develop one of three things: knowledge of content, understanding of ideas, and mastery of skills. “The Paideia Plan” refers to these three objectives as “the three columns” and has shown that each must be taught differently. The foundation of all learning is what Dr. James Taylor has called “poetic knowledge,” which is a personal kind of knowledge, not merely a cognitive form of knowing with the mind. In other words, you will often have poetic knowledge without being conscious of it. The foundation of the curriculum is the seven liberal arts, which prepare for the classical sciences and for life. The seven liberal arts consist of the three verbal arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the four mathematical arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music or harmonics, and astronomy).
The classical sciences are the natural sciences, the humane sciences, the philosophical sciences, and the theological sciences.
What is the order of learning?
By its nature, learning begins with poetic knowledge. It then lays its foundation in the seven liberal arts, after which it ascends in order through the natural sciences, the humane sciences, and the philosophical sciences, until it reaches its fullness in the theological sciences. It is not possible to ascend this ladder in any other order. Therefore, while a curriculum can be ordered in any order the leadership of a school desires, the student can only learn in the order prescribed by nature. We heartily recommend, therefore, that the school curriculum align with the curriculum prescribed by nature and nature’s God.
What are the great ideas?
“Ideas” provide the ordering principles and the objectives of content and skills. The reason some content matters more than other content matters is because of the ideas it embodies (for example, the battle of Gettysburg is a more important bit of historical content than the name of Robert E. Lee’s horse because it embodies more ideas and more significant ideas than the name of Lee’s horse embodies; it is also more historically decisive). Classical education moves toward, prioritizes, and revolves around ideas. The great ideas are those that best help us understand the God, humankind, and the world we live in. Since we think both with and about ideas, the classical school orders its instruction to and around the great ideas. See the bottom of this page for 15 great ideas that instruction should embody.
The goal of education is to appropriately embody ideas in our conduct, thoughts, and creations.
Ideas should be planned into the curriculum at three levels:
- Ideas the permeate the whole curriculum at all times. These are the transcendent ideas listed at the bottom of this page.
- Ideas that unify and guide reflection in a given domain of knowing (arts, sciences, subjects, etc.). Each “subject” is different from others because of the knowledge it gives and the way it gets that knowledge. Therefore, science pursues a different kind of understanding than history or art. Consequently, each subject revolves around and/or focuses on ideas or truths that are unique to it. For example, the importance of succession is an important historical idea, while generation and decomposition are important scientific ideas, while form and content are important literary ideas. Many ideas can be applied to other subjects by analogy.
- Ideas that apply to a given grade or to a subject area assigned to a given grade. For example, third grade might be studying medieval history, so the idea of knighthood could be profitably assigned to that subject in that grade.
When should we begin the study of the sciences?
This is a tricky question, because so much turns on the way you are using the word science. Strictly speaking, a student can study any of the sciences, using the term classically, only to the degree to which he has mastered the seven liberal arts. So in one sense, it is not possible to study the sciences before around 11th grade. Does that mean lower school children should not study the sciences at all in any way? No. A younger student is able to study the sciences for at least two reasons: One, he has some mastery of the seven liberal arts, so he can study them to some degree. For example, he can, in varying degrees, read, so he can read about the sciences. However, the teacher must understand that a student is not learning to do science when he is reading about science. He is learning how to read (grammar) and he is learning about science, but until he is able to engage in scientific inquiry he is not doing science. Two, he is human, so he can study them poetically (whole, living, organic—with mind and senses together).
The second reason is by far the most important and helpful. The “grammar level” student should poetically encounter the world he lives in. That is, he should experience it whole and alive through his senses. Later he will dissect dead things and engage in other analytical studies. But when he is young he should experience natural things naturally, not, as we might say today, “scientifically.” He should have a garden plot, climb trees, splash in rivers and creeks, catch frogs, etc. Reading about science should be limited and should be controlled by students’ experiences, not the marketing designs of textbook publishers. We highly recommend photographs, drawings, recordings and other sensual aids to learn about groups of natural objects, such as rocks, clouds, insects, etc. In the Dialectic years, students can begin to study the natural world more analytically, but they mustn’t lose touch with the wonder of it. This is a great age for collections. The various scientific categories can be introduced at this age. Children can learn words like geology, physiology, zoology, etc. In the dialectic years, we recommend that students learn the more concrete sciences first. During the upper school (rhetoric stage) years, your students should be ready for the more abstract sciences of physics, biology, and chemistry. Once they have mastered the seven liberal arts (ideally, around tenth grade), they can be set free on the natural sciences as natural sciences.
The humane, philosophical, and theological sciences are beyond the capacity of a high school student to master. The high school teacher, however, must understand them as well as possible as they will necessarily inform all his instruction (see below, the order of being). In addition, the high school student must be told what the authorities have to say about these matters because only by imitating the authorities can they ever become authorities themselves. For example, moral authorities have always taught that fornication is unethical. The student is not in a position to thoroughly understand the arguments for and against this position. He is, therefore, required by necessity to follow an authority. It is the duty of the teacher/parent to ensure that this authority is genuinely authoritative as the health of the child’s soul depends on it.
15 Ideas that every curriculum should seek to embody: