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May 2016

A classical education reading list

In recent years my thinking about school-level education improvement has focused almost exclusively on pedagogy and how we can create more student-centered and instructionally responsive learning environments. But over the last year, my interests have shifted back toward curriculum as the centerpiece of education.  I've argued that we can't really teach kids how to think, if we don't give them something meaningful to think about, and the content of that something matters very much.  I've argued that wedding a rigorous curriculum with student-centered learning may represent the best of both worlds, especially in terms of revitalizing Catholic schools.  And I've become enamored with classical curriculum as the best hope for offering just such an education.

Classical education is a language-rich approach to curriculum that emphasizes history, science, art, and great literature as the foundation of learning and expects students to develop a well-trained mind adept at logic and rhetoric and capable of participating in the Great Conversation of ideas that has shaped and driven the development of Western civilization.  It represents the best of what is sometimes conceived as a "liberal arts" education, though that term has become so watered down as to be nearly meaningless, and classical education does not shy away from mathematics and hard sciences but rather provides a strong foundation for advanced studies in all disciplines.  Above all classical education understands that education should primarily be about the acquisition of virtue, and only secondarily about vocational preparation.

I want to share some of the key books and essays that have informed my understanding of classical education.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but represents where I have started my own journey.  I did not read these books in the order that follows; I discovered them more haphazardly, but have sequenced them in the order I think makes most sense for someone exploring these topics for the first time.

Start with Dorothy Sayers' 1948 essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning," which is foundational to the modern movement for classical education.  Sayers describes the Trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric that framed medieval education. According to Sayers, the early grades should focus on intensive absorption of a rich and varied, language-based curriculum.  In direct contrast to our modern trend of reserving social studies and science for the upper grades, classical education incorporates science and history from the earliest grades onward, along with the study of classical languages like Greek and Latin.  By the middle grades, students should be introduced to dialectic (logic) and start to synthesize all the content they've learned previously.  And finally the upper grades should have a focus on rhetoric, or argumentation, in which students learn to articulate their own ideas and opinions with evidence from the treasure trove of world civilization and participate fully in a virtuous life as adult and citizen.

Well trained mindNext, to get a clearer idea of what this looks like in practice, I recommend Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.  While Bauer's intended audience is homeschooling families, anyone seeking a grade-by-grade breakdown of the kinds of subjects and activities students in classical education might encounter (along with recommendations on specific book titles, text series, and other materials) will benefit.

Likewise, I recommend the St. Jerome Classical School's curriculum plan for another carefully-crafted sequence of classical materials.  St. Jerome's curriculum, like the one presented by Bauer, is explicitly Christian.  But I've been excited to learn about Great Hearts Academies, a chain of charter schools in Arizona and Texas, that offers a classical curriculum in a non-sectarian environment, suggesting that classical education isn't just for faith-based schools.

After understanding the basics of classical education, I recommend readers explore its philosophical foundations with David Hicks's 1981 book, Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, and Christopher Dawson's fantastic work, The Crisis of Western Education, published in 1961.  Dawson describes how education has been historically undermined and taken over by various secularist ideologies, and argues that without a strong system of learning founded on the concept of universal truth, the very fabric of free society is vulnerable.

Finally, if you are interested in Christian, and especially Catholic education, I recommend the late Stratford Caldecott's lovely book, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education.  Caldecott's was actually the first book I read about classical education, and the gateway to my interest in the topic.  More recent, and slightly more accessible, is Ryan N. S. Topping's The Case for Catholic Education: Why Parents, Teachers, and Politicians Should Reclaim the Principles of Catholic Pedagogy, which I reviewed here.

Lest you think all of this has limited relevance the world of Common Core-beholden P-12 public schools, I urge you to consider the work of Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  Among many other education topics, Pondiscio writes about the need for a stronger, content-based curriculum in the early grades.  In this recent blog post, he argues that in the NCLB/ESSA era schools have started emphasizing reading as a skill so heavily that vital subject material that actually builds students' academic vocabulary (and thus reading comprehension) is routinely undermined.  And the effects of this imbalance are most negative for students of poverty who don't necessarily get exposed to a rich vocabulary and cultural experiences away from school.

Pondiscio argues for a much richer and more rigorous curriculum in the early grades, especially for public schools that serve large numbers of low-income children.  The Common Core friendly Core Knowledge Foundation (where Pondiscio used to work) offers just such a curriculum, and while it isn't exactly the same thing as classical education, the parallels are clear.

And so is the case that the content of what our children learn matters a lot, perhaps now more than ever.

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