As Europe slowly emerged from the devastating effects of perpetual warfare and the catastrophic aftermath of the bubonic plague, there was a concerted effort to reassemble and revive any remaining fragments of sapient humanity. Surviving vestiges of academic, philosophic, and religious literature had been preserved by the monks and protected in the monasteries that were dispersed throughout the continent. It is widely acknowledged that the modern university system can trace its origins back to the efforts of these dedicated clerics of the European monasteries.
The curriculum that emerged from this era would ultimately be labeled the liberal arts and consisted of seven, comprehensive fields of study including grammar, logic, and rhetoric (known collectively as the trivium); and mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy (known as the quadrivium). The term “liberal” refers to the Latin libros or “books,” with the greater implication being that the reading of these books and studying of these subjects provided one with the necessary cognitive goods to navigate society successfully as a free citizen (liber being the Latin for “free”).
Modern interest in the Classical Christian model is often traced back to a 1947 presentation at Oxford University by British mystery writer and Dante scholar, Dorothy Sayers. In her lecture entitled, “The Lost Tools of Learning” Sayers lamented that one had to look long and hard to find any evidence that the population at large and certainly the elite few who were in positions of leadership had ever received an education. She supported her argument by citing ubiquitous grammatical errors in national publications as well as the apparent inability of most public personalities to string together more than a few cogent words at a time. Mostly Sayers argued that people had forgotten — or more likely had never been taught — how to think.
Sayers suggested instituting the trivium into the public school’s curriculum. She further explained that the medieval protocol was better understood as a methodology rather than three separate courses. In other words, in the first stage or “grammar,” students are taught the founding principles and guiding rules of a particular subject. This stage requires the kind of rote memorization and recall that typically accompanies the learning of a new language, which is why this introductory level is often referred to as the “Latin” stage.
In the second stage or “logic,” students are taught to take the bits and pieces of information acquired in the grammar stage and interact with them, looking for logical connections among the pieces, developing opinions on this newly acquired information, and then learning how to advance and defend an argument based upon this data.
In the final or “rhetoric” stage, students are encouraged to use their newly attained cognitive masteries in new and creative ways. It is at this level, which Sayers referred to as the “poetic” stage, that students apply, synthesize, evaluate, and ultimately teach and inspire others.
In 1981 theologian, writer and concerned parent Doug Wilson took Sayers’s admonitions to heart and, along with a handful of other concerned parents, founded the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho. Wilson chronicled his motivation, vision and the events that led to the school’s formation in his 1991 book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (paying obvious homage to Dorothy Sayers).
In the ensuing decades, hundreds of such Christian and Classical schools and academies have been founded across the nation. While the composition of the curricula of these schools can vary greatly — some leaning more toward the Christian end of the spectrum, others focusing more on the Classical — they have one thing in common: They offer concerned parents a viable option to the failing public school system promising to teach their kids, if nothing else, how to think and the difference between right and wrong.
As Socrates once said, “I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.”
Steve Jeck is program director for the Master of Arts (Christian and Classical Studies) at Knox Theological Seminary. www.knoxseminary.edu