Preparing Younger Students for a Great Books Education

Part One: Introduction and General Issues

    THE GOAL OF A CLASSICAL LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION is to free a person (thus "liberal"= liberating) from the narrowness, rigidity, and prejudice which is the natural characteristic of our minds. The goal of a Christian classical education is to do so for the glory of God. While it is true that apart from salvation an educated person may be nothing more than an educated fool, it is also true that an ignorant Christian, no matter how godly, is limited by that ignorance; an educated Christian is a more effective servant of God because his natural abilities and talents have been developed rather than allowed to atrophy. The tradition of education in western civilization has been propelled for nearly two millenia by Christianity, during which time it has always assumed diligent training in godliness by a child's parents as an underpinning to education.

    That assumed, the liberation of a child's mind is accomplished by teaching him the following, which can be grouped according to the classical Trivium--grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the first five points)--and Theology, the King of the Sciences (the last two points):

    • to listen and read carefully; 
    • to think clearly and express himself persuasively; 
    • to comprehend his position in space, time, and culture and his relation to other places, times, and people; 
    • to appreciate and learn from the difference between his own and those other places, times, and people; 
    • to enjoy a wider range of beauty as a result of that wider exposure; 
    • to devote himself to continued learning on his own, using the tools of learning acquired in the previous five points;
    • to evaluate, and ascribe the proper significance to, all of the above in the light of a transcendent, absolute standard; 
    • to construct and defend a coherent, biblical worldview as a result of his education. 

    The goal of education is NOT to get a job.


    IN LIGHT OF THAT ONE GOAL OF LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION and the above eight objectives, what and how do we teach our children? Consider first that many different kinds of studies contribute to the "liberal" mind besides academics; music and art, for instance. There are also disciplines which are beneficial, even necessary, and which contribute to the appreciation and enjoyment of life but do not contribute significantly to that liberated condition of mind which we desire for our students; among these are athletics. There are still other areas in which children need training, such as the habits of manner and conversation which we call civilized or "gentle"; those patterns of life which make a person gracious and courteous, which make him desirable company. 

    In the present discussion I focus on academic study not because those other studies are unimportant, but rather because disciplining the mind in rigorous, propositional, linear thought about certain core subjects, and learning to appreciate and glory in the beauties of language and words, must be at the heart of education. If it is not, then those other studies will be an incoherent collection of particulars with no overarching, coherent world-view into which to fit them and with which to find real meaning for them.

    The subjects we are concerned with, then, are literature, history, languages, math, science, logic, and rhetoric. Formal logic and rhetoric are generally reserved for upper levels, so in this discussion of the preparation of younger students we will consider only the first five.


    The suggestions that follow are just that--suggestions--as the important principles behind them, drawn from the philosophy of a classical liberal arts education described above, will have very different applications in different families. Do not be trapped into comparing your family's approach to education with another family's based merely on the techniques or methods you follow--you may either panic or be tempted by pride. "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth." The manner in which you cause your child to be educated is only important insofar as it embodies the principles that are the real issue. Therefore, we will consider the principles in each case, along with some suggestions for application.

    Remember the Trivium: in all subjects, at the lower levels, focus on the memorization of facts. Use the child's capacity for absorbing and storing information, and for enjoying that process, even when he doesn't understand the information. This doesn't mean that no discussions of the logical relationships or the poetic beauty of things will arise, just that the emphasis in younger children's minds is less on logic and rhetoric than on the grammar of things.

Part Two: the Subjects

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