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The Trivium and Charlotte Mason

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By Laurie Bluedorn

Are the Classical Approach and the Charlotte Mason Approach two homeschool approaches so opposite from each other that they cannot be reconciled? Or is it possible to use a combination of these two approaches? Let’s look at each of these approaches separately and see what are the similarities and differences.

The Classical Approach is the more difficult to define. The words ‘classic’ and ‘classical’ mean different things to different people. In the narrowest sense of the term, a classical education might mean to study, in the original languages, the literature written during the classical periods, the time when Greece and Rome ruled the world (from Homer to the 6th century AD). The study of this literature would include reading the literature, analyzing and discussing the ideas contained in the literature, comparing, debating, and refuting the ideas.

A modern adaptation of the Classical Approach follows the Medieval Trivium—which consists of the three formal subjects of Grammar, Logic (or Dialectic), and Rhetoric. Dorothy Sayers converted this into three stages of child development.

The first subject/stage is Grammar (from birth through about age 12) which teaches the mastery of the elements of a language. In learning Grammar, the student gained skill in comprehension. He learned to accurately receive Knowledge. Knowledge is the accumulation of the specifics, the facts, through the accurate observation of reality. This is achieved by teaching the child to read in his own native language, and then learning the Latin and Greek languages. One reads to the child from a wide range of subjects. After the child has learned to read for himself, he is then directed to read books of lasting value. These could be called ‘classics,’ though they are not ancient ‘classics’ from the ‘classical’ period. He is encouraged to avoid books of little literary value. The parent further exercises the child’s mind by having him ‘tell back’ what he has just read or heard. The child is required to memorize portions of literature, poetry and prose, in order to add to this goal of developing the child’s mastery of the elements of the language.

Knowledge (Grammar) comes through the senses. It is imparted through telling and demonstrating. The child develops a vocabulary of facts and rules. The goal is to develop competence in the tools of inquiry: reading, listening, writing, observing, and measuring. Self-control and moral conscience are developed in this stage. The child must be given plenty of time to play and explore. He must be taught to obey and to work and serve others. He must be given time and the tools to develop his artistic abilities. He learns to compose simple letters, stories, or journal entries. Concerning art and music, the parent will want to surround the child with the best in art prints and expose him to classical music from an early age. The Grammar stage is the most important because it develops an appetite or love for learning in the child. It is here he develops an inquiring mind. We are giving our students the basic tools, which they need for self-education.

The second subject/stage is Logic (from about age 13 through 15) which teaches the mastery of statements, definitions, arguments, and fallacies. Logic gives the student skill in reasoning. He learns to critically analyze and understand. Understanding, or Logic, is the questioning stage. When the child is at the Understanding stage, he learns to evaluate the relationships between items of information. Understanding is the investigation of theory. It is the discernment of causes, motives, means, purposes, goals, and effects. It is the skill of intelligent insight. Understanding occurs in the mind. It is imparted through coaching and correcting the thinking process. The child develops a vocabulary of relationships and order, of actions and abstractions. Your goal is to develop competence in the tools of investigation: analyzing, comparing, and contrasting. This stage develops self-discipline and moral discernment.

But how do we, in practical terms, accomplish this in our children? Here are a few suggestions. The student can now be expected to read more difficult works. Introduce him to essays, plays, and orations. Use ‘real’ books here, primary sources, not watered down, predigested abridgements. In mathematics, he will move on to algebra and geometry. He will study a course in formal Logic. Here he will study the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning and learn all of the different fallacies and types of faulty reasoning. He is introduced to speech and debate. The parent will want to teach him to compose essays, book reviews, and editorials. And most important of all, the parent will engage the student in lively conversation, encourage him to respectfully inquire and dispute, and teach him to question, not in a rebellious way, but in order to ‘prove all things.’ He is not to question proper authority, but he is to find the proper authority, not simply accept things uncritically.

The third subject/stage is Rhetoric (from about age 16 and above) which teaches the mastery of creative and persuasive speech. Rhetoric gives the student skill in communication. He learns to wisely and effectively express and put into practice what he has understood. Rhetoric (or Wisdom) is the ability to apply the appropriate action or practice in a particular situation or circumstance. Wisdom comes from education which is directed toward practical goals, through encouraging individual initiative and innovation, and through asking questions which draw out what is in the student and which lead to action. The student develops a vocabulary of philosophical principles, values, and goals, and seeks their application. Self-confidence (not self-esteem) and moral activism are developed in this stage. At this level, the student begins to recombine the Knowledge (Grammar) and Understanding (Logic) from separate disciplines into a cohesive whole. Rhetoric involves such things as: the command of the language; the effective choice of words; skill in phrasing; clear and precise expression; accurate and interesting communication; eloquent, impressive and persuasive speech. How do we accomplish this in our children? The student will pursue in more depth: speech, debate, and essay writing. He may publish his own newsletter or web page, or participate in various contests.

Now that I have described the Classical Approach and how one might apply it to homeschooling, what about the Charlotte Mason Approach? If you reread the previous three paragraphs, but omitted all reference to the Trivium, Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, what would you see? Would you see narration? This is an essential part of the Charlotte Mason Approach but it also fits very well into the Classical Approach. Narration builds and strengthens the mind, which is what all Classical Approach and Charlotte Mason Approach people strive to do. The Charlotte Mason Approach encourages children to have a love for learning, which leads them to self-education. Again, this idea is at the center of the Classical Approach. There is an emphasis on ‘whole books’ and ‘living books’ in the Charlotte Mason Approach. No argument here with the Classical Approach. Charlotte Mason encouraged nature walks and the making of nature notebooks. This fits very well with the Grammar stage of the Classical Approach. We want our children to learn to observe and record their observations. There seems to be one difference between the Charlotte Mason Approach and the Classical Approach. The Classical Approach emphasizes the study of Latin and Greek, whereas Charlotte Mason emphasized French.

In a recent issue of Practical Homeschooling, Karen Andreola noted that "Charlotte’s method is in disagreement with Dorothy Sayers’ strong emphasis on memory work in the early grades." "A true intellectual life is not achieved by exercising children’s minds as if they were nothing but memory machines." I would have to diverge from Dorothy Sayers here also. Remember, Dorothy Sayers’ essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" is just one person’s suggestion on how to apply the Trivium. I see little value in memorizing, at a young age, random groups of facts (dates, geographical facts, Latin chants, etc.). Rather, there is much value in memorizing passages of literature—both prose and poetry. I think we have Miss Mason’s approval here.

In my mind, the Charlotte Mason Approach and the Classical Approach go together like two peas in a pod. They complement and re-enforce each other. When combined, they will enrich your homeschool experience.

This article was reprinted from Teaching the Trivium Magazine, Trivium Pursuit PMB 168, 429 Lake Park Blvd., Muscatine, Iowa 52761 http://www.triviumpursuit.com/. The magazine is now out of print, but many additional articles and resources are available at their website.

Copyright © 1999 Laurie Bluedorn

Copyright ©  2005  Eclectic Homeschool Association

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