How does the classical method help students to think, organize, and draw conclusions about their world?
Central to the classical approach is the integration of subjects, organized around a historical timeline. Literature, composition, science, art, and mathematics are connected to the time periods in which they developed. Students engage with rigorous content and themes from the Western tradition that prepare them far beyond basic standards, resulting in a sense of greater understanding and true accomplishment. They learn to discern what is true, good, and beautiful as they model after their instructors; they develop a new degree of emotional, spiritual, physical, and academic independence.
This type of education originated in the Greco-Roman classical period, but was not categorized until the Middle Ages. Thence, the terms Trivium (three language arts) and Quadrivium (four mathematical arts) came to represent the whole of a liberal arts education. We put an emphasis on all seven of these arts in an age-appropriate manner. For example, the three arts of the Trivium—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric—provide a clear progression of study consistent with human cognitive and developmental growth.
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Trinity Christian School emphasizes the study of Latin for two reasons. First, Latin benefits students practically. The study of Latin helps students master English grammar and vocabulary and improve their writing and rhetorical skills. The opportunity to study Latin through secondary school also allows students to become proficient in a second language. In 2013, two of the four students who studied Latin 8th through 12th Grade at Trinity tested out of all their college language credit, and one finished a minor in Latin because the college waived two required Latin classes. Additionally, Latin provides a strong foundation for learning other languages, especially Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian, which derive more than 80% of their vocabulary from Latin.
The second reason our students learn Latin is to help them appreciate the wisdom of their forefathers and to cultivate an understanding of moral virtue and aesthetic judgment. More than merely training students in grammar and vocabulary, language draws students into a specific culture. Studying Latin allows students to enter the tradition of knowledge represented by Western Civilization and to read the original texts of the Church Fathers and renowned classical authors. In our Latin Readings classes at Trinity (11th and 12th grade), students read unabridged texts and discuss their religious, political, and moral implications and their cultural relevance. They read selections from Augustine and discuss the impact of his thought on modern theories of international relations. They examine the word choice of the Nicene Creed, discover how Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows borrowed from the themes and literary devices of Virgil’s Aeneid, and translate Cicero’s In Catilinam and then watch a senator reading it on the floor of the U.S. Senate. This year, after returning from the Grand Tour where they saw Michelangelo’s representation of the Cumaean Sibyl in the Sistine Chapel, the seniors translated Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue and considered how Augustine, Dante, and C.S. Lewis interpreted its messianic themes. In these ways, as in many others, the study of Latin allows our students see how the philosophies of early Christian thought and Western authors continue to hold relevance for our own time.
Why do we study what has come to be called “the great books”? Speaking frankly, what are the great books, and why do they matter?
At Trinity Christian School, we have our students engage the great literary works of the past because we believe that a healthy human life is lived within a story which provides a past, a present, and a future. More than merely exposing our students to the “great ideas” of Western Civilization, more than filling their brains with nuggets of “historical fact,” even more than teaching them mere “moral lessons” from those texts which happen to be called great, we believe that the purpose of great literature is to draw students into that story which is the human experience – and that that story is a story with a past, a present, and a future.
Receiving neat moral lessons, knowing the right facts, being furnished with the right skills, does not have the power to form and to transform students the way that “story” does. For while moral lessons or historical facts familiarize us with the grammar of the human drama (war, coronation, agriculture, adultery, murder, etc.), stories bring us into the reality.
The Iliad’s great worth (to select but one classic example) does not lay in that it teaches us some moral lesson about controlling our anger; there are shorter and less graphic ways of doing so. Nor is it that it fills us with a great wealth of historical data; scholars debate much of the data surrounding the Trojan War… including the date. Its worth lies in how it incorporates us into the saga and the dilemma of human life. It demands that we answer hard questions (about killing, about relationships, about the idea of truth itself, about human society). As we read the “great books,” we enter into the quest for Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.
The books that have come to be called “great” are called that for just this reason: that they demand a reckoning with all those paradoxes, vicissitudes, wonders, and truths that are too vast to be crammed into an easy answer. As we read the “great books,” we enter into the quest for Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. And, insofar as the “great books” do this, they bring us into an encounter with the Person of God, Who is simultaneously incommensurable, and therefore in some sense beyond all answers, and, at the same time, owing to the death-and-resurrection of a 1st century Jewish rabbi, the Answer Himself.
In short, we read the “great books” because we unapologetically seek to instill in our students a hunger—no, a burning desire—to be fully human in the way that God intended us to be: to love what has been commanded, to desire what is true, and to love what is beautiful. Reading the “great books” sets us upon such a journey.