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    Educational Philosophy

    Classical Education: Is Sayers the Only Way?

    August 4, 2010 by Brandy Vencel
    But the exercise of the memory does not mean
    the wearing the pupil out
    by requiring him to learn things off by heart;
    but the frequent and sufficient presentation
    of things clearly understood,
    till, of their own accord,
    they adhere.

    [dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver on the Charlotte Mason Education Ning Network, I was asked this question:

    I’m curious, where did the idea of applying the trivium to stages of a child’s life come from? I’ve heard it was Dorothy Sayers, but I’m curious what the reasoning was for it. Was there any research, historical practice, or anything else that anyone is aware of that this practice stems from? I’m thinking it must have some solid ground with followers like Doug Wilson, Sproul, etc. It is foundational in the classical approach so I wonder. Because if it is true, then it would follow that CMers are missing opportunities to implant knowledge via memorization in the early years. But then I suppose CM’s methods come only from her writings as well. Maybe it’s just my aversion to rote memorization and grammar that deters me from that part of classical ed.

    Classical Education: Is Dorothy Sayers the Only Way

    This is something I’ve been thinking about myself for quite some time, and I’m going to try and offer my thoughts upon the subject, as long as we establish that I am {1} not an expert, {2} only telling you what I know and think {which is very little in comparison with certain other people named Andrew Kern} and {3} in possession of a generous amount of angst when it comes to memory work.

    And also math.

    And spelling.

    And what is for dinner tonight.


    I have developed opinions on Sayers et. al. over the last year or so which are not typical, but are also not as rare as I once thought. Personally, I think that Sayers’ speech The Lost Tools of Learning {which which I understand was given at a fundraiser and was meant to get people thinking rather than be an absolute standard for classical education} appealed to the modern mind’s desire to organize, categorize, and divide the educational process. I’m not saying the speech was bad, for I find a lot of helpful ideas in it, and I try to read it once per year, but I also think there is much to be wary of.

    It also helps to remember that Sayers was a Medieval Scholar and likely got her inspiration from reading the educational works of the Middle Ages.

    Because of this, we can look at Comenius as reference {since that is who I’ve been studying lately — but Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince is pretty incredible, from what I hear, and there are many others — Martin Luther comes to mind — whose works we can read today}, to see if what Sayers wrote at all resembles what the ancients did.

    Comenius DID divide his students into large age ranges, each governed by a different school. For instance, from 0 to 6, he had what he called the Mother School. Charlotte would have loved this! The school focused on gaining knowledge of real things through the senses, intuition, the bond with the family — Poetic Knowledge! The child in Mother School would learn the names for many things, from colors to constellations, and rudimentary knowledge of geography, mathematics, economics, and so on. Beginning dialectic was taught through conversational question-and-answer sessions where adequate answers were required of the child. Likewise, early grammar was taught through conversational instruction in right articulation. Early rhetoric was taught through the introduction of the use of metaphor and proper vocal inflection. Interestingly enough, early morality was learned through … formation of proper habits.

    Does Charlotte have a kindred spirit here or what?

    In reading this, we see that while Sayers divided the Trivium into pieces and assigned grammar to young children, dialectic to middle-schoolers, and rhetoric to teens and above, Comenius did no such thing, expecting the Trivium to be kept intact at even preschool ages. Granted, his focus made allowances for age-appropriateness, which is why the emphasis in the younger years was on what could be grasped through use of the five external senses, but when Sayers implied that we might save dialectic for preteens, she was saying something new.

    The next level of Comenius’ model was called Vernacular School and it was for ages 6-12 {vernacular, because the instruction was in the child’s native tongue}. At this age, they moved to internal senses {intuition in regard to causes, development of the will}, began reading, writing, drawing, making music, measuring, weighing, and memorizing.

    I did a little research on this memorizing portion — the medievals were very big on memorizing, and if I could afford it I’d buy The Book of Memory by Carruthers to try and figure all of this out — but it seems that our idea of rote memory is a little different than what Comenius was doing at the time. For instance, in the book on Comenius I am now reading, it says “let the understanding of things first be formed.” This is why there was little to no memory work {other than that which happens almost accidentally between mother and child} in Mother School. This point alone tells us that their memory system was not rote.

    Like Charlotte, an appeal is made to Nature. So, for instance, in Nature, matter precedes form. School books, it is argued, do not do this. The example is given {not unlike an example given in Mason’s volumes} of grammar study:

    Then in the study of a language they teach form before things, because they teach rules before words and sentences. They give rules and then examples, whereas the light ought to precede that which it is intended to light up.

    Hence the emphasis on the senses in the younger years. Children must be intimately acquainted with the things about which they will learn in books in later years.

    Here is a wonderful paragraph:

    As to Memory: To this there is necessary, first, a clear, firm, and true impression on the senses; secondly, the understanding of what is presented. Words by themselves, if capable of no order or coherence that can engage the understanding, are not to be committed to memory, e.g. the vocables anima, esse, res, ordo, difficult to remember if so learned, are easily remembered thus, Ordo est anima rerum. Writing is a great aid to memory.

    Whatever Comenius was doing, we can see {again} that his memory work was not rote. Half of what I read makes me wonder if Charlotte Mason was familiar with the man and his methods.

    Later, in regard to the Vernacular School, it is mentioned that the students memorize whatever the Teacher is reading aloud to them. This certainly reminded me of Charlotte’s recitation trick.

    Granted, there were differences between Comenius and Charlotte. For instance, Comenius used a lot of review, the afternoon lessons essentially reviewing the morning lessons, while Charlotte preferred to train the mind to pay attention, and in such a way that review was rarely utilized. {Certainly, I prefer Charlotte in this regard!}

    There are still two more levels of school for Comenius {Charlotte’s method only applied up until the age at which a child would leave for boarding school, followed by university for some.} The next level is the Gymnasium, and that covers ages 12 to 18. The subjects in Gymnasium were to be the Trivium {grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric}, the Quadrivium {arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy} as well as physics, geography, chronology, history, ethics and theology.

    It is not presumed that a thorough knowledge of all these subjects can be attained in the Gymnasium; but only that a solid foundation may be laid in them all.

    Again we see that while Sayers’ essay seems to imply that grammar was for little children, dialectic for preteens, and rhetoric for teens and older, the case of actual classical education was quite different — a “solid foundation” for the entire Trivium was to be given to teens.

    There is yet another level: University. University was to cover “every department of knowledge.” University, unlike the other levels, was for the few rather than the many. Only the exceptional student ought to go, for this was a labor fit only for truly great minds. Some of the activities of a student at University included reading broadly {including the Greeks — this is interesting because I once read that grammar began with rules but was considered to include all of a culture’s written work, so that this could rightly be said to be grammar}, and public student debates and discussions {sounds like a combination of dialectic and rhetoric}.

    In my reading, I cannot escape the idea that though there was specific, formal training in the Trivium, and that, truly, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, were separated formally {i.e., a student’s grammar lesson was separated from his dialectic lesson}. But the lines dividing them do not appear to be drawn in the way that Sayers drew them in her essay. Likewise, the memorization, which we often think of as being rote upon reading Sayers, was always based upon understanding.

    All of this is to say, though I personally have found Sayers to be inspiring and informative, I think we do great damage to allow her to speak as the sole authority on classicism, or to define the methodology of classical education.

    When I read about the classical educator Comenius, I see far greater similarity between Comenius and Charlotte Mason than I do Comenius and Sayers.

    Let everything which is presented to the pupil,
    and rightly understood be fixed in the memory.

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  • Reply At School with Charlotte: Charlotte, the Humanized Herbart | Afterthoughts September 1, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    […] But first, a moment of silence for: Jon Amos Comenius. […]

  • Reply Anonymous July 6, 2013 at 6:26 am

    There is an interesting read about Comenius in a small book called “The Three Witnesses” by a pastor named Rick Joyner. He founded a well respected school in South Carolina called the Comenius School for Creative Leadership..(Hope I got that right:) Love the zeal and articulation of these ideas and appreciate the interchange..Thank you! M.E. Hawn

  • Reply Kathy April 23, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I’m curious about this:

    What did you mean by this?

    CM took the classical methods and tried to improve upon them, based on a more scientific approach by formulating a hypothesis, testing it, observing, and then deciding whether or not it was correct based on that observation.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 23, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      I don’t know! Did I say that? I tried to google myself and figure out where I said that.

      It is possible I’m losing my mind, of course…

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 21, 2010 at 4:09 am

    Karen: I hadn’t caught that last time I read Vol. 6! I suppose that is because I hadn’t read Comenius yet, of course. That makes me look forward to reading Vol. 6 again. Thanks! 🙂

  • Reply Krakovianka September 20, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I’m coming to this a little late, but you are very right–Charlotte Mason did read Comenius, and definitely drew some of her ideas from him (and others voices in the classical tradition). In volume 6, she lifts the expression “A Liberal Education for All” straight from Comenius.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts August 6, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Naomi: Yes, I totally agree!

    Jennifer: Do you know I have never read The Well-Trained Mind? But, as you said–there is so much to learn! There are millions of pages written about all of this, and on everything else I suppose. Of course, that is something that makes life exciting–God has given us so much to learn that we never find the end of it all. 🙂

  • Reply Jennifer August 5, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    So much to learn from this post! I just read “The Well-Trained Mind” and got an elementary peek at the trivium. Now I know what you have been talking about all these years! It seems from this post that there is so much more for me to learn.

  • Reply Naomi August 5, 2010 at 10:17 am

    So interesting! Thank you so much for posting your thoughts on this. Based on what you’ve cited, it seems there is more in common with Classical Ed and CM, just not in the sense that the term is most often used today. Ah, the quirks that happen along the line of history! Reminds me a bit of the term ‘Catholic’?

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