Frequently Asked Questions

What is Classical Education?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer! Traditionally, classical education was centered around Latin and Greek, the two languages of the Greek and Roman world. Beyond that it focused on the history, philosophy, literature, and art of those same worlds. Students would master the languages first, and then memorize copious amounts of ancient literature, study and debate the philosophies of men like Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, ruminate on the military and political strategies of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and immerse themselves in the great truths of the civilization from which these people came.

It was during the Middle Ages that the classical way of learning was studied and eventually systematized. Study was divided into two parts called the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium (Latin for “three ways”), also known as “the verbal arts,” was studied first and consisted of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric in connection to words – their meaning, their relation, and their ability to persuade toward truth. The Quadrivium (Latin for “four ways”) was recognized as “the quantitative arts,” and consisted of arithmetic (numbers), music (numbers in time), geometry (numbers in space), and astronomy (numbers in time and space). It was concerned with humanity’s understanding of and relationship to the natural world. Together, the Trivium and the Quadrivium made up the Seven Liberal Arts.

For centuries, through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, this kind of education – with some variation of course – was the norm. It wasn’t until the modern era of the 1800’s that education began to change. Slowly but surely the paradigm shifted from a “classical” education to a “progressive” education, so that by the 1950’s, only fragments of a classical education remained.

It has only been in the past forty years that a renewed interest in a classical education has risen, and it came from interaction with a brief essay written by Dorothy Sayers in 1948. In this essay, entitled The Lost Tools of Learning, Sayers laments the state of education in her time and argues persuasively for a return to a Middle Ages type of education – one centered around the Trivium and the Quadrivium – whose end goal is to produce virtuous people who can think for themselves and know how to learn. She brilliantly expands upon the three divisions of the Trivium, recognizing within them the natural stages of child development and mirroring the steps of lectio divina.

Grammar level students love to memorize, sing, chant, recite, and collect things, so we should capitalize on their natural tendencies and present them with things to practice those skills on so their “memory ark” is filled. Dialectic students love to argue and back-talk and be disagreeable in general, so we should teach them to think carefully and read slowly and make important connections wisely using logic and reasoning, so at least while they drive their parents crazy they can do it well. Students at the rhetoric level desire independence and the opportunity to express themselves as they synthesize everything they have learned and compose stories and speeches and soliloquies about it, so we furnish them with freedom within a framework of knowledge and allow them to immerse themselves in avenues of interest as they humbly discover how much there is still to learn.

Classical education a la Dorothy Sayers, commonly known as Trivium-based education, is the kind of education that most K-12 classical schools are following today, although it has been expanded and enriched over the years as organizations, schools, and individuals research more into the texts and practices of classical, medieval, and renaissance educators and experiment in the classroom. It is still grounded in the classical languages, predominantly Latin, but has expanded to encompass not only classical Greek and Roman history, literature, philosophy, and art, but that of the whole of western civilization up to the modern era. Study is generally, but not necessarily, focused on four chronological historical cycles (Ancients, Middle Ages/Renaissance, Early Modern, Modern) and repeated a number of times, so that by the time a student is finished high school they have tackled each cycle at least once at the grammar stage, once at the dialectic stage, and once at the rhetoric stage. It is within this framework that the ICP Memory Guides fit. They are grammar level guides aimed at furnishing the minds of students between the ages of 4 and 12 but can also be used by older students as desired.

What is Charlotte Mason Pedagogy?

Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) was a British educator who, though she never had children of her own, helped parents raise their children into well-rounded, liberated persons. She became a teacher, and it was while she taught at the Davison School in England that the idea of a “liberal education for all” was formed. At that time, children were educated according to what class they were born into, so upper class children were exposed to literature, art, music, and philosophy, and lower-class children were taught a trade. However, Mason believed that all children deserved a liberal education – one that would make them free – and after some time established the House of Education where anyone working with children could come and be trained in her educational philosophy. She also wrote a six-volume set of books that detail her philosophy of education, wisdom concerning child training, and parenting.

The past thirty years has seen a revival of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy that has parallels to the classical education renewal. In 1987 Dean and Karen Andreola discovered Mason’s long out-of-print volumes in England and brought them home with them to the United States where they arranged for their re-publication under the name The Original Homeschooling Series. The Andreola’s homeschooled their children using CM pedagogy, researched ever further into the method, and began to write about their experiences. In 1998, Karen published A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning, which became a staple in CM homeschools across the nation. Since that time, numerous other CM inspired books and curriculum have been published as parents seek to give their children an “educational life.”

In the preface to Volume 6 of the series, Towards a Philosophy of Education, Mason outlines her 20 Principles. The first, and most important, principle she espouses is that children are born persons. This may seem obvious, but it is sometimes too easy to forget that children are unique individuals made in God’s image and come fully equipped with an intellect, emotions, and will. This belief stands in direct contradiction to both the Aristotelian and Lockean idea that we come into this world tabula rasa – a blank slate – waiting to be written on by our experiences and by those around us. More importantly, however, this belief demands that we educate the whole of the child, not just the mind, hence Mason’s definition of education as tripartite: “…an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

By “atmosphere” Mason means that everything in a child’s natural life should contribute to their education. There is no need to create artificial “child environments” because children learn best from the natural reality around them. Wherever a child spends the majority of time is his “natural environment,” so if you are homeschooling, then the home environment is, and should be, a powerful tool in your child’s education.

By “discipline” Mason means that children should be trained in virtuous habits, or character development, as well as in bodily self-control. Today’s modern psychology would interpret this as “You are what you think…do…eat…” Mason believed that the brain and body could be trained in virtue, so cultivating character was integral to her philosophy and played a key role in the classroom.

By “life” Mason is referring to a child’s need for “intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance.” By this she means that education should apply to all aspects of the person and should be rich and varied with a “generous curriculum” where facts are learned in connection with their “informing ideas.” A generous curriculum includes such things as living books, experiences, exercise, crafts, science, art, and music, which all enable the child to forge “natural relations” with vast numbers of things and thoughts.

What is a Classical Charlotte Mason Education?

We at ICP love both the Trivium-based classical model and Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. We see the brilliance behind Sayer’s expansion of the Trivium to the developmental stages of children, and we appreciate Mason’s idea of approaching the student as a whole person and laying a feast of good things before them while cultivating virtue and discipline. The ICP Memory Guides attempt to find the “sweet spot” of harmony between the two. A Classical, Charlotte Mason education uses the tools of the Trivium and combines them with the Principles of CM.

Surprisingly, other than Latin, Dorothy Sayers didn’t think the material that grammar stage students memorized was the most important thing, only that they actively memorize, and she believed that the things memorized did not necessarily need to be understood by the student during this stage: “What the material actually is, is only of secondary importance; but it is as well that anything and everything which can usefully be committed to memory should be memorized at this period, whether it is immediately intelligible or not” (Sayers 13). She believed that children could find great joy and satisfaction in the memorization of material that was far beyond their ability to comprehend and that one of the errors of modern education was supposing that every fact, date, law, or list memorized at this level required a rational explanation be provided simultaneously. She believed that filling the memory banks of children who love to memorize but are not yet able to fully analyze was the best preparation for when their brains were developmentally prepared to find connections between those facts and argue about them, and then ultimately take a stand on one side or the other and virtuously persuade someone to the truth.

In contrast to this, Mason believed that the quality of material presented to children, and the ideas behind the material, were vitally important and should not be separated: “But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.”

So how do we balance these two conflicting ideologies? We contextualize and integrate memory work! If the student is memorizing a history sentence about Julius Caesar, after we play with it using different modalities a few times, we pull out living books about him and read them aloud and then have the student narrate. We find a great work of art depicting him and study it and then have them imitate it. We examine maps that illustrate where Julius Caesar lived and conquered and then trace them and label them. We research the different musical instruments of the Roman world and listen to interpretations of Roman music. We read a kid’s version of Shakespeare’s play and take time to meditate on powerful words found in the funeral speeches, or we throw on some togas and dramatize the stabbing scene. We talk about honor and courage and loyalty and betrayal and ground them to the timeless truths found in scripture and the kind of life that Christ calls us to. We fit the feast to the facts and the facts to the feast and celebrate the educational life together with our children. It really is that simple.

Sayers and Mason are not as far apart as many believe, and their end goals are surprisingly similar. In fact, I think they would have been friends! Sayers desires students who can think and learn for themselves and Mason desires students who understand that their chief responsibility as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. The way they get there may vary to some degree, but we at ICP believe it’s possible to utilize the best of both methods in the education of our students. To this end, we humbly present a definition for Classical, Charlotte Mason Education:

A Classical, Charlotte Mason education is motivated by God’s glory and utilizes true, good, and beautiful material within the Trivium-based method to accomplish the formation and equipping of the whole person made in God’s image who can learn, reason, and persuade people to the enduring truths of God and act virtuously toward their neighbor.

Allow us to unpack that a little. A Classical, Charlotte Mason Education stands on three pillars: Motive, Material, and Method. By “Motive” we mean that our educational efforts should be motivated by the idea of God’s glory. 1 Corinthians 10:31 states: “So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Likewise, in Romans 11:36 we are told: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.” Sacrifice and death are the keys that open God’s glory (John 12:20-28), and when we take on the homeschooling role, it is a call to sacrifice and a daily dying to self; that is why our motivation for doing it must be grounded in something far greater than ourselves – God’s glory.

By “Material” we mean the feast we place before our students. Memory work should be carefully curated and chosen for its importance within the present and future realities of the student. Living books, art, music, nature studies, science, and physical fitness opportunities should be a homeschool staple, presented in beauty, and grounded in the Truth and Goodness of God.

Finally, by “Method” we mean the Trivium-based model of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, as briefly outlined by Dorothy Sayers and expanded upon by proponents in the modern-day classical movement, as well as the practice of lectio divina first with Scripture and then with the great books. And that’s it! It’s not a comprehensive background by any means, but it’s enough, we think, to get you started and help you to understand how to use these guides.

How does this work in a private homeschool?

In a private homeschool setting, the parent will introduce the “back-page” memory work, also known as the Pulchre Tempore, as well as the core memory work, on the first day of the week. The work will be reviewed on subsequent days using fun and varied modalities. Integrated read aloud and narration time will be prominent aspects of each day, as will nature studies, gymnastics, math time, and language study, which can be looped in as desired. The integrated science and fine arts guides should be used during the week to “flesh out” the memory work. The Scripture focus for the week can lead to daily bible reading and if desired, a theological catechism such as New City Catechism can also be added to round out the day. Active involvement in your local church or community at large can cultivate the virtues of piety and charity.

How does this work in a community?

In a one-day-a-week community setting (full or half-day), the leader(s) will open the day with the chosen selections from the “back-page” memory work, to be done in congregation with all students in the community, regardless of age. After Pulchre Tempore, students are dismissed to their respective classes. Grammar teachers will introduce the new memory work to the class, taking time to explain concepts and answering questions if asked, allow time for prepared presentations, lead science or fine art demonstrations or activities using the integrated guides, choose and read from applicable fiction and non-fiction selections and listen to oral narrations from students, and review memory work from previous weeks if time permits.

On the remaining four days of the week, families can follow the same format as private homeschool families do, with the added preparation for presentation time in community the following week.

How does this work in a private classical school?

The ICP Memory Guides are rooted in history. Covering five eras total, from Ancients to Modern in four years, and a focus on Canadian or American History in the fifth year, classical schools can use the guides beginning in grade one through grade five. Teachers in each grade can use the Pulchre Tempore as their morning time classroom fellowship and then spend the remainder of the day and week reading through corresponding history and science texts such as Story of the World and Apologia. Adding in living books, narration, copy work, dictation, nature studies, weekly fine arts and science projects (using the integrated ICP guides), as well as picture studies, music listening, gymnastics, mathematics, language studies, and Bible reading and theological catechesis will create a robust classical program that focuses on the whole child made in the imago dei.

The simple answer is, “No.” The complex answer is also, “No.” YOU are in control of your child’s education. YOU decide what you want to include and exclude. The ICP team has tried to include more than enough content to structure your homeschool day/week/year around, but if you try to do it all, you will probably fail. The ICP Guides are created to be flexible and adaptable tools in the hands of more-than-competent moms, teachers, and principals that can be used to achieve personal, community, and school goals. YOU use the guides, the guides do not use you. .

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