Education, Free Society

The Classics v. Dewey

(c) Earl L. Haehl Permission is given to use this article in whole as long as credit is given. Book rights are reserved.

The problem with our schooling, especially after the primary level is the disjointed nature of classes. We compartmentalize into English, social studies, math, science, foreign languages, art, music, home economics, shop, physical education. And, as a rule, they are compartmentalized by different binders or by the tabs in a big binder. And then we have certain health courses the school does not trust parents to handle.

And there are tests. These tests are supposed to help place students in the “appropriate” program. In other words if a test showed a certain aptitude the student would go into an “academic,” “vocational,” “general” or “remedial” program. But fear not there are educational psychologists who intervene to tailor the results to the specific student.

It’s like the student is placed in a special needs category and is supposed to stay there. One year he is placed in kindergarten rather than first grade so he may be sent half day for speech, physical and occupational therapies. Then when he is promoted to first grade in a different school system, he gets placed in the “slow” group. Having been held back, he can only hope he is able to catch up in a system that does not believe in that sort of thing. While he is bored silly by Dick and Jane and Spot. (Hint: A segment called “Dick goes joyriding in Jane’s dad’s car” might liven it up.) Meanwhile he is in confirmation class where the primary text predates Bill Shakespeare and the reference text follows on. The result is an ability to read “early modern English” before Rudolf Flesch approved texts. And the past seven generations on his mothers side have learned to read this way. But it is 1951 and we have “professional” teachers and educators who know how this is to be done. He scraped through first grade and ended up in second grade in a mixed (2-3) classroom. Over the summer he had devoured (as the Prayer Book says, “read, mark and inwardly digest. (It may be in the Bible too, since it contains more than 4000 quotations from the Book of Common Prayer.) several of the small 25 cent (read $4.95) classics his aunt had sent him for Christmas over the past couple years. By May of the next year he had mastered the second and third grade material and was doing math with the sixth grade—apparently country schools in Wyoming are more flexible than schools in Suburban Denver. The young man was supposed to move to the 4-5-6 classroom, but politics being what they were the next two years were spent in the suburban school where the natural progression was in the other five Commandments that were dropped in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I. So it is back to standard progression all the way through high school. Having talked to admissions people he would have been admitted to the Regis College at the end of his junior year, but his parents preferred he do it the right way at this point and it was probably a matter of money as well.

The problem was that the classes are separate and need to be taken in a certain order. I have a certain knowledge of this and if you have made the guess that the above hypothetical is not only factual, but autobiographical, you get the cigar. It has been years since I have thought this all the way through and this is the first time I have written it down. Fortunately I have things to do rather than be bitter.

So I see a middle school set up on the classical format as a time to do two things. A held back student has the opportunity to move forward because of the format. And the liberal arts provide a level of unity in an otherwise disjointed and hostile wasteland.

The other day I was sitting in IHOP sipping raspberry iced and working on a blog article on the trivium and quadrivium.  Thanks to Cassiodorus and Beothius these concepts crept into the then neoclassical system of education for the elite.  We call it the late classical or neo-Platonic movement which lasted into the enlightenment.  Somehow the Prussian movement in education disregards the liberal arts as not relevant to learning a marketable trade.  (The Prussians also developed the drill and training system that is the basis of learning skills which have no use in civil society.)  I disagree and tend to believe (with Adam Smith) that the sons of nobility and the sons of crofters differ only in their early education.

The Trivium means three ways which meet.  Those are Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric.  (St Patrick, on a fine March day in the fourth century, used a shamrock to explain this to the Irish who had no trouble understanding the concept of Triune gods.1)  Some of my teachers taught this without naming it because the name was kept out of the lesson plan by some thankfully subversive teacher attempting to slip in the classic system unbeknownst to the director of curriculum.  When I went to the University of Denver (at that time still nominally Methodist) it was right there in the textbook–the Logic and Rhetoric of Grammar.  At this  point I was tired of diagramming sentences and I felt everything about writing could be found in Strunk and White–this was a book I found in high school journalism which I clung to with the fervor a newly converted Evangelical held for the 1611 King James Bible.  But I came, over years to the point where I believe, in writing at least, that logic and structure are as important as expression.  I believe anyone who has graded freshman compositions in the last 20 or so years would probably agree.

But that morning I was looking at the subjects we call the Quadrivium:  Numbers, geometry, music, astronomy.  I see the relationships.  To anyone who doubts the relationship of music to astronomy (the mother of all the physical sciences) I refer two names; J.S. Bach and Johann Pachelbel.  But today I realized that within each art of the Quadrivium the Trivium resides.  There is a grammar, a logic and a rhetoric(expression) for numbers, for geometry, for music, for astronomy.  And further, the roads do not run straight to the center, but rather weave and intersect at various points on the road to knowledge.

Some further explanation on each of the arts is in order. Numbers, in base 10, let us add, subtract, multiply and divide. We count money, we count days between phases of the moon to plant, we estimate differences, we place odds. Arithmetic (pr: erith-met-ic) is the base upon which numerical arts are based. And we move from arithmetic into algebra and eventually into the calculus that explains the physics. Educators may say there is not time in middle school for children to learn algebra—that is a high school subject. I answer that the time wasted in six weeks of mindless review every year from grade three on is plenty of time. By first semester of seventh grade—or second form if you call it that—the student should be ready. And we need to stop using the term children. As long as we do, we do not expect them to develop independence—the independence needed to succeed.

And by eighth grade we are ready for geometry. None of this artificial Dewey contrived readiness theory really matters here. Geometry is almost pure logic. Once you start showing side-angle-side = side-angle-side it makes sense. The students have the ability to use straight edge and compass. They can do the work. It would make sense to incorporate mechanical drawing into this year.

Music. In sixth grade in Nebraska we learned the structure of the band and orchestra—an orchestra is a band with strings except in Texas where you gotta have a fiddle in the band. We learned what the scales meant and we did an intensive study of Scherazad which took us into Persian stories of love and adventure. The teacher showed us how octaves are set, but did not go into the mathematical structure of sound and rhythm. Disney took up the slack in Donald in Mathmagic Land2. And the music of the spheres is apparent in much of the major works.

Astronomy: Physical science began with the study of the stars and the seasons, Numbering the days until the floods come. Seeing the myths played out in the heavens. Looking through this new optic device and charting movements. Watching galaxies explode and which way the gaseous clouds spread. And from this we develop physics and chemistry to explain this. The weather and the sun and moon. Navigation was based on watching the stars and then time. The Pyramids. As with chemistry, physics, biology snd the earth sciences, we cannot in a semester or a year get anything but an introduction. But this needs to be in the mix.

So this gives a basis to make the students better as they go into the four years of high school—or into a trade school. The classical curriculum will give a rational basis for the choice. And it will give students a rational basis to evaluate what they are told in high and to frame the proper questions to clarify the information.

This is the actual reason there will be objection to this model. The “professionals” take their orders, not from rational discourse but from policy. And that policy emanates from UNESCO, AFT, NEA, the US Department of Education, Columbia University and the University of Chicago.


  1. For those of you puzzled about my reference to the good St Patrick, the Irish know that on a warm spring day they often find their morels among the shamrocks.
  2. Disney, 1959.

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