Sunday, 27 July 2008

Wisdom and Eloquence

On Friday I babysat for the T family and borrowed Wisdom and Eloquence from Mrs T's bookshelf. Since she borrowed it from another classically homeschooling friend, I have to return it by Wednesday, when we have Bible Study together. So I've read through this 200-page book in three days, taking copious notes. This book is pretty heavy on the vocabulary. It helps to have a working knowledge of classical educational theory before tackling it, otherwise, prepare for some heavy going. Even given this, I would thoroughly recommend this book, especially chapters 1, 6 and 8 and appendix B. (It helped that we are all sick at home with sinus infections and tonsilitis, diagnosed on Saturday morning when we all trouped in to the doctor's office together. You might think that would make it harder to read, but the kids are more subdued than usual and have been happy watching The Wind in the Willows and The Willows in Winter on DVD, in between playing with Duplo, Lego and long afternoon naps.)

Wisdom and Eloquence, like Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson, takes a look at classical education from an institutional school's point of view. It was written by Robert Littlejohn and Charles T Evans, who are both heads of Christian schools which follow the classical tradition. Despite this point of view, I found more than enough ideas suitable for homeschooling that I kept my pen out, hovering over my note paper. In particular I appreciated the chapters which showed how to develop a curriculum plan top-down: starting with the end goals in mind and planning backwards from grade 12 to kindergarten. This approach makes sense. The authors showed what this might look like in general, across the trivium of liberal arts and the quadrivium of liberal sciences, and with a deeper look at a curriculum for teaching rhetorical skills through the use of the progymnasmata. (More on the progymnasmata later.)

I have found it to be a good co-read with Teaching the Trivium. While the Bluedorn's book promotes the value of studies of logic in the development of wisdom for individual action, Wisdom and Eloquence argues for the central need to teach students skills in oral rhetoric so they may influence their culture. Littlejohn and Evans present an effective case for the need to teach today's students not merely to convince (given the post-modern skepticism of the existence of ultimate truth) but also to persuade. They also argue that it is not enough to develop wisdom in out students - an ability to discern the most godly path and the self-discipline to follow it - but we must also seek to develop eloquence - the ability to persuade and inspire others to follow that godly path. The one thing largely missing from this book is the desire to develop in students compassion and a heart for service to others, so that they might influence their community through their deeds as well as their words.

The Bluedorns distinguish between the applied trivium (knowledge, understanding, wisdom; aka Dorothy Sayers' Poll-parrot, Pert, Poetic stages and the Well-Trained Mind stages of grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the formal trivium (language arts subjects of grammar, logic, rhetoric). Littlejohn and Evans reject the applied trivium, or at least reject the idea that the trivium is only to be understood as a description of teaching levels, and explain clearly the academic necessity of the classical academic subjects of the liberal arts (the trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric) and mathematical sciences (the quadrivium). However, in the last chapter Littlejohn and Evans deal with what they call "modes of learning", and here they reference the three ways of learning that Mortimer J Adler described: acquiring new knowledge, critical interaction and meaningful expression. It is fairly obvious to me, as it was when I first read of them in Adler's How to Read a Book, that these three ways of learning are equivalent to the applied trivium of Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom described by the Bluedorns. While Sayers and Bauer and Wise placed the use of these learning methods in sequence, Adler, the Bluedorns and Littlejohn and Evans all contend that all three are necessary to varying degrees all the time, at all ages. I tend to agree with them.

The two books also take opposing views on appropriate education in the lower grades, although they agree on the value of memorisation. The Bluedorns recommend a more informal education before the age of ten with constant exposure to great literature and extensive memorisation of Bible passages in both English and the original languages and mathematics taught via familiar experiences. This seems somewhat reminiscent of Charlotte Mason's ideas. Littlejohn and Evans advocate a thorough grounding in the facts and rules of language/s and sciences early on. For the first time I read a cognizant and convincing argument for the early teaching of the rules of grammar. Consider the following two quotes:

"Mechanics and meaning do not have to be simultaneously grasped." (p43) This was written in the context of reading instruction, explaining that when teaching children to read (decode) via intensive phonics instruction, it does not matter that they cannot read in the full sense (comprehend) all that they can decode. As their vocabulary develops, so too will their comprehension of the passages they decode, and they will be "real" readers. (When we use tracework, copywork and previewed dictation with students, we allow them to write what they do not yet necessarily know how to spell; this is another application of the same principle but in reverse.)

"An interesting dilemma attends our theory of liberal arts learning: the earlier this instruction begins in a student's career, the longer it takes to teach; but the later we wait to begin the instruction, the less time the student has to incorporate each skill as an intellectual habit... Still, the value is self-evident, and a disciplined effort always pays off in the student's favour." (p110) This was written in a discussion of when to teach the rules of grammar, but likewise applies to teaching reading. It is true that a 4 or 5 year old will usually take one to two years to master the relationships of phonemes to graphemes that allow them to decode English writing fluently. It is also true that a 9 or 10 year old, or an adult, may be able to master these skills in one or two months. However, this quote exposes the price which late readers pay for their delay: they are often unable to internalise these skills sufficiently to ever become a reader who enjoys and flourishes in their reading.

When these previous two quotes are considered with regard to the value of early teaching of the rules of English grammar (through rote memorisation) versus late, we can see the value of teaching such things early. Early grammar instruction allows a student to habituate grammar skills, before they are required to use these skills in the critical analysis of the writing of others and in their own original writing, in such exercises such as those of the progymnasmata. At last! This is a rationale that I can accept for teaching the rules of grammar in the primary years, rather than waiting until the middle years of schooling.

One last comment on Wisdom and Eloquence: there are copious references throughout the book to the ancient authors who laid the foundation for the educational methods described in it. The more I read on educational theory and curriculum development, the more I appreciate knowing where the ideas originally came from. Littlejohn and Evans have, in the midst of their treatise on classical education, at last inspired me to tackle one of the first treatises on specifically Christian education: Augustine of Hippo's On Christian Doctrine. Wish me luck!


argsmommy said...

Interesting post! All three of my kids have learned to read at age 5, and while I've heard of some who start earlier it seems I'm hearing more and more from the homeschool community to wait until ages 6-8. So as a relatively new homeschooler I worry that I've damaged my kids for life by teaching them to read in Kindergarten (even though they all love to read). Your post reassures me that we're on the right track (with both reading and grammar instruction).

Sharon said...


I think one of the great things about being a homeschooler is that you don't have to worry if your kid is ahead of "the curve". If you don't want to, just don't tell anyone how much they know! You know your kids love to read. They know they love to read. So what does it matter what anyone else thinks about their attitude to reading and how it has been forged by their early reading experiences?

~ Sharon

Anonymous said...

Hey,Sharon. Just checking in to say "Hi!" This was a great post, by the way.

I have found that home educating a multitude of little ones (close in age) tends to give a great balance between the two extremes when teaching grammar rules. I began by aiming high (too high?) but reality set it in a nice balance. :o) The beauty of learning these things alongside your children is that you get the opportunity to, week-by-week, year-by-year, layer these things into their minds. "Remember, to find the subject, we first locate the verb and then ask 'who or what did the action/was in a state of being.'"

When it comes to reading, I don't think you can damage a child by starting early unless you push beyond what the child is ready for. I always remember Chris Davis (Elijah Co.) saying that his second son didn't want to learn to read "because of what you did to Seth (first son)." (Second son's words).

Perhaps we'll be able to catch up at GEMS in August.

Keep up the great work.

In Him


mom24 said...

Thanks for the info on grammar! I have really been thinking about this and wondering if I should continue teaching something that my 'grammar' aged student struggles to understand.

But everything in me always tells me to continue - that it will build a foundation for real comprehension of the use of grammar in later years. Just in the same way that we don't wait to speak to our children until we KNOW they comprehend - we just surround them with words! I've added some colors, illustrating, and songs to make it more interesting and I remind myself that we will learn it all many times over in the future as well.

I am so glad that you have the time to share your reviews - they are so informative!