Recently, I commended for your summer reading Dorothy Sayers’ fine essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Sayers’ essay does a marvelous job asking some tough questions of the modern educational project and also proposes a thoughtful solution to the malaise in which we find ourselves. Far from proposing a new idea, however, Sayers argued that we should look to the giants upon whose shoulders we stand for answers and a way forward.

But what does it look like on a day-to-day basis in the classroom? How might it be different from any other classroom we might visit? To demonstrate the difference, let’s take up a single concept we all have learned regarding the history of America.

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Most of us remember this pithy rhyme we learned as children to memorize the year in which Columbus came to what later would be called in Europe, The New World. The rhyme of “two” and “blue” in a sing-song chant helps us remember the basic facts of year, person and action. This is a common and familiar method employed in classical education to help young students learn basic and important facts that will form their “cultural literacy.” This type of method fits well in the stage of learning we refer to as the “Grammar Stage.” Grammar refers to the basics of language acquisition, but can also be applied to the process of learning the basic facts of any subject. This stage of learning is often associated with young children as they are quite adept at absorbing and remembering lots of data. In the Grammar Stage of learning, we “cut with the grain” (as Sayers calls it) and use lots of songs, jingles, chants and other methods to help the students grasp bits and pieces of knowledge.

So, with a chant or song, a student is learning lots of information. In addition to the use of these tools in all subjects, we have our students begin studying Latin in third grade. “Why study a dead language?” you might ask. The reason, simply put, is two-fold. First, studying Latin has the effect of essentially “formatting the disk” of how we think, organize thought and express those thoughts. Second, Latin (along with Greek) could be called the “linguistic currency” of the Western world and thought. We are who we are, we think the way we think and we act the way we act to a very large degree because of the Latin and Greek languages.

But we know that eventually our students begin to grow out of this stage and begin to ask a lot of questions. As students move into grades six through eight, they are no longer content with “just the facts.” So our methodology accounts for that God-ordained development. Now we ask different questions in different ways.

“What political, religious and economic circumstances contributed to Columbus’ voyage, and what were the implications of that voyage?”

The grades that are often referred to as middle school, we refer to as Logic School. The reason for this nomenclature is to highlight the way we are “doing” education at this stage. Notice the developed nature of the question above that deals with Columbus’ expedition. At this stage of development, children are apt to ask “why” a lot more than they did previously. This is not just annoying teenage behavior (although it can certainly be so at times). This is God-ordained development. Therefore, in this stage we begin to ask “why” questions. We begin to make connections of the facts and the data learned in the previous years. We also make time to take a class in formal and informal Logic. The reason for this is that students are thinking and making the connections, and we want them to do this well.

In this period of development, the assignments begin to look different as well. Students begin to write essays, conduct debates and engage in “Socratic dialogue” with teachers where they are asked open-ended questions and asked to develop a train of thought on a subject or question.

Should Columbus have made his historic voyage? Was it an imperialistic enterprise? What lessons can we learn in thinking through American political and economic foreign policy?

As students move into the later teen years, they are eager to spread their wings. There is often a tendency to continue asking questions, but they move toward bigger questions, questions of meaning and purpose. Again, this is all part of God’s design, so we seek to cut along the grain of how they are developing. The question above is a kind of question that a student would encounter in the Rhetoric stage, which corresponds roughly to high school. That is why we refer to this as Rhetoric School. Here students are asked to “make a point.” They are trained to do so by taking two years of formal Rhetoric where they are equipped to write and speak expressively, articulately, winsomely and persuasively. We do this, not just to make poets or orators out of them, but to make clear and robust thinkers out of them.

Assignments in this stage of development would often include papers, presentations and projects, continued Socratic dialogue and dramas. The capstone of the students’ senior year is the writing and presentation of a 15-20 page thesis on a topic of the student’s choosing. The students write their paper employing the six parts of discourse from Cicero’s “Rhetorica Ad Herennium” and then defend their thesis before a panel of faculty. This project develops the capacities of clear thinking and winsome articulation in our students.

As this process unfolds over the years, one may feel like one is watching a flower grow and unfold. From the initial songs, chants and sound offs, we see the seeds of learning grow and mature into high-level, articulate and insightful thinking and living. Over the years, we move from talking at, to talking to, to talking with our children. We watch them grow into themselves and the callings God has for them. All the while, they are growing into their ability to think well on any given subject as well as their capacity to live well in any given circumstance.

To build on Sayers’ final thought in her essay, the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to be better people; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.