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Classical Christian Movement

Gravitas: The Lost Art of Taking School Seriously

By April 1, 2015January 25th, 2023No Comments

It is quite remarkable that a potent paradigm gave birth to the classical education movement. Dorothy Sayers, using the word-pictures poll-parrot, pert, and poetic, made the abstract concepts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric concrete and memorable. These three stages have given structure and clarity to the long and somewhat inscrutable process of K-12 education, giving teachers and parents the confidence to start a revolution in education. Ms. Sayers also demonstrated the power of rhetoric: a simple truth expressed in an unforgettable way.

While we are still in the process of figuring out exactly how to implement these three stages, and how to flesh out the true potential of classical education, I would like to suggest we think about the unthinkable: adding another stage to our trivium trinity – the primary stage. The primary stage, K-2, has been traditional in education for many years, but it has not received the attention it deserves by classical educators. It has been more or less subsumed, mistakenly I think, into the grammar stage.

We would do well to focus on the primary stage to see how we can improve instruction and build a better foundation for the trivium that follows. Having taught everything from phonics to Caesar, I can affirm that skills acquired in the beginning years are of vital importance to the later years. If you are a high school teacher, you probably experience every day the results of inattention
to basic skills in K-2. Our students will not achieve the excellence we desire unless we come to a better appreciation of the primary school and recognize that life-long habits are formed here, good and bad.

I realized from the beginning that the primary school was very important and deserved special attention, so when I started Highlands Latin School I divided it into three levels, not those of the trivium, but rather primary, grammar, and upper schools. The primary school is K-2, the grammar school is 3-6 and the upper school combines the logic and rhetoric stages in grades 7-12. At each level students make an important transition, which at our school is made visible by an eagerly anticipated uniform change.

The classical curriculum begins in earnest in the grammar school, where students memorize the Latin grammar, followed by the logic stage in grades 7-8, where they study syntax and translation, and finally grades 9-12, where students read Latin literature. The trivium is a perfect fit for the study of Latin.

But the primary years don’t fit neatly in thetrivium paradigm – and they shouldn’t. At the time of the Renaissance, when classical education as we know it was born, students began their education at what was called a Dame School or Petty School, where students learned the rudiments of English before moving on to the Grammar School and the study of Latin and Greek. I think this is a good model for us today. Historically we have acknowledged the importance of this stage by giving it a name, so let us turn our attention to the content and goals of the primary school.

The first question that faces us in the primary school is what to do about Kindergarten, a transitional stage between preschool and real school. The five-year-old is not quite mature enough to sit still and focus at the level needed for real school. The solution for most schools has been
to intersperse academics with lots of play and preschool activities to fill out the day.

But a comment I overheard many years ago has always made this option unacceptable to me. I guess my ears have always been attuned to education, for I cannot account for why I should have noted, nor long remembered, a comment I overheard as a young child. A teacher, who had taught first grade for many years before the introduction of kindergarten in her school, complained to my mother that it was having a negative effect on her first grade class. The ears of this future teacher perked up.

The teacher went on to give the reason: the children who had spent a year in kindergarten enter First Grade thinking that school is play. As a result, teachers had to expend much time and energy in teaching children that school is not play, but serious work. She went on to explain that children used to come to First Grade in awe of school. Now they come, she said, with unrealistic expectations that school should be fun and that First Grade is not a big step in growing up, but just another year of school which happily involves lots of things, only some of which involve work.

Because of that voice of experience so many years ago I have always thought that it is a good thing that young ones be in awe of the big step of going to school. So what to do about Kindergarten? One solution would have been to just eliminate Kindergarten, but I didn’t feel that I could overcome the expectation of this firmly established tradition of modern American education. So I decided to compromise by designing an academics- only kindergarten, but in a reduced two-day schedule. The content is academic and age-appropriate, and the limited number of days makes allowance for the younger age and limited attention span
of the five-year-old, who still has plenty of time for play at home.

Kindergarten has introduced into our education culture a profound confusion between preschool methods of learning and formal methods of learning. Play and exploration, are the way the pre-rational child learns. But the methods that are appropriate for the pre-school child, unfortunately, have been introduced up through the grades as if there is a continuum between preschool and school, and no difference in the proper leaning activities of the two.

The essence of the preschool learning model is the preschool explorer. The preschool child learns by play and random, non-systematic exploration of his surroundings. The essence of formal education, however, is just the opposite. Once the child is old enough to learn through reason, he is able to acquire the artificial, abstract tools of human learning: letters and numbers. The methods proper to formal education are not play, discovery, and exploration, but rather systematic instruction.

This progressive model of the happy preschool explorer eagerly investigating his surroundings and making discoveries through his own untrammeled curiosity is the rationale for the discovery method of learning. The progressive educator, just like Dorothy Sayers, uses word- pictures and rhetoric to convince the unsuspecting parent that only through continuing with these methods, can the joy of learning be maintained permanently in the education process.

This is the essence of progressive education and is the single most destructive influence in education today.
It has become the air we breathe and there are few, even among classical educators, who are immune to it. The romantic notion that the joy of learning characteristic of the preschool child is the model of learning for the formal education of the classroom is the siren song of progressive education. It is sheer nonsense. Until educators and parents realize this, we will never achieve excellence in education.

Think about the piano teacher or the basketball coach. Would any parent pay for lessons in which the teacher allowed the student to discover the principles of his skill on his own, claiming that method to be more fun and effective? What does the coach offer? Blood, sweat, toil and tears; and the kids line up for it. Young people want a challenge; they want to be taught. It is an insult to the child to have adults worried about whether they are having fun.

Instead of the mistaken notion of learning as fun and exploration, we must return gravitas to the classroom. Gravitas is the element most lacking in the K-12 classroom today. American culture today is so shallow and pleasure- sodden that we don’t really know what gravitas is anymore. It is not a word heard often. It is a sense of seriousness about what we are doing. Our work in Christian terms is a high calling from God. There is no better picture of gravitas than the Romans. The Romans had gravitas. As Christians we should have it too, but with the added element of joy.

What does gravitas look like in the primary classroom? Gravitas is not severe or grim, but it is serious. Our K-2 teachers are at the front of the classroom with a podium, like all of our teachers. The podium is not a place to lecture, but rather a place to put curriculum materials so the teacher can be organized and teach effectively. All desks face the front of the classroom, which has an absence of learning centers, since all students, instructed by the teacher, are working on the same skills together. K-2 students do activities and games to practice skills, but
the classroom is always quiet and orderly, because all are engaged in purposeful activity that is an efficient use of time.

Our students do have calendar time on the floor, but that is the only activity that takes place on the floor. (Sitting on the floor is the iconic image of the progressive classroom.) We have music, art, recess, and cut, color and paste for those small motor skills. We use materials and methods that are appropriate for the attention span and cognitive skills of the young child. But our Kindergarten is serious grown-up work, which, in fact, motivates the young much more than play. The child wants to do grown-up things; that is his motivation for coming to school. He wants to be like the older kids. He can play at home for free. Awe and wonder are the ideal attitudes for learning and we strive to maintain that awe in every grade, including and especially in the primary school.

It is only with gravitas that we can return awe to education, and at the same time make our primary years, as well as all of the trivium years, models of true excellence. Gravitas is concerned not only with the school culture but also with its content. I believe that gravitas in the primary school means that we take very seriously those important foundational skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, the three R’s. I often tell my primary teachers that they are doing the most important work in our school, and all that we accomplish in the higher grades depends on what they achieve in those first few years.

Those foundational skills have a huge effect on the student’s academic career, and can, if poorly taught, turn into a huge impediment to success. The basics are so important that there is little time for anything else in the primary school, where students need an exclusive and concentrated focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, without the distraction of other “subjects”.

Because we classical educators are always thinking ahead about the high levels of achievement that our students will attain, it is tempting for us to overlook the importance of the basics and how fundamental they are to building the tower of learning. But a weak foundation will eventually crack before attaining that high level of learning we seek. All of the three R’s are equally important, but in the space remaining, I will address only one, the skill of writing.

By the skill of writing, I mean the physical act of writing, not composition. The skill of writing begins with the correct pencil grip and ends in smooth legible manuscript and cursive. Correct pencil grip greatly reduces hand fatigue and resistance to putting words on paper, and greatly increases pleasure in the physical act of writing. It is a huge asset for the student to be able to write rapid, legible cursive, with comfort and enjoyment.

Unnecessary hand fatigue and illegible penmanship have a very deleterious effect on academic progress. My public school experience teaching high school math and science many years ago taught me the importance of legible penmanship. Many of my bright, eager students could not read their own writing. They were woefully lacking in the basic humble skills that begin in the primary school. My students also had great resistance to putting anything down on paper. The physical act of writing was a chore they avoided, rather than a skill they could use with pleasure. I saw first hand how serious handicaps in learning resulted from poor instruction in the basics.

I don’t think there is any more visible evidence of the degraded state of education today than students’ handwriting. This struck me one day when a gentleman, seeking affirmation that his money was well spent at a private Christian school, gave me a sample of his granddaughter’s school work for my evaluation. The sample he showed me was one of those mindless online worksheets, filled in with writing that looked like chicken scratching. Not only was it not cursive, it was illegible manuscript. I mumbled some answer, but privately wondered if any of my students had such horrible handwriting.

I had always had my mind firmly fixed on the power and importance of Latin for the development of the mind, but I realized that I would look very foolish, if extolling, on the one hand, the benefit of a classical education, I was, on the other, overlooking the value of the humble basic skill of good handwriting. I vowed then and there to make sure that our students would be taught good cursive penmanship and pencil grip. What is interesting, in retrospect, is the power of the visual; that I made an immediate judgment about this school based on the penmanship of one of its students.

I have come to realize that little ones are growing and changing rapidly in K-2, and instruction that teachers think is solid and sure, is easily forgotten or ignored. Young ones have strong tendencies to experiment and change both pencil grip and letter formation on any given day and for no apparent reason. It takes years and much repetition to insure that good practices in all of our basic skills become firmly imbedded habits.

As classical educators we need to make sure we are not overlooking the primary school and the level of gravitas and attention to detail required to develop good habits that will last a life-time and ensure that our students have the foundation they need to be successful in classical education.

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