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The Challenge of Education: Classical Education’s Response to Henry Adams

By December 1, 2011January 27th, 2023No Comments

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Early in his seminal yet humanistic autobiography, Henry Adams declares his thoroughgoing frustration with formalized schooling. “The chief wonder of education,” writes Adams, “is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught” (55). After finding his own education not in school but in personal life experience, Adams charges the classroom with one main failure: “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts” (379). By his own admission, a Modern (19th century) Harvard education had done nothing substantial for him. Classical education, as evidenced through classical assessment, answers Adams’s challenge to formal education handily.

Though the grammar stage is rife with facts, the dialectic stage of the classical education is driven by discursive reasoning and fueled by logical and rational interaction. By this stage, education is no longer about the “inert facts,” which Adams apparently never got past in his classrooms. Now subjects and data are “grist for the mental mill,” as dialectical pedagogy drives information and ideas in an active process of thesis interacting with antithesis resulting in synthesis. Dialectic students learn to structure their thinking and comprehension of basic facts into logical patterns. Littlejohn and Evans in Wisdom and Eloquence remind us this stage “is designed to help students develop faculties of discernment based on regular patterns of thinking. The point is to bring predictability and order to the students’ minds” (172).

Assessment here furthers the emphasis on dialectic interaction. Littlejohn and Evans offer several options of meaningful assessments to fulfill this classical stage: composing arguments by example, analogy, or authority; composing syllogisms proved by deduction; identifying and avoiding fallacies of conclusion and causation; memorizing and identifying classical informal fallacies; and constructing arguments both in favor of and against the same proposition (109). In addition to these interactive assessments, the classical system of Progymnasmata exercises (also described in Wisdom and Eloquence) provides meaningful opportunities for dialectic students to express their comprehension and reasoning skills through written and verbal presentations.

By forming systems of thought in dialect students, assessed through classical exercises (written, verbal, and mental), classical educators progress beyond simple rote memory of inert facts and prepare students for the continued rigors and more independent syntheses of the rhetoric stage. Francis Bacon once said, “The duty and office
of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.” Building upon the structures of logical thought formed during the dialectic stage, rhetoric students should now be prepared to synthesize their own analyses in imaginative and analytical ways through eloquent, meaningful expression. Littlejohn and Evans say that this is done through activities that move students from remembering information and testing how well they remember that information in pre-set circumstances toward using what they have learned to solve problems, to connect information from one context to another, or to create a new framework for understanding or describing the world around them. (174) As the culmination of the Trivium, the rhetoric stage allows more freedom for both the instructor and students. Students should be personally responsible not only for their own learning, but also for their methods of assessment, to a degree. We are well past the simple recollection of basic facts and finding the “right answer”: now students need to express themselves and their comprehension of their world as mature individuals responsible for the conditions of their intellects and souls.

The variety of assessments in the rhetoric stage is diverse and rigorous: the common topics of conjecture, degree, and possibility; research; compositions of intrinsic appeals; and, in most classical schools, the senior thesis in written and public defense formats. Discussions and public presentations (especially for a senior thesis defense) are important to be sure, but the primary assessment medium of expression for students to utilize the wisdom and eloquence of a classical education is writing. According to Littlejohn and Evans,

Whether the assignment is a creative topical essay, a critique of a theatrical performance, or a laboratory report, students must be taught meaningful expression through writing. If writing is for reading, we will best serve our students as editors, encouraging individual style and voice while holding them accountable for good grammar, sound logic, and thoughtful applications of knowledge in everything they write. (175)

When done rightly, rhetorical assessments combine the pursuit of truth and wisdom with the freedom of eloquent expression, whose final aim is the formation of adults.

Despite having been failed by a Modern education, Henry Adams himself knew what he had missed:

The object of education for [the] mind should be the teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon…; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. (314)

What Adams describes is precisely what a classical education provides. When classical assessments follow classical education, students truly know how to learn.


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