Providence is a classical school. In other words, it is a school inspired by a long and varied tradition of education stretching back to the time of classical antiquity. For us, the term “classical” entails both the purpose and approach to education as well as the kinds of skills, methods, and subjects that are valued and emphasized. In its broadest sense, the classical model of education sets its sights on the whole person. The “product,” if you will, is not merely a databank of facts, a marketable skill set, or training for a particular career, but the product is the person–the students themselves. It seeks to cultivate wisdom as well as knowledge, virtue as well as proficiency, so that the student may be nourished and grow in appreciation of what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful.
Education in classical antiquity focused on the “liberal arts”—the learning of a free person, or perhaps better, the kind of learning that makes one free (Latin: liber). Though it originated among the pagans of Greece and Rome, Christians often found a happy confluence of the goals and values of the classical liberal arts with the biblical vision of what it means to be human, created in God’s image. Thus, from the time of the early church onward, many Christians continued to promote and foster variations of the liberal arts in service to the church.Originally, the liberal arts numbered seven and were divided into the language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric–the Trivium–and the numeric arts of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, or the Quadrivium. The Trivium developed creative and critical skills in language and thinking, and the Quadrivium cultivated the ability to discover and grasp the world in which we live.
This curriculum of study was carried on into the Middle Ages primarily in the monastic and cathedral schools with varying degrees of success until the rise of the first universities. With the founding of the medieval university the liberal arts found a new home, but also a new emphasis as they were pressed in service to the development of the three professions: theology, medicine, and law. In this new setting, the liberal arts were increasingly handled in a more utilitarian fashion with an inordinate emphasis on logic to the detriment of the other arts. And so, beginning in the 14th century, some began to respond to this shift, emphasizing a somewhat different list of subjects, the studia humanitatis—namely, grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. For the humanists of the Renaissance (as they would be called), these subjects recaptured the spirit of the classical approach, stressing the breadth and integration of human thought and engagement with the world. The Reformers, too, were particularly inspired by this rebirth of education and its call, ad fontes!–“back to the sources!”–as they eagerly returned to the original texts of classical and Christian thought, especially the Scriptures.
Since that time, new subjects and areas of study beyond those cultivated in antiquity or the Renaissance have been developed (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, geology, calculus), and these have expanded our understanding of ourselves and our world. But the classical approach and purpose of education has not always accompanied this expansion of knowledge. One of the unfortunate tendencies of modernity has been specialization. As the amount and availability of information increases, subjects are increasingly regarded in isolation as discrete topics, their relationship to one another severed. Calls to return to the heart and spirit of the classical model of education have been sounded time and again in modern times with some of the most important voices from the likes of John Milton Gregory, Mortimer Adler, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers.
So what does this story have to do with classical education at Providence? Providence sees itself as an heir and participant in the conversation to rediscover classical education. There is a living tradition that has continued to develop and grow from the time of classical antiquity that we believe can flourish among us in our own “soil and clime.” At Providence the classical liberal arts inspire our vision for education, but they are framed within our broader aspirations to teach and form our children as life-long learners who relish new discovery, who think critically and fairly about ideas new and old, who explore with gratitude the gifts of creation, and most of all who seek to give glory to God as a people animated by faith, possessed by love, and filled with the hope of the Gospel.
In developing and maintaining our curriculum, we recognize certain common elements that one should expect when seeking a classical education. These elements are not necessarily more important than other subjects in the curriculum but they do comprise a core of what is classical.
Humanity’s great achievements and failures, ideas and discoveries all rely on language and the cultivation of the word. It is no wonder that the art of language has always stood at the core of education. The traditional Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric has long embodied this core. At Providence, the purpose and pattern of the Trivium shapes our approach to the development of language skills in our students.
By grammar we mean all that is entailed in the fundamentals of language: phonemes, spelling, vocabulary, syntax, morphology, and the like. The goal of grammar is to become thoroughly familiar with the rules and rhythms of the English language. Logic is the art of thinking and the use of language to construct meaningful argument. Finally, rhetoric is the art of discourse conveying one’s argument in order to persuade or move others. In classical rhetoric, the student focuses in particular on five canons —invention, style, arrangement, delivery, and memory. An important component of Language Arts at Providence is critical thinking which not only seeks to understand and evaluate someone else’s argument, but even more importantly, learns to critique one’s own reasoning in order to better it.
The study of classical languages, especially Latin, continues to be indispensible to a classical education (see Mr. Klousia’s essay on “The Importance of Classical Language Study”). The classical languages reinforce universal language skills, deepen our understanding of our own language, and prepare the student to better to learn other languages. The exactness of the syntactical structure of the classical languages also helps form the logical habits of the mind, and its clarity forms the habits of fluency and eloquence in expression. Greek and Latin require an attention to detail and the kind of discipline and precision that benefits the student in other areas of study. Furthermore, these languages remain a pathway into much of the history of Western civilization. Both Greek and Latin are taught at Providence, but Latin is the primary classical language studied, with instruction beginning in the grammar school and continued on into the final years of the upper school.
At Providence history is often called the “backbone” of our curriculum. It runs through the curriculum as a guidepost for the integration of subjects. Historical epochs function as thematic threads extended throughout the year to encourage familiarity with the period of history studied, but also to reinforce the idea that all subjects, in fact, have a history.
But the most important aspect to the study of history is when it teaches us to listen—to hear voices from strange places and times and learn from them. History teaches us the patience of empathy and the humility that accompanies an appreciation that ideas are larger than any one person or period—that we are indebted to the people of our past. What Mark Twain said of travel might also be said of studying history: “it is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness … Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” History teaches us that ideas arise in a particular climate and context and yet nearly always have consequences that extend to the present. And when viewed through the eyes of faith, history gives us ample opportunity for gratitude and repentance.
Literature and the “Great Books”
Providence sets out to instill in our students a life-long love of learning. Alongside this affection—never its rival—is a love affair with reading. From the earliest grades our students are taught to love stories, to learn poems, to relish beautiful words, and enjoy good literature. Books are chosen for the excellence of their language, the values they inculcate, and the sheer delight they bring. Good books become models for our own speaking and writing and thus remain integral to the cultivation of the art of language.
In the upper school, students focus their reading on the “Great Books,” and discuss them with their teachers. Gathered around tables in conversation rather than sitting in the rows of a lecture hall, student and teacher dialogue, ask questions, debate, and grapple with some of the most important texts ever written. They soon find that they are part of what Hutchins dubbed “the Great Conversation” through the ages—that they are students in dialogue with “speechless masters.” As Sir Richard Livingstone once noted, “In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own.”
Mathematics and the Sciences
The books that we must read are not only etched onto the page in ink but are engraved into our very environs: Nature, God’s creation lies open before us as a book to be studied, learned, and enjoyed. For the ancient Greeks, philosophy’s seeking after truth and wisdom was not separate from attempts to understand the natural world. The cosmos in its order and movements reflected something about the good, the true, and the beautiful that had implications for how we ought to live. The biblical writers go even further, insisting that the wonders of creation declare the glory of the Lord, that the marvels of his handiwork in the heavens and the earth testify to his goodness and his majesty, and that contemplation of the same ought to move mankind toward gratitude and worship. At Providence, we place a high value on mathematics and the sciences and pursue them with rigor and excellence. We do not approach these subjects as merely a set of facts to be memorized and parroted, but rather through them we seek to inculcate the art of inquiry and observation, to grasp concepts and mathematical insight, to cultivate curiosity and deep perception.
Music and Art
In classical antiquity music and the visual arts were integral to education. Both demonstrated the numeric study of ratio and proportion, even as these were vehicles for the expression of beauty. Later Christian reflection—for example, Augustine’s treatise on de musica—took the classical pagan emphasis on order and harmony a step further, so that music expressed in its harmonies the ordo amoris, the order of divine love that pervades all of creation and progresses toward the great symphony of salvation. Such a blend of classical aesthetics and Christian praise is particularly fitting for our goals at Providence. In both the musical and visual arts, we have the opportunity to experience beauty more deeply as a gift of God that draws us beyond the transience and decay of our fallen world into a longing for the eternal. Furthermore, to behold, hear, and participate in such beauty requires community. In their efforts with the artist’s brush and the musician’s song, our students are further called to share their gifts with one another.
Our goals for both music and art focus in three main areas. First, our curriculum will foster appropriate skills– in music, for example, notation literacy and performance; in art, drawing and painting techniques. Second, in both music and art, students will gain an appreciation for the great masters and their works. Finally, students will be encouraged to see music and art as vehicles for devotion to God and for the edification and enjoyment of his people.
There are certainly other subjects and activities beyond these that shape our curricula at Providence. But these are detailed here in order to clarify what makes our educational endeavors “classical.” These curricula are tools; for us, they are means to a greater end. As a classical, Christian school, all our efforts strain toward a single unifying goal and purpose. Desiderius Erasmus, that well known classical scholar of the Renaissance, put it quite well: “All studies, philosophy, and rhetoric are learned for this purpose: that we may know Christ and praise His glory. This is the end of all learning and eloquence.”