Rekindling the Classic Model of Education
November 30, 2004
"Is not the great defect of our education today," writes Dorothy Sayers in "The Lost Tools of Learning," "that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils 'subjects,' we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning." She goes on in the article to detail a revival of the forgotten medieval way of teaching students in the classroom. This is known as the Trivium, or dividing education into grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. She surveys what should be done with reading, mathematics, history, Latin or Greek, and the lessons from scripture and Christian tradition. It is the hope of Dorothy Sayers to rekindle the pursuit for learning and thinking. It is this pursuit that drove Janna Vicars Allen, '90, to say goodbye to 13 years of public school teaching and become a teacher at Regent Preparatory School in Tulsa.
"Regent goes back to the route of why I wanted to become a teacher," Janna says. "It's basically preparing children for the future with what was successful in the past. It is taking common sense methodology and teaching children things with logic and systematic approaches, imitation and repetition and memorization. As a public school teacher, I felt like I was doing a good job. I loved what I did. I loved where I worked. I loved being able to interact with my eighth grade English students. But I couldn't find time for one-on-one learning. I had five sections of about 26-29 students, 100- 145 total. Besides this, I was stifled in the amount of content that I could communicate to students that impacted them on a personal level in terms of my faith."
Regent Preparatory School, which has an enrollment of more than 200, is one in a growing list of institutions that belong to the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. In the fall of 2003, more than 15,000 students attended the 146 member schools. Their distinction is their classical model of education laid out in part by Dorothy Sayers. The association is clear on its Christian mission and links this intuitively with the style of education that profits reason and discernment within young minds.
"We look at the world through a biblical worldview," says Janna. "Everything is learned through God's lens even with our four-year-olds. Most public school education sees the world spinning on the child's axis. We don't ever lose the fact that school is supposed to be something for the student's benefit but we don't center it around the child." Janna teaches language arts to fifth and sixth graders. "My students are at the dialectic level. They are beginning to question and to think for themselves. We discuss and read works of literature." Her students have taken on such books as Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, Treasure Island, The Yearling, Wolves of Willaby Chase, Shane, and adaptations of Shakespeare. Writing is also a key element in Janna's classes. "Because I have smaller classes," she says, "I can conference with students individually and know their writing styles and idiosyncrasies by October or November each year." The other important piece to this model of education involves parents. "There is a high level of parent commitment running through this school," Janna says. "We have a homework load that can be considered quite challenging, and it requires the parent to be on task with their children every night of the week. It means that it is going to involve some sacrifice. And, it's not only homework. For example, parents are supposed to read Bible readings with their children each night. I know that has been an invaluable time ith my own nine-year-old son. It gives me time to explain, and in four years you would have read through the entire Bible."
As to her OBU experience and its influence Janna says she thinks it prepared her holistically. "I first really analyzed literature at OBU, and it was the first time I really earned an 'A.' I'm probably a composite of all my education professors. I just had such a good time. I tell my students that they are going to face academic challenges, but they still have so much growing to do. Everybody thinks that they want to get out of school some day, but you want to keep going. If OBU was down the street I would still be taking a class."
"However firmly a tradition is rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies," Dorothy Sayers says, critiquing the grievance of substituting old-style learning for a new way. "And today a great number - perhaps the majority - of the men and women who handle our affairs, write our books and our newspapers, carry out our research, present our plays and our films, speak from our platforms and pulpits - yes, and who educate our young people - have never, even in a lingering traditional memory, undergone the Scholastic discipline. Less and less do the children who come to be educated bring any of that tradition with them. We have lost the tools of learning - the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane - that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will
do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or 'looks to the end of the work.'"
Janna Allan is working with axe, wedge, hammer, saw, chisel, and plane, forming students that can think and discern, reason and imagine, problem solve and communicate, students that work to see the whole.
Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was first and foremost a writer. She is known best for her mystery novels with lead detective Lord Peter Wimsey. She also wrote several successful plays. She was an Anglican believer who wrote about her faith in such books as The Mind of the Make and Begin Here. She also translated several important works from Italian and French. She very much lived out the essay referenced above, and lived by her motto "The only Christian work is good work, well done." For more information, visit www.sayers.org.uk.