The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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The New Classical Schooling
Peter J. Leithart - 01/29/08

Sayers’s other original idea was that the sequence of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric is a developmental sequence. Young children love to learn facts, to chant repetitively, to recite. Grammar fits neatly into that stage. As children move from the grammatical “Poll-Parrot” to the “Pert” stage, they delight in “contradicting, answering back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders),” and so are ready to have their pertness refined by formal logic. As they enter puberty, they become dreamily, poetically self-expressive, and they gain some sense of the unity of knowledge. Rhetoric then becomes an appropriate study. At the end of a curriculum organized by the Trivium, the student is trained to think. No matter what subject matter he encounters, he will be capable of mastering it. He has acquired the tools of learning, and is ready to specialize.

Sayers thought that “it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.”16 She was too pessimistic, or too humble, or both. Over the past twenty-five years, her refurbished Trivium has provided the skeletal structure for literally hundreds of new classical schools throughout the United States and elsewhere.


Faced with the need to provide a Christian education for his oldest daughter, Douglas Wilson did what few fathers would do: he started a school. By his own admission, he knew little about education at the time, less about classical education, but he knew he didn’t want either “a fundamentalist reactionary academy” or “a compromised prep school.” He remembered reading a reprint of Sayers’s essay in National Review during his Navy service, found a copy, and proceeded to model his new school on it.17 In 1980, Wilson spearheaded the formation of Logos School, which opened its doors to nineteen students.18 His debt to Sayers is evident in the title of his 1991 contribution to Crossway Press’s Turning Point Christian Worldview Series: Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.

Wilson’s book struck a chord with Christian schools and parents throughout the United States, and classical Christian schoolteachers and headmasters regularly cite Wilson’s book as the key to their conversion to classical education. Wilson soon began receiving requests for help in forming schools, and he realized there needed to be an institutional structure to handle the increasing volume of requests. In 1993 Logos School hosted its first teacher-training conference, which led to the formation of the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS).19 ACCS provides start-up advice, accreditation, and training for teachers in CCE schools. Starting with only 10 member schools in 1994, ACCS had grown to 110 schools by the year 2000, and to over 200 in 2007, including four international schools. The schools range in size from a dozen students (in Snoqualmie, Washington) to nearly 800 (at the Cary Christian School in the bourgeois bohemian realm of the North Carolina Research Triangle). ACCS schools now enroll more than 25,000 students, an increase of 10,000 over the last five years.20

Some ACCS schools wear their Sayers-ism on their sleeves. For example, Mars Hill Academy in suburban Cincinnati, founded in 1995, divides its newly built school not by grades but into wings labeled Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Of course, the centrality of the Trivium, and the validity of Sayers’s interpretation, has not gone unchallenged. In a 2006 book, Wisdom and Eloquence, Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evans argue for a separation of “the arts from the question of cognitive development” and they challenge what they call Sayers’ “spurious notion that the trivium is foundational to the quadrivium.” For Littlejohn and Evans, the Trivium is a collection of subjects, not a pedagogical model, and they emphasize that classical schools should be classical not merely in pedagogy but in the subject matter of the curriculum.21 Gene Veith is also concerned about the neglect of the Quadrivium. Bluntly declaring that “Dorothy Sayers was wrong in saying these represent the ‘subjects’ and are best left until the university level,” Veith notes that “most of our classical Christian schools do little with the arts, the empirical sciences, and mathematics.” He observes that “equipping our students with these particular ‘arts’ would fill a huge need.”22

By nearly every standard, CCE has been a notable success. At Logos, one recent class had an average SAT score in the 96th percentile, and in 2005 four of twenty-six graduating seniors were National Merit Scholars. Other Idaho schools had as many National Merit Scholars, but they also had graduating classes in the hundreds. Logos Mock Trial teams regularly go to national competitions after beating out other Idaho schools with much larger student bodies. At Regents School in Austin, Texas, one eighth-grade class averaged 950 on the SAT, besting the national average for high-school seniors by nearly fifty points. In one year, Brookfield Academy in Milwaukee had eight National Merit Scholars in a graduating class of 33.23

The quality of the students produced by classical education is both a sign of success and a recruiting tool. Bruce Williams, headmaster at The Oaks, a 300-student school in Spokane, Washington, got started in classical education after interviewing Douglas Wilson’s son Nathan for an overseas basketball tour Williams was organizing. Williams was so impressed with this product of classical education that he contacted the elder Wilson, who challenged him to start The Oaks.24 More than anything else, says Andrew Kern, “what draws people to classical Christian schools is the children they see who are different—more articulate, more respectful, and more intelligent.”

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