“Bless Me, what do they teach them at these schools?”

Or, (Students + The Trivium) × Teachers

The following notes are for a talk I gave at our school’s Information Night.

Our school board recently finished reading through and discussing the Chronicles of Narnia together. I’m also part of another group of adults, many of whom are parents of current school students, working through the Chronicles as secondary reading for something we call Omnibus Tenebras. Then we have our annual Fiction Festival coming in March and the theme is going to be all things Narnian and Lewisian. So I reentered Aslan’s orbit seven months ago and have been spinning since.

Reading through the series again I noticed a question asked by Professor Kirke near the start of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which he asks in a similar form two more times in The Lion) and which he asks again near the end of The Last Battle. Sort of aloof, as he is, and exasperated, he wonders out loud, “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” The first time he was lamenting Peter and Susan’s lack of logic. The last time, when his beard was golden, he was wondering why they hadn’t read Plato. Well, in our school, we teach Logic, and Plato. And we teach the Chronicles of Narnia!

One of Lewis’ literary contemporaries and friends was Dorothy Sayers. You may have heard her name before associated with classical education due to a paper she read at Oxford in 1947, that she then published as a journal article, titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Along with Lewis, she was concerned about what was and what wasn’t being taught to students. If Sayers or Lewis or both of them could see what’s happening in our government education system some seventy years later, I can’t imagine what narrative tirade might have been unleashed (though That Hideous Strength would cover a lot). Although Edmond didn’t want to recognize that the White Witch was no good, at least he could recognize that the White Witch was a girl. The fight between good and evil didn’t get all the way down to gender pronouns. “Bless ze, what do they teach at these schools?”

Not ze best teacher

It was Sayers who reintroduced the Trivium, the three ways of education, which are 1) Grammar, 2) Logic (or Dialectic), and 3) Rhetoric. These are the first three of the seven liberal arts, liberal in reference to men who are free, and she in particular had the insight to connect each method of learning to each phase of a student’s development.

The youngest students are like parrots. Play them a catchy song and they will sing it until parents quickly pass from the stage of thinking it’s cute to the stage of being amazed at what their student is capable of memorizing and into the stage of being annoyed that their student doesn’t get tired of it. There is a grammar to every subject, facts that are ripe for harvest in very field of study. Nouns and verbs are language grammar, addition and subtraction are math grammar, colors are for art and notes are for music grammar, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 is history grammar.

As students mature toward junior high they hit a stage that is harder to call cute, and it’s also hard to call mature. They’re in the process of figuring out where all the things go. They are building mental shelves to sort and categorize all the grammar they’ve collected. They start start asking more questions and seeing more connections. They also start their arguing engines, and, as Sayers acknowledged their extremely high “nuisance value,” why not at least show them how to argue logically?

The third stage is not just gravy on the cake or icing on the meat. There is really cake and meat; icing on cotton balls offers no nutrition, and gravy on cardboard might trick you for a moment, but there’s no satisfaction. So truth cake and good meat are necessary underneath and then rhetoric tops them off. Rhetoric skills enable a young man or woman in mid to late high school to take substance and polish it. The polish might come via poem or prose, painting or presentation, but it’s taking what’s already valuable and making it shine.

ECS teaches all the subjects, be it Bible/theology, Music, Math, Science, English, Logic, Latin, Literature, Writing, Rhetoric, and History with the Trivium methods in mind, and we do it in Jesus’ name because He holds all the ends together.

I’ve been struck in recent months by what makes the Trivium so fruitful. I’ve been reading about and trying to share a vision of the Trivium since before we had a school, since my wife informed me that my participation in homeschooling our 2nd grader at the time was not optional. I’ve believed that students plus the Trivium adds up to great things for over a decade now. But it is multiplied by teachers.

If you want to know why you should register your kids for ECS before you leave the building tonight, what you really need to do is get to know the teachers. They are the multiplying function. We’re not making them present their resumes as part of the program, but that wouldn’t do any of them justice anyway.

Jesus said: every disciple, that is, every learner, every student, will be just like his teacher.

When my wife and I were trying to homeschool, we realized that we wanted our daughter and her younger siblings to be more than us. This wasn’t a cop out, as if we could merely sit back and trust our kids’ enculturation to others. It meant we had even more to do, which included trying to convince some other parents to join us in this crazy hard, crazy great, crazy blessed work.

The Trivium is not better than I thought; the Trivium is fantastic. But when the Trivium methods are practiced by those who care, the outcomes are way better than I thought. This is a mathematical operation, a factor function. Take a number, add another number, get a higher total. But take a number and put a multiplier between it and another number, and watch out.

ECS is more than the sum of its parts. I was reminded of it again while reading the following in a book titled, Anitfragile:

Collaboration has explosive upside, what is mathematically called a superadditive function, i.e., one plus one equals more than two, and one plus one plus one equals much, much more than three….since you cannot forecast collaborations and cannot direct them, you cannot see where the world is going. All you can do is create an environment that facilitates these collaborations, and lay the foundation for prosperity.

John Milton Gregory wrote in The Seven Laws of a Teacher that the ideal teacher is “an incarnate assemblage of impossible excellencies.” We have an excellent assemblage for collaboration.

We have teachers who have lived in tents while remodeling their houses, who muck horse stalls before sunrise, who knit hats and dolls and sew scaled down ECS uniforms for American Girl Dolls, who scrounge through the woods for sticks to make bows and read multi-volume bower bibles about how to do it. Our teachers exercise, slow cook and crock pot, read for pleasure, write for pleasure, and most importantly, they worship faithfully on the Lord’s Day. They invest in more than the students in their classes, and that’s why they have something for their students. They aren’t finished, but they are learning to learn, and that’s exactly what we want for our students.

Christian and classical education has some great ideas behind it and before it, but the ideas themselves could not make ECS great. The Trivium plus students multiple by teachers make it great in ways that couldn’t be scripted.

Our school mission starts by saying that “We commend the works of the Lord to another generation….” And I am commending the works of the Lord to you now. At ECS we are looking at and learning the grammar of His works, and the logic of how His works fit together, and how to adorn His works at image bearers through rhetoric. And I am also blessed to say, ECS is is itself a work of the Lord, and our teachers are a multiplying factor in making Marysville great again. #mmga

We want to bless you, both by what we teach at this school, and by those who teach at it.

The Nuts and Bolts of Education

These are my notes for a talk I gave last week at our school Information Night.


One of the best things about the daily nuts and bolts at our school is that we have separate bathrooms for boys and girls. I don’t start this way to get a laugh or to cause a shock. Gender specific facilities are important for modesty—though that’s not my primary reason for mentioning it. They are important for morality—though sin doesn’t depend on any given door being closed.

I bring up the distinction between male and female because we cannot have true learning or lasting culture without it.

Of course we couldn’t have following generations without male and female because humanity requires sexes in order to reproduce. Efforts to deny observable biology are efforts that destroy not only individuals, but also the future where any individuals could exist.

But I bring up male and female because God created and identified us that way.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27, ESV)

This means that part of bearing God’s image is being social, a reflection of the “us” and “our” in verse 26. We are made in the likeness of the Triune God. This also means that both males and females are equally image-bearers. They are different, so they receive different names and different responsibilities, but neither man or woman is more like God than the other.

It also assumes that our image-bearing relations and image-bearing responsibilities require us to acknowledge what God has made and what God has said. Boys and girls share some things yet they do not share all things, nor are they interchangeable. To deny or even to confuse this truth is to deny or confuse any possible foundation for learning.

After the poetic, lyrical celebration of male and female in Genesis 1:27 (if our culture succeeds at obliterating the distinction, what kind of songs will we be left with?), God gave a mandate.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28, ESV)

We must must receive the definitions and boundaries created by God. What are animals? What kinds are there? What are we supposed to do with them? What is dominion? What can we subdue? What are we going to eat (see verse 29)? These are necessary questions, but if we won’t accept the created realities of male and female, realities that are self-evident and Spirit-revealed, how can we be trusted with anything?

A classical Christian education begins with basic facts like these. It is called the Grammar stage of the Trivium (which means “three ways”), and it acknowledges that every subject of study has created realities or historical realities or revealed realities. We are not trying to rewrite or redefine. We’re receiving what God has made, what God has done, what God has said.

Birds and fish and bugs, planets, and plants are all different, as are the letters and phonograms of the alphabet. Numbers classify and quantify objects and ideas, narratives show truth in a different way. These are particulars to be acquired.

The school board is reading a book by Gresham Machen, Education Christianity and the State, and he lamented that so many school systems (in 1925!) want kids to be thinkers but the teachers don’t give them anything to think about. “It is impossible to think with an empty mind” (p 7). No facts and no figures because they aren’t fun. There is no est, only non est.

[Such a student can] not succeed in unifying his world for the simple reason that he has no world to unify. He has not acquired a knowledge of a sufficient number of facts in order even to learn the method of putting facts together. (p 4)

New things are collected all the time at every stage, but collection is the special focus of our Grammar School. The youngest students delight to soak in dates and names and conjugations by song and chant and sound-off and reading. They learn about the sun and moon, right and left, right and wrong–in math and morals. They are taught definitions about masculine and feminine, without which they cannot decline any Latin nouns.

The second stage is the Dialectic or Logic stage. The emphasis during these years, roughly corresponding to Junior High, is less on collection and more on categorizing, less on soaking in and more on sorting out. Students are taught formal logic, learning what constitutes an argument, what is valid, what is sound, and what is empty or false.

In her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers tipped her hand:

It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands.

During this time students are systematically exposed to various ideas and worldviews, especially through the classical works of ancient, medieval, and even some modern literature. They’re learning to see what fits and what is false. They are able not only to distinguish between male and female but also to develop convictions about it.

The third stage is known as the Rhetoric stage. While students are always answering or writing or performing, the emphasis of this stage happens in the last few years of high school. Students learn things to think, how to think things through, and then how to express their thoughts in speeches and papers.

This is a time not just to know the truth or to defend the truth but to adorn the truth. Even as male and female, men and women ought to be adorned differently. We not only recognize a difference between genders for sake of bathrooms and uniforms, but even in what we want them to become. Both our young women and our young men should be well educated, both bearing the glory of God’s image, and both expressing things that the other can’t and shouldn’t even try to do.

The classical model values the Trivium as scaffolding for the building. The blueprint itself comes from God’s Word. He has said, He has given, He has created, so we give thanks and receive and study and steward. The Trivium helps teachers cut with the grain as students are generally suited to soak in and sort out and speak up as they mature.

  • Grammar – learn the good; know and enjoy things (res) as they are. Collect and comprehend.
  • Logic – identify and distinguish the good from the bad; account for things, put things together. Consolidate and cultivate convictions.
  • Rhetoric – fight for and persuade others to love the good. Consecrate ourselves, our talents and knowledge for letting our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

Google may be able to marshal facts, but it can’t train a student in logic or rhetoric. Without grammar logic falls and rhetoric is vacant. We’re educating our students with all three.

We start by acknowledging Christ as Lord and Savior, and then acknowledging our identity and created definitions by God. Otherwise learning collapses in a heap of inconsistent relativities and society ceases because no one even knows what male and female are, let alone which bathroom they should use.

The Red-Blooded Trivium

I gave the following talk at the end of February for the Information Night at Evangel Classical School. If you’d prefer to watch the talk instead of read it, I won’t be offended.


Stop AnemiaHow would you describe most modern education? A lot of parents and professionals (and employers) agree that there is a crisis, but there is little agreement on the cause or the cure. So many students graduate from high school with pale interests, foggy thinking, and sickly convictions. If they could stand up, they wouldn’t know where to stand. They have educational anemia.

I recently had the opportunity to learn about anemia, its causes, symptoms, and treatments. Due to a yet-to-be-identified source of internal bleeding, I hemorrhaged too much blood to sit up, let alone stand or walk around. Every time I tried to get vertical my blood pressure dropped and my heart rate doubled trying to compensate for the loss in volume and decrease in red blood cells.

That’s anemia: a deficiency in red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood. The red blood cells carry oxygen to the body parts and, if the body doesn’t get oxygen, it shuts down. My body gave up, including my brain.

As I said, I couldn’t stay upright, I had almost no energy, I processed questions as quick as a cement truck, and, as my oldest daughter described, I was “as white as a new pair of tights.” Peaked, numb, and weak, like the typical college freshman.

To treat anemia, first you need to stop the bleeding. I’d say the biggest cause of educational bleeding is teachers telling, or acting like, none of it really matters. If everything in the universe came from nothing and moves with no personal purpose, then it doesn’t matter. At ECS we believe that Jesus is Lord, that by Him all things were created, that He’s invested and interested in it all. He gave it to us as a gift, to receive with thanks, to study, and to use for good as a reflection of Him. Nothing is neutral, nothing is useless. There’s a bigger reason to be at school than standardized testing.

Once the bleeding stops, though, there’s still more required to return to health. I’ve learned that in order to replenish red blood cells, the body needs iron. But the body doesn’t doesn’t provide it’s own, it must get it from the outside. There is a breathtaking variety of iron sources: beef, chicken, turkey, shellfish, broccoli, sweet peas, tomatoes, lima beans, potatoes, green beans, leafy greens, beets, and cabbage. There’s no reason just to swallow a pill.

To make educational blood cells we need the iron facts. Think of iron like grammar, the building blocks of learning. Grammar is the first stage of the Trivium and takes place during the early grades. Students are taught math facts, English jingles, characters of history, scientific data, Latin chants, and Bible stories. It doesn’t have to be bland or stale. We feed it to them in songs and sound-offs, reenactments, toga days, and coloring pages.

Boredom is not neutral–it is the fertilizing principal of unloveliness. (Robert Capon, The Supper of the Lamb)

It takes a lot of work to take in all God has given us to enjoy and use. It’s work, it can be fun, but it certainly isn’t boring. We’re feeding students with the loveliness of God in His world and work.

Around the transition to Junior High comes the transition to the second stage, the Dialectic or Logic stage. We might say this is when the red blood cells are formed and readied to carry the load of oxygen. The Logic stage includes formal logic, how to mind one’s Ps and Qs, how to distinguish donkeys and elephants. (Imagine how helpful this would be to a voting populace.) We encourage them to investigate apparent contradictions and difficulties. We expose them to different opinions and train them to love the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the lovely, and the excellent.

Then the final stage of the Trivium is the Rhetoric stage. They take the facts, fit them together, and present them with persuasion. Though they’ve already been writing by this time, now they are polishing papers as well as unscripted presentations. They are ready to stand, ready to take a stand, ready to run. But unlike the empty bombast of so many cultural talking heads, our students talk with lifeblood.

So we get students to soak up truth, sort out arguments, and speak with heart, stamina, and backbone. They stand upright in a bent culture. It takes a lot of work to treat educational anemia. They are not just ready for more learning, they are ready to bear God’s image in their generation. They’re not just surviving on Doritos and Mountain Dew, they have a life.