MYTHBUSTERS CASE#1: What Public School Grads Say Was Missing - King's Way Classical Academy

MYTHBUSTERS CASE#1: What Public School Grads Say Was Missing



Portland Oregonian, April 1, 2007

In A Review By Dennis Oliver Woods, Headmaster

King’s Way Classical Academy


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Susan Nielsen’s fascinating analysis of what’s missing from the high school curriculum concluded, “Please teach students how to think, communicate and run a household.” The results of her informal research study appeared in the April 1, 2007 edition of the Portland, Oregonian.

MYTH: If we did’nt have public school, lower-income families wouldn’t have access to education.

Reader responses were a plaintive cry for the classical approach to education that existed in this country before John Dewey introduced his progressive model over a century ago. The words “logic” and “rhetoric” did not appear in the comments. However, readers were clearly describing these basic building blocks of the ancient classical trivium.

We were treated to remarks like, “…”this class would be called, maybe Critical Thinking. It would show how people make fallacious arguments…to advance their points and manipulate the individual into a certain line of thinking.” And, “The class would have them defend several viewpoints on controversial issues.”

The Joke’s On You America

Ironically, the report appeared on April Fool’s Day. Ironic because Americans have surely been fooled by John Dewey into substituting a pale imitation of education for the real McCoy. Progressive education remains the dominant model in the pubic schools to this day.

Under the older classical model, students were not only taught isolated subjects and technical skills, they were steeped in what Dorothy Sayers called “the lost tools of learning.” Mastering the tools of the trivium prepared them for a lifetime of learning. Beyond just learning to make a living, they were taught to live. Instead of asking “what can I do with this information” they asked “what can this information do with me.”

These were the tools that produced the intellectual giants of a bygone era. Virtually all of America’s founding generation were educated classically. These were men and women who could think critically and communicate their thinking to others. In those days it was called a “liberal arts” education – liberal as in “liberty.” What was this mysterious trivium?

The Classical Trivium

According to Miss Sayers famous 1947 essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning”, the trivium “consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.” Bear in mind, that Dorothy Sayers was the intellectual sparring partner of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein at Oxford before World War II. She was a scholar and an expert on the Middle Ages. Her essay may be read in its entirely at

She went on to explain that “modern education concentrates on ‘teaching subjects,’ leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along.” By contrast, medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.”

In practice, we can think of the Trivium from two perspectives. As presented above, it is a tool for dissecting a particular subject. First, we master the “grammar” of the subject, its basic facts, definitions and guiding principles. Second, we apply the tool of dialectic interaction, or logic, to interpret and understand the basic facts. This includes propaganda analysis as well as formal logic. Finally, we apply the interpreted facts and share them with others in written and spoken communication. This encompasses the skills of declamation and debate.

The trivium also provides a paradigm for three stages of child development. Miss Sayers called these “the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic – the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty.” During the primary or Poll-Parrot years, children love to memorize. They soak up grammar, languages, and other miscellaneous facts like a sponge. In middle school the child has arrived at the Pert stage of contradicting, answering back and questioning everything. The wise instructor will channel these natural tendencies into formal training in logic or dialectic. At last we reach the Poetic stage where self-expression comes naturally and may be groomed by the rhetorical arts.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

The story of how and why American education discarded the classical trivium is long and somewhat complex – but fascinating nonetheless. Curiously, it began in Europe with the devastating defeat of Germany at the hands of Napoleon at the Battle of Jena in 1806. Jena was a university town and the intellectual counterattack from the nearby University of Jena proved to be overwhelming. Its effects are still being felt in American education halfway around the globe.

According to John Taylor Gatto, New York Teacher of the Year in 1989, it was a professor of Kantian philosophy at Jena who shook the world with his famous “Address to the German Nation”. In this address, Johann Gottleibe Fichte called for a system of compulsory schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders – no more battlefield routs. The goal was obedient soldiers, and citizens who thought alike about major issues.

The method recommended by Fichte would divide larger ideas up into school subjects and short class periods punctuated by a horn. True learning, critical thinking, and motivation would thus be constantly interrupted and fragmented. Students would simply parrot back what they had been told in objective tests. Such students might sound educated, but their ability to think for themselves and communicate was severely retarded.


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It was this system that produced the German propaganda and war machines of the 20th century. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque tells the story. That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented that the second world war was the inevitable product of good schooling. The goal of the German or Prussian system was not to provide intellectual training, but to condition children to obedience and life in collective society.

The system was transplanted to America by a cadre of young, impressionable, idealists who traveled to Germany for doctoral studies in the first half of the 19th Century. One of their number, Horace Mann finally persuaded Massachusetts notorious “Know-Nothing” legislature to adopt the system in 1852. Over the next 50 years all 50 states followed the lead of the New Englanders. That was the remarkable result of the visionary John Dewey operating from his Educational Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. Over the years Dewey flooded the American school system with disciples of what he had renamed “progressive education.”

When Will We Ever Learn?

Case Closed: And that brief history brings us full-circle to today. What is the likelihood that the classical method will be returned to our public school system, you ask? The odds are approximately zero. As Dorothy Sayers noted over 60 years ago in her 1947 essay: “…it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect. Neither the parents, nor the training colleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of governors, nor the ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment.”

For they amount to this: that if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom…we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

Dennis Oliver Woods (M.Ed.) is headmaster of King’s Way Classical Academy, a 100% web-based school for grades 7-12. The campus address is He is the author of Keys to the Classics.

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