Jennifer Dow – What is Classical Education

Jennifer Dow – What is Classical Education

by | Oct 8, 2020 | History, Philosophy

Making the decision to homeschool is a big choice, but I would argue that equally important is ensuring that you’ve done the research to know how you want to homeschool. There are tons of options or philosophies, or perspectives. And today we’re talking with Jennifer Dow from the Paideia Fellowship, all about the history of classical education.

So, we’re going to be diving into what it originated as, what it means, and also how to teach in the two most common ways classically – mimetic teaching and Socratic teaching.

The History of Classical Education with Jennifer Dow

Meg: [00:00:00] Making the decision to homeschool is a big choice, but I would argue that equally important is ensuring that you’ve done the research to know how you want to homeschool. There are tons of options or philosophies, or perspectives. And today we’re talking with Jennifer Dow from the Paideia Fellowship, all about the history of classical education.
So, we’re going to be diving into what it originated as, what it means, and also how to teach in the two most common ways classically – mimetic teaching and Socratic teaching, so I hope this episode blesses you. You can see links to everything, including our Facebook group, where we share support and resources for classical educators and homeschoolers at

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Jennifer is a classical teacher, speaker and consultant. Jennifer is a CiRCE certified classical teacher. She’s also taught nature study, humanities, logic, rhetoric, and the fine arts since 2009. She founded Paideia Fellowship and currently serves as the executive director and lead trainer. She lives in North Carolina with her three children and enjoy spoken word poetry, business, and leadership, trying her hand at a fancy cuisine, collecting more books than she’ll ever read, a lovely saunter through the woods and the occasional Netflix binge.
She’s also helped launch over 200 homeschooling groups and she’s been a contributing author to the lost tools of writing from the CiRCE Institute. She’s also been published in many articles and she is in the process of writing a memoir style book on classical teaching. Welcome Jennifer, we’re so happy to have you.
Jennifer: [00:02:28] Thank you. I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.
Meg: [00:02:30] so Jennifer has been actually a podcaster previously, so be sure to check out her podcast because it is still up. It’s the classical homeschool and I’ll have links to everything that we talk about in the show notes. And she is going to be sharing with us to start with the history of the liberal arts.
Jennifer: [00:02:52] Thank you, so glad to be here. What is classical education, especially when you’re using the term liberal arts, like what does all this mean? And everyone has an opinion and, how do we come around a common definition and know some things? I love talking about this topic because I find that it’s so helpful to get some clarity around something that can be so elusive and have so many different opinions.
There may be people out there that disagree with how I present it and you know, my opinion on it and the conclusions I have drawn based on the research I’ve done and that, and I give space for that as well. But I’m just, I’m going to go into, just kind of presenting what I’ve encountered, the research I’ve done, what my mentors have taught me and how it’s kind of come to life in my teaching, and in my homeschool as well.
And so, I think any conversation about the classical liberal arts has to begin with, what do we mean by liberal arts? A lot of the words we use have different meanings from their inception and what the root meaning of it is, and then our modern notion of those words and the meanings and definitions that are now attributed to it.
When you look at it a dictionary in a lot of ways, a dictionary is more descriptive of the way a culture uses language, not necessarily prescriptive. And that’s one of the reasons dictionaries change over time is because we begin to use words differently over time. So, any time we’re using language that has more ancient roots. It’s good to define our terms and get on the same page and really discern, okay, what connections am I making with this word that aren’t really valid for the nature of what it is, and that sort of thing.
So, the first thing is the word liberal. Today, we use that word to mean a certain political viewpoint, or we may think of a liberal arts college where it really just means I didn’t figure out what I wanted to study. So, I’m just going to, take a lot of little classes and that’ll be okay. Maybe I’ll figure out what I want to be when I grow up one day, you know? So, you also have that view.
Well, in ancient Greece, and this does bring up a couple topics that the kind of, Objections to classical education. So, I’m going to just speak freely about them and not pretend that they don’t exist and, bring those to the surface if that’s okay.
Meg: [00:05:11] We want raw honesty.
Jennifer: [00:05:13] Yeah. So, in ancient Greece liberal meant, the education that they were giving to make a man free. So liberal arts were the arts that free men studied to be the kind of citizen, or human or person, that would be able to show up in the Polis in the city to debate, to make laws, to have the virtue necessary to lead, to have the insight and the knowledge and the skillset and all of those things to lead.
So, on that practical level, but on the other side, it was about virtue cultivation. Now this brings up a huge problem, right? The freemen. Well, what are we saying when you say that? This education was withheld from, slaves and there were slaves at that time in Greece. It was withheld from women for the most part.
it was withheld from people that were in the working class. So, it was really reserved for the elites. And so, this claim that classical education is elitist is true in a lot of ways, as it relates to its history in terms of how it has been used. One of the things that I’m excited about exploring, because I’ve personally wrestled with this. I’m like, okay, so I’m going to face this. Head-on what’s the truth about this, and I want to be brave enough to ask the hard questions.
So, does that mean we abandon classical education? Is classical education then evil, or bad at its core or elitist at the core of what it is? So, this is a valid question. If it is, well, maybe we have another conversation we need to have. If it isn’t, how do we move forward with the history of the people who have instituted it and the ways they’ve used it.
One of the things that I think is important when we’re looking at the liberal arts is, we have to go deeper. So, we made a surface comment. This is the education that free men got. So, notice, I didn’t say it was the education that only free men could apprehend. So, this is the distinction.
So, for example, in ancient Greece, there were plenty of people who didn’t believe that somebody other than the elite class could actually learn. They believe there was something different about the way their mind worked and the way they showed up in the world that prevented them from receiving a liberal arts education.
Socrates had a different view. He believed the exact opposite. From the dialogues I’ve read where Socrates’s there, I see somebody who sees that the human spirit learns. Plato talked about the term recollecting and you know, that’s another, that’s another workshop, but there was one scene in one of the dialogues where Socrates is trying to make this point. So, one of the other characters is, like no, these other people can’t learn, and Socrates was like, you’re wrong. You didn’t say it exactly like that, but he’s like, let me prove you wrong. Let me prove to you that the human spirit recollects that each human soul, each human spirit can learn.
Again, he didn’t say it in those exact words, that’s what happened, but then kind of how I’ve taken it in., And so one of the things that we can learn from that, and then there’s other, dialogues and texts that speak to this, is there something about the nature of the liberal arts that transcends particular things like, I’m going to give myself a particular education so I can be logistically equipped to do these things.
That is not how we can understand the liberal arts. When we are looking at the liberal arts, we kind of have to get our mind out of that modern utilitarian way of thinking about education. Well, I’m not going to use algebra, so I don’t need to take it. Well, then what are we doing? Well, one of my favorite ways to talk about it is the idea that the liberal arts are arts of truth perception.
And by the way, this is why I think why I believe that this education was withheld from people other than the elite class and it’s infuriating because when you start to get a taste of truth, and freedom that mental freedom you are no longer, I mean, not that you were content before, but you really aren’t content. your mind starts to open up and you have a power to overcome situations that you wouldn’t otherwise have had, a capacity to not capacity. That’s the wrong word. it. It opens your mind up to possibilities. And I believe that withholding this education was a way of keeping that group subdued.
I believe a liberal arts education is the birthright of every human soul, because it is an education in our inheritance, to know him, to know the truth. the liberal arts are not particular subjects that we study and content that we memorize and get to know. They are arts of truth perception that by practicing this art, this liberal art or that liberal art, increases our capacity to know truth.
my favorite way to understand it is I like to imagine, I know this is not true, but I like word pictures that helps me- seven organs in my brain and each liberal art is connected to one of these organs. And when I study that liberal art, it lights up that area of my brain and all of a sudden, I see things I would never have seen otherwise. I perceive things I couldn’t have perceived otherwise. And I’m like, and it just opens up. Like I can use that way of thinking that that organ allows me to do, in a multitude of situations, regardless of whether it’s connected to a particular academic content area.
So, for example, what are the liberal arts? There are two categories of liberal arts. There’s the language liberal arts and the mathematical liberal arts. Language liberal arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And if you have been around classical education at all, you probably have heard those. And then four, mathematical arts are arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy. So with arithmetic or, any math, the whole point was not, I’m going to use algebra in my job so, I’m going to memorize this equation and it’s going to be utilitarian and useful to me, and I’ll be able to specifically use this particular equation because that’s what we think. That’s what our kids say when they’re in school. That’s what my students complained to me about like Ms. Dow, I’m not going to write persuasive essays about this. I’m like, well, good thing it’s not about writing a persuasive essay because otherwise that would be arbitrary and annoying and notice this comes from a good place, right?
None of us like to do things that are arbitrary. That’s annoying. Of course, nobody wants to learn something if it’s arbitrary, but if there is meaning, and look, this goes back to our need for meaning.
I don’t know how many of you have heard of Victor Frankl. He was a survivor of one of the concentration camps, during world war II and he wrote a book, he was a therapist and he wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning.
Meg: [00:12:24] Oh, yes.
Jennifer: [00:12:25] Yeah. He invented it kind of therapy called logo therapy. And one of the things he was saying is that for us to have a fulfilling life, that three things need to happen. That we need to, have a redemptive view of our suffering, a supportive, loving community that accepts us as we are, and a project that needs us like activity that needs us.
And that’s all predicated on the fact that we want pleasure and that sort of thing, but that’s not the ultimate thing that people want. The ultimate need of every human being is meaning. And so, when we see a kid bucking up against the system, what are they trying to tell us? Not that they’re some horrible, lazy student, but because they don’t see meaning in that. And that’s a deeply, deeply human thing to need a sense of meaning about what we’re doing. I mean, just imagine if everything we learn in school is arbitrary and we make our kids go through 12 years of meaningless, arbitrary work, just because somebody says so, it’s kind of abusive.
Meg: [00:13:34] Yeah.
Jennifer: [00:13:35] That’s a violence to their human spirit. But what if there is a way to educate our kids that no matter what particular thing you’re studying, it’s infinitely meaningful, because it has a lot more to do with the mode of being the mode of inquiry, the way you show up in the world than it does about particular equations. That’s what the liberal arts offer us, that kind of education. And because we’re image bearers of the living, God. It’s our birthright to receive that education.
Meg: [00:14:10] Yes.
Jennifer: [00:14:10] which is why it’s such a tragedy that this education was used in horrifying ways in history. It is not okay because this kind of education is powerful.
Meg: [00:14:21] Yes. I think you hit the nail right on the head when you talk about the ways that it was used and the ways that people perceive it, based on those medieval uses has tarnished, even the openness and willingness of people to listen and learn about it. I have a background in education and, and I’ve said this before on, on other episodes.
But when I was in my teaching program, the only thing that was ever mentioned about classical education was that it was medieval and cruel to use in a classroom. And I believed that for a long time, until I started looking into homeschooling my own children. And it’s interesting because so many homeschoolers do homeschool, because they want to have this classical education for their children, not all homeschoolers, but many.
Jennifer: [00:15:19] Yeah, it is rising in popularity for a multitude of reasons. I mean, funny story, when I started homeschooling, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t really understand any of the philosophies. And so, I actually took a quiz to figure out which homeschool philosophy that I was going to use. And it said I either needed to do unit studies, Charlotte Mason, or classical. Charlotte Mason reminded me of Charles Manson, like the name, I don’t know why and that’s weird that an education would be named after a person. And then unit studies. I don’t know, I just, didn’t connect with it. Now, I don’t feel that way about Charlotte Mason now. She’s amazing and inspires me tremendously. But at that time, with my limited knowledge, that’s what I thought. And I’m like, okay, classical education it is. That was as deep as I went.
Meg: [00:16:12] Yes. You know, that’s funny that you say that because actually I I’ve talked to several people that have done that because they have no idea, which is one of the reasons I wanted to start this podcast, because I want people to have somewhere, they can go to listen and understand what it is, you know, and to, to be able to make an informed decision. So, you’re not alone.
Jennifer: [00:16:38] It’s so funny, that it’s like, well, growth is possible, people. Growth is possible.
Meg: [00:16:43] Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, here’s a funny story for you. I actually had, a neighbor who said they were going to send their children to classical school before I started homeschooling in it. And I was like, oh my gosh, no, that’s drill and kill and, and all of these horrible things. And you know, they’re looking at me like, what! You know, because, they took the time to actually understand it and make an informed decision instead of letting someone else inform their decision. So yeah, we’ve all been there. Yeah.
Okay. So, let’s talk about neoclassical versus the liberal arts. Yes.
Jennifer: [00:17:27] Yeah. So that’s a great question. So that’s another misconception or point of contention that we experience when we listened to the narratives about classical education. Neo-classical versus the classical liberal arts. I will be honest, sometimes it feels like a war. And as homeschool moms, we are the kind of people that take responsibility for life, for our kids’ education, for our kids’ health.
So, the details of neo-classical versus the classical liberal arts. So neo-classical is, there’s three stages of development and these three stages of development are kind of like the primary central point that say, how we teach these three stages that you’re in the grammar stage, the logic or dialectic stage and the rhetoric stage.
And we, teach a certain way and expect certain things based on these stages and these stages and modes of teaching is what makes classical education, what it is. And so, this pedagogical, or how we teach, aspect is the centering thing that makes classical education, what it is. So that’s of the view of the neoclassical.
Meg: [00:18:43] So then neo-classical is referring to the Trivium.
Jennifer: [00:18:48] It is.
Meg: [00:18:49] Okay. So, the grammar, logic and rhetoric. Got it.
Jennifer: [00:18:52] Right. So, the liberal arts, are arts, we study. That are arts of truth, perception, arts that expand our ability to perceive truth, but when we talk about the purpose of classical education or what it is, the purpose is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue and for a Christian classical education, it’s logo centric. So, we believe that Christ is the truth incarnate, logos. Logos, being the Greek word for truth, truth centric, capital T truth centric. And so that by opening our ability to perceive truth, we are opening our ability to see Christ in all things.
And so, there’s a different emphasis on purpose and this liberal view of education versus the pedagogical. So, both matters, but there’s a distinction in what the focus is, so keep that in mind. The other thing to keep in mind is one of the things that Andrew Kern taught me in the apprenticeship was that when we make something, the main thing, that’s not meant to be the main thing, we have problems. That’s where we get ideologies and factions and stuff like that. So, one of the questions we want to be asking ourselves is, is this central principle we’re applying to what this thing is robust enough to contain at all.
Meg: [00:20:27] Hmm.
Jennifer: [00:20:28] So, pedagogy – how to teach, is very important. We must ask that question, but it is not the thing that defines all of what classical education is. It’s one aspect of it and a very, very important aspect of it, but it’s one aspect of it.
So, where did we get this whole idea from? Well, we go back to an essay written in the forties. Well, it really wasn’t an essay. It was a speech given by a lady named Dorothy Sayers. What is it about this essay that just blew up in the US and made everyone want to move to classical education? She read a book called On Education, and she wrote to the author with some thoughts she was having about the book.
This particular book on education that she was reading. And by the way, she wasn’t a teacher. She wasn’t trying to make an educational philosophy, she was more on the theologian, you know, philosopher kind of side of things. She wasn’t trying to be a teacher. She read a book, was curious about it, it piqued something in her. So, she wrote a letter to the author, not unlike us emailing an author or Facebook messaging an author saying, I just read your book, and I loved it. I had all these thoughts about it.
That’s essentially what the letter was. And so, she, was really excited by, the comparisons he was using as it relates to medieval education. And she was saying, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
And then she goes on to express the things she’s been thinking about, and these different ways of educating, because even those of us who aren’t educators have opinions about education. If we’re parents or people that care about our community, we have opinions about education, but that doesn’t mean we’re trying to create an educational philosophy.
So, this was the tone of her letter. In response to this letter, the author was very excited about her insights. He was like, that’s awesome I love your ideas. Would you be willing to come give a talk at the Oxford vacation summer series about this?
Meg: [00:22:39] Wow.
Jennifer: [00:22:40] So this was a response to an author’s excitement, and it wasn’t her presenting a paper on a new educational theory that all of us need to take.
That’s not what she was doing. She was sharing excitement and interest in an idea that has come up in her. And she never once, claimed to be some educational theorist. So that’s important to know from her own intention, because when we read closely, we have a responsibility to hear the voice of the author, rather than project our own opinions on it.
Meg: [00:23:14] Yes.
Jennifer: [00:23:16] And then she said, I just got a letter from some people in America who are trying to institute schools based off my essay, and this is what she said. And like most Americans, they have more Goodwill, than knowledge. That was her opinion of the idea of making what she wrote in her essay this central focus for creating an entire school movement or educational movement.
it’s important context because one of the things that happens is Dorothy Sayers is demonized as somebody who doesn’t buy the people who don’t agree with the neoclassical side as though she did this awful evil thing, and she has no value. She is an amazing thinker and writer. Oh, my goodness. And she actually has some amazing things to say about education. And by the way, stages of development are actually a thing. You don’t get steak to your baby. Like there are things that are appropriate for younger ages that are not appropriate at different ages.
And so developmental concerns are important, and it is an aspect of teaching. In fact, if you don’t have an understanding of developmental concerns, you’re not going to be a good teacher because you are going to try to project activities and assignments on students that they cannot be successful in.
Meg: [00:24:39] That makes me think of writing. The first thing that popped in my head was writing and, who in America came up with this? Make them write more and they’ll get better at it. Instead of teaching them, just have them write, have them create. But they haven’t had anything put in to take out to write.
Because they’ve taken away the read aloud in school. I literally would squeeze she’s in a 10-minute read aloud at the end of the day that was a classic piece of literature. The rest of the time you’re teaching things, using these children’s books, which, great. But they’re not classic literature that have that prose that they’re going to absorb and start to take in so that they can in turn, put it back out.
Jennifer: [00:25:29] I think it’s so interesting how the human mind does that , we get an idea in our mind and this longing for certainty. , Because by the way, if Dorothy Sayers was writing and this relates to what you’re saying, this particular way of doing, we really love stuff like that in the West, we really like patterns and equations and I can hang my entire life on this little step process, and it’s going to produce this amazing, thoughtful contributor to the great conversation.
That’s not how life works. If you want to contrast to this, read Wendell Berry poem, manifesto, mad farmer, liberation front, and just contemplate that. Take some time, slow down, read that.
The world of the living is mystery and mess, and there is no equation. Now, are there patterns? Most certainly. Is there value that we can take from so many different sources? Absolutely. I love Dorothy Sayers essay. I think it has a ton of wisdom in it. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading it and being inspired by it.
What I do question is, taking one thing and making it the main thing with not even really understanding the context of it, or the tradition through which it was being discussed. I think it’s dangerous because it creates ideologies and factions and it makes something the most important that isn’t robust enough to contain all the things. It’s a recipe for disaster. And then we feel disoriented and we’re like, why isn’t this working? So, I, I feel like it introduces problems.
So, Neo classical relates to the sect of classical education that focuses again on the three stages of development, and what that tells us about how we teach. In contrast, or as one aspect of the classical liberal arts tradition. So, concerns about pedagogy, how we teach stages of development are part of the concerns we deal with in the classical liberal arts tradition, it’s just one aspect. And then within the larger framework of this pursuit of, wisdom and virtue and the liberal arts as arts of truth perception.
I used to be the purist. It has to be perfect because if it’s not perfect but notice where that fear comes from. It comes from a longing that’s actually good. We want the good, the true, the beautiful. So, oftentimes when we find ourselves in situations like that, if we step back, have some grace with ourselves and with other people, we realize the longing comes from a good place.
We want to do the right thing. We are deeply concerned with doing the right thing for our kids. So, I’m just going to share what I have learned through my course of being. Well, you know, like moving through these different ways of looking at classical education and then, the perspective I’ve come to now.
Well, you heard the perspective I’ve come to now. the way it described the liberal arts is how I view classical education now. So, I’m just going to take you a little bit through what I experienced my journey and what I learned. So, when I first started homeschooling, I, took the quiz, became a classical educator because I took a quiz, and I got Susan Wise Bauer’s book – The Well-Trained Mind. That was the first book I read. The next year I joined classical conversations, and I was all in. I’m the kind of person I am, zero or 100, I am black or white. There’s no gray area. And if we’re doing something, we’re doing it all the way. There’s no room for chilling.
Meg: [00:29:20] We must be like long lost sisters.
Jennifer: [00:29:25] I’m learning to calm down.
Meg: [00:29:27] Yes. Same here.
Jennifer: [00:29:30] Yeah. And so, for me, it was either all in or nothing at all. And I also have a tendency to identify very much with whatever group I’m a part of, I believe this 100%. And I don’t, I don’t like disagreeing with the groups that I’m involved in only because I really love harmony. And I really love authentic connection with people. And so sometimes that leads me to be tempted, to just agree with everything, you know?
And so, it’s taken me a long time to be like, actually, I can have a different opinion. I don’t have to disbelieve this one thing. Cause this is one group says it. So, so what is it? So, Lord, what do you think about this? You know, where do I go? So, so it’s a beginning, some of my tendencies, I think it’s good to frame it that way.
So, I started out there, learned so much. Oh, my goodness. If it hadn’t been for the class conversations, I would have never gotten to know Charlotte Mason, I would’ve never been introduced to the CiRCE Institute, I would’ve never joined the apprenticeship. I would not be a classical teacher today.
In fact, my first year in classical conversations, I homeschooled for one year by myself. I don’t really want to do it by myself. And some lady, my friend, Janice, actually, we’re still friends today, she believed God was telling her she hadn’t met me at this point though, that she was not supposed to be a tutor that year that somebody else was supposed to be. So, she out of an act of obedience, followed through on that.
Because of that opening, the director was like, Hey, by the way, I have an opening. If that had not happened, I would have not joined CC that year. I would not have learned about Andrew Kern and the CiRCE Institute. I would have not met, all these people and really started going deeper. Paideia would not be here today, if that hadn’t happened. You know, maybe there would have been another way it would have transpired, but she, she did that.
And, and so that kind of really launched my journey in a lot of ways. And, and I gave myself to the process, you know, that’s something about another thing about me that zero to 100, if I have a mentor, I take in everything they say now that’s really good in one sense, because well, you learned really quickly and you can take on things really quickly on the negative side, then you realize, wait, They’re not actually Jesus and I, and I can disagree with them and all of that.
So that’s the downside, you have to work through the disappointment of realizing, wait, I just probably put too much trust on them or, you know, and they didn’t ask for it, that was me. That was me. But, but the same thing, you know, the same thing happened when I was, you know, exploring this side of classical education.
I gave myself 100% to it and through no fault of anyone else’s I decided that this was the corner on truth of what classical education was. And I just ran with reckless abandon to study this and decide this. And I was not open to any other perspective because, well, this is what I signed up for. This is the path; this is what the graph says.
This is, you know, and there was not an openness. And my failure, at that moment, was withholding that openness to be open to other ideas. So, I say that because when I joined the apprenticeship and I began learning about the classical liberal arts, I felt like I had been deceived somehow, but nobody deceived me. I just had assumed that this is all there was to classical education.
Why would I have assumed that? We learn new things all the time. And so, I had it, I kind of went through a death and resurrection of my own there that opened up like, okay, we’re going to learn more here.
So, I just want to acknowledge, I think a lot of us do that and it’s okay. There’s a process and it’s okay. So, after that, Charlotte Mason was introduced to me, and I understood that there was nothing to be worried about. She’s actually a wonderful educator, and I could learn a lot from her.
And so, those things Susan Wise Bauer classical conversations, Charlotte Mason, the Searcy Institute, the apprenticeship, the liberal arts, all of that kind of converged together in my second, third, and fourth years homeschooling. So, it was like those years of the apprenticeship.
It was just a clash of ideas. And I had to decide whether I was going to hold on to one thing or allow myself to be open and discover, and really believe that if there was something I was believing that was like the hard rock truth, that it would come out on the other side of the wrestling and that just trust the Holy spirit to guide my exploration.
Being precise and knowing the truth is really important to me. I don’t know how other people are, I suspect that people have different personalities with this, but I want to know the certain equation. I want certainty. I want to know this is the truth and I don’t have to worry about it. And so, it’s also been a process of, letting that go.
I love Karen glasses book, Consider This, where she’s comparing Charlotte Mason in the classical tradition. And by the way, if you view classical education as neoclassical, you will think that Charlotte Mason and classical education have very little in common and you would mostly be right. But if you view classical education as the classical liberal arts tradition, there are tremendous synchronicities and it’s very harmonious.
So, depending on where you come from in your understanding of classical education will determine a lot of what you believe about that synthesis or non-synthesis. the last thing I want to say about the classical liberal arts is one of the things, Karen Glass brings out is this pursuit of relationship. It’s a Charlotte Mason principle, too. Yeah. Education as the science of relations, and it is the real purpose that we’re saying, we want to cultivate wisdom and virtue. How is wisdom and virtue cultivated? Well, I used to like, when somebody first told me that I’m like, okay, I believe you, but I still don’t understand how that actually happens at the kitchen table.
Well, one of the things I learned, and Karen Glass was really helpful in helping me learn this was that it is the relationship. I mean, just take, for example, the natural world. If I sit in a classroom with a book memorize, you know, and there’s nothing wrong with memorizing things, memorizing things is wonderful to fill our minds with ideas.
And that’s one way we learn. It’s not the only way though, you know, there there’s, there’s other things, If I sit in a classroom and I memorize, this is the deciduous forest, this is, but I never go out into the forest. All I have is knowledge, that’s disconnected from connection. It is when I go out into the forest and I feel this sense of it, and I look at the trees and I see the life teaming around me that I get connected to it and have a living knowledge of it that allows me to act justly on behalf of the forest.
After all, this is our mandate as humans, right? To, to govern, to govern these things. And if I don’t have that relationship, I won’t have the wisdom to know how to manage or be present in that space in a way that honors its nature, therefore treating it justly.
I mean that’s virtue and all that is that it’s all connected in that realm. It’s not knowledge, in the sense of now I know these things. And so, if we’re saying the purpose of classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, then it’s the relationship that leads us there. And so that has to be part of it as well.
Meg: [00:37:14] Yeah. Oh, that’s a great perspective. And, and for, would you say living novels are another way to connect with that relationship to the subjects.
Jennifer: [00:37:28] Yes, absolutely. I know C S Lewis talks about this. There’s even been scientific studies about this. When we read stories, it lights up the same area of our brain that, is lit up when we’re experiencing things. And so, there is a legitimate connection between reading, living things and experiencing them.
There’s a great article on, I think it’s. Charlotte Mason city living. And she has a blog post called what are living books. and she gives a really good description of living books. I think I would add to it, to that. David Hicks in chapter, one of Norms and Ability describes the content we use, and he says they need to be things that show reason at work.
So, reason if you look at it from a logic standpoint, is when we take things that we know. And gain new knowledge from things we already know. So, we compare to things we already know and say, Oh, well, this must also be true. So, we, the making of connections. Right? And so, David Hicks says we want books that show reason at work bring up those big, baggy baffling questions.
in other words, the common human experiences, the common human questions, the ones that we ask more than we can answer that these, these are characteristics of the kind of books we want to stay in. A textbook does not show reason at work. It gives, this is what happened and there’s value in noticing the facts.
Sometimes, especially if we’re more feeling oriented, sometimes we need to get out of our head and be like, okay, what actually happened?
Meg: [00:39:11] Right.
Jennifer: [00:39:13] you know? so, so yes.
Meg: [00:39:17] Wow. I love that. I’ve never actually heard it explained. So, I’m learning a lot from you in this conversation, so thank you.
Jennifer: [00:39:26] Oh my pleasure.
Meg: [00:39:28] okay, so let’s, let’s talk about the two ways to teach classically – memetic and Socratic. So, I’m very familiar with the Socratic way, but I am very curious to hear about both of them from you.
Jennifer: [00:39:43] Sure. Yeah. So first, so I think it’s important to say that, these are not the only two ways that you can teach that mimetic teaching and Socratic teaching are tools that a classical teacher can use in a lot of different situations, but it’s not like here’s classical education and here are the only two ways you can teach.
I think it is important to note that when we first start learning something, we see it as a caricature. And so, we feel like we understand it because we see this big thick black line caricature, but it’s not a nuanced understanding of it.
It’s actually, at that point, we are most at risk for thinking, we know something when we really don’t. Plato talks about it and one of his dialogues and I’m like, oh my gosh, I do that all the time. Yes. But so mimetic is, at its core, a method of teaching that helps coach a skill, or it can also be used to help somebody apprehend an idea.
One of the things that’s really important in classical teaching and Charlotte Mason teaching is to not tell them what to do I think, but to help them discover, and it opened up inside of them to allow the light bulb to go off. If we just dictate what to believe, what the thing to the students, it’s not going to be their own knowledge. It’s not going to be theirs. It’s not going to belong to them. So memetic takes us through a process of inviting a student to a lesson. So, it deeply honors their own agency and autonomy. It honors the reality that I cannot make this child do anything. This child has the choice whether to show up in this conversation, they may obey by showing up at the table, but that does not mean they’re learning. And it does not mean they’re engaged. There’s a superficial kind of obedience, that’s just showing up, but that’s not the obedience of the heart. And honestly, if we’re in a Christian classical situation, the obedience and the heart is more important because that’s what Christ deals with everyone about what’s going on in their heart.
so. If we want to honor agency, the first thing then is to invite them. we, we want to invite the students to the lesson and depending on what you’re teaching, there are a variety of ways to do this. So, it’s different for each content area, whether it’s, a history reading a literature book, a nature study lesson, a writing lesson, you know, there’s lots of different ways to approach this.
And then, and the other way to think about it is this invitation helps to show them what they already know about the subject, the topic, the, the concept, whatever it is. it gives them a connection to it; it helps to see the commonality.
I use the metaphor of friendship when I train teachers, how to teach, because I, I believe that the metaphor of friendship, the process, or the stages of friendship are movements of friendship, whatever you want to call it, parallel exactly the process of learning. And then, by looking at that we can then discern with greater clarity what our role as the teacher is in helping a student learn. Because we, again, we can’t learn for the student. So, we invite them, we show them what they already know about the subject. But in order to move from first meeting somebody in a friendship to wanting to get to know them more, there has to be that connection of commonality.
There has to be a point where we have something in common, and now we’re going to start talking about it. If that never happens at a play date. Guess what? They’re not hanging out again, unless their parents make them. So, the first-time invitation, there must be a point of connection at some point.
The next thing is the presentation., if you love research, you will like this site. It’s everything rhetoric and mimetic and Progymnasmata. So, then you presented, so whatever the thing that you’re teaching, you want to present examples of. So, whether it’s a concept, a question, whatever it is, you’re going to present examples of it without telling them. So, if you’re teaching how to write a metaphor, you’re going to write a metaphor together as a class, three times, you might do it once and then you might do it together twice.
And then, you present your types. You haven’t told them. This is how you do it. You just do it with them. It’s an act of imitation. And it’s like, let me show you and you can imitate me. That’s how we learn by imitation. Every now and then we have moments where the genius, visits us or the muse descends or whatever, but most of the time we learn by imitation.
And then after that you ask questions about that. Okay. So, what’s the same for each of these examples. What did we do? If you’re coaching a skill, you’re going to ask more questions about what we did. You know, what did we do first? What did we do second? What did we do third? And what was the same? And if you’re looking at an idea, you’re going to talk about just the general similarities. If you’re going to, you’re doing a lesson on virtue or like, what is justice?
And you give three examples of justice being enacted. Well, what’s the same in each of these situations. What’s different? And the thing that’s common, if you’ve selected appropriate examples that are in alignment with your idea, the common thread, is the thing that is justice or is virtue.
And so that’s how you would do it with an idea. And then, yeah. And so, then after that, after that, after that comparison, and, and this is where it takes growth as a teacher. Yes, we can all show up and read a book and ask questions and it’s going to give a lot of life to our students. at the same time, teaching is a skill and an art, and we develop an intuition about when to move to the next thing and we can develop our skillset.
It is an art, just like any other craft, any other profession. And there are things we can learn and grow in. That’s awesome, that means we don’t have to, you know, stay where we’re at and we can also celebrate the guests we already have. So, once we’ve presented those examples, you’re looking for a moment where you sense, Oh, they’re getting it.
There are certain phrases there’s, certain body language, there’s certain ways the kids’ eyes light up. There’s lots of different cues you can look for as a teacher to say, okay, they’re seeing something here. at that point you transitioned to having them name it. And essentially this is a narration. Lost tools use the term explanation, but essentially, they’re narrating the thing they just apprehended.
Charlotte Mason says you narrate what you know. And so, when they. The act of explanation. Sometimes people think narration and an explanation is assessment for the teacher. And while that’s a side benefit, the primary purpose of it is that the student tie down the knowledge and the experience they just had.
And by knowledge, I mean more like the poetic knowledge. They tie down their experience, they name it, they synthesize it in order to narrow it, you have to synthesize.
Meg: [00:46:40] Right.
Jennifer: [00:46:41] Put it in order and figure out the words to express when you then when the human mind does that, that’s powerful because it is part of the process of learning. They’ve learned something it’s their own. And then finally is the application. You want to charge them and challenge them to do something, to express that new thing.
Meg: [00:47:03] Yes.
Jennifer: [00:47:03] And actually you could, in some ways, merge explanation and application together, depending on the topic. Like for instance, if you’re doing something about justice, you know, their narration, their oral narration could be a written narration about justice and, and they could describe the example so that you could kind of synthesize those depending on how you have them do that process. but if you’re teaching how to write a metaphor, well, they need to write a metaphor. They need to show that they can do it independently because there’s a difference between, and I guess this would be the distinction between explanation and application. Explanation is dependent learning or, you know, like you’re in the classroom with the teacher, the teacher’s right there they’re verbalizing it in front of you.
Application is by yourself. My son, he’s a verbal processor. He’s 18. Now he’s a senior in high school and there’s some work he does amazing at when he’s with somebody else. But as soon as he’s off by himself, he forgets it. Well, if he forgets it off by himself, he doesn’t know it yet.
He doesn’t have a simple apprehension of it yet. And so, that assessment is important because it lets you know what they actually know. So, application is the thing. That’s actually more the assessment for the teacher than the narration is. The narrations part of the learning process for them, but you need to see what they can do on their own.
Meg: [00:48:26] right, right. It goes with the whole idea of, you know, this whole we learn when we do. And we retain when we regurgitate what we’ve learned.
Jennifer: [00:48:41] Yeah. I just did this intuitively when I was younger, but I would, I would pretend I was teaching a class when I was studying something and I would put, I was such a nerd. Oh my gosh. Oh, felt like a board up. And I would write notes and I would be teaching. I’d have all my bucks and I’m like, this is great.
But what I was doing was forcing myself to learn and tell, I could teach. And then I inevitably learn like, but I don’t know why God made me that way, but I just did that naturally. I don’t know why, but I think God for it, because that’s what got me through school.
Meg: [00:49:13] Yeah. Yeah. Well, and think about the kids that love to play school. And when they take what they’ve, whenever my kids play school or pretend or anything, I hear them reteaching what I’ve taught them or what they’ve experienced. So, it just goes to show you how important it is.
Jennifer: [00:49:34] Amen.
Meg: [00:49:35] Yeah. Well, okay. So that was an awesome explanation of memetic teaching let’s quickly touch on the Socratic method. I do talk about this in another podcast too, so we don’t have to go super deep, but I would love to hear your side of how you handle Socratic teaching.
Jennifer: [00:49:58] Okay. Yeah. So Socratic teaching is another thing that has a lot of different definitions to it. There’s, the book that was made famous, the Socratic circles, then there’s Socrates and how he deals with things. Then there’s like Socratic discussion as it’s like a literature class. These are all different ways that people will talk about Socratic teaching or Socratic discussion.
Socrates, you know, this is based off what’s of Socrates, that his name it’s Socratic teaching. And so, I think one of the reasons it came to discussion is because while he’s asking questions and the form of what he’s doing is discussion he’s discussing, but he is also doing something more intentional.
And so, we see Socrates asking questions. And so, we think, Oh, when we ask questions, we are doing Socratic teaching. So that means it can be questions and discussions and it’s Socratic. Well, I think that Socrates method in his pattern for what he did is worth more, intention, and, and looking at the patterns.
Whenever we’re looking at something to try to use it as a method, because it’s very valuable to do that. It’s wonderful to do that. we should always look at the antecedent and the consequence. So, the things that came before and the things that come after, look at the cause and effect relationship.
So, we see that Socrates did this thing of asking questions, but what came before? Why did it even become a thing? What was he noticing? What was his response? And then what comes after? So, looking at the whole picture is important. And so, one of the things that we noticed is he hears somebody say something and you get the sense that Socrates knows this guy is full of it, or, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or you know, something else.
And Socrates has a reputation for being kind of annoying at times and just, he messes with people. Homeboy messes with people and which is one of the reasons, some people aren’t fear created by him. I mean, if you just read the dialogues, I laugh out loud. He is hilarious. I’m like, dude, do you want to be disliked?
Like, is that your goal? The painting death of Socrates. You see people’s faces. They’re like, Oh, oh my gosh, stop it. You literally are about to die. Why are you not stopping us? and so, he had a weird way about him. So, this is the nature of Socratic instruction. It can be intense. It can be intrusive. It can cause people to feel like they’re being asked to be more vulnerable than they’re ready to be.
It can cut all of the reactions and the emotions that you sense, and the people around him are legitimate responses to the powers of Socratic teaching. So, at its core Socratic teaching notices, something you have a question about, or you’re concerned might be a false perspective about something.
So immediately, because we’re a conquest driven nation, you know, we’re all about progress and conquest. We think that it means we have to subdue the other person and make sure they know they’re wrong so we can tell them the right thing. In the West, I have to remember that there is a different way of being.
There is, if you look at all the nations in the world, you know, there’s, there’s conquest driven nations and there’s process driven nations. And it’s usually the process driven nations that are, subdued and made slaves and all of these things. They have a different value system. Then we do, and it applies in this national historical way, but it also applies in ways we show up in things.
In the West, we breathed this kind of air, it’s very hard for us to get out of it. If you can study mindfulness and some Eastern principles of mindfulness, you’ll begin to see a different way of showing up in situations. It doesn’t have to be one of the other, there’s space for both.
So first we recognize that there’s something like, Oh, well, that’s curious, sometimes you genuinely don’t understand, and you want to seek understanding and sometimes you’re like, Oh, that that is a false perspective, but then what’s the goal? You want to perceive truth, right?
That’s the goal. And so one of the things is that it takes you from this perspective, you want to gain more understanding about through the discourse it makes possible this metanoia moment where we can have a change and understanding, whether it be your own or the person you’re discussing with, and then, a reorientation to what is true.
Now, this is very dangerous because if you use it in a way that you decide as the teacher, I know what the truth is, and now I’m going to correct my student to make sure they know what the truth is. It’s an act of violence. I very rarely use Socratic teaching. I’ve used it twice in that way.
And it was a very prayerful moment. I, you know, I very rarely do I use it. What it mostly looks like for me is we both don’t have a full understanding of the truth. I don’t have the corner on the truth and neither do you. And I’m really genuinely curious about what you’re saying and I’m going to wonder with you. So, we ask questions to understand what each other’s stances are.
Now in the process of that, there’s going to be a separation of what we actually believe and the fact and the things that are like, oh yeah, I guess that doesn’t fit. That would be what we consider that Onyx stage, where we’re deconstructing the work at, we’re deconstructing because we’re seeking, understanding that act is a natural act of separation.
And then maybe we’re granted a moment from the muses where we’re like, Oh, I get it now. And then we can explore together the truth. That’s how I use it. I feel like that’s the only the humane way to use it, except for very few situations because I don’t have the corner on truth. I learn new things all the time. And I think just, the idea of deconstructing somebody else’s argument, leading them to the truth and then giving them the truth.
I should say one caveat to that. When I described all that, I’m thinking about ideas like justice, like these more elusive now, right? If you’re using this in math, there is gentle way to like, and somebody says, well, plus three is four. Then it looks like, Oh, let me ask you. Okay. So, remind me, you know, let’s count two.
Let’s count two. Okay. What is two plus two? Okay. So, based on that, can you, what is two plus three? You know, so through, so we ask these questions to help the student realize, Oh, Oh, I got that wrong. My bad, you know, so in that sense, I think it is okay. But when it comes to ideas, big concepts like that, like justice, I very weary of using it.
so, when it, it just depends on how concrete a topic is. And so, there’s judgment there.
Meg: [00:57:17] Well, Jennifer, this has been amazing, and I cannot thank you enough for your time. And I am sure everyone who hears this will be truly blessed by your presence on our podcast. So, thank you.
Jennifer: [00:57:31] no, it’s my pleasure. I was so glad to be here. Thank you for having me.



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