The Catholic Classical Vision pt. 9: The Classes

This series outlines the purpose, structure, curricular content, and communal origins of a Catholic classical education, for the sake of establishing a School dedicated to such an education in the Diocese of Wichita (Kansas). It discusses both the general principles of Catholic classical education as well as some particular points regarding that School. We begin by explaining the purpose and educational vision of the School, then consider the reasons for the order and structure of its curriculum, before discussing each class in the curriculum. Lastly, we describe the community required to achieve the goals of Catholic classical education.


In what follows, we will discuss each class as it unfolds over the students’s entire career at the school. For each class, we will discuss its place in the curriculum in light of the overall form and order of a Catholic classical education and then describe its structure and content over the student’s career.

Religion

Religion classes at the School serve the end of inculcating the virtue of piety and as preparation for later study of sacred theology. The classes generally include study of Sacred Scripture, the lives of the saints, and catechesis. Catechesis itself will arise principally from what can be drawn from the Bible and the lives of the saints, but will also include necessary instruction based on appropriate catechetical books and will include preparation for the sacraments.

The Dome of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Depicting the Four Evangelists

The first three years of the study of the Bible will focus on reading through an illustrated children’s Bible each year. Grades 3–8 will study a sequence of the Bible as follows: the Pentateuch, the historical books, the Wisdom books, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the remainder of the New Testament. This will focus on learning to understand Scripture in its senses, both literal and spiritual, and their various species (for instance, the historical or allegorical, among others). Grades 9–12 will revisit this sequence in greater depth: from Genesis to David, from Solomon to the coming of Christ, the Gospels, and the writings of the Apostles. This final course of study will deepen students’ grasp of the senses of Scripture under the guidance of appropriate excerpts from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Since the Religion class overall is a preparation for theological studies properly speaking, certain elements of sacred theology will be introduced in the upper grades (Grades 11–12).

The study of the lives of the saints will be appropriate for each age and will emphasize stories about the saints that inspire students, not merely reporting factual information about their lives. Such readings will also include artwork depicting the saints or—if applicable—liturgical music either about or composed by them. In this way, it becomes clearer how the study of the Bible and the lives of the saints is to be considered musica humana—“human music”—since they are the stories of our heroes and teach the heart to delight in the good.[1] The study of the ways in which words bear signification and meaning in the different senses of Scripture is an element of the liberal art of grammar. Elements of rhetoric and even logic can be taught as appropriate (for instance, when studying the Letters of St. Paul).

Lastly, it is important to note that the School will not inculcate piety through instruction alone. The various intellectual virtues and the elements of the liberal arts will be grounded and sustained throughout the students’ careers by the common life of the School, especially through the Liturgy of the Hours and assisting at Holy Mass.

Gymnastic

Gymnastic is included in classical education in order to habituate various physical virtues. Throughout the course of students’ time at the School, this will occur in various ways at the appropriate level. Grades K–2 will simply be encouraged in play. Grades 3–5 can be instructed in the basic elements of various sports. Grades 6–8 will enjoy informal intramural sports and various outdoor excursions and field trips, while Grades 9–12 will have more formal intramural sports and excursions. These upper grades, as time permits, will also be instructed in the rudiments of various technical skills (e.g., shop class or carpentry).

Ballroom and other formal dances will also be taught throughout the various grades. This instruction will include in-class lessons and communal dances for families several times throughout the year. While such instruction can complement instruction in the Music class, it also promotes various moral virtues by habituating students in the fitting enjoyment of the sensible delight of music and dance.

Latin

The study of Latin, while not a liberal art as such, is nonetheless an integral element of a Catholic classical education for various reasons. First and foremost, this is because Latin is the language of the Church and the Catholic tradition.[2] Thus, an initiation into the knowledge of Latin is one of the necessary conditions for accessing the otherwise inaccessible sources of the Catholic and Western traditions, and the wisdom of the Church, in their original tongue.  Second, the vocabularies of both English and the Romance languages are heavily influenced by Latin, and so Latin leads to a sort of self-knowledge by revealing the roots of one’s own tongue. Facility in Latin also serves as a strong foundation for learning other modern Romance languages.

While not a liberal art itself, Latin includes elements of the liberal arts. Latin orators exemplify the various canons of rhetoric, as do its poets in regard to figures of speech. Even logical tools such as definition, classification, division, or types of logical connectives—for instance, conditional clauses—can be discussed and inculcated informally in the study of Latin. Of course, Latin especially provides formation in the liberal art of grammar, beyond what is studied in English classes. While earlier stages of the study of Latin will learn grammar informally, through usage rather than analysis, the later grades (in particular Grades 9–12) will focus formally on the nature and function of grammatical principles like the parts of speech, the nature of noun cases, the tense structure or voice of verbs, etc. Seeing these grammatical principles at work in another language besides their own assists students to see more universally how human languages possess common grammatical principles.

The early grades (K–2) will emphasize learning various Latin words, prayers, and hymns; this instruction will complement the Music class. Grades 3–8 will learn Latin by going ad fontes, to the original sources as much as possible, and by a method of viva voce instruction, or learning the language by actually hearing it and speaking it. Grades 9–12, besides studying Latin grammar more formally, will read from more difficult original sources of Latin history and literature.

Language & Literature

The two classes of Language and Literature as well as History complete the parts of the curriculum devoted principally to the Trivium. The Language & Literature class is devoted to the study of the English language as well as to works that introduce students to and exemplify the breadth and depth of English literature.

The Language and Literature class will especially inculcate elements of the Trivium, and these elements will be stronger in the higher grades. Students of Grades K–2 will learn the basic skills of reading, spelling, handwriting, and memorization. The activities of reading, listening, and discussion will include fables, myths, fairy tales—such readings are continued at appropriate age levels in all the remaining grades. Grades 3–5 build on these basics, and study penmanship and retelling stories, practice dictation, and continue memorization, especially of longer poems and speeches. Grades 6–8 begin the formal study of English grammar and usage, and developing greater facility in the art of writing.

Grades 9–12 continue these beginnings and turn to logic and rhetoric in a more explicit way, in both spoken and written form. For logic, students will read selections of Socratic dialogues, St. Thomas, and other authors to see the art of logic in practice, analyze such arguments, and then imitate them by constructing their own. Students will read and analyze great works of rhetoric from past masters (for instance, Cicero or St. Augustine), learn from their methods, and produce their own speeches in imitation. Once such structures of logical argumentation and canons of rhetorical presentation become familiar by use, they are studied in a more formal way.

History

The study of History not only makes students knowledgeable of their place within their own culture and the Catholic tradition, but it also expands their experience by considering famous lives well or poorly lived. This formation in history aids the formation of their moral insights.

History, insofar as it is only a study of particular and contingent events, is not a liberal art. However, it can be studied in a way that is liberal or formative of the mind. This is the case when history is studied not only for the sake of what it shows of the universal features of human nature but also when the mind informed by faith can see the providential order of history, especially salvation history.[3]

Indeed, history is a certain kind of music, musica humana, the story of humanity and of how God’s providence has guided it. Such an approach is warranted not only from within Scripture itself but also with St. Augustine’s theological-historical vision of the two Cities, the City of God and the City of Man. When studied in this way, history is preparatory for ethics, politics, and theology.

The history sequence will be organized thematically by year from Grades 3–12, cycling through the Ancient World, Christendom, and the Modern World. The literature sequence will be coordinated with it. The literature will focus on the great and good works that have stood the test of time. History will turn to primary sources when possible, especially in the higher grades (for instance, by reading Herodotus and Plutarch). The thematic years for history and literature will also provide a basis for integrative connections with Latin, Music, and even Science and Religion.

Music

The Music class aims to instill in students the habits of the liberal art of music. It focuses especially upon musica instrumentalis and the theory, history, and practice of music. Goals of this course of study include a grasp of the historical development and traditions of different types of music, as well as listening to and understanding good music. This course is also important for the general musical foundation of education in the broad sense, insofar as excellent music promotes the moral life of students. The class throughout a student’s career includes learning to sing, as well as learning about and listening to the entire tradition of music (from chant through classical to folk music).

In particular, students will learn to sing across the range of the Church’s liturgical tradition, especially in Holy Mass. Students in Grades K–2 will learn the Ordinary of the Mass and basic Latin hymns. Grades 3–5 will receive instruction in the basics of Gregorian chant and the various Propers of the Mass. This instruction will be completed by more advanced instruction in chant in Grades 6–8 and by participation in a polyphonic choir in Grades 9–12. The Music class in the latter grades will also feature instruction in the study of musical harmony and music theory. It is in these classes especially where elements of the Quadrivium (arithmetic and music) find their proper place in the School’s curriculum.

Mathematics

The courses in Mathematics during a student’s career at the School are especially focused upon training in the liberal arts of mathematics, as well as beginning the student’s deeper understanding of mathematics as a theoretical or philosophical discipline. Mathematics is both an art and a science in this way, for the art of producing proofs, geometric constructions, or arithmetic calculations is learned so that the student can see the truth for its own sake. To learn mathematics as a liberal art and a science requires going beyond a method that focuses solely upon the inculcation of formal rules. Paul Lockhart expresses well what the School’s curriculum aims to avoid, namely,

the perpetuation of this “pseudo-mathematics,” this emphasis on the accurate yet mindless manipulation of symbols, [which] creates its own culture and its own set of values. Those who have become adept at it derive a great deal of self-esteem from their success. The last thing they want to hear is that math is really about raw creativity and aesthetic sensitivity. Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told they were “good at math,” that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following directions.

From Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament,” available online here.

The order of the School’s mathematics curriculum, while externally very similar to a typical order, must be animated by the “liberal” spirit that Lockhart describes. The ancient Greek mathematicians recognized a distinction between arithmētikē, or the theory of number pursued for its own sake, and logistikē, the art of calculation that is good because it is useful.[4] The true form of mathematics was not for the sake of problem solving, but for the sake of seeing and contemplating mathematical truths. The challenge, then, is to raise student’s minds from mathematics as rote application of rules for solving problems to mathematics as revealing the existence of a whole realm of universal truths, which are worthy of exploration in their own right. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that mathematics is a prerequisite to higher philosophical studies. 

The early grades, K–6, will focus on the study of arithmetic and geometry in a way appropriate to mathematics understood as a liberal art. The higher grades begin to raise the students’ minds from the liberal art of mathematics to mathematical knowledge sought for its own sake, to pure theory. Grades 7–8 will study algebra as a method for furthering this mathematical knowledge when studying number and shape. Grades 9–12 will study geometry (in particular, Euclid’s Elements), then more advanced geometry (trigonometry, astronomy, and conic sections), and conclude with a two-year study of Calculus. A cross-curricular aspect of the mathematics courses will be their reference to and coordination with the courses in the natural sciences, especially physics. 

Sciences

A problem similar to the one Lockhart describes in mathematics can arise in the study of the natural sciences.[5] That is, in the natural sciences too there are counterparts to the Greeks’ distinction between arithmētikē and logistikē. The one is pure, disinterested love of the truth; the other, a skilled application of true ideas.

In the natural sciences, love and skill can be at odds. Curricula that overemphasize technical competence or STEM-readiness train students in the specific techniques of a given field (i.e., various “parts” of science) without educating them to love knowledge as a whole. Such students are trained to love a game of memorized, empty concepts—empty because students have not been taught to find those concepts instantiated in the complex natural world around them. They are also disconnected from a broader vision of the natural world as a whole. Thus, students run the risk of developing an intellectual hatred of natural science and even of philosophy as its broader whole. They may grow disillusioned with Aristotle’s wonder or Feynman’s pleasure of finding things out.

As mentioned in a previous post, the natural sciences are related as parts of natural philosophy. We need natural philosophy because it provides a coherent overview of things. It leads us to nature whole and entire, before we head off into the details of the sciences. The desire of natural philosophy is to behold and to understand the order and goodness of the cosmos for their own sakes. This desire stands in contrast to the reductionism and materialism latent in the natural sciences and their pedagogy, which combine a mathematical-mechanical method of causal analysis with a pragmatic, technological end-goal. The ancients paired the natural sciences with wisdom, but moderns pair them with technology.

The science classes, therefore, will aim not only at instruction of a robust knowledge of the particulars of the various natural sciences, but a broader and sounder philosophical grasp of their place in the whole that does not simply give a free pass to a reductionistic or materialistic view of the world. Robust natural science and sound natural philosophy are allies here. For instance, early grades will emphasize observation, natural history, and wondering and asking questions about what is observed. The writings and methods of J. Henri Fabre are exemplary here. This natural history and even the history of science can be deepened in Grades 6–8. Grades 9–12 will follow a course of study in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

These courses will not only permit a deeper grasp of the liberal arts of the Quadrivium, which are beginnings in the study of natural philosophy. They are also ordered to understanding how the natural world is a cosmos, a single, harmonious unity that was ordered by God and glorifies Him. This is not just musica mundana, a study of the harmonious proportions that God has woven in nature, but a preparation for natural and revealed theology, tracing the signs in creation back to their Creator.


[1] See this footnote in a previous post.

[2] See Pope St. John XXIII, Veterum Sapientia, February 22, 1962.  The document quotes Pope Pius XI in his Apostolic Letter on the importance of Latin, Officiorum Omnium: “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time . . . of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”

[3] See Michael J. Letteney, “History and Catholic Liberal Education,” a lecture given at Thomas Aquinas College, August 24, 2012.

[4] See Jacob Klein, Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1992).

[5] This section borrows from a separate essay by one of the participating authors; see John G. Brungardt, “A Natural Philosopher’s Lament,” Public Discourse (April 25, 2019).

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