The Good News About Classical Lutheran Education

Slowly but surely, for the past few decades, the discussion of “Classical” education has re-entered formal and informal conversation among Christian educators and parents.  Lutherans as well have joined in this debate, and those in favor of implementing what Dorothy Sayers called the “lost tools of learning” have founded Classical Lutheran schools, have organized Classical Lutheran education conferences, and have chosen to homeschool their Lutheran children using Classical curricula and methodology.  However, even with this growing presence, misconceptions abound, especially for those Lutherans whose exposure to Classical Lutheran education has been minimal.  

Below are twelve truths about Classical Lutheran education today and what is actually taking place in our Classical Lutheran classrooms and homes all across the country.

1.      Classical Lutheran education is for all students, regardless of ability.

 As the subtitle of Cheryl Swope’s new book Simply Classical articulates, Classical Lutheran education is truly a “beautiful education for any child.”  Acquiring knowledge through the application of the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) for every subject allows students of all abilities to engage in classical education.  The very stages of the Trivium build confidence and increase a student’s drive to dive more deeply into the subject matter.  Classical Lutheran education tells children, “You can do this!” and then gives them the very tools they need to succeed.  A Classical Lutheran education can help any child reach his or her full potential, not merely an artificial external standard of being “on grade level.”  Ironically, it was the development of the progressive model of education in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s in the United States that removed a Classical model of education from the lives of some students, deeming them to be better suited for trade-specific training.  The best educational track became reserved for the country’s best and most promising, while the remaining students were trained in skills necessary to develop an able workforce in the boom of the American Industrial Revolution.  However, this tracking approach both subtly and overtly tells students that they are not all capable and deserving of a rich, well-rounded education.  Classical Lutheran education says all children deserve to learn what is good, true, and beautiful, to learn each subject in a logical and orderly way using the tools of the Trivium and Quadrivium, and to develop all of their God-given abilities and talents for His glory.

2.      Classical Lutheran education enables academic prowess and mastery by having students learn Latin, memorize facts and figures, and drill all subjects to mastery, but it also equally addresses the students’ heart and soul.

While it is true that Classical Lutheran education develops a student’s intellect and provides a student with all the “skills” needed for higher-level learning and the workforce, this is not the primary goal or purpose of such an education.  As students develop beyond the grammar and logic stages to the rhetoric stage, the facts, figures, memorizing, and conjugating lay the groundwork for the deepest understanding of life’s most essential questions from a Lutheran worldview: Who am I?  How did I get here?  Where am I going?  How will I get there?  Why is life worth living and worth living well?  In Classical Lutheran education, we do not drill for its own sake nor do we drill to produce “super students”; rather, we lay the foundation of knowledge within students in order to build upon this foundation. We seek to help them learn, discover, and expound upon what it means to be human, to be Christian, to be Lutheran, to be a saved child of God, to be alive and here on this earth to serve God’s purposes to those around us.  As students grow from childhood into adulthood, those existential questions arise, and our students are prepared to give and defend their answers and to walk through this post-modern, relativistic world confidently and clinging to the hope we have through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

 3.      Many students LOVE drill work and memorization!

Our younger students (through 3rd or 4th grade) are equipped with minds that are eager to memorize.  God designed the growing human brain to thrive on grammar-level work in the early years of life.  This is why children of 1st-generation Americans will often learn English as well as their parents’ native tongue more quickly than their parents and why many schools are now including foreign language in the elementary years.  And, older students do not mind memorization and drill work if they are provided with sound reasons why or how the memorized information will help them or is useful.  After all, these students are entering the Dialectic/Logic stage of learning, and their demand that the drills be for of some good use is valid.  Classical Lutheran teachers have mastered ways to make drill work and memorization effective; chanting, clapping, actions/movement, visualization techniques, and the like all help the students achieve grammatical mastery of subjects, allowing them to transition easily into higher-level thinking activities as they develop.  If teenagers and adults at a basketball game can be emotionally moved by the repetitive cheer of “You say, ‘Win!’ I say, ‘Tonight!’  Win…tonight!” then certainly our students can enjoy the drills that will propel them into academic excellence and a well-trained mind.

4.      The Classical Lutheran classroom can be characterized by stimulating lecture with enthusiastic repetition, passionate discussion between teacher and students, and creative applications.

Teacher-led instruction (sometimes labeled “lecture” with an assumed negative connotation) is at the heart of imparting knowledge in a Classical Lutheran classroom.  Classical Lutheran educators and homeschoolers believe that the teacher is the expert.  Like a football coach, a piano teacher, or a pastor giving a Sunday sermon, we expect our teachers to impart knowledge to our students.  To characterize this activity as tedious, sterile, or monotonous is to place these adjectival descriptions upon the teacher himself or herself.  One only needs to see classrooms at our Classical Lutheran schools or homeschools to know this is not the case.  We teach with chants; we teach with song; we teach with passion and excitement.  Moreover, what we teach is important.  We don’t just have children memorize for its own sake (although this activity in and of itself is a worthy endeavor for cognitive development).  We as Classical Lutheran educators know that having God’s Word and faithful interpretations of that Word “imprinted on their heart,” having Latin vocabulary at their disposal, having multiplication tables and unit conversions available without a calculator, and having dates and major events throughout Western Civilization traveling with them as they experience life all allow our students to fully participate in the Great Conversation, to discover what is true, good, and beautiful in God’s orderly creation, and to defend their faith.

5.      Latin is a “dead” language, but this is a good thing!

From a purely definitional sense, this statement is not a misnomer.  Latin is a “dead” language, simply meaning it is a language that is no longer spoken in a region of the world today as a modern language.  This is one of the chief reasons that Latin should be taught to all our students at a very young age.  A dead language is fixed.  It is permanent.  It does not change due to the usage of modern speakers.  This consistency makes it a very easy language for students to study and to understand.  (Just think of all the “exceptions” English contains in spelling, usage, punctuation, grammar, and the like, and you can quickly conclude that a language that does not change can be a welcome relief to students trying to learn it.)  In addition, studying the vocabulary and the grammar of Latin aids students immensely in learning English synonyms, antonyms, prefix and suffix meanings, vocabulary, and grammatical structure and syntax.  It is also a language of the early Church, which allows Classical Lutheran schools and homeschools to teach the Faith to our children during language lessons.  Indeed, as Cheryl Lowe says, “Latin is not dead; it is immortal!”

6.      Classical, Lutheran educators are joyful servants of our Lord.

Like non-Classical, Lutheran counterparts, Classical Lutheran educators teach in our schools and at home because they love the children whom they serve.  Classical Lutheran schools and homeschools strive to instill into our children a love of learning and a heart to see what is good, true, and beautiful in the world God created.  That joy, passion, and love for learning and for education pours out of our Classical Lutheran teachers and homeschool parents on a daily basis.

7.      Cooperative learning, self-guided learning, and inductive learning methods are not superior to the teacher-centered instruction found in Classical Lutheran education.

Supporters of Classical education believe that students are best served when they can learn from the wisdom of those more knowledgeable and experienced than they.  The Classical Lutheran educator is the expert in the subject matter itself, in the understanding of scope and sequence regarding the material and what precedes and follows it, and in the assessment of knowledge that is gained and skills that are mastered in any subject area.  To put these responsibilities upon the students themselves inappropriately places a burden upon them.  It can cause increasing disdain for the subject matter, place additional stress upon students (who are themselves still understanding the material) to disseminate their own knowledge to peers, and cause added conflict and tension between students as they compare themselves to each other rather than keeping their focus on doing their best with all that God has given them.  The students’ job at school is to learn, to be a good “disciple.”  The teacher’s job is to teach.

8.      Many students LOVE academics and the discipline of learning.

The “great conversation” that occurs in our Classical Lutheran schools and homeschools is interesting, valuable, and important in its own right.  Young people enjoy being successful, mastering material, and achieving goals.   This is not to say that Classical Lutheran educators do not make education “come to life” for our students.  Neither, however, do we apologize for the rigor and discipline that is required of our students.  Moreover, we have seen students thrive within these rigorous activities, and when they find success, the price they paid makes their academic victories that much sweeter. 

9.      Classical Lutheran education is a growing, vibrant movement in Lutheran schools and homeschools in America. 

Classical education is nothing new.  It has been revitalized and re-introduced into American Christian education. In the past several decades, Lutherans have promoted Classical education by establishing Classical Lutheran schools, providing training for educators through conferences and certification programs, and developing resources to share the vision of Classical education to other Lutherans and Christians in post-modern America.  The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Educators (CCLE) was founded in 2005 and offers a summer conference each year to equip pastors, principals, teachers, and homeschool families.  Currently there are 25 Classical Lutheran schools affiliated with CCLE across the country.  Each year, more Lutheran schools inquire about Classical education and the possibility of retrofitting their school to a Classical curriculum.  Currently, 171 Lutheran homeschool families across the country participate in the CCLE Email Discussion Group.

10.   Mathematics, the sciences, and the arts are also a vibrant part of Classical curricula. 

The Seven Liberal Arts of Western Culture can be found within the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy).  While the Trivium deals with the study and art of verbal language, the Quadrivium applies study to the theory and language of numbers: numbers in space, numbers in time, and numbers in space and time (to paraphrase Boethius).  The Quadrivium plays an important role in our Classical Lutheran schools and homeschools as well, helping children think linearly, analytically, and creatively.

11.   The Classical Lutheran educational movement is here to stay.

Classical education is the education of Socrates, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Luther, Galileo, our country’s founding fathers, and many other great minds throughout the history of Western Civilization.  It is a way of teaching that has been tested to determine its ultimate value to the individual and to society.  

12.   Classical Lutheran education can be adopted and implemented in established Lutheran schools.

With the help of established Classical Lutheran schools, the CCLE, and Lutheran homeschool families, any Lutheran school can make the transition into a Classical curriculum and methodology.  It will take work on the part of the pastor, principal, teachers, parents, and students, but the results from this change in educational philosophy and pedagogy will far outweigh the labors to transition the school into a Classical one.  We believe this is the future of Lutheran education in America!   The major pitfalls facing all of our American schools (students’ failing to meet minimum standards, the minimization of the fine arts, student apathy, teaching of assertions such as evolution, and the removal of God from our schools and communities) can all be addressed with Classical Lutheran education.   

 Whether you are a principal of a Lutheran grade school, a pastor of a Lutheran church, a Lutheran teacher, or an interested parent, we encourage you to join us in the “great conversation.”  Here are some ways to get started:

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