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Sequential History and Classical Conversations

The glory of God is to conceal a matter; the honor of kings is to search out a matter. -Proverbs 25:2

A number of people have recently asked me, “Where is the classical history?” What I suspect they mean is “Where is the history sequence promoted by ‘traditional’ classical schools?” Dorothy Sayers in her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” never even mentions a historical sequence to studies. Now, a sequential focus is a very good idea, but it is not a necessary idea for classical studies.

The whole point of classical studies is to give students the tools needed to jump in anywhere in any subject, discover the foundational grammar, and proceed to teach themselves the subject—hopefully with a good mentor nearby to help with difficulties. Because Classical Conversations works with home schooling families with various abilities to teach at home, we have developed our curriculum differently than formal classical schools where there is a Master for each subject or public institutions that do not even offer such academically challenging programs of physics and Latin. With this in mind, our considerations are very different.

So where is our classical history?
In Foundations, it includes memorizing a 161-point timeline, adding interesting sentences that flesh out some of the timeline points, reading great literature at home and writing about the units we are studying. If parents follow our curriculum guide and purchase even a few of our suggested materials, they will have an excellent, sequential history program at home, and their children can have the fun of trying to become Memory Masters. My oldest son, whom I did not teach classically in his early years and who therefore did not receive a strong grammar of history, is studying Western Civilization in college this semester. He came home at spring break and was participating in our history lesson for the week. He said, “Mom, this is just what I’m supposed to know for my class. How come you didn’t teach me this stuff?” I did not understand the value of memorization when my first two boys were home schooled. Now they are paying the price for the lack of a grammar-level classical education and my little boys are reaping the rewards of a classical education from the start.

Early Dialectic Levels
In Challenge A and B, we take a very different approach to middle school or junior high. This age student is still a child and yet is able to think reasonably and logically. They can think abstractly and so need to begin honing the dialectic skills. Unfortunately, too many of them come to us with a need for stronger grammar skills (as my son mentioned above). So, we continue to have a lot of grammar in the curriculum like English and Latin and geography, but we also mix in Christian worldview discussions, essays, and presentation skills to get them thinking. The students read and discuss a lot of history that is especially effective if the student has a timeline memorized. If they do not have a timeline in their heads, our historical fiction and biblical discussions remain excellent literature studies but not integrated classical studies for those students.

For example, in Challenge A literature, students read, discuss, and present papers about ancient myths, ancient Jerusalem, the middle ages, colonial America, New England slavery, Victorian England, and World War II. They also have opportunities to write about and discuss modern science and have an intensive geography course. Parents need to effectively use the opportunities we give them to practice their grammatical, dialectic, and rhetorical skills. A student with a timeline and world map memorized will benefit far more from these historical novels than a student without these skills who has only been exposed to good history books. The good books have nowhere to “fit” in a child’s mind without a timeline and map. Now, we do work on memorizing the world in Challenge A so all the students have an opportunity to catch up on their geography grammar. Parents who have not previously focused on giving their child strong grammar-level studies should have them memorize a timeline to use throughout junior and senior high. We suggest the one we use in Foundations, the Classical Acts and Facts Timeline Cards. If a little child can memorize them in a 24-week period, certainly an older child could do it over a summer. The difficulty to overcome is that most older children will find it a chore rather than a fun challenge.

In Challenge B, students read, discuss, and present papers about colonial America, early twentieth Century Florida, the Ozarks, and modern America, with a little bit about World War II. Instead of geography, they focus on current world events and the American justice system through Mock Trial. The focus is away from grammar and towards thinking things through. Both Challenge A and B emphasize numerous writing opportunities because students need to learn to write well to succeed in the higher Challenges.

Moving into Rhetoric
In high school, we totally ignore the sequence most classical schools use. I would love it if the average home schooling parent of a ninth grader could instill a love for The Iliad in its poetic, unabridged form and convict their child of the importance of entering the great conversations of western civilization. Unfortunately, few parents have had success with this in their home school. However, they may love Mark Twain or at least may be familiar with Melville. Thus, we reverse the chronology and start with American studies in Challenge I, European studies in Challenge II, tackle American studies again in Challenge III, and world studies in Challenge IV.

By Challenge IV, we can help a student enjoy the search for life’s big ideas because if they stay in our program that long, they tend be secure, self-motivated young adults. So we begin our rhetorical skill building where families are most comfortable and proceed to more difficult, less familiar material as the students mature.

In Challenge I, they study American literature, American government, and free market economics. The actual assignments provide a great course in American history. And they spend a lot of time on current events through debate. But again, without a timeline and map in the student’s head these courses are disconnected subjects to the student.

In Challenge II, they study British literature and western cultural history. From Beowulf to C. S. Lewis, from Roman architecture to modern Christian responses to music and art, the students have over thirty writing assignments, debates, and presentations related to European history and western civilization.

In Challenge III, students study an American history text, Macbeth, Henry V, Hamlet (all three English history), Julius Caesar (Roman history), and the historical consequences of the ideas of philosophers from Plato to Freud. They, too, have over thirty assignments related to history this year. Again, we have plenty of opportunities to study history integrated with many other subjects but it takes a timeline, a map, and a heart searching for big ideas to get the most out of these courses.

In Challenge IV, we integrate studies using “The Discoverers” (a history of science), three major theologians, and a study of ancient literature and the questions the literature raises for modern Christians. Students in these seminars use the materials assigned and more materials that they choose on their own to present multiple theses on the relationship between science, literature, and theology throughout history.

So, if you are looking for a chronological history course in our Challenge program, you will not find it. If you are looking for a focus on the practice of writing and discussing and presenting historical information and history’s effect on the rest of the subjects God created, our program is perfect for you. We know you need to have a good history sequence in your head in order to think logically and present information effectively at the dialectic and rhetorical levels. That is why it is so important to teach your young students to memorize maps and a timeline.

In summary, Classical Conversations programs emphasize the tools of learning — grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetorical skills. We focus on grammar in the Foundations and Essentials programs and in various seminars in the Challenge program such as foreign language. We focus on the dialectic skills in Essentials and Challenge, and on the rhetorical skills in Challenges II-IV.

We do not focus on subject matter during Challenge seminars, though it is a very important part of our curriculum. Parents need to do that at home. During our one day a week tutorials, we demonstrate the tools of learning, answer difficulties, and encourage parents and students to apply those tools in their personal studies. Those students entering our Challenge programs without a solid classical grammar school education will need to put in the extra grammar work in order to get the most from our Challenge programs.


Note: this article was written several years ago.


CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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