Laurie Thomas, a writer based in New Jersey, is a passionate advocate of the educational truths passed down to us from Greek and Roman civilization. “Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free” is a 370-page paean to more precise, more intelligent ways of thinking and teaching. Fortunately for the country, there is a resurgence of interest in classical methods. There are now more than 200 classical academies in the US.
Q: When did you first become interested in Classical Education?
A: I learned about the classical liberal arts in college. I decided to write about them after I read David Mulroy's 2003 book "The War Against Grammar." He explained that the decision to stop teaching grammar in grammar school led to a sharp decline in verbal SAT scores. He pointed out that when people lack basic skills in grammar, they have trouble with reading comprehension and logical thinking.
Q: What is your big goal?
A: I want to help people understand how the seven classical liberal arts help one become a wiser and better person, a better friend, and a better citizen. The title “Not Trivial” is a play on the word “trivium,” which referred to the three verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Trivial originally meant obvious to any educated person, but now it means unimportant. I'm saying that grammar and the other liberal arts are vital, not trivial.
Q: What do you think are the most crucial ideas about education developed by these ancient civilizations?
A: The seven liberal arts were grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. They helped a student learn to think rationally and express himself persuasively. As far as teaching methods go, the ancient Greeks taught us the Socratic method of teaching by asking thought-provoking questions.
Q: In a nutshell, why is Classical Education the best approach?
A: The classical liberal arts help you develop thinking skills that can then be applied in any subject. Like reading, these skills must be taught and learned. Of course, children also need something to think about. That's why children should know facts about history, science and so on. In contrast, "progressive" educators like John Dewey thought it wasn't important for children to learn "facts and truths," and he didn't think that reading and literature were important. He focused on the child's "social success" instead.
Q: Now, lurking in the background of this discussion is the rather poor job that our public schools are doing.
A: I think that our public school curriculum has been deliberately designed to prevent too many common people from learning to think logically, or to express themselves coherently and persuasively.
Q: But why? Are the elite educators incompetent? Or is this some sort of ideological compulsion?
A: It's a question of whose side they are on. Do they want to help the children by promoting good, old-fashioned intensive phonics? Or do they want to further their careers by promoting some unproven or even harmful approach that is endorsed by the people who have power? I suspect the main problem is ambition, not ideology. Ambitious people can be far more dangerous than ideologues.
Q: Maybe that explains the anti-grammar policies pushed by the National Council of Teachers of English et al. Don’t these policies suppress the thinking skills that a Classical Education encourages?
A: Yes, that’s our problem. But in fairness to the NCTE, not all members support those policies. There's a small group within the NCTE called the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar.
Q: Finally, is there some special resonance that ancient Greek educational theories have for our age?
A: The liberal arts curriculum was developed to enable boys to adapt to a political setting that was highly unusual in ancient civilizations but has increasingly become the norm today: democracy. The ancient Greeks thought that a man was not fully human unless he was a citizen of a polis, such as Athens or Corinth. An Athenian citizen was expected to take part in important political discussions and to serve on juries. Those are the same responsibilities that U.S. citizens, male and female, have today.
"The big difference between Progressive Education and Classical Education." (article on Examiner.com)
The Classical Education Movement" (Wikipedia article)
"Children can learn a lot more than schools are teaching" (article on Edarticle.com)