- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

When children at Marva Collins School misbehave, punishment does not consist of writing sentences on the chalkboard. Instead they find themselves receiving Shakespeare: “Today I will not be what I was” from “Henry IV.”

When students at the school in Milwaukee receive a test score, they are expected to cite “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” exclaiming, “Bless me. I am translated.”

Marva Collins has drawn national acclaim for her work with inner-city children. She relies heavily on the classics, requiring students to memorize one poem and read one great book every two weeks.

“In a slippery world, we all need something to hold onto,” Mrs. Collins says. “We have children all over this country who have no minds. It’s about television; it’s about someone else’s thoughts. The classics give a purpose to every action. The classics teach children an unbetrayed value.”

More and more students are returning to classics in home schooling, charter schools and private Christian schools. Dissatisfied with traditional public education, they’ve left it behind as they trade in their secondary-source textbooks for original works by intellectual staples such as Plato, Shakespeare and Nietzsche.

“The movement for classical education has evolved out of the academic crisis that everyone is admitting that we have in our schools today,” says Gene Veith, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University in Wisconsin and co-author of “Classical Education: Towards the Revival of American Schooling.”

Terrence Moore, principal at Ridgeview Classical School in Colorado and formerly a professor at Ohio’s Ashland University, says the average college freshman is evidence that the contemporary educational model is badly in need of reform.

“When I was a college professor, it was a little daunting walking into a room and realizing that virtually anything that I said would teach [the students],” Mr. Moore says. “They had not learned anything [in high school.]”

Some schools such as Mr. Moore’s charter school in Ft. Collins, Colo., draw their curriculum from the great books and teach foreign languages at the elementary level. Others such as the Logos School of Moscow, Idaho, take the classics one step further: They base their educational system on the medieval system called the trivium.

The trivium is based on a three-stage learning process. The first stage, or the “grammar stage,” is used during the primary-school years, emphasizing memorization and accumulation of facts. When a child reaches the point where he or she finds memorization trivial and begins to ask “why?” he or she has entered the “logic stage” typically associated with the middle-school years. The student then begins algebra and the study of logic. When the student progresses at the high school level to the “rhetoric stage,” he or she learns to write and speak persuasively.

The term “liberal arts” is perhaps a more accurate description of the classical-education educational model, says Mr. Veith. The trivium is the first three arts of the seven liberal arts of the ancient Greeks. And it all goes back to the difference between the education of a free man and a slave, he says.

In ancient Greece and Rome, slaves received only vocational training, says Mr. Veith, because the Greeks did not want them to develop the capacity to think for themselves. The free man, however — who was expected to vote and participate in the republic — was taught how to think, judge and use his mind.

“I think a lot of today’s education goes back to the education for the slaves,” says Mr. Veith.

Critics fault classical education for its lack of vocational training. But classical educators such as Susan Wise Bauer point out that rapid changes in the workplace mean vocational skills learned in school may be out of date by the time students enter the job market.

“Businesses today are saying ‘Teach them to read, write and think, and we will teach them everything else,’” says Ms. Bauer, author of “The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home” and “The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.”

Other critics charge that classical education is elitist, teaching the works of “dead white guys” to the privileged few. But that is just why a classical education should be available to everyone, advocates say.

“If the wealthiest, most successful people use this model of education, why not make it available to everyone?” Mr. Veith asks.

And it is downright racist, classical educators say, to claim that minority students can’t master great literature.

“All of the things traditionally inner-city children can’t do, our students do,” says Mrs. Collins, most of whose students are black, many of them poor.

Mrs. Collins, who is black, is motivated by a “positive anger,” she says, to provide a top-quality education to children who have been “written off” by the school system.

“I am out to prove a point that people who look like me are not failures,” she says. “No one in my community is considered a scholar and that infuriates me.”

The current trend toward classical education first emerged in the Pacific Northwest, scholars say, and has especially caught on in Christian schools and in home-schooling communities.

Ms. Bauer, who developed a home-schooling model of classical education, says parents often convert to classical home-schooling because of the inferiority of public education.

The Logos School, which provides a Christian classical education, began with 18 students in 1981 and now has about 300 students in grades K-12. In 1991, Principal Douglas Wilson founded the Association of Classical and Christian Schools, which now has more than 100 members.

“The movement is burgeoning,” says Mr. Wilson. “It’s growing rapidly.”

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