BY MICHAEL SACASAS
Facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn things, and I do not mean to disparage them [in the previous two parts of this series]. They are indispensable. The first stage of the trivium, the grammar stage, is focused on them. You must have facts, data, information with which to think. But these are only the beginning. Which is not to say that you only accumulate them during the school years associated with the grammar stage — elementary school roughly. Whenever we enter a new area of knowledge, we must learn its grammar. And even after we move into the dialectic and rhetoric stages, we must still think about facts and information.
But we don’t stop with the facts. We then learn to reason about facts and with facts. We enter the dialectic stage. We discover how to make sense of the facts and relate them to one another. We learn logic and we learn the logic of each discipline. This is an important distinction. General logic, that is the study of things like the law of non-contradiction and the many sorts of fallacies that can throw reasoning off its course is one thing. And it is generally applicable across the whole spectrum of experience and learning.
Then there is the particular logic of each discipline. What I have in mind here is what we might mean when we talk about learning to think like a historian, or learning to think like a mathematician, or a biologist, chemist, poet, etc. In each case, the way we relate facts to one another takes on a different hue. And in each case what it might mean to reason effectively will vary, at least in terms of what it takes to arrive at truth. Establishing what is true in history or literature demands a different sort of reasoning than what it would take to establish what is true in botany or geometry.
With the dialectic stage, the classical model recognizes and affirms the necessity of learning to think clearly and cogently about information. It instills in students the realization that to be educated requires more than storing information, and it certainly means more than merely knowing how to “Google it.”
With the rhetoric stage, we pass into the realm of wisdom and beauty. To begin with, the rhetoric stage is focused on cultivating the ability to communicate effectively. But if we are to avoid being sophists about persuasion, then what we will be doing is learning to communicate effectively about the truth as we have come to recognize and embrace it through our engagement with facts and logic. In other words, learning to speak well and persuasively about the truth requires that we come to some personal understanding of what is true, and having done that, then working out how to live in light of it. Moreover, rhetoric if it is to be more than brow- beating must recognize and appeal to the persuasive power of the beautiful — the beauty of language, the beauty of art, the beauty of the truth. In other words, we have passed from the accumulation of information and the construction of knowledge to the life-long endeavor of living in light of the truth.
Think of it this way. The grammar stage concerns Information, what is true about the world. The dialectic stage concerns Knowledge, understanding the relationships among the various kinds of information. Making information meaningful. The rhetoric stage concerns Wisdom, learning to live in light of knowledge and appreciating the beauty that inheres in truth and a life lived in light of the truth.
In this way, the classical model provides an answer to the worst habits of thought that emerge in an era of information overload. It does so by communicating a vision of education directed toward wisdom. It also provides the intellectual tools necessary to realize that better vision of education.
We do well to remember that the quest to attain wisdom is premised on the belief that the world is not absurd. We can move past the accumulation of information only if we believe that the world is imbued with meaning and that this meaning reflects the mind of the Creator along with His goodness and beauty. Because we believe that the Triune God has created and ordered the world we can confidently pursue knowledge and endeavor to live in light of it. It would not be too far from the mark to describe classical education as the work of brining our minds and hearts into harmony with the order of creation.
A few years ago the playwright, Richard Foreman made the following observation:
“I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
I would argue that this older ideal of a “complex inner density,” of the “cathedral-like structure of the highly educated and articulate personality” crumbled so quickly under the pressures of information overload because Western culture had long before lost its faith in the transcendent order that would render knowledge meaningful and underwrite the quest for wisdom. Classical education is poised to resist this trend only to the degree that it is anchored in a biblical and theological vision of a creation and redemption.
Finally, a few lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:
“O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action, Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD. Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
The heart of Christian, classical education lies in the reversal of Eliot’s lament — in finding a way from information to knowledge and from knowledge to wisdom, and thereby finding Life and drawing nearer to God.
Michael Sacasas currently teaches at Smith Prep in Longwood, Florida. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and is now working toward a PhD in “Texts and Technology” at the University of Central Florida. He blogs at thefrailestthing.com