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Words of Wisdom: Laura Berquist on Classical Education Done Well

In this edition of our Words of Wisdom feature we talk with Laura Berquist, author, teacher, and CiRCE conference regular.

Mrs. Berquist is a home schooling mother of six and is founder and director of Mother of Divine Grace School, an accredited distance learning school serving more than 4000 students and providing ongoing training to parent educators. Mrs. Berquist is the author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and editor of The Harp and Laurel Wreath: Poetry and Dictation for the Classical Curriculum. Based on the philosophy of the classical Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—she developed a classical curriculum for grades K-12 that strengthens character and intellect, and reinforces virtue. Inaugurated in 1995 with 75 students, MODG now offers various levels of programs for students, summer classes for students and parents and workshops for parents throughout the school year.

Mrs. Berquist is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA. She home schooled her six children for 25 years. All six graduated from Thomas Aquinas College, three have earned advanced degrees and two are currently in graduate school. Four of her children are married and she has six grandchildren.

How has your understanding of what classical education is evolved over time?

Berquist: Like many people, I originally thought of Classical Education in terms of the content only. So something was classical if it used classical books. I came to see, first through my own education, and then from teaching my children, that it was not only in terms of content but also in terms of the specific formation of the mind that an education was classical. So habits of mind, such as looking at a work in context, wondering about how it fits with other things one has read, actively engaging the author, and using a dialectic approach, all have to be consciously pursued when one is using these texts. Reading them is not enough. You also have to develop the habits of thought that make it possible to use the materiel rightly. It is the habits of thought that will make it possible for a student to follow an argument, as well as make reasonable deductions and right judgments about it. So classical education needs to take account of both content and method.
What are a couple of markings of classical education done well? That is, when it’s done well, what does that look like?
Berquist: Everyone talks about outcome based education these days, and whatever flaws that notion has, the echo of truth in it is that ‘by their fruits you shall know them’. Also, of course, Aristotle says the end is the cause of causes. So you look to the end. These are the questions I ask when I am looking at a classical program. Are the students interested in the intellectual life? Do they think it is exciting to learn truth? Are they humble before the truth; that is, do they recognize that whatever they know is just a beginning of the vast treasure available? Have they considered the great questions, in the right way and at the right time? Do they know what makes something good? Have they considered what we can prove by reason about God? Or how faith and reason fit together? Have they considered what freedom is?
If the students are young are they working on strengthening and making docile the imagination? If they are older are they able to both follow and construct an argument? Do they follow the ends of rhetoric and think about whether a course of action is expedient or inexpedient, just or unjust, praiseworthy or blameworthy? Do they know that there are indemonstrables (those things known by the mind immediately) upon which every demonstration is based? Have they constructed syllogisms using a real content? Have they read the great works of literature and history suitable for their levels, so as to form the mind and heart rightly? Have they studied Latin and/or Greek?
Bottom line, I guess: Does the program followed introduce every one one of the arts (the Trivium and the Quadrivium) and the sciences (Physics (as in the study of nature), Psychology (as in the De Anima), Ethics and Politics, Metaphysics and Sacred Theology) in the right way and the right time, paying attention to the formation as well as the specific content? The beginning of each of these disciplines is of extraordinary importance, because a small mistake in the beginning can cause a big mistake in the end.
As someone who has homeschooled and worked with homeschoolers, what do you see as the biggest challenges to homeschoolers who seek to teach classically?
Berquist: The biggest challenge I have seen is the inclination to go too far too fast. As I said above, the foundation is of immense importance. If you want children to think profitably about what makes a man good, for example, you need to start small. You need to provide examples in literature, and you need to give them the experience of nature. You need to help them see the powers of the soul, over time, in example and in principle. You have to lead them in this way, so that they eventually come to see that what makes anything good is that is acts well according to its nature. A good knife is good because it cuts well. A man, according to his nature has specific powers: intellect, will, the irascible and concupiscible appetites. When those work well, that is, according to their nature, the man is good. Then you point out that those examples in literature indicate that knowing this doctrine doesn’t just lead people to act from it. You have to lead people to the point where they are ready to think about that; you can’t just hand them Plato and say, “Here, honey, read the Meno and think about virtue in men.”
This is a particular instance of a general principle. The order of learning is as important as the specific content. And I think that is sometimes a challenge for homeschoolers because they do have a lovely freedom to use what they want, and what they want is sometimes to jump into the big questions without preparation.
College is always a big question for classical educators. You have been involved in Thomas Aquinas College for many years. What advice do you have for parents who have students nearing the college years?
Berquist: First, on a practical level, find out what the colleges your student is interested in require for entrance (SAT & ACT scores, number of years of math, science, history, etc.) I recommend that you do that when your student is in ninth grade. Call the college and ask them what they recommend for preparation, outside of the bare requirements. What have their best students done? Also, I think it is good to look at the works studied and courses offered. My experience is that you don’t want the students to have already done those courses and subjects, but that you want them to be truly prepared, to have the foundation, to do them well. Bottom line, work on critical thinking skills and intellectual discipline. Do Latin and/or Greek, read lots of literature, and history, to provide material for the consideration of the great questions. Do natural science and biology, so as to prepare for the study of nature and of the soul. Make sure the student has formation in mathematics as well as language arts. The college student who has a well rounded education has a tremendous advantage.
What are you reading right now? Good?
Berquist: Well, I have several things going at the moment. I am reading St. Thomas on law and that is fun. I am also reading The Tipping Point by Gladwell. It’s interesting. So far, as a matter of fact, it’s fascinating, but I’m not done yet. I am at the end of Know Him in the Breaking of the Bread by Randolph. I can’t really recommend that one. I am re-reading the Histories by Herodotus, but that is for a class so I don’t know if it counts. It’s great, though. I am reading The Lord of the Rings to my grandson. Every time I read Tolkien I am struck with how careful his word choices are. I am about to start Lewis On Stories, which I haven’t read before, I am sorry to say. That was suggested by one of the presenters at the Circe Conference last summer. It’s something to look forward to!

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