The Common Purpose of Core Knowledge and Classical Education

by Robert Pondiscio
November 23rd, 2010

The following post is by Dr. Florian Hild, principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Ridgeview uses the Core Knowledge curriculum from K-8,  and an advanced liberal arts curriculum in its high school.  U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Ridgeview’s high school #15 in the country, as well as the #4 open-enrollment school and the #4 charter school.  This piece originally appeared on Ridgeview’s website and runs here with Dr. Hild’s permission

E. D. Hirsch’s The Making of Americans showed us that the godfather of Core Knowledge now posits a purpose for a Core Knowledge education. The Making of Americans, more so than his previous books, reveals an intellectual kinship between Hirsch and classical education. In my reading, Hirsch has done more than add logic and rhetoric to the grammar of Core Knowledge: He has joined the academic trivium to its moral, civic purpose. Aiming for intelligence and character is what sets classical education apart from a well-executed Core Knowledge education. The Making of Americans presents the good citizen as the goal of American K-12 education. Citizenship is our public virtue; character our private. Together they create a life worth living for the individual and her society. Together they provide the trivium’s academic excellence with a civic purpose.

The Grammar Stage

The Core Knowledge Sequence functions as the grammar stage of classical education’s trivium (the “three ways” of grammar, logic, and rhetoric). In the grammar stage, learners acquire the vocabulary of a discipline. This grammatical learning is not restricted to certain age-groups; whenever we learn something new, we have to understand its grammar. In biology, we need to know what a cell is before we can learn what cells do. In history, we need to know the words of the Gettysburg Address before we can debate its merits. Education has a grammar: Here, I’m trying to explain the ideals of classical education by drawing on your understanding of Core Knowledge. Even baseball has a grammar: Just try explaining to a foreigner what “walking” a star player means. (See also the attached article, “E.D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy.”)

Every discipline, every form of life, has a grammar. Without it, we are excluded from that discipline or form of life just as a stranger from an inside joke. Ridgeview students—as well as Core Knowledge students elsewhere—slowly (“glacially slow,” according to Hirsch) learn the grammar of their academic subjects and are thus given entrance to many ways of knowing the world. It is in the grammar stage when our academic houses are built on rock or sand depending on the quality of our teachers and our curriculum.

The Logic Stage

Classical education then builds on the grammar of Hirsch’s sequence. (Ridgeview does so in his spirit: The Core Knowledge website has a link to ridgeviewclassical.com in an article about where to go after CK.) When students know the grammar of a subject, they can engage it with logical questions. Why do some cells’ mutations cause diseases, others benefits? What is “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”?  What is wrong about saying that “there were grammatical differences between Dr. Hirsch and I”?  The Socratic “What is?” challenges us to explain the knowledge we think we have.  The logical testing of grammar lets us know what to think of it.  The logic stage thus follows quite naturally on the grammar stage, because we are curious and ask questions about what we learn.  The trivium accounts for this human inquisitiveness. Every class at Ridgeview takes students from grammar to logic. Already kindergartners ask questions about the things they learn and few Ridgeview teenagers just accept information without testing it.

The Rhetoric Stage

In their senior theses, Ridgeview seniors articulate their view of a good life. Their judgments are based on the grammar they learned at Ridgeview, the many questions they have asked, and the many arguments they’ve had. This articulation of a thesis is the rhetoric stage: It is an argument about the grammar one has learned and logically tested. Our senior thesis is the final goal of a Ridgeview education, but many prior classes include rhetorical elements in the form of papers, exams, and presentations. While mastery of grammar and conversing about and testing this grammar is the bedrock of a classical education, the final goal is to arrive at reasoned judgment. And while many classes in a K-12 school can hardly claim to produce students who have prudential judgment, each class knows it is trying to move students towards this end.

The Continual Cycle through the Trivium

Each stage, therefore, needs the others. Grammar without logic and rhetoric is information without judgment. Computers possess a vast amount of grammar, but we wouldn’t call a computer prudent. To ask “What is?” without grammatical knowledge is a meaningless, though popular, exercise. Rhetoric without tested knowledge works for stand-up comedy but not for the more serious parts of our lives. One of the misunderstandings regarding classical education is to assign grammar to elementary, logic to middle, and rhetoric to high school. As parents well know, very young students ask lots of logical questions and grown-ups are in desperate need of grammatical knowledge about many things. The trivium is a process that goes on in all learning, all the time. I might be in the rhetoric stage regarding classical education, but I’m in the grammar stage regarding late antiquity or modern baseball. Students here and learners everywhere continually cycle through the trivium. Classical education understands that every effort in the classroom is a step on the trivium’s long road towards rhetorical mastery of a subject. Kindergarten teachers need to know what kind of human beings they want to graduate and high-school teachers need to know where their students come from. No class takes place in isolation and without the vision of the whole. Classical education is teleological.

From Trivium to Character and Citizenship

The trivium is the method of classical education, but without a moral purpose it aims only at intelligence. While Core Knowledge without a civic purpose is still much better than anti- curriculum, anti-intellectual, anti-traditional education, it is like a powerful engine without a steering wheel, a great athlete without a competition: It lacks a destination. Hirsch’s The Making of Americans knows where it is taking Core Knowledge. Intelligence, gained by studying the Core Knowledge sequence, needs to be coupled with character, gained by learning what it means to be a good citizen. Ridgeview’s founders drew extensively on Hirsch’s first two books to realize their dream of a classical school. Now we can proudly see him return the compliment as he writes that our “success stands as a sharp rebuke to the dominant anti-intellectual pedagogy of most American schools.” Dr. Hirsch and Ridgeview have become educational soulmates, united by the shared purpose of making Americans.