Thinking is hard work. Being disciplined in your thinking is even harder. This is not always obvious because thinking requires little or no physical exertion, it has not been made into a sport, and you cannot post pictures of it on Instagram. It is often taken for granted that kids will learn to think clearly and rationally but very rarely is the cost of this process discussed. Solomon is clear in Proverbs 2:1-5 about the effort level required to obtain wisdom:
My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding—
indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God (emphasis added).
The process Solomon describes is not that of an onlooker passively receiving information. He paints the image of an eager and aggressive searcher running through the streets and shouting and peering into every crevice and hole to find the thing they want most. Wisdom and virtue do not come from doing the bare minimum or procrastinating to the last possible second. Wisdom and virtue come by the Holy Spirit’s grace through disciplined, taxing study over an extended period of time.
Human beings’ intellect is an incredible gift, but one that requires much stewardship. Just like muscles, as it grows the intellect must be exercised and stretched and fed healthy food. It must be regularly rested and regularly used. If not, the mind begins to atrophy. It becomes sedentary. When it is called upon to do work, it complains. If she leaves her mind untested, in a woman’s hour of need when she is desperately in need of clear thinking, it will fail her. Great thinkers and theologians did not spend their entire lives feeding their minds intellectual potato chips before writing their magnum opus.
For these reasons, Cedar Classical Academy has high academic standards for its students. This is not so it can be the hardest school in town, have the highest test scores, or produce the smartest graduates, but because hard work is necessary to grow virtue in kids. In a world of deception and lies where clear thinking is rare, students need instruction in wisdom. They need examples of virtue. They need to know how to steward their minds—using every ounce of their intellect for the glory of God, not just enough to get by to the next class.
The classical curriculum is not complicated. It orients students to a subject by teaching them the parts, showing them how those parts work together, and then teaching them how to interact with the subject as a whole. For example, take the broad category of human communication. How does a classical school take illiterate children and graduate them 13 years later with the ability to read, write, argue, and speak effectively? The answer lies in the sequential steps of the Trivium: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.
When students are young (K-5th) the focus for them is learning what all the tools are—phonetic sounds, orthography, parts of speech, handwriting, understanding the narrative of good stories, etc. Young kids love to be able to put things in their place, sing songs, and memorize sounds, so the instruction matches what the students love.
As students mature (6th-9th) their focus shifts to the reasons behind the world they know. The curriculum shifts with them by teaching how the tools they’ve learned are to be properly used. Why is one piece of poetry superior to another? What makes this a good story? Why is this sentence beautiful? How do we know this is true? Where does this argument go wrong?
When students near adulthood (10th-12th), they are ready to begin creating on their own. The teachers focus less on memorization and basic understanding and help the students to interact with ideas on their own. Students not only read and understand, but respond to what they read and hear. They sharpen each other through in-class debate and discussion. They move beyond imitation to creation. They learn to think clearly through difficult arguments and wisely respond. They receive instruction and feedback, and respond wisely again. When the student graduates, they are more than literate. They have mastered (as much as 13 years will allow) human communication and have been given a pattern to continue learning as they grow old.
This rigorous course of study that we aspire to should not be seen as 13 years of drudgery, only to obtain virtue at the end. The key to calling kids to this high standard is showing them not only the standard, but the joy of finding the hidden treasure as they grow. The best study is not done under the threat of punishment, but for its own sake. The school culture builds toward this joyful study by honoring hard work, by encouraging competition, by maintaining an orderly setting, and by regularly reminding students of why they are working hard. The study of God’s world, though difficult, draws the eyes up to him as the ultimate creator and opens eyes to see the wonderful world he has created.