This week was a busy one in my Challenge III class. Students completed study guides in philosophy, turned in American history notebooks, gave a philosophy lecture, and completed finals in US history and chemistry. There were several important reasons for a classical education to include these tasks. The finals were not designed to serve the purpose of checking off a box or earning a credit. Instead, they were exercises in three important skills: synthesis, mastery, and rhetoric.
1. Synthesis (otherwise known as putting it all together): One emphasis of a classical education is putting ideas together. In my US history class, I gave an essay final which asked students to think not just about American history, but about the ideas we encountered in philosophy as well. For example, one question asked students to consider the two factions involved in drafting the Constitution. The primary purpose of their essay was to explain what the Federalists and Anti-Federalists desired from the new government and how their desires made it into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Then, for amplification, they were asked to consider how the Constitution reflected the Founders’ concept of man—his rights and abilities. In all things, we want to encourage our students to assemble all of the knowledge they have gained and then use that knowledge to take virtuous action. I pray that they will use that knowledge to govern themselves and also to govern others wisely if they are ever placed in authority.
2. Mastery (otherwise known as knowing it for the long-term): It is one skill to read a chemistry text, answer some questions, study a little, and then take a chapter test. If this is all students do, you can rest assured that they will forget much of their newfound knowledge shortly after taking the chapter test. If, however, you give a cumulative semester exam, then students will review the information yet again, ensuring that they will begin to really know it. This is why I challenged my students this year by giving a cumulative semester final in chemistry. We spent the week before reviewing the material. More importantly, we reviewed how to study a science text. In addition to achieving mastery of chemistry concepts, students have gained the valuable gift of knowing how to learn, a skill they can use as lifelong learners.
3. Rhetoric (otherwise known as speaking persuasively): On my US history final, students were asked to write persuasive essays on given topics. They practiced the same skills yet again while delivering a philosophy lecture as their final project in that course. In fact, the week before, we practiced an outline that they could use for both projects:
I. Introductory Paragraph
a. Dramatic Opener (sometimes called exordium). Students use a quote, statistic, question, anecdote, joke, or challenge to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention)
b. Background Information – 1 or 2 sentences to prepare the audience for your topic
c. Thesis – All the main points of your argument in one, succinct statement
II. 1st Body Paragraph
a. Topic sentence – tell the reader/audience your first main point
b. 2-3 sentences to support your argument (often called the “proofs”)
c. Concluding statement – repeat what you just told them
III. 2nd Body Paragraph
a. Restatement of the thesis
b. Application (sometimes called amplification). Why should your audience care? How should they be changed? What do you want them to do?
I encourage students to have two proofs instead of the traditional three for short timed essays and speeches. It is important in both of these activities to reduce the material you attempt to cover, but this same outline can be expanded for much longer papers and speeches.
I want to encourage directors and parents to use projects, tests, and activities to focus on these three important lessons—synthesis of ideas, mastery of ideas, and delivery of ideas (rhetoric). These are the hallmarks of a classical education.