Once a baby is born, its parents begin marking milestones. Some of the most important milestones come in the form of vaccinations and immunizations designed to protect the child throughout a lifetime in world full of germs and diseases. But there is always controversy about the timing of milestones … and immunizations.
Likewise, the milestones of formal education are plagued by timing. We intuitively understand that schooling over the years is a journey of maturation across many land and seascapes from physical and intellectual to social and spiritual. And yet, we tend to erect our achievement milestones based almost exclusively on age and grade rather than the more difficult [but also more helpful] assessments of maturity in a specific area at a specific point on the trek.
Secondary education is especially challenging in this regard, because the student is reaching [or failing to reach] so many different milestones in so many different areas over such a relatively short period of time. Even those of us who know the student best can have a hard time understanding what is maturing when and what is not. This can lead to anxiety and frustration about reaching “THE MILESTONE” on time rather than a patient confidence that incrementally grows as “the milestones” pass … one by one.
The Three D’s
In that spirit, it is possible for us to imagine a point in time at which a liberal arts secondary student becomes “an adult” in the sense that [s]he can [if willing]
- Differentiate and
the three learning tools of the Trivium [grammar, logic and rhetoric/dialogue] routinely in the classroom and on assignments. Let’s name this milestone “dialectical maturity”.
Ability and Responsibility
Of course, this is not to say the student has “arrived” at learning’s final destination [because there is no such thing]. And furthermore, even if we can imagine such a point, identifying it is going to be difficult … being much more a “sense” than a “score”. But as difficult and imprecise as the task might be, its importance is unquestionable. For once the ability to learn is achieved, the responsibility to teach begins to grow … even if both are unperceived by all concerned … including the student … especially the student.
Orders and Gowns
If we think of the teachers among us as those who have formally taken up the mantle of their responsibility to teach other learners, we can begin to envision them as members of a sort of “order” in which they make certain implicit and explicit vows to God, to one another and to the public which they are obliged [or should we say privileged] to keep. And, as with all “orders”, there will be “novices” who pledge to follow the order’s mission but have yet to prove themselves or to gain the experience and judgment needed to function safely on their own.
If we continue this analogy, we might think of all students who enter a liberal arts secondary school as novices … rough and crude … but with potential that must be refined before it can be assayed and displayed. Having done that we can more easily envision an intermediate level within the order at which the novice is recognized [by others in the order who are senior] as having accomplished an important milestone [which we called dialectical maturity above] evidenced by his abilities but bringing with it responsibilities which those who remain novices are not yet expected to bear. Let’s name this intermediate order “the Order of the Gown” and let it be recognized publicly by the member wearing an academic gown on special days to testify to acceptance of the new responsibility to use this proven ability to learn in the service of him[her]self and others.
Certificates and Privileges
Then, let an official recognition and specific privileges be granted to this “gownsman” in the form of
- a “Liberal Arts Certificate” [to be used as evidence of competence when dealing with others outside the school] and
- admission to a higher level study program [which might be called “Northfield Friends” at a secondary school named Northfield whose students can earn the privilege to study at a university named Friends] consisting of approved post-secondary courses in which college credit can be earned towards future awards and privileges.
And ... voila !!
And so, we have a way to define and identify an important maturational milestone in the life of every liberal arts student that “speaks” a solemn and important word of encouragement to everyone involved in the secondary learning years.
The Northfield Story
Northfield School of the Liberal Arts is a private secondary school in Wichita Kansas which uses a Trivium-conscious curricular approach to bring students to a point of dialectical maturity from which the student can successfully progress
- to college or vocational training or
- directly to a career
with the confidence of knowing he has acquired the learning tools needed to learn [and teach] almost any subject.
By refocusing its faculty and pedagogy away from the traditional school approach of teaching subjects per se to one of using any or all subjects to develop and strengthen the student's dialectical skills, Northfield has recovered an educational model that we believe enables students to reduce the time spent maturing in secondary school while improving student readiness for post-secondary academic or vocational endeavors.
Begun in an industrial warehouse in 1994 with 4 teachers and 30 students, Northfield focused on the subject study of Latin, Greek, Literature, History, Math, Science, Art and Music in grades 6-12 with a traditional college-prep goal in mind for its graduates. However, it experienced the same problem that is common to most, if not all, secondary school teachers, students and parents:
Teacher and student readiness, interest, aptitude and qualification in/for teaching and learning from a given common core of subjects, in a specified order based on student age, varied greatly making it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, then build on, consistently excellent results harmoniously and efficiently.
As a result, in 2013 Northfield returned to pedagogical questions posed, then examined, by Dorothy Sayers in her paper THE LOST TOOLS OF LEARNING presented in a course on education at Oxford University in 1947:
"Whether, amid all the multitudinous subjects which figure in the syllabuses, we are really teaching the right things in the right way; and whether, by teaching fewer things, differently, we might not succeed in ‘shedding the load’ (as the fashionable phrase goes) and, at the same time, producing a better result."
Sayers goes on to propose that, and explain why, a sound and complete secondary education consists of reaching a common dialectical maturity not a specified subject competency. As proof of her thesis, she returns to the medieval pedagogical bedrock of the Trivium, consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric, where she claims to find the three lost learning tools which are embedded in and can/must be utilized to reach maturity in learning which enables competency in subjects.
- Sayers broadens the notion of Grammar from the abstract memorization of syntactical rules of language to the initial discovery and nascent articulation of the irreducible elements and concepts inherent in any subject.
- Logic for Sayers is no longer just a mere formality but rather the vital co-relativity of each and every grammatical element to the others within the subject and eventually to all other subjects.
- Rhetoric, commonly understood as making an argument in defense of the truth of one's position, gives way to a thorough and unrelenting, but vitally communal, engagement in dialogue with others to reveal and examine the certainties and uncertainties of a subject or proposition as the necessary prerequisite for doing what each individual must eventually do alone … decide what is most “truth-full” … and then make a moral choice and take individual action.
Changing actions [and lives]
By refocusing our goal for secondary education on achieving common dialectical maturity as explained by Sayers, Northfield has discovered a pedagogical model that can work in any secondary educational setting:
All faculty members essentially teach the same few "things" using whatever various "subjects" happen to be of interest, available and acceptable to the teachers, students and parents making up the local school.
This substantially reduces [and arguably eliminates altogether] the need for academic interference by outside federal, state and/or local school boards, since subjects are secondary to targeted results. Furthermore, by knowing the limited but essential goal for a secondary education in advance, the school is able to reach and recognize it earlier as well as more flexibly and consistently than a traditional subject-competency, achievement-test or common-core based school.
Naming a Milestone
In pursuit of this vision, Northfield has introduced what it calls a Liberal Arts Certificate [“LAC”] which the faculty, acting by consensus, awards to the student upon recognition of the student's ability to use the three tools of learning effectively. We believe this milestone can be reached sometime during the sophomore or junior year of high school [if not sooner]. The student is then free to engage college study or vocational training in a variety of settings [using the LAC as a formal recommendation from Northfield for acceptance]. College or vocational credits subsequently earned are also applied towards the student's Northfield high school diploma which is customarily awarded 1-2 years after the LAC. This permits the student to reduce the time/expense spent in/on secondary and post-secondary education by two full years [or more] while achieving a higher degree of learning readiness and dialectical maturity.
PS. Strengthening morality and democracy along the wayAn important by-product of this approach to secondary education is that it promotes a common immunization of more students and future citizens against the flood of propaganda increasingly prevalent in public media and, by so doing, strengthens the foundation of real American constitutional democracy which has always been ... a citizenry capable of inter-generational consideration of shared facts followed by logical formulation of moral and legal positions on any subject properly arising in the public forum ... as opposed to uninformed or misinformed acceptance of half-truths or outright lies
- prepared in secret with hidden conflicts of interest
- then promulgated as veiled or blatant conclusions
- via for-profit mass-media outlets which are easily co-opted
- by those with financial or political power seeking to gain or retain control over public opinion
- for purposes which may not reasonably be [or ultimately prove to be] in the public interest.
… and this should be one kind of immunization that EVERY CARING PARENT wants their children to get ... as early as possible !!