by Sara Breetzke, TCA Head of School


One of the greatest difficulties from within the classical education world is explaining this educational philosophy to others.

On a visit to The Academy of Classical Christian Studies in Oklahoma City last fall, I heard a helpful metaphor.

Giving a student a classical education – teaching him grammar, logic, and rhetoric – is like teaching him how to use a compass instead of a GPS.

While a GPS is easier to use than a compass, this ease will ultimately limit the user. As the user begins his journey, a voice parrots instructions to him without explanation. A screen shows his location – and one inch on either side. But the driver probably isn’t looking at this screen. Because his device is doing the thinking for him, his mind can be far away.

In contrast, a compass user must first understand how to read the symbols of a compass. What do the letters - N, E, S, W – and that arrow mean? Then once he knows these terms, he must come to a practical knowledge of these directions. What is North of him? And what will he find if he goes to the West?

This compass user is gaining a deep understanding of his physical surroundings. Instead of passively receiving instructions, he is discovering, categorizing, and creating order. 

Similarly, in the first stage of classical learning - the grammar stage - students learn to name and navigate their world. What happened in times past? What are the parts of a math problem or a sentence or a flower? What is true about God and the world? Through this process of naming, the grammar student is cataloguing the world around him, learning to read the compass of life’s journey.

Once a traveler knows – both by name and by experience – the meaning of the cardinal directions, he learns how to follow the compass to actually go somewhere. He must understand and explore the distance between himself and his destination.

His first few journeys may be messy as he learns to navigate the roads. He will doubtless meet dead ends and unforeseen traffic: the compass doesn’t answer every question about what’s ahead. It is a tool, not the answer key. The traveler must be alert, making memories and personal connections to his surroundings if he hopes to trek new, better paths through the world.

This is the logic stage of learning: students connect their points of knowledge, and begin to move from point a to point b. They consider their place in their community, their world, and in human history. They begin to apply the named truths from the grammar stage to the real world.

Finally, a compass user is capable of plotting his own journey. He has explored a region enough to know the most scenic or expedient routes to a destination. He can even guide others through the terrain. Now he may not even need the compass to reach his most beloved destinations, for he has learned to use the sun, the landscape, and his own experience to guide him.

And for new journeys, the traveler with a compass doesn’t balk at the challenge of navigating new terrain. He has gained the confidence and the skill to find his own way in life.

In the same way, a classically educated student emerges from the rhetoric stage of learning as a confident traveler. Not only can is he secure in the knowledge he has gained, he can guide others to his conclusions effectively. He is not afraid of a personal or academic challenge. He has worn the roads of his thoughts enough to be confident and persuasive in his presence and speech.

And so teaching classically is much like teaching a student to use a compass – not a GPS. While a GPS requires only knowledge of the final address, compasses require time, skill, knowledge, logic, and experience.

Our goal is wisdom over mere knowledge; formation over mere information; character over self-esteem, and worship over self-realization. 

So if we desire the deep knowledge of ourselves, God, and his world, we must live life with our heads up.

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