Phonics and the Classical Tradition

I wasn’t looking forward to teaching phonics. I figured just about every other area of the Year One/Two curriculum I could pick up quickly, if I didn’t have a teaching knowledge of it already. Phonics, however, is a different animal. In math, you begin with basic skills like adding and subtracting, and even if you get all the way into imaginary numbers and sine/cosine, you still retain the working knowledge to add and subtract. Reading, spelling, and writing seems like altogether a different thing to me. You begin with recognizing letters, progress to understanding the sounds they make, and then you are off on your adventure of reading! Simple readers turn into children’s books, children’s books into novels, novels into philosophy, philosophy into theology and somewhere along the way you forget how many ways you can make the “A” sound.

At some point, your working knowledge surpasses your foundational knowledge. You progress to the point where reading becomes fluent, and your foundational knowledge of phonics fades from something you can immediately recall (like addition) and into borderline esoteric territory. You could read just about anything in the English language, spell most words correctly, but if someone asks why “do” says “do” after you have taught them that “o” says “ah” like in “octopus,” you feel the heat rising in your face, and you tell them, “I’ll get back to you.”

However, as I have been frustrated with my own lack recall of my own foundational knowledge in phonics, and have had to rely consistently on Jessica’s help, I have found that phonics and the classical tradition have one striking similarity. Because my day is spent teaching children basic knowledge and my evenings trying to impart what feels like a decade of learning to adults, it was one evening a few weeks ago when the following theory came to me.

The main conclusion I have had from teaching phonics is that, by design, the foundational principles, like how many sounds “y” makes, or when a “g” is hard or soft, will fade. In the early years, you have to learn how to read and spell. You must have a strong foundation that can carry you on to whatever books you want to read and whatever you would like to write. However, the ultimate goal is that you can read a complicated sentence, or form a line of poetry (if you are more skilled than me), with fluency. You cannot be fluent without those foundational principles of phonics–the ones I am devoting hours to every week–being effectively forgotten.

My theory is that the exact same thing happens in classical education. The foundational principles of classical education are the books that you read. You have to start somewhere, and whether that is with Homer, Scripture, The Lord of the Rings, or even Frankenstein in high school, those works that you read at the beginning are the beginning of your classical journey.

They are, however, going to fade. Perhaps I was wrong to say the “design” of phonics is that the foundational principles fade, for it seems to be a natural result of human limitation over some purposed intention. However, the same thing happens as we read and learn more. The plots and characters of the early novels, the ideas from philosophy, or arguments about the nature of Christ from theology will become more and more blurry in your memory. Eventually, if someone asked you “What happens to Dr. Frankenstein’s wife?” or “What is Aristotle’s response to Platonic forms?” or “Why did God become man?” You might find yourself saying you will get back to them, though you may have read entire books which answer those exact questions.

Should we then stop reading, since the work seems to be nigh-futile? By no means! While we will forget, and if we want to retain ideas we must re-read, there is a building characteristic to exploring the classical tradition. You will forget the books that you read, even if they are powerful enough to have shaped all of Western Civilization. However, by learning, it enables you to learn more. Just as by learning simple phonograms you can read more complex words, you read your first classical works so that you can read more classical works later. And in the same way, the classical tradition unfolds before you with additional meaning and power the more you are immersed in it.

So read! Explore! Learn! Even if you forget a plot, even if one day you don’t remember much of City of God, even if you teach Ancient History for 4 years and can still hardly distinguish one Roman emperor from another, read and learn in order that the world can open up before you. Just like how my students now could not read (much less understand) the word “jurisdiction,” the non-classically-educated student (no matter how old) will never be able to understand the layers of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

It means only that it is time to begin.

In the end, I am finding phonics rather fun to teach and am doing a decently tolerable job of staying a few moves ahead of my students in their foundational knowledge. Just as I can relearn the sounds of the alphabet, you can relearn, or begin for the first time, to explore the classical tradition.

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