Education is a trendy field, prone to numerous fads and fashions. One of the current trends has to do with what are called “learning styles.” Children, it is said, have different learning styles, and, according to the theory’s adherents, these learning styles are supposed to determine to a greater or lesser degree how each child is taught. Some children are “visual learners,” it is said, and others “auditory learners.” The visual learner is to be given material that is visual in nature, and the auditory learner, material that conforms itself to hearing. There are other “learning styles” than these, but you get the idea.

Like most trends, this one has some truth to it, although it is doubtful whether this theory has the explanatory power that many people attribute to it. In fact, sometimes it seems as if it is just one more species of the modern emphasis on “child-centeredness,” which makes everything (in this case, the method of instruction) relative, with the only absolute being the child.

But regardless of how much truth there may be to the modern obsession with “learning styles,” there are some other, more fundamental–and I believe more helpful–observations that can be made about how children learn, observations that go much deeper than the effect the five senses have on learning. One of these is based on the classical view of reality that finds its origins as far back as Socrates.

There are three concepts that run throughout classical thought. These concepts are the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Plato discusses them, and they are implicit in Aristotle’s view of man as a knower (of the True), a doer (of the Good), and a maker (of the Beautiful). This distinction can also be seen in many aspects of Christian thought, notably in the three-part view of the soul: the Intellect (which apprehends the True), the Will (which does the Good), and the Imagination (which can appreciate the Beautiful).

One of the ways this three-part distinction has worked its way into thinking about education is through classical instruction in rhetoric. In his book, De Optima Genere Oratorum (“On the Best Style of Orators”), Cicero laid down the three criteria for good communication. “An eloquent man,” he says, “must speak so as to teach, to delight, and to persuade.” Teaching has to do with the impartation of certain truths, delight with the cultivation of the imagination, and persuasion with the doing of the Good. Four hundred years later, St. Augustine took special note of Cicero’s remark. These three requirements, said St. Augustine in his book On Christian Doctrine, apply not only to the orator, but to the Christian teacher.

It is not difficult to see how these three requirements apply in this way. When we teach, we seek first to communicate some truth, then to inspire our students to act upon what we have taught them. But this distinction also has its application to the student.

We have all come across the student who is extremely bright, a brightness that many times is accompanied by a lack of self-discipline. It isn’t uncommon for this kind of successful student to leave things to the last minute, avoid studying for an important test until a night or two before, and yet he will pull off a B anyway. If he has his homework ready, it may or may not be legible. I had one student who must have taken his assignments, crumpled them up into a wad with his hands, and jumped up and down on them several times before handing them in. When I asked him for his assignment, he would reach into his pocket and hand it to me—sometimes with other things attached to it that had the misfortune of having occupied the same pocket. The content of his work was fine, but the form in which it was presented left something to be desired.

The second kind of student is the self-disciplined student. These students will do their work because they are supposed to. When they are given an assignment, they diligently go home, complete it, and hand it in in a neat, stapled stack, finished well before the deadline. These kinds of students do not always work very fast, but they plod on until the assignment is completed. They spend long hours on their homework, listen in class, follow instructions to the letter, but often don’t say much. They may be bright or not, but they do what they are told and nothing is going to stop them.

I had one mother tell me that her daughter, one of my students, studied seven hours a day (the school was a one-day-a-week cottage school), and she had to make her stop studying just so she could join the rest of the family for dinner.

The first kind of student gets by because he is smart and learns easily. The second kind succeeds because she makes sure everything is done–correctly and on time. He operates from his intellect. She operates from her will. She is the tortoise; he is the hare: In terms of grades, she usually beats him to the finish line, but she always wonders how he came in such a close second.

But there is a third kind of successful student. These are the students who do well because they are inspired. They operate not necessarily from the intellect, although their intellect is soon pressed into service, nor are they usually self-disciplined, although they often develop diligent habits. These students are often drawn from the ranks of the first, less often from the second. They do well because their hearts are in it. Something has kindled a fire inside of them.

This third kind of student is the kind of student who, once he has found something that interests him, will learn everything there is to know about it. I remember a retarded boy in my high school (that’s what we called them then, although there is probably a more politically correct term today) who would stand by the side of the road, sitting on his bicycle, and look at each car as it came by. His IQ was surely low, but he could tell you every kind of car that was made and a good many facts about it. He could do this because this is what he was interested in; this is what he had a passion for.

Now it would be easy to use this as just another excuse to fit the curriculum to the child. But the classical view of teaching as expressed by Augustine–to teach, to delight, and to move–is addressed to all three of these “learning styles.” It can also be seen as a challenge to the teacher to bring the strengths of each of these three tendencies to those who might be deficient in any one. Over time, the disciplined child develops his intellect far above what is expected and soon comes to surprise his teachers with his ability. But the very bright child, unless he develops discipline and stamina for hard work, will waste much of his God-given talent. One of the obvious benefits of a structured curriculum is that it forces the less diligent student to realize the need to buckle down and comply with certain deadlines and requirements of the kind he will face in the adult world.

We tend to see the intellectual and moral aspects of education fairly clearly. But when it comes to inspiration–the “delight” in Cicero’s formula–we tend to think of it merely as a means to get a student to use his intelligence or to become more self-disciplined, which is often the result. We tend to see the intelligent, self-disciplined child as a finished educational product. We see intelligence and diligence as ends in themselves, and inspiration as only a means toward these ends. But inspiration is not just a means; it is also an end.

In fact, the person who lacks this inspiration is a prominent theme in modern classic literature: the dispassionate intellectual and the disinterested bureaucrat, both of whom are seen as incomplete persons, if not positive menaces to society. George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Leo Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, as well Flannery O’Connor’s Rayber in The Violent Bear it Away are all illustrations of this. T.S. Eliot calls them “hollow men.”

The education of our children, then, will involve more than just passing on information and inculcating good habits. It should also involve imparting a passion for the True and the Good. But how do we do this?

Whereas both the intellectual and diligent students find their means of success primarily within themselves (through their own intellectual powers and their own determination), the motivated student most often finds his inspiration in sources entirely outside himself. The outside source which energizes the inspired student often takes the form of a hero—someone the student so intensely admires that he will do whatever it takes to become like him.

This hero can be provided to this student in a number of ways. The first, of course, is through the child’s parents. During one seminar for students and their families, I asked each child who his or her hero was. One boy raised his hand in dead earnest and said, “My father.” His father was standing right next to him, knowing that it wasn’t merely because he was standing right next to him that his son had said it. He had said it because he really meant it, and everyone in the room knew it.

The other way a child can be inspired is through some prominent person, be it a real person, such as a public figure, a political or religious leader, or a fictional character in a novel or movie. It is here, of course, where popular culture impinges upon us, that we face the most competition. Yet, even modern Hollywood has provided some great role models if you look hard enough.

If we are going to talk about “learning styles,” let’s at least relate them to fundamental truths about human nature, and that’s what the classical view of reality provides: a way to see learning in light of the really important things.


This article was first published in The Classical Teacher, Winter 2005. Reproduced here with permission.

Martin Cothran is the editor of the Classical Teacher and the author of Traditional Logic I & Traditional Logic II, Material Logic, Classical Rhetoric, and Lingua Biblica, published by Memoria Press.


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