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Even STEM kids need English – Cicero on subject integration

Summer is for reading, right? Of course. The mornings can be a little looser, the routines ease up to make sure there’s plenty of margin not only for reading – but for marginalia and commonplacing as well.

CH060: Education Requires Language

So I continue pecking away, a page or two a day, in The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, a collection of the writings about education from Plato to the modern era, the writings that have informed the development of western civilization and classical education.

Language is Cross-Disciplinary

Today’s excerpt was a bit of serendipity with another book I’m reading for summer teacher-training: Teaching Science So Students Learn Science – a book I learned about through this very Wednesday with Words link-up!

Yes, Cicero has a little something to say to those who want to specialize in mathematics or natural philosophy (science) without regard to oratory (rhetoric).

[pullquote align=”center”] Your natural science itself, your mathematics […] do pertain to the knowledge of their professors, yet if anyone should wish by speaking to put these same arts in their full light, it is to oratorical skill that he must run for help.


It is speaking, being able to communicate your knowledge to others, that makes the knowledge useful, that makes it possible to do any good with the gain of it.

[pullquote align=”center”] Neither can one be eloquent upon a subject that is unknown to him, nor, if he knows it perfectly and yet does not know how to shape and polish his style, can he speak fluently even upon that which he does know.


And John Mays, classical science teacher and author of Teaching Science So Students Learn Science, agrees:

[pullquote align=”center”] Scientists do not merely solve problems. They must communicate with clarity to everyone else. Moreover, a student’s understanding of a scientific principle is very clearly indicated by the coherence and lucidity with which he can articulate it.


He dedicates an entire chapter to this point and its practical implications – that correct and clear language is vital to scientific progress and that it should be required in science classes as well as English classes.

[pullquote align=”center”] It is essential, therefore, that in our science classes we hold students accountable for using language well.


What does this mean for us?

Specialization is for insects.

A classical, liberal education is one where the broad spread of knowledge is presented, not one where students are encouraged or even allowed to specialize. They might later, but their broad education has given them the foundation they need to be able to think, to communicate, and to understand.

Narration, of one type or another, is the vehicle of learning.

John Mays wrote in that same chapter,

[pullquote align=”center”] Show me a student who has understanding, and I’ll show you a student who clearly demonstrates her understanding through language.


Then he goes on to denigrate multiple choice tests or even one-word-answer tests. He extolls the short-answer method. Yes, it’s more work for teachers – and for students – but it actually allows the student to demonstrate understanding and allows the teacher to see where connections might be missing.

It’s more work for everyone, but it is part of the true learning process and actually means something, whereas the typical testing formats don’t really – though they are easy to enter into grade books.

Narration – whether it’s oral or written, whether it’s open-ended straight “tell me everything you know about” or more focused “explain why x works” is vital to the process of learning as well as the real assessment of that learning.

If we can’t talk about what we know, we don’t really know it.

Neither can one be eloquent upon a subject that is unknown to him, nor, if he knows it perfectly and yet does not know how to shape and polish his style, can he speak fluently even upon that which he does know.
I’d love for you to share either another implication you draw from this quote or your thoughts on my own musings.

Learning what classical education really means from primary sources.

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  1. Great booklist and I love your categories! I am so looking forward to getting to read non-school books in another week. Not that they aren’t great books and not that I’m not enjoying them… but still, there’s some other things I really want to read too.

  2. So many parallels here with Charlotte Mason!! I also just finished reading, The Living Page. So narration whether written or oral, or even through different forms of notebooks (nature journal, Book of Centuries, science journal, etc) are also all forms of narration. We encounter the information/ideas (through a book, science experiment, observation of an insect, studying a painting) and then think on them, rearrange them in our minds, and reproduce it, but with our own personal stamp put on it through the narration or notebook entry. DaVinci kept many different types of notebooks on many different things and I would definitely consider him a scientist as well as an artist and engineer. No specialization there for sure! =) That broad a generous feast Mason is always speaking of, but with narration tying it all together, so that knowledge is able to reappear in forms of vitality as Mason called it. Yes, we must hold our students and ourselves accountable for using language well in all areas of learning! Really loved this post!

  3. So glad you are enjoying the John Mays book. I do love how he ties in language with science – very classical indeed. When my physics class in high school started adding more short answer questions I did much better – I didn’t really get the math but I could explain the process.

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