“The failure of our educational system goes beyond what they fail to teach. It includes what they do teach, or rather indoctrinate, and the graduates they send out into the world, incapable of seriously weighing alternatives for themselves or for American society.” –Thomas Sowell, columnist
My visit to a recent homeschool convention showed me not only that some of the curriculum “out there” is inadequate to teach students thoroughly and well, but also that Classical Schooling must be the newest fad to follow.
This both encouraged and disheartened me. As a teacher in Classical methods I was encouraged because Classical Schooling is gaining in popularity among homeschooling families. Discouraged because, from my experience as a teacher, curriculum writer, and attendee at many homeschool conventions over the years, I know that many of the offerings I saw at tables were not high enough quality to meet the stringent demands that some classicists have.
What is Classical Schooling?
The writer Dorothy Sayers sparked a flame that began to grow when she wrote an essay titled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1947. In that essay she expounded on the way a child learns best, and that is according to the model of classical learning from times past. She mourned the loss of such educational methods, as she was very much a classicist herself. “Is not the great defect of our education today–a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned–that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”
Sayers posits that a child learns best if his learning methods are addressed according to his age group. When in the Grammar level (up through 6th grade or so)–Sayers calls it “Poll-Parrot”–the student learns the components of his language and of the other subjects in school. The “grammar” of math, then, are the math facts every child can learn to parrot back to his parent. The grammar of history would be those history facts that every child learns: the presidents, the continents, the states, the names, places, and dates. And so forth. Children learn in a sing-song manner the parts of language, almost as much as you can cram into their darling little heads. They don’t need the whys; they just stuff their heads full of facts and parrot them back.
As a high school English teacher I was in tears when I first watched third graders diagram sentences. The year before, when we had not yet transitioned to Classical, those same children hardly knew the parts of grammar. Here they were a year later diagramming sentences, having fun showing off their knowledge.
Once they have their facts, and they reach the age of argumentation (those little eyeballs start to roll around in their heads about 6th or 7th grade), they have transitioned to what Sayers calls “Pert” or Dialectical. This is when their teachers need to incorporate Logic into their thinking. This is when we take the facts they have been learning and make connections for them–or better put, we allow them to make the connections. Their writing becomes more sophisticated. Their history, math, and science understanding grows because they can begin to form hypotheses and test them out based on what they already know.
This is the time that they want to challenge authority, whom they suspect doesn’t know what they’re talking about. So they learn Logic, a new way of thinking, almost the equivalent of learning a new language. They see how arguments can be analyzed by their component parts, what makes fallacies, and why. They pick up on the fallacies of other people’s ideas–then they realize that they themselves make fallacies too.
By the time they reach 9th or 10th grade, they are ready for what Sayers calls the “Poetic” or Rhetoric stage. Here they can put all their past learning together and figure out how to make connections across the broad scope of their learning. They can look into the ideas and philosophies of the past and see how mistakes of the present day are a direct result. They can put into writing those thoughts and ideas that come flowing out, beautifully expressing themselves.
Nuts and Bolts: What gets done?
One of the hallmarks of Classical education is the integration of learning. The classical approach is known for moving through the periods of history and learning everything there is to learn at each level. So what you read in literature you are also learning in history and geography, and you’re doing art projects connected to the history and country that you’ve been studying. Science gets involved, as you can study the inventions of the ages you visit. As students get older the studying goes deeper. Delve into the religion of the age, read the philosophers, study their style of writing and their art, their music and theater. At the Rhetoric level, examine the ideas of the authors and philosophers. See how they lived out their own ideas and how well that worked. Imitate the writing of the great authors to see how their words flowed. Make your own writing soar beautifully like that. Examine your own philosophies and worldviews based on what you learn in the worldviews of others whom you study. For example, in history they may be learning about the French Revolution, while in literature they read Tale of Two Cities, and in philosophy they study the ideas of the Social Contract and the writings of Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophers, while in Rhetoric they study and analyze the speeches of Robespierre and Desmoulins. These students can reach across the disciplines of study to make connections and conclusions, and they can amaze their teacher by what comes out of this kind of thinking.
What material works best?
I am not going to recommend particular curriculum. That’s the job for other people. But I will give you criteria to use when examining curriculum.
For the grammar level, find curriculum that will teach grammar facts in a sing-song manner, just the same way you might teach them Bible verses through song. But don’t just go for the singing; aim for the breadth of what is covered. Are all the grammar facts–are all the math facts–covered in an age-appropriate manner, and is it achievable in a span of 9 months (the length of a school year)? Make sure to expose your children to lots of age-appropriate literature. Give them plenty to read. Choose their history, literature, geography, and science in a complementary fashion that goes along with their literature. Start simply and add more complicated information as they get older. Give them great books to read, not just simple junk you pick up at the Christian book store.
Some parents think that makes their job easier, to know they will be studying all one age in history and focusing everything around it. Some science curricula break up a year of science into four sections: earth, biology, physical, and chemical. Those sciences get more and more complex until the student can take a full year of general and then a full year of physical science in the dialectical stage, then moving up to Biology in 9th.
Should they take Latin? Most classical schooling does include Latin. Some have done that so by a certain point the child would be ready to read some of the philosophers and poets in the original language. The rote method helps a student to organize his thoughts, to learn English grammar, and to expand his English vocabulary. At the grammar stage Latin is simply just rote learning: repeating sounds back to the teacher. Look for early Latin grammar that focuses on rote (sing-song) learning. Those mechanical memories get attached to meaning once they move along into vocabulary-building. The acquirement of this second language will help aid in the learning of yet another language–Spanish or French–when they get older as well. You’ll be amazed, when you learn with them, how similar much of the vocabulary is.
At the high school level there is much to be had for the teaching at the Classical level. Some of it is good. In another blog I will provide some more thoughts on what to look for. Just be careful to find high school curriculum that doesn’t simplify but includes readings from primary sources all through history. Read the great thinkers (authors and philosophers) in their own words, and connect that with what’s going on in their time of history.
Can Classical Schooling be done at home? For years it was thought that no, this was too difficult, too wide and too deep. However, as they sometimes prove to be pioneers, homeschoolers met that challenge and decided to climb Mount Olympus.
However, don’t be drawn in by all the flashy offerings that call themselves “classical” just because it carries the name. It needs to have certain criteria to be considered good enough for your classically-schooled child. Look for more helpful information on classical schooling in the Dialectical and Rhetoric level in my next blog.