An Autodidact’s Guide to a Classical Education, by Jen N.

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*autodidact: a self-taught person

We need more than just a syllabus.  Knowing the how’s and why’s of an education that most of us did not receive ourselves leaves us constantly running to catch up.  The idea of an education that only supplies a student with skills to get ahead in the world is not an adequate preparation for even entry-level employment.  An education rooted in the classics gives each student their own arsenal of information and experiences to draw from. This is where the non-classically educated teacher must accept the responsibility of continually self-educating.

This is the ending of an article I wrote last year. We ran it again last week, and this time  I have messages from parents asking me exactly how you give yourself the classical education that you didn’t receive?  There is no short answer. I wish I could bullet point ten things for you to read or listen to, but the list would be endless so I’ll try to give you ideas of how to squeeze it in and a few books to read. The rest is going to take time and effort on your part.

Here is the bright side: self-teaching is a much different experience from institutional learning . . . thank heavens.  It can be an invigorating, absorbing, inspiring, enlightening and captivating experience, and one that often requires very little, if any, money. Most of the classics can be read free online or are at the library. In other words: it’s worth your time to invest in yourself.

I know how busy we all are, and if you are already homeschooling, simply keeping up with the day to day lesson plans is a full-time job.

Teachers have Institute Days that are an opportunity for teachers to learn new curriculum, materials, techniques and specific knowledge in their area of teaching.

We need them too. Snow days, vacation weeks, and what I term “mental health days” are all fair game for the kids to have no structured school so that you, the teacher, can learn something new. If you school lightly or not at all during the summer, you can get ahead then as well.

Feeling overwhelmed?  The secret is that we all think it is an impossible task. All you can do is your best. Some years will be more productive than others. In the space of twelve years, it will all even out. Slow and steady really is the way to think of this endeavor.

How far do you need to be ahead of your students? 

I’ve read, and someone mentioned in their note, that we only need to be one day ahead of our students.

It is not the optimal situation.

That said I pulled my boys and taught them second and fifth grade with almost zero prep work. I was only barely ahead of them and it turned out fine. Now I’m teaching fifth grade for the fifth time, and I am much more confident. It helps when you have your own base of knowledge to pull from.

A university education ought to follow up by teaching how to read seriously, but many college seniors aren’t much further along than their high school counterparts. Often, they graduate with a nagging sense of their own deficiencies; as adults, they come back to the task of serious reading and discover that it has not magically become simpler. Homer is still long-winded, Plato impenetrable, Stoppard bewilderingly random. Too often, these readers give up, convinced that serious books are beyond them.

But all that’s missing is training in the art of reading. If you didn’t learn how to read properly in school, you can do it now. The methods of classical education are at your disposal.– Susan Wise Bauer How to Get the Classical Education You Never Had

I am going to assume for the rest of this piece that you are using a classical curriculum and won’t try to sell you on it. (If you aren’t but are interested, read here.) Start at the beginning and see where your own education left off. If you are one day ahead now, you’ll be a couple weeks ahead in no time. It really does snowball.

What if you remember reading the classics and just think you’ll never understand them? Or if you have never studied Latin or Greek?

Here is my super secret slacker answer for both: Get the middle-grade version for yourself. Something for kids grades 5-8. I thought I would never get through the Iliad the first time I read it. Once I read the easier version and understood the basic plot I went back and could then grasp the nuances of the original.

One last thing on this subject: Buy the teacher manuals and then read them. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Trust yourself to take or leave the information inside them and teach it to your student in your own way.

How can I educate myself and my child at the same time?

You’ll need to read and take notes whenever you get a chance. If all the kids are school age then you need to read while they read. In math, I often worked problems alongside my students if I needed a refresher. In Latin, I’m two years ahead of my students. I sometimes work in my own workbook while they write in theirs.

Remember, it’s not about buying things. A library book and a spiral notebook full of notes will feed your mind just fine.

“One might begin the day with lessons in Latin and math; follow those studies with fine read-alouds in fiction, history, science, or poetry (perhaps rotating through several books in the course of the week, and having the child narrate some of the readings); and leave the rest of the day open for free play, nature walks, art, music, and curling up with good books.”- Andrew Campbell, The Latin Centered Curriculum 

Our days are patterned after the kind of day mentioned above and I really don’t feel stressed about my own learning. We look at our school days as family learning days where we all are learning on a continual basis.

Classical Education Resources?

Books. I’ll give you a list of books divided into the how’s and why’s of classical education and books that tell you how to read. Whenever you feel ready dive into one of the Great Books.

How’s and Why’s:

The Trivium

Climbing Parnassus

Latin Centered Curriculum  ( I prefer the first edition.)

The Lost Tools of Learning

How to Read:

The Well-Educated Mind

How to Read A Book

The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it means to be an Educated Human Being

I’d like to close with this quote in the hopes that I’ve made this idea of self-education seem not only plausible but possible.

For centuries classical education set about the task of teaching the noble arts of the mind and heart, and it can do so again. Those arts are not dead. They’re merely hibernating. A clever and ingenious world must find within itself once more the humility to learn—and to teach—those noble arts if any semblance of civilization, any shard of inner greatness, is to survive the havoc wrought by generations of aphasia and well-meaning neglect. We can regain our memory and tell its tales to those waiting to hear.– Tracy Lee Simmons, Climbing Parnassus

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