- Welcome to Farrar Williams our first guest contributor since the re-boot
I’ve been homeschooling for a while now, and in the course of educating my kids, I’ve tried on a variety of different styles and methods. My boys have their passions in the arts and sciences, not the humanities. They’re performers and creators. They’re much more interested in creative and hands-on learning. In the end, I’ve educated the kids I have, just like we all do, choosing experiences and styles that meet their needs best.
I’ve really only been classically influenced. However, every time I start to think about moving further away from that influence, I get dragged back to my own education, and I know I can’t let go of that influence.
I was fortunate to have attended a public magnet school where the humanities programs were profoundly influenced by neo-classical ideas. While newbies like Susan Wise Bauer and Leah Bortins and older writings like those of Dorothy Sayers and Charlotte Mason tend to dominate the classical education conversation in homeschooling circles, one of the loudest voices in education encouraging a return to classical thinking and great books was once Mortimer J. Adler. Adler’s work How to Read a Book, originally published in 1940, was a bestseller in its day. He helped solidify the term “Great Books” and proposed a system of classical education in his work The Paideia Proposal.
The school I attended took the idea of reading through the canon seriously, though it thankfully made it a more diverse canon than Adler ever envisioned (Adler’s refusal to include non-Western and non-white authors was one of the things that eventually made him unpopular in academic circles). It started slow, but by the time I graduated high school, I had read a dozen Shakespeare plays, several major epics like The Odyssey, classic works of British literature from The Canterbury Tales to Heart of Darkness, American works from The Scarlett Letter to The Joy Luck Club, and pretty much everything in between. I read Things Fall Apart in tenth grade. I did a deep dive on Native American authors in eleventh. People I know are often astounded by the number of books that I offhandedly mention were required reading for me in high school. I decided not to become an English major in college after realizing I’d spent four years mostly rereading.
In addition to the longer works, we read poems and excerpts of longer works. In history class, we tore through primary source documents in piles. I read The Communist Manifesto and A Vindication of the Rights of Women. We used Adler’s Paideia seminars as a reading approach, discussing everything from creation myths to Candide to Freud. Adler talked about ways to encourage close reading and then bring that knowledge to a classroom seminar for discussion where students would deepen their knowledge through other understandings of the text. The Socratic discussion was encouraged and modeled.
This is not to say that I was always the best student or that I didn’t cut corners occasionally. It was still high school, not an ivory tower paradise. However, overall, I loved it. I was challenged and academically fulfilled most of the time, given real work that was really worth doing. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
When I look at my own kids, just beginning to be assigned classic literature like The Time Machine and To Kill a Mockingbird, both of which I read in high school, I’m pulled back to just how much I value that time in my own life. I am a better person to this day for having been pushed to read classic literature. I’m more informed, more cultured, more able to participate in that Great Conversation. I have more references, a better vocabulary, a deeper understanding of history, and a better understanding of other cultures from having read literature from Asia, Africa, and South America.
My own sons aren’t the bibliophiles I was as a child. I don’t think they’ll ever read the sheer volume of books I had to go through. Nor would they intentionally choose the harder options like I sometimes did, devouring Anna Karenina as a supplemental read instead of a shorter option. Instead, I find myself picking a smaller selection of those books carefully, looking at the shorter titles and thinking about how to push them toward that ability to read, understand, and most importantly, enjoy what they read. Despite having exposed them to history from start to finish and to as many good read aloud and well-written children’s versions of classical stories, they’re just not ready, even on the eve of high school, to be thrown into the deep end. I’m not letting that discourage me though.
I’m determined to give them a taste of that classically flavored experience to help them become well-rounded, literate individuals who can also participate in those deeper conversations about the world around us that are based in understanding our past.
Farrar Williams has headed the online homeschool community for Washington, D.C.-area homeschoolers, taught theater classes, at different local arts programs, coached Destination Imagination, and helped run a small, family-centered learning co-op. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she writes fiction and blogs about home-based education at I Capture the Rowhouse.