A Step Off the Bow, by Briana Elizabeth

 

A few years ago, I dropped history as the spine of our homeschool.

I know, I know, this is a controversial thing to do amongst classical homeschoolers. If you would permit me to explain why….

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It started as most life-changing things do, as a trickle. There was a huge thread on a classical homeschooling board about philosophy, literature, history, and homeschooling. Then there was the book I was reading, The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft. And, finally, there was a catechism class I was teaching, and that is where all the pieces started to come together.

It was a class of about sixteen eighth graders. All public school children, stuck with me, the homeschooling mom. They were a rowdy bunch, but my way of teaching is to have discussions with them, and for the most part, they were happy with that. As discussions go, there were rabbit trails, and personal anecdotes, and the volley back and forth of ideas. Of course as a teacher, I bring in references to other things: science, literature, history–whatever would elucidate my point, and to make an abstract more concrete for my students. At that time, the CCD class was in the medieval ages, exploring the idea of social justice, and I threw out a reference to Robin Hood. In return, I got a blank stare. Hmmm. I asked if they’d seen the Disney movie, and sang a bit of the Chanticleer’s song. Nothing. “Stealing from the rich to give to the poor?” I asked. A few eyes lit up; okay, we might be getting somewhere.

That whole discussion eventually set me on another path of discussion and into a thunderstorm of thought. Did they know fairy tales? I asked what fairy tales they knew. Not many. From there, I started asking about books, and apart from new modern hits, they had read almost none. This is why teaching them was so hard. I would bring up a well-known reference, one that should be a culturally understood reference, and they didn’t know it. It had been happening often enough to be noteworthy, and I wasn’t making the connections of why, but as I kept asking, the whole of it was becoming overwhelming. It would be no exaggeration to say that they had to start with nursery rhymes to backfill why they didn’t know.

I actually went home after that class and drank. I had just spent an hour with children who had no literature in their lives, no connection to the inheritance of Western Civilization they were a part of, no idea who we were as a people, and no poetic imagination.

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I started asking my children, do you know Little Red Riding Hood? Pinocchio? The Steadfast Tin Soldier?

Their answers weren’t much better. But why? I mean, I’m a homeschooler. How did we end up with this huge, gaping hole? Shame on me. Then I realized, we had ended up here because historical literature had always been a priority, pushing out classic literature. At one point, I had five children under five, plus the older two whom I had pulled out to homeschool were in older grades, so that when we ‘started’ schooling we jumped in at fourth grade and seventh with nary a nursery rhyme to be found. Then, when I was done with their schooling for the day, and taking care of the littles, you can imagine what extra reading got done. “None” would be the right guess. I had left that portion of the older children’s education up to the public school.

So, out of my reaction, we dropped history.

For us, it was the right thing to do. I am only one mom, their only teacher, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and I need to sleep. So did they. I couldn’t have five separate read-alouds for five different grades. Because I wanted what we read to matter, it couldn’t be swept away in an ocean of three hours of daily reading; it would all get mushed. So something had to be prioritized, and literature was what I chose. Why? What I was reading gave me the answers.

“Philosophy makes literature clear, literature makes philosophy real. Philosophy shows essences, literature shows existence. Philosophy shows meaning, literature shows life.” Peter Kreeft, p22 The Philosophy of Tolkien.

And, a few paragraphs later he says, “Literature incarnates philosophy. You can actually see hate when you read Oedipus Rex. You actually hear nihilism when you read Waiting for Godot. As the acts of the body are the acts of the person, as a smile does not merely express happiness (the nine-letter word does that) but actually contains it, so literature actually contains or incarnates philosophical truths (or falsehoods).”

“All literature incarnates some philosophy. All literature teaches. In allegory, the philosophy is taught by the conscious and calculating part of the mind, while in great literate it is done by the unconscious and contemplative part of the mind, which is deeper and wiser and has more power to persuade and move the reader. Allegory engages only the mind while great literature the person, for allegory comes from the mind, while great literature comes from the whole person.”

“Literature not only incarnates philosophy: it also tests it by verifying it or falsifying it. One way literature tests philosophies is by putting philosophies into the laboratory of life, incarnating them into different characters and then seeing what happens. Life does exactly the same thing. Literature also tests philosophy in a more fundamental way. It can be expressed by this rule: a philosophy that cannot be translated into a good story cannot be good philosophy. “

Peter Kreeft, pg 22-23, The Philosophy of Tolkien, emphasis  mine.

Can’t historical literature do that? Yes, it can. But choices had to be made. Caddie Woodlawn or Narnia? Guns for General Washington or Pinocchio? Toliver’s Secret or Little Women?

All of them are good, but what is best? Choices had to be made.

Did I want them to learn history through historical fiction books, or did I want them to learn everlasting truths through literature? Could the historical fiction do both? Yes, it can, but it doesn’t always, and those classic children’s books were classics for a reason: they embodied human nature, they fed the moral imagination, and they nurtured poetic knowledge.

Most classically home schooled children will pick up Robin Hood when they study the medieval ages, so again, why was I bothering to drop history as our spine? For me, it was where the emphasis was put. And, I have to say that as they enter the middle grades and high school, literature and history re-intwine, but in a different way.

Then I started learning about Humane Letters. My intuitive decision to drop history as our spine was right. As I learned later, it was right because I needed to replace it with Humane Letters. Humane Letters is the study of philosophy, history, theology, and literature.

“Truth is symphonic.” said Hans Urs von Bathazaar.  The symphony is the whole of Humane Letters; philosophy, history, theology, and literature.

At this point, though I know there is a difference between the Humane Letters and the Liberal Arts, within the classical homeschooling community (outside of Norms and Nobility) I’ve rarely heard either of those terms differentiated. I would love to hear a discussion on the terms and their implementation with emphasis on curriculum choices in the classical homeschooling community, but that’s a discussion for another day.

With a liberal arts emphasis you also eventually hear of Adler’s great books or Dr. Senior’s ‘good books’. From reading his books, I don’t think Dr. Senior would recommend Adler’s idea that the Great Books be read apart from instruction or in a vacuum. He was much more of a Christian humanist.

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In his article The Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom, Frederick Wilhelmsen brings a strong argument against the Great Books and, in turn, against some of the neoclassical homeschool curriculum.

“But behind these pious intentions [the Great Books]–as good as they might be– repose three presuppositions, sometimes not expressed formally, but always exercised in the classroom: (1) disengaging the meaning of a text equalizes philosophizing; (2) the teacher is little more than a midwife whose role consists in leading the student to read texts and who is supposed to disappear, so to speak, behind the texts; (3) these books speak to the reader across the centuries altogether without any need to locate them within their historical contexts. Wisdom is not in the professor and wisdom is not in the tradition; wisdom is in the Books.

Let me attack these presuppositions in turn:

(1) Intellectual delicacy is needed to understand that the first prejudice is a fallacy. The understanding of the meaning of a text is not equivalent to the exercise of what Dr. Joseph Pieper felicitously called “The Philosophical Act.” Quite evidently, no one can become a professional philosopher who has not mastered the skills involved in reading a text. But a scholar who is not a professional philosopher–for instance, an intellectual historian–can do this very well without his being able to affirm the truth or detect flaws in a philosophical argument. Philosophical reasoning, on the contrary, consists in forming presuppositions into premises yielding conclusions. This habit is by no means reducible to the first set of skills. The philosophical act, therefore, can be exercised upon a text, but it does not have to be: it might be exercised on the report of a text, on a problem presented in isolation from texts, or on any issue which demands philosophical penetration.  The explication des texts hunts for “meaning” not “truth.” “[snip] The great books approach tends inevitably towards producing the skill needed to read intelligently a philosophical work, but it does not, of itself, help turn a man into an incipient philosopher.”

(2) Weighing the second prejudice, we must note that the very location of philosophy as a discipline shifts from the personal nourishment of habits of thinking about the real mastery of a number of philosophical classics. Concerning this latter, little need be said; Bergson once wrote that it takes a lifetime to master as many as two great philosophers and the very best we can do with the rest is to gain a gentleman’s awareness of their role and importance within the development of Western intellectuality. It were better to know one of them thoroughly than to know all of them superficially. No deep principal guides this observation: it is based simply on the economy of time given an undergraduate in a handful of courses dedicated, in a hurry, to his philosophical education.  [Multum non multa?]
[snip]

St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of a kind of sin – probably a minor sin – which is “curiosity,” wanting to know what may be worth knowing in itself but which is foreign to the destiny a man has given his own life. He was thinking of the cleric who ignores the things of God and busies himself with “pure” philosophy. But long before Aquinas, Plato pointed out that a mark of the philodaster, the false philosopher, was his knowing “many things” but knowing none of them in depth.”

[snip]

(3) Weighing the third of these prejudices–the conviction that books make sense to students without being located within the historical context that gave them birth and in abstraction from the living tradition in which they play their part–we must note that a kind of philosophical fundamentalism asking to its religious counterpart has insinuated itself into many departments of philosophy given over to Great Bookism. Yet very few, if any, philosophical masterpieces speak by themselves to the contemporary student. This is specially true when they are read, as they are, in translation.” pg 328

Please, go read the whole paper. I have brought out what is relevant to this article, but the whole is full of gems.

I must admit that when I read this, I had three reactions. The first was great sadness–where do we go to receive this education for either our children or ourselves? Secondly, I rolled my eyes. How does Wilhelmsen propose we begin to rebuild this lost education? Who are the rebuilders? How do you rebuild the educational system of an entire country? And thirdly, I was angry because it seemed he would have us burn all of the good for the pure. Nevertheless, I agreed with his diagnosis.

So, how do I apply what I’ve learned?

I adopted the curriculum put forth in David Hick’s Norms and Nobility. A friend who read it, and who classically homeschools, described it as elegant. It is.

I will write about the practical changes I made in my next blog post.

Briana Elizabeth has been at this homeschool gig since her 23 year old son was in 7th grade, and his psychiatrist told her that he had to be homeschooled. Her son never went back to public school that year, and the following year, she pulled her 4th grade daughter out of public school. Her five other children have all been homeschooled entirely. It was baptism by fire, but she wouldn’t trade it for the world. Through the years, she has in the end, not only educated her children, but herself, and homeschooling has brought about a whole paradigm change of living for her family. The education that had seemed only possible for the elite was possible through classically homeschooling.

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Creative Classical Education: Is It Possible? by Sheryl

 

There is no dichotomy between logic and creativity. None. We have falsely mystified the idea of imagination, causing many people to believe that they don’t have the ability to be creative or, conversely, that they are too artistic to be constrained by logic! What a shame.

Don’t believe that creativity and logic are intricately entwined?

Notice how many classroom “subjects” are involved in artist Janet Echelman’s work.

Creativity isn’t just having the freedom to discover beauty, it is combining ideas and materials in a new way. We live in an interconnected world, and creativity is one part of the whole. It is intentional and it can, in fact, be fostered. Classical education offers a wonderful springboard for creating such an environment.

Creativity in Math and Science

It has been stated by many that “Research is organized purposeful creativity.” I love this line of thinking. Research requires thinking about things in a new way, experimenting, observing, trying diligently, and often getting things wrong.

One of the wonderful parts of Classical Education is that it values time spent in thought. It cultivates the art of awareness, teaching students to articulate their observations clearly. Children aren’t afraid of being wrong and their capacity for innovation is infinite. Classical Education allows them the freedom to question, and to discover answers through their studies in an orderly way.

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Creativity in History and the Social Sciences

Creativity is empowering. It creates change. It is how generals develop new battle plans, and how new systems of government are formed. Spending time observing the interconnectedness of our world teaches our children to build an awareness of the activities around them and to begin to analyze what they see.

(Oh, and as a bonus, the study of stories has been proven to help with retention in other fields as well! Consider it homeschool multi-tasking.)

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Creativity in Debate and Writing

The purpose of Classical Education is not to produce fact memorizers (although the youngest children are encouraged to do a significant amount of memorizing).  The goal is to create students who understand how to learn. Maybe more importantly, the goal is to bring up children who are excited to learn on their own and share their discoveries with others.

By the time students have completed the Rhetoric stage, they have gained enough skills to be express their point clearly. It is only through this expression, rather than mere thought, that they will be able to impact the world around them with their discoveries.

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The opposite side of the coin…

Have you noticed that the arts are analytical?  Music and dance follow patterns, there is history in drama, and psychology in colors. Intelligence is diverse. More diverse than we generally acknowledge.

In the words of Picasso, “All children are born artists.” It is our duty to foster their passions and teach them how to utilize their creativity whether they choose to become painters like Picasso or not.

Do you think Classical Education takes imagination seriously enough?

Sheryl is living her dream in the house on Liberty Hill where she is a full time wife, mother, and teacher. She is passionate about turning children’s natural curiosity into activities that will inspire, enlighten, and entertain. Learn more about her adventures at LibertyHillHouse.com

Cover photo: By Janet Echelman (1.26 Sculpture) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Liberal Arts Light, by Lynne

 

When my oldest child was a toddler, my sister handed me a book and told me to read it. “I think you’ll really like it,” said she. This book was The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. My sister, you see, had already decided to leave her job as a school teacher and become a homeschooling parent to her two children. She had read The Well-Trained Mind and it had influenced her thinking on how exactly she wanted to approach the education process for her children.

I had never given a thought to homeschooling my kids. We moved into a community with top rated schools. My intention was to send my kids to the public school and work outside the home.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d give this book a look. ‘A Guide to Classical Education at Home,’ it said on the cover. Classical Education. Hmmm. Frankly, it sounded a little boring. I began reading the introduction, blissfully unaware of how this book would change the course of my life. By the time I had finished the introduction, my world was turned upside down. Where had this book been all my life? I had been so bored at school. I was so unprepared for the small liberal arts college I attended. I would have killed for an education like one described in this book. I felt truly and deeply cheated.

At my small, private liberal arts college, I immediately discovered that I didn’t know anything about anything. I soaked up my college experience, because I had a desire to learn and be part of the world’s knowledge base. My professors stirred up a passion for learning and discovery. I later attended a large state university for my graduate degree, and came to appreciate my liberal arts background. It made me into a whole person, a thinking person, an integrated person. Until I read The Well-Trained Mind, it didn’t dawn on me that this process could be started much earlier in a child’s education. Why wait for college to learn how to learn?

I was so excited to share with my husband my discovery of this incredible way to teach our kids at home. The ensuing arguments are definitely a topic for another article. The bottom line is that he did not agree with me that homeschooling in a classical manner was the best idea for our kids. Many frustrating arguments later, we enrolled the children in the local public school. I was determined to afterschool them in the best way I could, using advice offered in the book and with support from the Well-Trained Mind online forums. After two years of mostly negative school experiences, my husband agreed that we couldn’t leave them there, and grudgingly agreed to let me try homeschooling for a year.

We spent the next three years learning at home. When I say we, I mean that I learned right along with them. We grabbed the grammar stage by the horns and did memory work, narrations and dictations, and lots and lots of reading of literature, history and science books. My older son has some challenges that were not handled effectively at school, and this new method of schooling was a definite advantage for him. Family and friends could see him calming and blossoming before their eyes. My younger son stepped up to the challenge of doing the same work as his older brother. They both made tremendous strides and accomplished fantastic things. Their enthusiasm and curiosity continue to amaze me.

We’ve had some changes in our family life, so my kids returned to public school this fall. It only took us a month and a half to recognize that it wasn’t going to work out for our older son at all. We brought him home. We will be bringing our other son home, soon, because we don’t want to completely lose the momentum we had built with our classical education at home. My boys have such a solid base. In my opinion, it would be a shame not to continue to cement that base into their hearts and minds even further by progressing into the Logic Stage. My younger son would survive and do fairly well if we left him in the public school, but I really think he could do so much more by being at home and persevering in the classical education model.

I am so excited for both of my kids to go to college and not be at the huge disadvantage that my husband and I were, because on that my husband did agree. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Our children will already be a part of the “Great Conversation” and beyond. They will get so much more out of their college experience by being completely prepared for it. That’s what a classical education means to me- liberal arts learning as a lifetime endeavor.