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….
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.
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.
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?]
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.”
(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.