26 February 2010

Why Classical Education?

One thing that working closely with people on different educational paths than our own does for me is that it helps me to crystallize why we have made the choices we have.

I feel strongly that we are on the right path for Jack, though I'm sure that what we're doing when he's 16 will look very different than what I would imagine now. Still, working with unschoolers and Waldorf proponents and people with still other priorities has me pondering *why* I feel that we're on the right path for Jack. What we're doing could best be described as a Charlotte Mason inspired 'Classical but eclectic' education.
It's certainly not that I disagree with the objectives of my unschooling friends. Cultivating Jack's curiosity is very important, and nourishing his belief in his own ability to learn and find out what he wants to to know is critical.
I don't disagree with the objectives of my Waldorf-loving friends, either. Nourishing Jack's spiritual nature and helping him to remain a whole, healthy person is also important.
My friends who are leaning toward "school at home" have some valid points, too. Knowing what he will need to know to make his way in the world and support himself and to share a common knowledge base with his peers will be important, too.
So, why do I think that studying art history and technique is just as important as gluing cotton balls to paper to make a snow man? Why do I feel that studying world music and classical music is just as important as singing "I'm a little tea pot"? Why do I feel that studying classical literature and reading living books is so important? Why does an in-depth study of history seem like the absolute best thing on which to base everything else? I have been pondering these questions fpr months -- even years.
Part of it, of course, is just who we are as people. Rod and I are both people who love to think and explore ideas, who are thirsty to know how the world works, what makes people tick, and all that has come before. Jack has inherited that love and is a pretty cerebral little guy. His mind is as thirsty for these things as Rod's and mine are. This method would absolutely not work for some of the children we know, and it wouldn't be the best fit for many of the children we know.
For example, after a visit to the DIA, Jack spend a lot of time pondering Jesus' death. He wanted to know who killed him, of course. And he wanted to know why. Then, he became curious about how it was that a god could die. We talked about the dual nature of Jesus, being a son of a god, while also being a human. Then we discussed that Jesus was not the first god to die -- we talked about Osiris and the oak King and the Holly King. We talked about how gods who die are always reborn. We noted that it seems to be that gods die and are reborn, while goddesses seem more eternal, as far as we could remember, and that perhaps goddesses represent life itself, while gods represent living things. That lead to Persephone and Pluto -- Persephone didn't actually die - -but she does spend time every year in the underworld. Far from being bored by our stories of the gods, Jack's eager response was "And what else?"

Rod and I have discussed how we both felt frustrated by our 'loosey-goosey' "make it up as you go" education of the 60s and 70s. Education in those days was all about "relevance" to the child's experience and we both felt, even at the time, like there was so much we were hoping and expecting to learn at school that was never addressed or even acknowledged.
We have both noticed our lack of fluency in the elements that make up 'the great cultural conversation". We encounter references constantly, in our reading and in life, to things that we don't really understand. One can follow along well enough without understanding those references, and one can even reach the point of becoming so familiar with them as to no longer notice that we don't actually know what they mean, but every so often, not knowing the story, we misinterpret the meaning and come away with a very different understanding of the conversation than was intended. When we have made the effort to seek out the information we are missing, we have been astonished at the sudden depth and richness that can be revealed by a simple phrase.
In making the collection of those references a part of Jack's education, we not only make him better able to participate in the greater cultural conversation, we also help ourselves!
Our goal for Jack's education, then, is to help him to get a thorough understanding of the world he lives in. Not just the 21st century, western society, but where humans started and all that we have accomplished over time. We want to help him see what extraordinary creatures we humans really are!
Given the example of humanity's development--from a hunter-gatherer whose lifestyle wouldn't look too unfamiliar to a bear or a wolf--to a creature that can escape the bonds of gravity to go exploring our celestial neighborhood, how can he not learn to believe in his own potential?
To help him to see how we have developed so many forms of musical expression over our existence -- to help him delve to the depths and soar to the heights with a broad variety of expression from simple drumming to the ornate symphonies -- can't help but give him a better appreciation of his own talent and to understand that beauty doesn't look or sound just one way.
Seeing and hearing the best of what humanity has developed, in all of its multitude of guises, will also help him set his sights for his own achievements higher. He may never paint like Millais, compose like Bizet, or write like Shakespeare -- but knowing that such heights are possible can help him to set his own sights higher than he would if his own scribblings were his only measure. What he is good at, he can stretch to be great at. What doesn't come to him easily, he can see what more there is to learn.
To set him loose to figure it out for himself would seem akin to asking him to plan and prepare his own meals without teaching him to hunt, gather, shop, and cook, with no knowledge of nutrition or kitchen chemistry. He would probably find something to eat and be quite happy with his choices, but he wouldn't eat as richly and as well as he would if we spread a banquet before him and offered him abundance to choose from. He won't find everything on our intellectual banquet table equally appealing, but he may well develop a taste for some of it as he matures. At least, he will be aware that it's out there.
Classical education, approached correctly, can also help to nurture the spiritual side of a child. Nature study, while it prepares us to explore science, can also help us to find the stillness at our center as we sit with nature and observe. Reading beautiful literature and poetry can bring us to a deeper understanding of the human condition, and what all people have in common and how we differ. Listening to beautiful music can stir the spirit or bring tranquility by turns.
There's far more to say, I know...but I found this unpublished from two years ago because there was just so much more to say -- so I'll press send now and return to the ideas if I get a chance.


  1. I really enjoyed this post and I hope you write more about it. I can particularly relate to the last 2 main paragraphs. For a long time I considered methods; I wanted the best of all of them. Then I realised that Classical has more of what we want, and we can work in the good stuff from the other ones. I was worried Classical would dampen Esa's curiosity and love of learning (as per the dire warnings I read/received), but it hasn't. We didn't have to go the unschooling route to nourish his love of learning; Classical works for us. I've seen how his learning of things that may not be deemed 'relevant' to him now have enriched and increased his enjoyment of life and learning of other things.

    The other day when I was reading Deconstructing Penguins, there was a bit where one of the discussion leaders asks the children if they'd heard of the ancient Greeks (or Romans, can't remember now) and the children hadn't. How much more interesting that book would have been if they had! My own reading has become more enjoyable since learning more history (and science, etc).

  2. Great post. It sounds like Jack is in great hands!

  3. Being in largely the same philosophy as you guys (Charlotte Mason/Ruth Beechick/classical but alive), I love the realization that hitting topics not typically covered in traditional education can be corralled in this method, but also that they can lead to a few rabbit trails here and there. ;)

    What would my 8 y/o boy be w/o his love for all things knights & medieval? And where would I be w/o Story of the World to bring it all together? ;) And in spite of (or maybe because of) his rabbit trails and our chosen curriculum, his educational experience is broad and well-developed.

    Thanks for such a great article, Misti! :)

  4. Absolutely wonderful! You should post this somewhere on SecularCM and/or it's facebook page.

  5. This is a wonderful post! I'd like to link it sometime. =) The boys are calling now but I will come back and read more. ~Cori

  6. john morris wrote:
    Thanks so much for your comments about Jack's education. it's wonderful to see this kind of development! .. j


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