A few years ago, dressed in tennis shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt, I was happily riding along the bike trail on my son’s mountain bike. A woman rode alongside me just long enough to warn, “I wouldn’t ride out here without a helmet.” As she sped away in her full cycling gear on the skinny tires of her racing bike, I wanted to answer, “I’m just a mom trying to get some exercise.”
I approach classical education in a similar fashion: I’m just a mom trying to give my children a good education at home. Through Jeremiah, God told the Israelites, “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). This passage reminds me of Jesus, walking along with His disciples, asking and answering questions, teaching them God’s ways, and explaining God’s Word to them. Classical education, with its emphasis on discussion, helps bring that same method of teaching into our home. It is a good path where I find rest as we explore the writings, the art, and the music that have been handed down through the years and across the centuries.
This ancient path of learning moves me. Even more appealing is the basic purpose of classical education: to seek knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The goal of classical education, explains John Mark Reynolds, founder and director of Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute, is to raise young ladies and gentlemen who can read well, write well, and think well, and who will change the world for Jesus Christ. What could be more simple, or more noble, than that? CiRCE Institute founder and president Andrew Kern further defines classical education as “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty through the seven liberal arts.”
But the Great Books and the trivium (grammar, as in Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric), the first three of those seven liberal arts, are all rigorous academic pursuits. Not many among us are competent enough to teach these subjects to our children. So, classical education can be elaborate and intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. Classical education can be as simple as reading a book aloud or learning a new subject along with your children. The key to simplifying classical education, to borrow some terms from my sister who is a schoolteacher, is to choose what to teach to exposure and what to teach to mastery. Many fine and inexpensive resources are available to help in that learning and teaching process.
The Great Books
I am not fond of many of the Great Books. In fact, I find them tedious (especially the epic poetry), as do my children. Instead, we prefer classic literature such as Cheaper by the Dozen and To Kill a Mockingbird. Rather than abandon the Great Conversation altogether, I’ve chosen to take us on select journeys in the classical world. While searching for a consolidated list of the Great Books, a short list that I knew I could manage in the junior high and high school years, I developed a plan to read one or two of the Great Books each year. A year or so later, Andrew Campbell’s The Latin-Centered Curriculum came along and helped me fine-tune that plan.
Although I can’t actually instill in my children a love for many of these books, I can expose them to their significance in literary history and point out the carefully crafted words and ideas of the authors (or translators) along the way. I read aloud from each book, or better yet we listen to the audiobook, for about fifteen minutes each day. The short time increments make it easier for us to absorb and occasionally even endure these timeless works. As an added benefit, we capture that sense of being on a long—sometimes a very long—journey.
We first wandered for nine months with Odysseus, then again with Aeneas. We also spent the school year aboard the Pequod with Ishmael. Last year we ventured with Dante into hell, purgatory, and paradise with Virgil as our guide, and we traveled with Frodo, Sam, and the rest of the fellowship to “the end of all things.” We are spending the first part of this year going into battle with Beowulf; the rest of the year we will be getting a glimpse of Paradise Lost as I incorporate those books into our study of medieval history.
To help prepare my children for the Great Books, I read to them from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths, as well as William Russell’s Classic Myths to Read Aloud. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote two wonderfully illustrated books, Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus, which retell The Iliad and The Odyssey. Penelope Lively wrote a similar book based on The Aeneid; it is called In Search of a Homeland. Sutcliff also wrote a children’s version of Beowulf. These children’s versions help us become more familiar with the stories and their characters, and in our four-year cycle of history, we revisit each of these books.
Knowing just a little about the story, the author, or the context of the literature helps us overcome the gaps of time and location, language and culture that often make the Great Books difficult to understand. I use Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness, and Spark Notes as sources for that background information. Adam and Missy Andrews’ Teaching the Classics helps with our discussions from picture books to the Great Books. Their new Worldview Supplement is moving us beyond the basic elements of the stories to ask, “Is the author telling the truth?”
With its conjugations, declensions, and flexible word order, Latin is both difficult and daunting, but Cheryl Lowe’s Latina Christiana is very easy to use. I learned Latin right along with my children, using it predominantly as an oral program, concentrating on the Latin to English translations, becoming familiar with the vocabulary, and memorizing the grammar. We then moved on to Robert Henle’s Latin, but in the midst of his second book, I discovered Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina, an immersion text that focuses on learning Latin by reading a story about an ancient Roman family. Jeanne Marie Neuman’s Lingua Latina: A College Companion is an indispensable aid to the textbook. All three of these Latin programs require minimal preparation, though the latter two are challenging.
Martin Cothran has developed material for moms just like me who are not familiar with logic. This year, we are going through Traditional Logic. I tried to introduce logic a few years ago, but my daughter was just not ready. That’s one of the many benefits of home education: we can wait till our children are developmentally ready to study certain subjects. We cover the chapter on the first day, and then my children independently complete the four days of exercises (one child works on logic while the other child works on math). The following week we review the lesson and go over the next chapter. I plan to add Material Logic to our studies next year.
A couple of years ago I discovered the progymnasmata, the ancient preliminary writing exercises for rhetoric. We worked through the first book of Classical Composition by James Selby. It tied in nicely with The Institute for Excellence in Writing’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, which I have used for years, but I was looking for a more condensed program. Thankfully, IEW now produces Adam Muller’s Classical Rhetoric through Structure and Style, and we are using that text this year. I also rely on Lucile Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing for the many stylistic techniques she presents for improving our writing skills. Next year we will again turn to Martin Cothran for Classical Rhetoric with Aristotle.
By choosing this simpler approach and using good resources, I am able to provide my children with a basic classical education at home. Learning Latin, logic, and rhetoric along with my children significantly reduces my preparation time. Reading aloud from a few of the Great Books each year gives us the opportunity to enter into portions of the Great Conversation together. Yes, classical education can be challenging, rigorous, even overwhelming at times. But it can also be as simple as riding a bike. And even a hard journey can be both enjoyable and rewarding when seeking the good, the true, and the beautiful on the path I am traveling together with my children.
Copyright 2008, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Winter 2008/2009 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.
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