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Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education
By Leigh A. Bortins
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Leigh A. Bortins
All rights reserved.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH EDUCATION TODAY?
"If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."
"It's a short-sided view, Scott-King."
"There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take."
—Evelyn Waugh, "Scott-King's Modern Europe"
THE PURPOSE OF CLASSICAL EDUCATION
There are many practical purposes for schooling: vocational skills, hobbies, earning a living, social interaction, or just enlarging perspectives. The purpose of a classical education is to equip students to discover the way our universe works. Understanding the physical universe requires a foundational knowledge of math and science. Understanding human nature requires a foundational knowledge of language, history, economics, and literature. To learn foundational information from any field of knowledge, students need to be trained in reading, writing, communication, and analysis of qualitative information. At their highest level, the humanities are studied because they embody the ideas that make us human.
We exchange knowledge, information, and ideas through words, spoken or symbolic. Words are processed, weighed, and analyzed through other words, even if they originated in a picture or image or experience. Words are used to share concrete and abstract ideas. Words allow us to build great cities, negotiate peace between countries, and share a pleasant meal with friends and family. The goal of education is to teach children to become adults who can handle complex ideas, in uncertain situations, with confidence. We feel confident when we can competently manage words and ideas.
Successful education ought to propel a student to want to learn more. Learning should inspire joy bound with constant astonishment at the marvels of creation. Learning should breathe life into us—ignite our imaginations and inspire us to share the ideas we learn with people we love. The joy of learning begins in the home, with the entire world as our classroom. I believe children learn best when their parents and teachers are their heroes.
Classical education consists of teaching the skills of grammar, logic (also called dialectic), and rhetoric. These skills are called the trivium, which is Latin for "three roads," or a place where three ways meet. In the Middle Ages, the trivium was the lower division of the seven liberal arts, before the quadrivium. (More about that in Chapter Six.) Although modern education purports to teach the liberal arts, it has unknowingly neglected the benefits of the various classical arts that form a good education, especially its rigors.
The foundation of a classical education begins with parents teaching children the art of memorization and grammar studies. Some educators might dismiss rote memorization, but I argue that it is beneficial because it trains your brain to hold information. It is the most organic way of learning ever devised and goes hand in hand with the way we naturally relate to our children.
This is a process that starts at the beginning. From the moment that parents hold their baby in their arms a bonding process begins. They talk to the child; they introduce the sounds and names of the world around them to the baby through repetition. ("Look at the puppy. See the puppy?") The mother and father of a newborn find no hardship in saying words like "I love you," or "Yes, I'm your mommy," in patient intonations over and over, a thousand times. By doing so, the baby begins to identify big ideas like warmth, hunger, kindness, and dinner with specific words and actions, thus developing a vocabulary. Many pediatricians agree that the best thing for a child's neurological development is for parents to engage the child's mind by using a multitude of words and touches. Yet somehow, in recent years educational theory has come to reject repetition as a good educational tool when it comes to mastering our multiplication tables or identifying geographic locations or learning the correct spelling of words. We accept that to be good at sports or music you must practice over and over until your fine motor skills become your gross motor skills, meaning that you can play Tchaikovsky in your sleep! Over-practice implies enough repetition to make new skills seem easy and natural. Yet contemporary educational philosophies consider large amounts of rote practice to be unnecessary in academics. And so our modern educational system is weak.
The purpose of a classical education is to strengthen one's mind, body, and character in order to develop the ability to learn anything. This requires consistent discipleship or mentoring by a concerned adult over a long period of time with very specific academic goals. For eventually, the child wants to know why she must learn so much terminology and what to do with what she has learned. These natural questions lead children into dialectic and rhetorical studies.
Before we examine the restoration of the classical model as the core for every child's education, let's explore the ideology that caused us to lose the classical model after 2,500 years of success. The main culprits that have reduced our ability to engage in reasonable discourse are professionalism, federal mandates, "edutainment," and the desertion of memorization skills.
PROFESSIONALISM REPLACES PARENTING
Specialization and division of labor are hallmarks of professionalism in any field. Just like doctors and lawyers, modern educators mimic the efficiencies of the assembly line by specializing in a very particular field such as fourth-grade science or pre-reading development. Specialization may be helpful in teaching adults who want to learn a specific skill and it can be very helpful for overcoming a particular learning disability, but it is not particularly helpful in fostering a love for learning in children who are just trying to please their teacher so they can get back to the important business of playing with their toys.
Schooling is now equally professionalized. Instead of parents who guide their children through home, community, and work life, we now assign students to professional educators charged with teaching each child a specialty for an hour a day for fifteen weeks, and then the students move on to a new subject led by a different teacher. Students have no time to bond with their mentor or to discover and appreciate the wisdom of their instructor. Students are given no opportunity to watch their instructor struggle with learning, to copy the teacher's perseverance and character, to see over the course of time that their mentors continue their studies as an ongoing pursuit. Children are designed to be nurtured, taught, and loved by two adults within a supportive community for an extended period of time. Instead, we put children in a situation where they are consistently molded to depend on their peers. Children are taught to value the other students more than their teachers, for at least their classmates follow themon the age-graded conveyor belt from class to class, year after year, whereas teachers come and go.
As we leave the industrial age, the new age of global technologies requires parents and teachers to examine our current educational structures. The government has funded many initiatives and innovations in an attempt to repair modern education. They all fail, however, because they forget that children need consistent, ongoing guidance from someone they trust.
Helping small children who live in the worst circumstances is one reason most of us justify professionalized education. Yet the structure we have built to protect and nurture these children actually does the opposite. Imagine an impoverished six-year-old boy who rarely gets a healthy meal and rarely has parental supervision. He finally goes to school and falls in love with the first person who has ever been there every day for him—his first-grade teacher. She loves and encourages and teaches him. She won't let the kids bully one another, and she makes sure he gets a good breakfast, lunch, and an after-school snack. Only the weekends are scary. The six year-old has a daily routine that includes a committed relationship for the very first time. Life is good; hope is learned. Then the school year ends, and this wonderful teacher says, "Good-bye. You will have a great teacher in second grade."
So the seven-year-old survives the short summer and begins the process all over. But now he has a homeroom teacher, a math and science teacher, a language arts teacher, and a music teacher. Which one is he to fall in love with? Who will fall in love with him? Each of these teachers has dozens of students to care for an hour at a time. And so, at the end of second grade it's a little less painful to part with his teachers because he never really got to know them. But at least he was physically safe and was fed every day.
And so, by the end of third grade, he hardly notices his teacher because he has formed a strong attachment to the friends who move along from class to class with him. They share multiple hours together daily. Instead of taking his signals of proper behavior from a committed adult, since he has none at home or school, he models his life after the future football captain, just as the girls in his class likely emulate the future prom queen. This child from an impoverished culture was taught, in effect, that no adult cares enough to hang out and teach him for more than the 150 hours required to complete a credit. And as he got older, he also learned that the teachers were not quite as able to physically protect him as when he and his classmates were small, and it's humiliating to have to eat the government-provided free lunch.
Even our elementary schools offer fewer and fewer years of a single teacher leading a class of students through all of the subjects. We've hired professionals and experts to separate the subjects as though humans can segment their lives into artificial compartments. Then the adults wonder why the skills children learned in one "unit" of the day don't translate into another. By our methods of presentation we have taught them to think that they are unrelated. The focus now is on course content and professionalization rather than on the nature of educating a whole, young person who can only become a mature adult by spending time with other mature adults.
The factory has produced the product we asked for—a student who exists in the system and gets by until he is released from compulsory education. No adult committed to understanding the questions burning in his heart, and besides, the Discovery Channel presentations were more interesting than the substitute teacher. Through our good intentions, we offered this needy student a system that ignored him—a child created to work hard and feel the satisfying encouragement of a loving adult while conquering difficult challenges. We offered him a system that kept him occupied but did not endow him with the abilities to continue his studies independently.
I am criticizing the professionalization of teaching children because these young human beings are not cogs in a machine. And I am trying to identify the root of the problem for all those wonderful adults who went into teaching thinking that they could commit to nurturing the lives of many children only to end up having the system squash their excellent motives. Our current school system replicates factories and requires classroom managers more than teachers. Teachers are appreciably frustrated.
Besides teaching children to love learning, it is important to teach children to respect their family. I am a paid teacher, but I know that any time I do something to break the bond between a student and a parent, I weaken that family. Families rely on one another for a lifetime, whereas I am only with them for a season. I want my students to spend as much time as possible with their parents and siblings, while learning to respect the difficulties experienced by the other members of the family. I want to turn my students' attentions to their parents' values. I want my students to know that their parents are smart; that children can trust their parents to help them with academic difficulties. I want discussions on difficult issues within the classroom to be frank and honest while I am tutoring, but I want to end every conversation with, "Now go home and ask your parents what they think." Families are designed to nurture the minds, wills, and emotions of its members so that the barriers created by fear of the unknown can be replaced by the confidence that comes from knowing you are loved whether you succeed or fail.
Whether the student from previous American generations lived with a concerned parent or in a neglectful situation, our citizens universally experienced a much higher level of reading comprehension compared to today's students. Professionalized instruction has resulted in a large loss of literacy for both strong and dysfunctional families. In contrast, consider how successful one-room, community schoolhouses used to be. Our country had proficient literacy rates of over 90 percent when first-grade children were in the same room as seventh-graders and children attended school for just a few months a year. Someone who has acquired proficient levels of literacy can analyze and synthesize a variety of ideas from a wide range of documents and defend her conclusions by using the source text. This is a much higher, nimbler level of literacy than just being able to read a novel or newspaper.
A large percentage of American colonists purchased documents that required the ability to read proficiently. French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville commented on how everyone in America read all kinds of treaties, unlike the Europeans he studied. For the first three hundred years after colonists first settled here, American parents taught children how to read and work and think. Why were the parents able to teach their children? They just taught what they had been taught when they were young. If you know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, you can certainly teach a child math. If you know how to read, you can help a nonreading child become a reader. It is just common sense. But nowadays parents are led to believe that only professionals in a classroom situation know how to properly teach children.
FEDERAL MANDATES REPLACED COMMUNITY AND HOME SCHOOLS
We live in a society that believes it is the federal government's job to provide education for the masses, from daycare through college and beyond, including classes for senior citizens. Until professionals replaced the parent as the chief educator of children, federal mandates removed control from the community, and entertainment replaced hard work as the model of education. (Before the 1950s, there were no elementary schools. Instead, they were called grammar schools because that is what everyone knew children should study.)
Now we are a nation of parents who believe that if our children don't enjoy school, something must be wrong with the books or the teacher, but not with the children. Or we seek special labels to justify our children's weaknesses so they can be given individual instruction that then tries to replicate the very family life we have removed them from. Psychologists and counselors are employed to provide a firm, nurturing, parental hand for struggling children because their parents have been told they are unqualified to fulfill this role.
Curriculum providers, too, are happy to perpetuate the illusion that if we could just find the "magic recipe," our children could learn without requiring intense struggle and difficulty. Likewise, publishers are delighted to sell new editions that claim to have the newest, quickest, most "fun" child-led techniques.
But, realistically, academic excellence occurs only when one thing happens: everyone works hard whether they want to or not, and whether they are good at it or not. As the parents of four children, my husband and I have heard every excuse about why they don't want to study. As a teacher and educational advisor, I've heard every possible excuse from parents about why their child can't perform or doesn't enjoy certain aspects of learning.
Parents have forgotten that a century ago, the average nine-year-old worked hard enough to earn his or her own way in life. I wish every child had a life so blessed with ease that he thought loading the dishes into a dishwasher was hard work, but that is not reality. Parents need to stop believing excuses from poor Johnny that learning is too hard, or that he can't pay attention, or that practicing penmanship is boring, or that math is repetitive. Tough. Life is repetitive. We are crippling our children's brains instead of providing the extensive mental exercise they need for normal development. Mental exercise with a core of quality material is comparable to physical exercise with a healthy diet. It would be interesting to study whether our academic decline has paralleled our increased obesity as a nation.
It is time to restore the academic levels achieved by all schoolchildren in the United States before the 1950s when proficient literacy was universally expected as evidenced by the numbers of books purchased, the extensive vocabulary used in children's literature, and the number of complex ideas connected in a single, lengthy sentence. People write as they think and speak. The popular writers of even the recent past like Thoreau, Alcott, and Douglas, are difficult to read by those of us taught to think in tweets. America is a global leader, and to continue to compete around the world, we have to start working as hard at learning as our friends in India and China. If we do not, we will have no right to complain about jobs or political power going overseas. The U.S. will regain academic leadership if we restore the classical model as an educational ideal and restore the belief that parents are smart enough to be in charge of their children's education.
Excerpted from The Core by Leigh A. Bortins. Copyright © 2010 Leigh A. Bortins. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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