Unschooling advocates often point out that most of what is taught in schools is unnecessary and forgotten, and the small amount that is important and usable (basic math and reading skills) could be learned with very little time and effort. So far as that goes, I quite agree.
Certainly most of what passes for education today spends a tremendous amount of time on things that hardly seem worthy of forcing a child to do them. For instance, considerable time might be spent (by a public school or a homeschool unit study) on a work of children’s literature, say Anne of Green Gables or Peter Pan. But Anne Shirley and the Darlings are not, of course, reading their own books. They are reading Robinson Crusoe, the poems of Tennyson, or Ben Hur–books that today would be high school material, at the least. They are not reading these books for school. They are reading them (or hearing them) at home, for fun. So what are they studying in school?
To continue with the unschooling argument, because most of modern school is to so little effect, children should not be forced to study things, because they will benefit more from learning whatever strikes their fancy. This does not consider the possibility that perhaps something else is out there that would be worth studying–but which has so long been neglected by the schools that most people have forgotten it existed.
Here is where classical education stakes its claim, and most particularly Latin-centered classical education. (Wouldn’t it be more fun to call it paleoclassical? Much shorter, too.) Latin and Greek are worth studying, they claim, even through grinding drudgery, both to develop the character, to prod the mind into clarity of thought and expression, and to understand our own selves and origins. These are, in some form, a good bit of what those heroes and heroines of children’s literature were studying, or would be expected to study when they got old enough.
It’s a bit audacious to mention, but I would like to point out that I can construct a coherent and meaningful sentence without having had a classical education. On the other hand, there’s no proving that I might not be ever so much more so had I spent years translating paragraphs back and forth. (I did study a little Latin and Greek, too, so maybe some rubbed off.) I cannot deny that the ability to write a coherent and meaningful sentence, much less an interesting one, is tragically rare. Whatever the standard modern methods are for teaching thought and writing, they are not working.
But is paleoclassical education truly responsible for the great names who studied under it? Might they not have been just as brilliant whatever they had studied? And, on the other hand, did the less-able students under paleoclassical education really benefit that much? What if one devotes a decade or two to laborious instruction in the classical style, hoping to produce a Samuel Johnson or a Thomas Jefferson, only to wind up with a Bertie Wooster? (Like thingummy with the what’s-it.)
That last paragraph, though, leans a little too far to the nature side of the debate. Innate abilities do matter, but so do the way we train and nurture them. Still, paleoclassical education has a hard sell these days. The entire part of the argument that had to do with being able to connect with other educated people has gone out the window. One would hardly dare to drop classical allusions into a modern conversation; the only guard against being thought pretentious is the certainty that the other party will not understand at all.
Time is short and I heartily agree with both the unschoolers and the paleoclassical scholars that I should not overburden my children with covering an excessive number of subjects or cramming information for the sake of passing tests. The advantage of being their mother as well as their schoolmistress is that I can lay fertile ground for areas worthy of life but not of study. I have no doubt but that they will read yards of excellent children’s literature without my needing to assign it for schoolwork. Whatever school system we undertake, there had better be ample time for forts in the backyard.
I am almost, but not entirely, sold on the idea of study of Latin (and maybe Greek) as the best tool for becoming adept at using our own language. What little I studied did help me greatly, and personally, I’d love to become more fluent. (Especially when I consider the possibility of reading the Church fathers in the original.)
Also, the roots of our thoughts and histories certainly deserve extensive study. I would love to understand better how the ideas and experiences of the Greeks and Romans influenced the classically-educated Founders of America, an influence that is all too often underrated. But studying how those ideas have played out since seems nearly as important.
And surely the ancient Greeks and Romans were not the last word in worthy literature. If I had to choose between my children studying Shakespeare and Sophocles, Shakespeare would get priority. Certainly I would not want my children studying the pagans without also studying how Christian men and women since have taken what was good from them to point us on to what is higher.
Classical education can hardly be immune to the failings of any human institution, but it has the advantage over bright new ideas that its problems and endemic errors have been discussed, critiqued, and lampooned for centuries. It should not be too hard to avoid them. On the other hand, we are so far from the root of classical education that we are in danger of implementing it as if it were a shiny new educational theory of its own. A reviver of a lost tradition must be as much, or more, of a bold partisan as a deviser of a new one, and is in danger of many of the same errors of exaggeration and extremism.
Charlotte Mason still strikes me as having a great deal to say about these problems. The more I read of hers and about classical education, the more it seems she was striving to adapt the virtues of the paleoclassical system to make the best and most important of it–the knowledge of human history and experience, the appreciation and use of beautiful language, the development of character–accessible to parents and children who did not have the time, skills or means to devote a decade or more of life to the study of dead languages. This may be us.
Or maybe not. I’ve started practicing Latin paradigms while I watch to make sure the ducklings don’t pop up from their nap. I had forgotten the thrill of seeing a whole new angle on life through reading even the simplest of texts in another language. Anyway, whatever we do when they’re eleven or fifteen, Charlotte Mason has a great deal worth hearing about what they should be doing when they’re four.
This post has so many ancestors among my reading over the past three months that it is begging for a bibliography of its own. Here’s a list of things that have contributed to this meander:
Climbing Parnassus, by Tracy Lee Simmons
The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter
Various writings by Charlotte Mason
Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie
Oedipus the King, by Sophocles
Various lives by Plutarch
Essays on the Memoria Press website.