Back to the Classics

To teach, to learn, to change

Superversion and the Human Wave

I recently read a fantastic article on genre fiction and the cultural history of the 20th century. It’s much more interesting than that makes it sound. To make it short, the twentieth century, especially after the 1950s, swung too far into subverting and breaking down the culture around them, and destroyed the good along with the bad. Today, we have only fragments of what there was. The bit that most caught my eye, though, was this:

In such a state, there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young.

That’s a good description of what we hope to achieve with the Freeman Academy: to bring back the good things of the past and merge them with the good things of today. Past centuries have gotten a lot of things wrong of course. I have no illusions about that. On the other hand, we have lost things that were beneficial to society and more importantly to individual people. On the gripping hand, that’s why I’ve seized on the idea of the classical liberal arts so stubbornly. I believe they can make life better for everyone, and I want to find a way to make that available to as many people as I can.

The Academy is intended to be a place for Human Wave education. What is Human Wave? It started as an idea among a group of genre fiction writers, particularly science fiction writers. You can see its birth in this post by Sarah Hoyt. The short version is this: Human Wave embodies the hope and dignity of humanity. It encourages responsibility and courage. It teaches that human beings with principles, diligence, and innovation can overcome the greatest challenges. That’s part of why history is such a key part of the intended curriculum of the Academy, and why so many Human Wave readers and writers are passionate about the subject as well. History shows those things, and while not all of human history is a constant climb, we can often see the successes brought about by the principles of western culture. The synthesis of modern technology and perspectives with ancient principles can supervert the mess that’s been made of today’s education system. Ride the wave, the Human Wave!

A poetic take on our objectives

This was just shared with me today, though it’s apparently been around for a while now. I thought those interested in the creation of the Academy would be interested. The artist makes one or two ideological digs, but I think he and I would see eye to eye on most points. Plus, it’s good spoken word performance, which I’ve had a soft spot for since being exposed to the amazing work of Marcus Shelby and the Jazzantiqua Music Ensemble many years ago. With no further ado, enjoy.

The river of history

I asked when I began this project “How do you give what you’ve never received?” That challenge reared its head once more as I tackled one of the most vital subjects in a liberal arts curriculum: history. The core organization of the trivium and quadrivium made sense to me, and it seemed to work well for those using it. But where did history fit in? It’s so important for students to understand where we came from, how our knowledge and philosophies developed. History doesn’t fit either of the divisions in the classical liberal arts curriculum, and while I made some small expansions to the quadrivium (for science!), it doesn’t really fit there.

I went round and round in my head and talked it over with some of my sounding boards. In the end I found that I had fallen prey once more to tunnel vision. The solution was not to fit in a history course somewhere. The solution was to make history the course of study.

Okay, so what does that mean? I found it best explained in one of the articles that first introduced me to the classical liberal arts curriculum. The site is offline at the time of this writing, but the most relevant parts are these:

The world is full of knowledge, and finding the links between fields of study can be a mind-twisting task. A classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its organizing outline — beginning with the ancients and progressing forward to the moderns in history, science, literature, art and music.

[...]

The other subject areas of the curriculum are linked to history studies. The student who is working on ancient history will read Greek and Roman mythology, the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey, early medieval writings, Chinese and Japanese fairy tales, and (for the older student) the classical texts of Plato, Herodutus, Virgil, Aristotle. She’ll read Beowulf, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare the following year, when she’s studying medieval and early Renaissance history. When the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are studied, she starts with Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and ends with Dickens; finally, she reads modern literature as she is studying modern history.

The sciences are studied in a four-year pattern that roughly corresponds to the periods of scientific discovery: biology, classification and the human body (subjects known to the ancients); earth science and basic astronomy (which flowered during the early Renaissance); chemistry (which came into its own during the early modern period); and then basic physics and computer science (very modern subjects).

I’d like to note that I have nothing against history classes, and if a student moves on to college and gets into more specialized historical knowledge, they make sense. But for our purposes in the Freeman Academy, using history as a framework is much better. Also, there is a wonderful guest post about teaching history over at Sarah Hoyt’s blog. It’s specifically about Human Wave history; if you don’t know what that is, never fear – you will by the time you’re done. I hope to have a post up soon about Human Wave and how it fits with the Freeman Academy’s mission, but I have a lousy track record lately of getting posts up as planned. For now go, read, think.

Still not dead

Sorry for the prolonged radio silence. Holidays followed by an abrupt change of employment status have left me scrambling to catch up. The Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll have a new post up Monday on the issue of teaching history in the Academy, and another soon after on where the project stands and what comes next.

Why isolated learning can be better

The remote, asynchronous model of the Freeman Academy and many other online schools offers some social advantages, and a chance to break down some of the outdated ideas that have lingered in education.

People learn and develop at different paces, especially children. The idea of grouping children by ages, rather than by ability, is a relic of the industrial age, with its view of people as part of a huge machine and perfectly interchangeable. People have different abilities, different interests, different challenges. Grouping kids by age creates an expectation that they will all learn at the same rate and in the same way. A child that lags behind in something or gets ahead in something faces terrible social pressure for being different. For a teenager or an adult, admitting to not understanding something others consider basic (for example, having difficulty with reading comprehension or multiplication) can be overwhelming.

The Academy is perfectly positioned to avoid all that.

The way our classes will be set up, all learning is individual. A student will never have to repeat a class, because they take the class at their own speed. When he or she knows the subject and has demonstrated their competence at it, they will move on to the next step. No one knows how quickly they progress but the student (and their parent if it’s a child) and any tutor they may work with.

What other advantages can you see in working on your own like this?

So what do they get?

I’ve talked a lot about the process of the Freeman Academy: what will be taught, how the teaching will be done, who will do it. I’ve talked about the abstract goals: better prepared citizens, men and women who can appreciate the intellectual in life and still tend to the practical issues of the day to day. I haven’t talked about the concrete outputs, certifications and such that schools are expected to provide.

The names are uncertain, but these are the offerings I have in mind:

Certificate of Preparation
The student has fulfilled the minimum requirements of Jefferson’s public education objectives
Certificate of Completion
The student has completed a course of study that fulfills the highest requirements for high school graduation in the United States. This will change, obviously, as state requirements change, but a student completing this will always have completed at least the requirements for thier state.
Trivium Certificate
The student has completed advanced study of the subjects included in the classical Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Quadrivium Certificate
The student has completed advanced study of the subjects included in the adapted Quadrivium: mathematics, the physical sciences, music, and the visual arts.
Certificate of Liberal Artistry
The student has completed the requirements of both the Trivium and Quadrivium Certificates and passed some kind of final examination I’m thinking some kind of thesis).
Individual Subject Masteries
The student has completed advanced study of a particular subject. In my mind, this would be about the same knowledge level as an associates degree, but with a narrower focus (ie no general education requirements)

Some notes, as always. The Certificate of Completion could also be called the Diploma. The way it works is to take the toughest requirements ande combine them. For example if state A requires civics and geometry to graduate and state B requires trigonometry and fluency in a foreign language, the Certificate of Completion will require civics, trig, and completion of the Trivium in a language other than the student’s native tongue.

I’m not certain what level of knowledge to require for the various subjects in the quadrivium, because so many of them are open-ended. For math, do you require trigonometry? Calculus? This is another place where I need to consult with people who have more in-depth knowledge of the subjects, and look at the historical expectations on these things. This applies to the Subject Masteries as well. Because students can take classes from the Academy at their own pace, measurements of time (like “three years of English”) are pretty useless. It’s not about how much time you take, it’s about what you know and understand.

The Certificate of Liberal Artistry will be a challenging thing to obtain (I expect to work my butt off to earn it myself), and will be much more significant than a Diploma. That said, Anyone who has earned a Trivium Certificate and the Certificate of Preparation should be well prepared to go into business or a trade, or go on to study any specialty they’re interested in. Those two things should leave them ready to learn anything else they want to quickly and effectively, and make themselves useful in the world.

One other idea that I’ve been kicking around is letting people or organizations customize their own courses of study from the classes that we offer. This becomes even more useful when expand to include training as well as education. Oh, did I not mention we would do that eventually? :) That’s part of my long-term planning; I’m trying to focus on the present as much as possible. Still, being able to create educational expectations could be useful to all kinds of organizations. I’m not sure whether this would be feasible to implement, but I love customization. We’ll have to see what the software we end up using can handle. For now, what do you all think of the options available?

What do you mean, classic?

I realized a few days ago that when I talk about ‘classics’ I really mean at least two different things. One is the ancient texts, mostly Greek and Roman, that form the earliest basis of the Western philosophy. That is what people are usually referring to when they talk about a “classical education”. But for the Freeman Academy, I have other books in mind as well: influential works of fiction and non-fiction that promote the ideas of freedom and individualism. That includes things like Frederic Bastiat’s tracts on economics, the American Declaration of Independence, Huckleberry Finn, and others. Those who teach in other languages will have to handle compiling similar collections in their respective spheres.

One of the things that I learned from The Great Conversation is the importance of the historical context of what we learn and do. When we understand the steps that led us to where we are, right and wrong, we appreciate what we have more. When a child sees how his father or mother worked to provide for them, rather than just seeing what they have, they will have more gratitude for what they’ve been given. In the same way, when we understand how men and women struggled for centuries to compile the knowledge we have now of human nature, of science, and the amazing developments we have in technology, we will better understand what we have and be better prepared to build on that foundation. We can go amazing places, but we need to understand how we got here.

Division of Labor

No, I’m not going to ramble on about Adam Smith, though he was the one who taught me the principle. I want to talk about one part of the implementation of the Freeman Academy: work loads. Breaking up responsibilities can help to control costs and make an operation more efficient. Since one of the main purposes of the Freeman Academy is to make this kind of education accessible for people, we have to keep things affordable.

We want to break things down based on the kind of work people will be doing. Aside from the administrative staff, there are three primary role that I see. Here’s how it breaks down so far:

Professor
These people will create the curricula and exercises, present lectures and activity instructions, and act as backstops for the tutors (see below). Each professor will be responsible for a certain subject or subjects in a certain presentation mode (young children, middle childhood, or teenage/adult teaching). A professor for the Freeman Academy does not need a traditional degree, though to start with most will probably have them. What they must have is solid knowledge of the subject they’ll teach and the ability to present information effectively in their mode.
Grader
Just what it says on the label: someone to check that answers are correct, and to check things like grammar, punctuation, etc. Basically, the TA. They must have solid language skills (preferably having finished the Trivium) and have passed the class for which they will grade with a certain score (I’m thinking 90%, but I’d love input on that from people with more experience).
Tutor
One on one help when a student is struggling is available from a tutor for an hourly fee. Where the professor creates a curriculum and presents it to the world at large, the tutor can customize the presentation to the individual.

I struggled on that last one, I must tell you. I wanted to include the tutor’s services as part of the class, but it simply became too expensive when I ballparked the numbers. Also, I usually hate buying product ‘bundles’ where I must pay for things I don’t need to get the things I do. This is why I don’t have cable, for example. I only want about four channels, and I’m not willing to pay for the others to get them. The same applies here. The professors’ work should be sufficient for many or most students. Some will need more help, but many of those will have friends or family members who can take the tutor role. Why make them pay for what they don’t need?

Holy writ in secular teaching

One of the most influential books in the Western world has to be The Holy Bible. This is especially true in the English-speaking world. The great labors and sacrifices that lead to the translation and publication of the Bible in English are wonderful stories and important parts of history. But those pale next to the impact that the book itself has had on the legal, cultural, and literary worlds. I don’t think anyone can really understand the world we live in and how we got here unless they have some familiarity with the Bible, its teachings and history.

But how do you teach that without preaching?

The Freeman Academy will not be a religious establishment, not even en ecumenical one. I have nothing against religious schools; I spent a few semesters at one years ago and enjoyed it. But what I want to create is for everyone, which brings me back to the issue. How do you teach the Bible as literature and history? I know such classes exist, but they were not available at any of the colleges I attended. The book and its teachings need to be treated respectfully, thoroughly, and objectively; that seems like a difficult task in these polarized times. Do any of you have experience with this kind of approach? What other important books do you think might present similar challenges?

Trivium for young children

I had another epiphany about the same time as the one I mentioned yesterday. I was struggling with how to teach the trivium to that age bracket I was discussing, about 5 to 10 years old. Older children might be able to handle the subjects are separate things, but I could not for the life of me see a way to present them to young children. It was an odd block to have, because in the end, I already knew the answer. (Yes, that is a common problem for me. Tunnel vision sucks.) The fact is grammar, logic and rhetoric don’t exist in a bubble. They are part of a cultural and linguistic tradition. Heck, I’ve often explained to people when talking about this project that the Trivium is the language portion while the Quadrivium is the math/science part (music being very mathematical in nature when you study it).

So the answer was right there: you teach the Trivium by teaching language. Grammar is straight forward: teach them to read and write properly, to understand the symbols and sounds, using good literature. Once they can do that, start them writing and show them how Logic works as part of that. Find what interests them and get them reading about it, and help them analyze what they’ve read logically. One of my favorite writers of both fiction and blogging, Sarah Hoyt, mentioned recently how she had an old book on essay writing that she used with her boys when they were very little, and I think that’s fantastic. Most kids love to argue and debate things, or at least to question endlessly, so if you have a realtime arrangement (homeschool or private school) let them have discussions or debates and help them build logical arguments. Lastly, once they can think logically, continue using essays and debates to help them develop their Rhetoric, their ability to sway opinions or resist being swayed themselves. That’s a big one in our modern world. We are bombarded by rhetoric every day – commercial advertisements, politicians, people we do business with, neighbors and family members, you name it – and our children by and large don’t know how to judge what they’re hearing.

So in all this, we teach the linguistic skills by reading and writing. With critical feedback. A lot. Makes sense doesn’t it? Obvious isn’t it? Yeah. Hopefully the next epiphany will be a bigger leap.

This approach really applies through all age brackets, by the way, and across languages. Adults who are native speakers will need less grammar help, but the other portions still apply. Those who are non-native speakers (an American learning German, or a Brazilian learning English, for two not-really-random examples) will need to learn the fundamentals of the language first. Both will go through much the same process as a child, learning the trivium through language. Logic crosses languages, but how you express that logic changes, and rhetoric is a beast of a whole different type from one language to another. All this leaves me with a new challenge: I have to find language teachers who are well-versed in both their subject language and the classical trivium. They must understand both before they can create a useful curriculum to integrate them. I’m still wondering what languages we should offer as well. Sound off in the comments on what languages (besides English) you think would be of most worth to offer, as well as any suggestions on teaching logic and rhetoric to kids.

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