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To teach, to learn, to change

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

The Lost Tools

I will have another post up later today with some thoughts on¬†The Great Conversation and hopefully further thoughts on the creation of a curriculum for the Freedom Academy. While working on the curriculum issue, I came across an essay that I had to share with all six of my readers. ūüôā The Lost Tools of Learning¬†was presented at Oxford in 1947 by one Dorothy Sayers.¬†It is a long one, about eight thousand words, but very worth the time to read. A little research turned up the fact that the essay has been very influential; I had never heard of it before.

Part of the essay lays out a fantastic general curriculum based on the liberal arts. I love the way she designed it, but I’m not sure it can be applied as is for what I’m trying to accomplish. The reasons why get into things I haven’t discussed on the blog yet, issues of how to arrange and carry out the teaching. The teaching method she describes seems to require a teacher in a classroom with the students. I have no objection to that, but that limits you to a particular time and place, which is part of what I’m trying to get around. I’ll post soon about her suggestions in more depth, after I go through my initial thought process on curriculum. For now, take a few minutes and go read Ms. Sayers’ remarks.

What should they learn?

As I put down my thoughts on how to go about the project of creating a classically-based education online, I want to walk you through the process I went through. I want to share the foundational thoughts I had so that if there are flaws there, they can be caught and later steps adjusted. A crooked foundation makes a crooked building, as I’ve learned from years of living in cheap rentals.

When I started looking at what I wanted my children to learn, there were two key sources that I used. One was Thomas¬†Jefferson’s statement about what public education should teach. He said the objectives were:

To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;
To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing;
To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;
To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;
To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;
And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

Another was actually a quote from Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein. It covers a lot of things that are training rather than education, but the philosophy behind it is right:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Once I had combined those I looked at other things that were important to me that were not already included. I made two lists, one for education and one for training. They are two different things, however modern education might try to blur the line. Since the Freeman Academy will be focused on education (improving the inner person) rather than training (developing practical skills), I’ll only list that one here.

  • Speak the truth without guile
  • Analyze a new problem
  • Read and appreciate poetry
  • Compose poetry
  • Tell a story
  • Speak a language other than his native tongue
  • Read Latin
  • Read Greek
  • Be familiar with classic literature
  • Be familiar with the various books of scripture
  • Relate ancient and modern history
  • Sight read music
  • Meet goals
  • Keep his body strong and healthy
  • Give a speech or talk
  • Speak extemporaneously
  • Lead
  • Follow
  • Cooperate
  • Act alone
  • Talk to strangers
  • Work
  • Dance
  • Keep and balance accounts
  • Solve equations
  • Testify of Christ and the Gospel
  • Show common sense
  • Show chivalry and class
  • Give generously
  • Spend wisely
  • Serve gladly
  • Be silent
  • Speak boldly
  • Fail graciously and gracefully
  • Participate in the public/political life
  • Know his rights and responsibilities
  • Recognize honesty and dishonesty
  • Know whether or not to fight

A few notes. First, these are not in any kind of order, and certainly not by priority. Second, this list was for my children specifically. We are a very religious family, and it shows in some of the items on the list. The Freeman Academy is not going to be a religious institution. I think people need to be at least passingly familiar with the Bible; it has had an enormous influence on the development of the Western world. But that is an intellectual, historical, and literary purpose, not a missionary one. Third, many of the things on this list are matters of character. A  school cannot really ensure that those things are understood and applied. Again, this was my intention for my children. However, a school can ensure that in the course of their studies, children are exposed to examples of these values, in literature, example, and instruction. They cannot be tested Рcertainly not in an online class Рbut they can be taught.

Lastly, I’ve considered the fundamental arrangement of the liberal arts curriculum. The so called trivium and quadrivium form the basis of all instruction. The trivium are the foundation – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These were taught first, because they allow a person to understand what is going on around them and explain it to others. They form the foundation for all other learning a person will do. Next came the quadrivium, which ¬†were the mathematical studies – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Those names cover much more territory than a class with that name would today. For example geometry would cover trigonometry and geography, arithmetic covers statistics and various kinds of algebra, etc. I think the trivium stands as it is well, but I would expand the quadrivium a little further. I would replace music with fine art in general – visual media as well as sound. An appreciation of what is beautiful in the world is fundamental to being a well-rounded human being. Astronomy should also be broadened to include all of the hard sciences – biology, geology, physics, and so on. Within the category of arithmetic I would also include personal finance – few things have done as much damage to people’s lives in general as not understanding how to handle money.

So those are my initial thoughts on curriculum objectives, in all their scattered glory. What say you readers? What would you add or change? What do you think a free citizen should know?

The Great Conversation

“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop”

When I happened across a copy of The Great Books of the Western World at my local library weeks ago, I noticed the first volume was entitled The Great Conversation. That seemed like as good a place as any to start, so I pulled it off the shelf and started to peruse it. I was instantly hooked. To quote from an email I sent to an acquaintance later:

I flipped to the Preface and then I couldn’t put it down. I read through all of the Preface and the first two chapters as well before I could let go of it to check out my books and go home. While I read I would often stop and catch myself caressing the pages mumbling to myself “This is it! This is what I’ve been looking for!”

It seems silly, I suppose. I know I felt silly at the time, but I really couldn’t help myself. And mind you, this was the¬†introduction. I mean really, who gets all excited about an introduction? Well, I did. Because that introductory volume explains why the collection was compiled, why they felt a classical education was so important for¬†everyone to have, and what was wrong even that long ago with Western education. Much of what I read was made up of things I had thought or felt but had never been able to explain so well.

So that is where we will begin – with the beginning. I will be rereading it today and posting some of my thoughts on it here on Monday. I cannot find any legitimate copy online of the complete book, but Encyclopedia Britannica offers a PDF of the shorter version from the Second Edition here.

What am I doing?

That question goes a lot of ways for me right now. Most importantly, though, it means I need to figure out exactly what I am trying to accomplish in creating this proposed school. So why create it? What for? I think I covered a lot of that in the first post I did, laying out how I came to consider this undertaking. But what, specifically, am I trying to accomplish?

I want to help make citizens.

I knew almost from the beginning what the school I dreamed of would be called: The Freeman Academy. Not named for any man or woman named Freeman, but named because it would give an education fit for a free people. The modern state school doesn’t produce citizens, it produces subjects. We’re taught to obey, to take orders, to be accustomed to a totally predictable life laid out in numbers and rows. It’s a system made for a time and place and culture alien to ours as Americans – built in corporatism, heavy industry, and central planning. It’s not a system or an education for the freewheeling and risky world of the creator, the small businessman, the inventor, or even the freethinking middle manager (yes they exist, I’ve met them).

I pondered on what I wanted to do, wanting to home in on my core purpose. I threw out a lot of things that weren’t as important, some things that were means instead of ends, some that were just bad ideas. Finally I had this:

The Freeman Academy seeks to produce citizens who are better prepared to manage their personal affairs effectively and participate in public affairs responsibly. We pursue this goal by improving access to quality education based upon the classical liberal arts curriculum.

Ultimately that is what I want to accomplish; everything else is details. Figuring out the details starts now.

This is how it begins

How do you give something that you’ve never had? I’ve never had a classical education, but I want everyone to have one. I want more than anything to make quality education, of a sort most of us never realized we were missing, available to everyone who wants it.¬†It’s become the focus of my thoughts and efforts for months, and this is the beginning of the process of making it into a reality.

I really started paying attention to education after my second son was born. I honestly don’t remember how it started, but I remember what kicked it into high gear. I stumbled across the blog of Mrs. Connie du Toit, and there found a series of articles on homeschooling. I was familiar with homeschooling – I grew up with a lot of friends who were homeschooled either exclusively or mixed with state schooling. Sadly Mrs. du Toit retired from blogging three days later and the blog no longer exists, but I managed to dig the pages out of the Wayback Machine and Google archives and compile them in a document for my own reference. The articles focused on how to approach schooling your children¬†effectively. Not the way that would be easiest for you, or the most fun, or free, or really any consideration of you. What was going to be best for your child? And the first thing you have to decide (and this applies to all parents) is this: what do you want your child to learn?

That got me thinking. A lot. For years now I’ve mulled over that question: what should my children learn? I’ve looked in various places and considered various opinions. We don’t homeschool – our lives and capabilities simply don’t allow for it right now. But I am very aware of what my children are learning and what I want for them. Unfortunately, that awareness has left me frustrated.

I had – by current standards – a decent education. I knew that most of the schools I went to had issues, and that the school district I grew up in was seriously¬†dysfunctional¬† I considered testing for my GED and getting out, but never followed through. In retrospect, I¬†really should have, but what’s done is done. What I didn’t realize was that what I was seeing was normal. In fact, as screwed up as it was, there are much, much worse out there. You can read John Taylor Gatto’s stories about his experiences in New York public schools for some truly mind-boggling examples. I went on to college, got two Associates degrees, transferred to a university. ¬†I eventually dropped out when I realized that nothing that I wanted to do in life needed a degree and that mountains of student loan debt were not going to do me any good. It was around this time that I really started noticing what was missing from my education, and from education in general.

Two things really pushed me to where I am now. One was Mrs. du Toit’s mention of a classical education, based in the¬†liberal arts. I was only vaguely aware of what that even meant at the time, but it got me to start looking. I was shocked to find how things had changed over the years. An education based on classical works, great books by great thinkers whose ideas have stayed relevant for centuries, was once the expectation for every free man or woman. It taught literacy, critical thinking, history, rhetoric, science. Now it’s incredibly rare. I had a degree in English with a focus on literature, but I had never read most of the books that formed the basis for that approach. I was shocked.

The other thing that finally galvanized me to action was the year that my son lost in school. My wife and I are both book lovers. We grew up with reading as our primary entertainment and source of learning. We’ve shared that with our children, and they love books too. Our oldest has been particularly voracious. A friend of ours who was babysitting often when he was little taught him the sounds of the letters when he was about three or four, and he essentially taught himself to read from there. We simply kept him supplied with more books. By the time he entered kindergarten he was reading chapter books (he was and is quite fond of¬†The Hobbit) and could do single-digit arithmetic. Entrance examinations rated his reading at a third grade level. The teacher assured us that she would be able to help him progress, even though he was so far ahead of the class. She was wrong. At the end of the third quarter she finally admitted that she didn’t know what to do with him. He wouldn’t do the work, she said. He wasn’t disruptive, he just wouldn’t participate, and she couldn’t challenge him academically. “Of course he won’t participate!” I wanted to shout “He reads Tolkien and Lewis and how-to guides on backwoods living, and you have him reading ‘See Spot run’! He’s bored out of his skull!” I believe that teacher did the best she could, but the system isn’t made for children who want to learn, who progress faster. My children needed better than the factory schools could provide. But where?

As I made another iteration of my list of what I wanted my boys to learn, a new idea began to form. Conversations with family, friends, and acquaintances online and in the flesh started to coalesce. “No one is teaching these things.” I pondered. “History shows this to be the best education for free men and independent thinkers, but it’s so hard to find now. There needs to be a way for people to learn this! Someone ought to create a school…” Those who know me well are probably cringing about now. You see, whenever I start to think “Someone ought to” it always turns into “I should”. This time is no exception – I want so badly to see a classical education made available to everyone that I refuse to sit and wait for someone else to come along and offer it to me. I am going to make it happen myself.

I have two things to tackle at once. As I alluded to in the beginning, I’ve never had a liberal arts education, certainly not to the standard that was the norm for every American two hundred years ago. So I have to make one for myself. The most important part (from my understanding) is the reading and understanding of the great works of the western world. I’m fortunate to have a local library that has just that: a complete copy of¬†The Great Books of the Western World¬†published in 1955 by the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia¬†Britannica¬†company. I will be making my way through that collection, and posting my thoughts about what I read as I go. I invite you to read along and discuss them with me in the comments here – most of the books are freely available online, and many will be in your local library. I will try to find free online sources and post them when I announce the next book to be read.

The other is the school itself. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the last few months. For helping me think through many of the challenges there, I want to thank the comment section community at¬†According to Hoyt, as well as that blog’s hostess, the excellent novelist and fantastic teacher Mrs. Sarah Hoyt. I want to make such an education available to as many people as possible, so the Internet is the obvious outlet. There are still so many things I don’t know – how teaching can best be handled, division of labor in the project, the overhead costs to run the operation, specific¬†curricula¬†for various subjects. I’ve never run a successful company, I’ve never taught online. What I do have is a burning, consuming desire to make this school a reality. This is where I need help. Those who have taught, or who have studied, or who have tried to study, I want your input. I will be posting the thoughts and plans I have so far for feedback and revision. Just putting my thoughts in public helps me refine them but getting other people’s thoughts and reactions will help much more.

How do you give something that you’ve never had? That question is the start of my journey, and I’d like you to come along.

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