Back to the Classics

To teach, to learn, to change

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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One thought on “This is how it begins

  1. Hiya Oyster! I followed you home from According to Hoyt; I hope you don’t mind. Looks like quite the interesting project you’ve got going on here. I wish you good luck, and will try to follow along!

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