Back to the Classics

To teach, to learn, to change

A great find to share

Just a quick note to pass along my good fortune to you. I was reading a good article at the City Journal yesterday about some of the troubles of modern education, particularly cultural issues. As part of this, the author mentioned the change in attitude toward classic literature – which is of course one of the primary tools we’ll use in the Freeman Academy. He says this about teaching literature to young children:

It might be argued that a richer and more subtle language would be beyond third-graders. Yet in his Third Eclectic Reader, William Holmes McGuffey, a nineteenth-century educator, had eight-year-olds reading Wordsworth and Whittier. His nine-year-olds read the prose of Addison, Dr. Johnson, and Hawthorne and the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant. His ten-year-olds studied the prose of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, and Macaulay and the poetry of Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

He goes on to explain how this was done, and why, which is very much worth reading. Like I mentioned when I started this, I am ignorant of a lot of what’s out there as far as education, and trying to improve my knowledge as best I can. So, curious, I went to Amazon to see if there might be an old copy of some of these books for a less-than-ridiculous price. I was in luck. The complete line of Eclectic Readers are available for free in Kindle format. I looked over the First Eclectic Reader, which had a few formatting issues that make some of the text difficult to decipher. There are printed versions available very inexpensively that would not have that problem, but I’m willing to put up with the formatting issues for a free book. I’ll be grabbing the rest and sharing them with my children. I hope you find them useful as well.


Whither the little children?

I’ve written this post at least three times now. Every time I do I figure out part of the problem I was trying to complain about and have to start over with this new perspective. It’s a blessing, and I’m glad I’ve been able to figure out some key things in the last few weeks, but it’s not my favorite approach to development. ūüôā

The great hangup I have been facing lately in planning the Freeman Academy is how to handle very young children. A remote system, especially an asynchronous one, faces huge difficulties in handling children between five and ten or so. I’ve looked at what online offerings I could find; none of them are tailored for small children. The only exception I’ve seen is the K12 system, which at those age levels is a hybrid of online exercises and homeschooling with professional oversight. I didn’t like the idea at first, it seemed to go against what I was trying to accomplish: building a school to provide a quality education for those unable or unwilling to homeschool.

Teaching young children requires being able to keep their attention; in fact that seems to be the primary challenge. Doing that without someone there to remind them of what they are supposed to be doing can be a problem. There are a few ways, mostly by mixing education and entertainment. Educational television programs like Schoolhouse Rock or early Sesame Street (back when it was still good. You kids get off my lawn!) taught key concepts while keeping kids’ attention. It’s a fantastic approach for many things, and the Internet makes distribution a breeze, but it has at least one big drawback for the Academy. You can teach concepts that way, but you can’t drill things. A child could probably learn to read that way, but never to write. Addition and subtraction probably, but not their multiplication tables.

I puzzled for days and weeks over how to handle distance learning with small children. I didn’t want the parent to have to do the teaching, so it had to be one of the Academy’s teachers. Remote teaching (online) I felt we could handle, but what about making it asynchronous? That step is one of the keys to getting the costs for students and their families down to where they’re manageable. Real time teaching is much more expensive. How could I make sure the student was paying attention if the teacher wasn’t directly interacting with them?

Somewhere along the line, I made a realization. I was conflating two different things in my approach. I was confusing supervision with teaching. There must be an older person there to supervise the child and keep them on task, but that person does not have to be the teacher. A parent or sitter can keep an eye on the child, remind them of what they’re supposed to be doing, etc. without having to handle the actual teaching. Will that work for everyone? No, of course not. Many parents want the kids out of the house, accustomed to using public schools as daycare centers. Others just can’t be home, such as a working single parent or a two-income household. There are various circumstances that would keep parents from being able to supervise their school-aged child, but we have to accept that no one solution will work for everyone. I’ve kicked around the idea of setting up what amount to student-only internet cafes to help address this, but even if it could work they still couldn’t be everywhere. I’m shooting for ‘better’, if I get stuck on ‘perfect’ I’ll never get anywhere.

Defining terms

There are a couple of things I need to clarify before I lay out the next few things on my mind. One of the big issues I’ve run into in deciding how to implement the Academy is whether or not to hold classes in real time. From my software background, I refer to this as synchronous and asynchronous (or async for short). Synchronous actions take place at the same time – a traditional classroom is a synchronous method. Async methods take place at different times; a book is the perfect example of an async teaching method, with the writing and the reading happening separately.

For teaching, there are advantages to each, especially for an online system like what I’m aiming for. Synchronous approaches, like video conferences or chat rooms, allow for personalized teaching and interaction. Teachers can answer questions, hold group discussions, or change approaches depending on how well students seem to be understanding what’s being taught. Asynch methods, such as recorded lectures or textbooks, are much more time and cost efficient. Students can pursue them at their own pace (especially if lectures have a speed control, which I loved when I was at university) and on their own schedule. Also, since the material only needs to be created once and then updated periodically, it costs a lot less to produce and maintain.

How those trade offs balance is going to be a major factor for what gets taught and how and to whom.

What should they learn, Part II

The last time I posted on this (too long ago, my apologies) I gave you the list I had made for my own children of what I wanted their education to include. Once I had that pretty well figured out, I started to develop that into something like an actual school curriculum. I broke it out into subject areas, and later categorized those into larger categories. I’ve made a lot of changes since then, even more since I decided to work toward establishing the Freeman Academy. I don’t really remember now all the changes I’ve made or how it looked when I started, so I’ll just give it to you as it stands today. These are broken down into the seven liberal arts, and then into subjects to cover, with some addenda at the end. These aren’t specific classes yet, but it’s a lot closer than the first list I made.

  • Grammar
    • Spelling
    • Vocabulary
    • Sentence Structure
    • Literature
    • Penmanship and/or Typing
  • Logic /¬†Dialectic
    • Basic contract principles
    • Logical theory
    • Critical Thinking and Analysis
    • Philosophy
    • Law
  • Rhetoric
    • Narrative and Story
    • Composition structure (How you arrange what you’re trying to say)
    • Rhetorical forms (techniques for getting your point across)
    • Public speaking
    • History
  • Arithmetic
    • Arithmetic
    • Algebra
    • Basic personal finance and accounting
    • Statistics
    • Economics
    • Calculus
  • Geometry
    • Geometry
    • Geography
    • Trigonometry
  • Musical and Visual ¬†Art
    • ‚ÄúAppreciation‚ÄĚ/Familiarization
    • History
    • Theory
    • Composition
    • Performance
  • Science
    • Astronomy
    • Physics
    • Chemistry
    • Biology
    • Physiology
    • Ecology

Notes on the list: under Grammar you may have noticed the I do not have Reading. There are a couple of related reasons for that. First of all, teaching reading takes one-on-one time. Even in a government school, a great deal of the real work must be done at home if the child is going to make any progress. In a privately operated school like the Freeman Academy, that one-on-one time becomes expensive. Second, barring some kind of disability, learning to read is not hard. We’ve been told otherwise, but it’s simply not true. “Cracking the code”, learning how sounds match up with symbols can be a little tricky at first, but it is totally doable. A friend of ours spent maybe three hours helping my oldest son crack the code, and from there he was off and running. I may consider having the Academy offer some kind of program or instructions for parents to teach their children. If not, there are numerous other programs available.

As far as music and visual art, not everyone needs to be an artist, but barring sensory disabilities (deafness, blindness, etc.) everyone should be familiar with the principles, history, and importance of the arts. Even if you never played anything more complicated than Greensleeves or Smoke on the Water, just having spent some time to understand the making of music will help you more fully appreciate what others produce.

There are a few items I wanted taught that don’t (to me) fit neatly into the seven-part framework. One is etiquette. In theory this is taught in the home and unnecessary in a school. Sadly that’s not the case. Sometimes parents don’t think it’s important, other times they just don’t know because they weren’t taught themselves, but either way a free man or woman, a citizen, should know how to behave respectfully and respectably. Another item is civics. That goes back to the objectives laid down by Jefferson – that a citizen should know his rights and responsibilities. Some of that, a lot of it even, is making sure that students know and understand what is in the governing documents of their nation, or their traditions in a nation not chartered by a constitution, and how those principles are currently applied (or not). The third thing might slide in under biology – human health. Students should understand sanitation and why it is so important, the functions of the human body and its proper maintenance, basic nutritional principles untainted by hype and pseudoscience, and even basic first aid.

I think that’s enough of an info dump for today. So what say you, readers? Does this sound like enough to prepare a person to act as an informed adult in the world? How would you improve it?

I’m still alive, and so is the dream

Just a quick note to say that:

  1. I have not been hit by a bus, though a few dump trucks tried today
  2. I have been working on and discussing the Freeman Academy, even if I haven’t been posting.
  3. Blogging will resume starting immediately (I’ll work on finishing the second part of What should they learn as soon as I’m done with this)


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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