The Fellowship of the Ring sets the stage for the Lord of the Rings series as Frodo and his companions begin their perilous and often confusing journey, which stands in contrast to the ordered world in which they live, The Shire, in Middle Earth. This “disordered” journey is a form of entering chaos: Like King Arthur’s knights as they sally forth from Camelot, the members of The Fellowship venture far and wide to conquer evils which surround them. However, unlike the Knights of the Round Table, the members of The Fellowship recognize that as they set out to destroy evil, they also bear the potential for the destruction of the kingdom within themselves. The Ring itself is a constant reminder to them that they must first fight their own internal selfish desires in order to save The Shire.
As a “quest” story, the novel contains elements of both classical and medieval literature. Middle Earth is a highly ordered world in which all creatures have their proper roles which are integral to the natures of the characters: an elf could no more attempt to behave like a hobbit than you or I could attempt to behave like a dog or a cat. This order is hierarchical; some creatures’ duties—and some characters’ duties– are more significant in the larger community than others; some folks are more civilized and wealthier than others. However, in this sort of society, a person with a “lower” occupation or status is not a less important person. For instance, the Innkeeper at The Sign of the Prancing Pony, Mr. Butterbur, is no less valuable than Gandalf. Rather, his role suits him and his class of creature; his job “belongs” in the fabric of the society just as much as Gandalf’s does. But Tolkien breaks free of the traditional medieval roles when he calls Frodo, that modest and insignificant hobbit, to save the kingdom.
As is also true in the King Arthur stories, Middle Earth is a place where the natural world is important and valuable. Being “good stewards” of what we are given to tend, whether it be a garden, a forest, or a river–is key, and there is a balance between the creatures’ using and respecting nature. Thus, the hobbits cut back the trees from the Old Forest at the edge of their lands, but leave the Old Forest alone in every other way. Nature is connected to many of the creatures closely, as we see with Goldberry, who, we are told, is the daughter of the River. Also, the natural world reflects the nature of the creatures who inhabit it; the hobbits’ shire is green and cozy and friendly. In Middle Earth, the physical world embodies the goodness and concreteness of reality, and this is most carried forth into the lives of the hobbits, whose liking for beer, food, gift-giving, home and companionship emphasizes their close and deep connection to the earth and world around them. The interactions which the members of The Fellowship will make with the forest and the river serve to help us understand that nature itself is being corrupted and disfigured; the hobbits are responsible for recovering both the kingdom and its environment.
As did the knights of medieval times, Frodo accepts the challenge to go
forth in search of danger. Though Gandalf tells him that he should not
go out of his way seek danger, the truth is that in order to make sure
that the Shire is kept safe, Frodo must plunge headlong into an
unknown evil, putting his life in jeopardy. Like martyrs and war
heroes, Frodo charges ahead to do the right thing despite his fear,
weakness, and sinful desires. Where the quest ends he does not know; the
path he must follow is also a mystery. What is clear is that Frodo and
his friends choose to respond to the challenge of the quest regardless
of their great personal weaknesses and fears.
Parents want to give their children the best education they can and there are two extremes often applied regarding what this means. On the creative, experiential end of the spectrum are parents who focus exclusively on enriching and inspiring their children; on the other end are those who believe that learning must be strictly formulaic. Which is correct?
[Nathan Siemers – Attribution – ShareAlike 2.0 Generic CC
– 5970089724_674349ede7_b_0The answer is neither.]
Students need to be constantly inspired and challenged to investigate the world for themselves, or at best, they will learn to hate school while simply “storing up” information. On the other hand, if children are not given the framework on which to “hang” knowledge, they are not learning at all, but are simply wallowing in a well of self-deception and narcissism.
A classical education is not about learning ancient terminology: it’s about learning to think for yourself, as the classical authors did.
A classical education is not about learning certain facts: it’s about developing a worldview which honors truth and beauty and engenders a love of knowledge.
A classical education is not about competing in the marketplace: it’s about believing that if students are passionate about learning they will be passionate about life and therefore, their vocations will become self-evident.
A classical education is not about believing in “experts” who claim to have grabbed the brass ring, and all you need to do is jump on their merry-go-round and — Voila! your student will be classically educated. Rather, it’s about developing a disciplined, virtuous mind and life. A person’s true vocation and joy in life will be evident if he or she follows this authentic classical path.
True classical scholarship is rare: most of us will never attain it, and that includes the many poseurs in the classical market who purport to have it and attempt to sell it to us. But given a genuine classical philosophy and pedagogy, all students can discover their God-given potential, find their place in the world, and live rich, joyous and successful lives.
Next Time~ Part 2
Curriculum Gimmicks vs. The Great Knock: Formulas vs. Structure and How C. S. Lewis Answers the Dilemma
I continue to discuss what it means to be truly classical, and this includes what it is NOT. Since we are adding Latin to our Integritas Academy courses next year using a program which is genuinely classical, I’ve been meditating upon why and how many Latin programs out there are not “classical” in methodology. What I mean is defined by what I’ve previously discussed in articles on this blog: a classical education is about how to think, not what to think, and too many schools in this rather new “classical” movement have lost track of that, in their attempts to sell their wares to a broad market and give parents a simplistic explanation of what it means to be classically educated.
First, as the motto of Integritas Academy states, students must write in order to learn to think. Many recent Latin programs which are so called “classical” are so dumbed down as to be a misrepresentation of what it means to learn Latin. A classical program must include serious writing which involves translation, not just of vocabulary, but of entire paragraphs, and later, literary works, and this kind of work must be given often, in order to move students into understanding how to read and understand classical literature.
Second, if a program is so simplistic (dumbed down) that it does not even get through the first declension, and at least most of the second declension in the first year, it defeats the purpose of presenting the student with a global understanding of the language, and therefore, any understanding of its literature or culture.
Third, students must learn thoroughly, but it is true that they must not be overwhelmed with a barrage of information which “attacks” them so that they have trouble sorting it all out. There is a balance: a program should incrementally introduce the components of Latin, yet it needs to present these components in a timely manner wherein the students understand the language conceptually; they must be able to see the forest for the trees, so pacing is everything.
Finally, students must understand early on that, unlike English, Latin is an inflected language (thus, “declensions”). For those who do not know what this means, it’s fairly simple: the meaning of English language sentences is determined by the order of the words in the sentence, so it is not “inflected.” In Latin, it doesn’t matter if the words are in a particular order or not, because designated endings with meanings which assign their syntax in the sentence are added on to the ends of the words, and determine their context; the ending syllable of the word changes, and this determines its grammar. For students to grasp what “declensions” (endings) are, they must be presented within the “big picture” – the concept that there are declensions, and what they consist of, categorically, – within the first year of their study of the language. Unfortunately, many popular Latin curricula do not accomplish this because they are so dumbed down.
Mastering Latin is an “extreme” exercise in logic. Students learn how to apply the various word endings in their exercises and writing, and in so doing, develop logical processes which are not gained in other ways. If a Latin curriculum does not get students to gain this skill in the first year of study, it is a pretty much a waste of the student’s time and effort. While Latin is, as many say in criticism of it, a “dead language,” it is important to know it, not just for understanding past literature and history, but because you learn how to think with the kind of flexibility which learning the various declensions demands. In fact, if you take a Latin program which doesn’t help you to understand the deeper logical aspects of learning this inflected language, it may even be harmful, because you are under the impression that learning a language is only a matter of memorization. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and Latin itself is a prima facie example of this, with the richness of the works which lie waiting for the student who masters the language.
So, let’s say a student completes two “years” of a particular Latin program, but the curriculum doesn’t get past the first declension, or maybe, the second. What that really means is that the parents (who, like most of us, have probably not had Latin) have been deceived into thinking that their child has now had a grounding in classical Latin, when, in fact, nothing of the sort has occurred. The student walks away with some Latin vocabulary roots, which he or she may or may not remember, but this is not the same as having gained a classical understanding. The student is not able to translate or grasp the meanings of any important classical works, and has no sense of what it means to “manipulate” an inflected language. Probably, the student would have been better served learning Spanish, French, or German, because at least these languages can be used pragmatically in the modern world, and also have referents in literature.
I am not saying that no students in the current classical school revival go on to master Latin: some do, but – not most. I am saying that there is a plethora of programs out there which simplify and slow down the process of learning Latin to the point where, unless a student perseveres and goes on to more sophisticated programs, he or she will not have gained a genuine grasp of the language, or its logic, and will not have been able to access the important classical works and thoughts of the classics.
Another benefit of actually mastering Latin is that students often do not need much instruction in English grammar (if any). The reason is simple: Latin teaches the English constructs, and more. While it might seem at first that taking the time to learn Latin well is a burden, this study time is counteracted by the fact the students grasp grammar to such a degree that English grammar exercises are either unnecessary or easily and
Detailed Roman portrait mosaic in the Museo di Capodimonte from the city of Pompeii. Found in the cubiculum of a house, this unique floor mosaic portrays a young woman of a rich family – probably the domina of the house, as indicated by the jewelry and the dress.
quickly understood. Also, one other aspect of classical learning that is often overlooked is that of the translating, back and forth, of Latin to English. It’s important to get a curriculum which does this consistently and thoroughly, in order to get the mind’s muscles practicing the back and forth “conversions” that must occur in order to truly learn and write a language.
My hope is that more and more people who seek a classical education will discover the benefits of taking a legitimate Latin course as part of their fully classical experience. Latin in the Christian Curriculum is such a program. Ever since my own five children were lucky enough to have been taught with this curriculum, I have wanted to be involved in promulgating it. It is already used in prestigious brick-and-mortar schools, such as Valley Christian in Silicon Valley, a school I am personally familiar with, since I grew up in that area. I support this curriculum because it is authentically classical, in all of the ways I have delineated above, while also teaching students in a step-by-step manner, using the mastery approach. You can find a review of the program by the homeschool curriculum maven, Cathy Duffy at this link: https://cathyduffyreviews.com/homeschool-reviews-core-curricula/foreign-language/latin/latin-in-the-christian-trivium.
Discussing the pedagogy of learning Latin is just one aspect of what it means to have a classical education, but it’s a pretty important component. Most of us are products of an educational system which has not taught us classically, but we are seeking ways in which we can expand our understanding of what it means to have a legitimate classical education, and to make sure we make it possible for our own children to do so. If you are interested in having your student take Latin, I hope you will investigate either the program I support, or some other program which is comprehensive in scope.
There are various approaches to understanding poetry. In the 20th century, the rise of literary criticism began the process teachers now use of analyzing specific literary (rhetorical) devices such as similes, metaphors, etc. to explain the poem. In the 19th century, though, the focus was on having students memorize the poetry and experience the language of the works as a whole. Which approach is best? My answer is both. Memorizing a poem “makes it your own,” but understanding the diction leads you to richer understanding which causes the poetry to enter deeply into your soul.
Today, honors courses require that students take the poems apart rhetorically. This approach to literature, and poetry specifically, is due to the influence of the New Critics, the group of 20th century authors who popularized the idea of literary criticism. They, and their approach, are no longer “in vogue” in universities today, due to the rise of
Marxist-feminist and other post-modern critical approaches. But in truth, literary criticism as we know it owes its existence to the New Critics such as I. A. Richards, et al, since they taught us how to break apart diction with such careful and specific techniques.
Some assert that analyzing literature rhetorically in this manner “ruins” the enjoyment of it; this is not true. Like any aspect of learning, the more you understand the specifics of the topic, the better you can appreciate its unity. Those who have had negative experiences “digging into” literature have simply had poor teachers who have not successfully passed on the truth that in the humanities, we must comprehend what we read both inductively and deductively, and when a student is challenged to do this, he begins the process of independent thinking, of unifying his thought so as to see the poem as a powerful communicator of truths, both emotional and spiritual.
Let us take Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as an instance of a poem which yields rich results when we “unpack” it rhetorically. Here is the poem:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Frost is deceptive. He uses nature to write “beautiful” poetry, but upon examination, we find that his diction is complex, and if we are not extremely careful in approaching the poems, we will be led astray, rather like a detective who is distracted by false evidence, and thus misses the clues which will lead him to discover the true topic at hand.
Although he lived during the time of the development of modern poetry, or “free verse,” which abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and meters, Frost despised this movement. He famously quipped that writing free verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, without the rules, there is no poem, no way to create a work of value and structure. Thus, Frost’s poetry is traditional, but deceptively so because of his informal diction; he appears to be holding a conversation with us over the backyard fence or a cup of coffee, when in fact he is always giving us fresh assessments about life and the world, and our relation to it as humans.
After reading the poem out loud, we establish the rhyme pattern. (For those already familiar with these basics, please forgive this brief review.) The rhyme pattern is that referred to as “couplets,” as two consecutive lines rhyme before moving on to the next set of two. Always use lower case letters to show a rhyme pattern, as shown at the end of each line. Frost’s is traditional here, as always:
flower/hour b (skip the “er” in flower, and read it in the 19th century way, as “flow’r”)
leaf/grief c day/stay d
We engage next with the meter: The rhythm of the poem. Each syllable is stressed or unstressed in our natural speaking manner, creating the “patterns” we know as “meter.” The first and last lines do not line up with the meter of the rest of the poem; lines 2-7 are strictly iambic, but the first and last lines are not. Iambic meter means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is not. There are two syllables in each “iamb”; each “iamb” is called a “foot.” A poet may have as many “feet” in a line as he chooses. Frost chooses to have three in his lines here, so this is called iambic trimeter.
But let’s get back to the intrigue of those first and last lines not being iambic. Why? The lines have more stressed (emphasized) syllables in them than the iambic lines. When a poet uses stressed syllables in this manner, he is drawing the reader’s attention to these lines. Frost wants us to notice these first and last lines because they are communicating his theme. Additionally, he uses alliteration to pound home the stress: the hard “g” sound in “green” and “gold” wakes us up. Let’s look at the first line:
The emphasized (stressed syllables) are shown in capital letters:
NAture’s first GREEN is GOLD.
Nature, green, and gold are emphasized. We get it that this poem is about nature. But—is it? Why is nature’s first green also gold? Is that true? Nature’s first green is actually in spring. How can green be gold? The leaves turn gold in the fall, right before they die and fall off. So even in the first line, Frost is presenting us with a dilemma—a quandary. Let’s go on and see if we can find some explanation in the next three lines:
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Gold is the hardest hue (color) to retain. Why? – because the leaves are dying. While the shimmering gold leaf is the height of beauty, it is also bittersweet; it is a sign of impending death. So, this poem might not be about how beautiful nature is; it might be about something else, such as, perhaps, that death is inevitable. And, not only is death unavoidable: importantly, life’s climax, this nadir of perfect glory, is fleeting, and even as the leaves enjoy their golden glory, they are moving towards death, as we are.
The next line is tricky, but is a continuation of his now clear theme, that life is temporal, and we are all on a journey towards death:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
The question here is: What does “subsides” mean, in context? It can mean lessen, become less severe, etc. We can discover what Frost means by paraphrasing some: As it dies, one leaf gives way to another leaf which will spring fresh in spring, green and bright. A leaf dies, but it is replaced by another, new leaf: the cycle begins again, and the process repeats itself each year. That’s fine, but – didn’t we already know that? Frost was just laying the groundwork: now he goes on to zing his point home in the last three lines, explaining all in the poem’s “shift”:
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Most poems have this “shift”- a point where the author surprises the reader somehow as he changes his viewpoint; it might be a minor twist, or it might be a big one. It’s minor in this poem, if you’ve been paying close attention. Paraphrased, the first of these lines says,
“In the same manner, death came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” The allusion to Eden encapsulates much, but it’s key to understanding the poem; “thus death came into the world,” as the New Testament says. Notice the word “sank” in the phrase “sank to grief,” which implies that originally, the progression to death did not exist. There was a better world, but we do not live in that world. We must accept not only the mortality of nature in general, but our own mortality.
Although Frost is not religious, he relies heavily upon this Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of humanity: death entered into the world, and it is inevitable. Think about the line
So dawn goes down to day
Here is another quandary. Shouldn’t dawn be the beginning of day; don’t we say that the sun comes “up”? Isn’t it sunset that goes “down”? Why does dawn go “down” to day? You may already see the answer: because dawn brings forthanother day, time has progressed. The dawn goes “down” not only because it disappears as day springs forth, but because it is another harbinger, a marker on the march of time towards death.
The poem concludes with a strong accent on the word “nothing,” which we now understand much more clearly than we did when we read it as the title:
NOTHing gold can stay.
The unspoken messages are now clear: life is precious, but transient, and we should value every minute, for we do not know when the golden leaves of our lives will drift into eternity. Nature’s first green is gold because the very start of life (spring, green) is also the beginning of our journey towards death—we eventually become “gold,” when we reach our maturity, and then will soon pass from this life to the next. We may or may not believe in the biblical explanation for the brief nature of our lives, but we know that its point is true. And, he implies, if we accept this reality, we will have a better chance of appreciating the life we experience here, before we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
I teach writing according to the Jane Schaffer writing method, used by high achieving schools in their honors and AP programs. The Schaffer pedagogy meets the definition of “classical” because it leads students into developing critical thinking skills at an early age. Schaffer is qualitatively different from other popular “classical” writing methods, because Schaffer teaches them how to analyze, interpret, and assess ideas. Put another way: students’ minds are engaged in such a manner that they are inspired to develop independent thought. This is because students are led to ponder what a character’s (or historical figure’s) motivations are, or what the consequences of his or her actions or words are, within the context of the theme and diction of the story.
Schaffer is simply a codification of how analytical writing was taught traditionally. As I often tell students, they are like Sherlock Holmes walking onto a crime scene. They must look at the situation presented, as a whole, and from that assess what the important “evidences” are. The Schaffer method calls these “concrete details” (CDs). From there, students use the context of these facts to determine the theme(s) of the text. Why did the author use those facts at that point? Students also bring their own knowledge of life and universal truths to bear on the situation: What is the point of the passage? What does it reveal about the character, or what message is the author communicating to the reader?
When students begin to think analytically, they begin to think independently. Of course, this is the goal of a classical education, not the memorization of a bucketful of facts or texts. The necessity of having such skills before entering the halls of higher education cannot be overemphasized. The Jane Schaffer approach takes time to learn in the beginning–students are building up their “deductive” muscles. But with guidance and practice, they become independent thinkers.
The “method” is a proven way to bringing students’ minds to bear, in order to train them to focus so that they successfully learn the process of analytical reasoning. As students begin to incorporate the techniques so that they think and write inferentially, they no longer need the Schaffer steps, as they have begun the process of independent thinking–the ultimate goal of our educational efforts.
I realize this is a shibboleth among educators today, but I’m going here anyway: recent studies have shown that there is no valid scientific evidence to show that particular students (of any nature) learn better through either an auditory, visual, or a kinesthetic approach. In other words, there are no individual learning modes. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time learning about and teaching special needs students, I do realize that the “received wisdom” in today’s educational community directly contradicts this assertion.
I have always quietly questioned the “learning styles” approach for several reasons. First–and this is purely anecdotal–I have never personally observed any remarkable improvement in a student I have taught due to using lessons which were based on how that student’s learning style had been assessed, even when I was working in special education, applying these lessons diligently.
Second, as a devotee of the Mae Carden philosophy of education (in addition to having attended a Carden school as a child and having received training in the method as an adult), I have absorbed her pedagogy: all students should learn through multiple senses: “reading, listening, speaking, and writing,” as Miss Carden put it. In other words, we develop our intellects by using our various God-given senses. Mae Carden also emphasized individualized learning. By this she did not mean developing an entire new curriculum for each student, but rather, the teacher’s taking the time to work individually with each student. Miss Carden trusted the good teacher to work at finding ways to connect with students. ( I was acquainted with her personally, and know this to be true.) She knew that a teacher who cares about her students will be given the ability to help them when she makes the effort. This is why it is important to keep class sizes small: most classical educators’ experience is that a class which has more than 15 or 16 students is not going to meet the individual needs of students. The teacher simply cannot “divide herself up” during the class period so as to meet the particular questions of students, if the class is large.
My experiences teaching larger classes live online for the past 8 years have borne out this belief. Because my own five children are grown, and because my husband is a surgeon who works long hours, I have had the time to work very long hours in order to give my many online students the individual attention they deserve, through email and phone conversations. However, larger classes are not good, even when the teacher is willing (and able) to give this kind of time commitment, because some students “slip through the cracks” during the class period, and do not learn to interact and grow intellectually through the class discussions. Because I now run my own school, I am able to restrict the class sizes appropriately.
Finally, from a broad philosophical view, the idea that we use multiple senses makes sense, because we all are human beings. That may sound simplistic, but if you think about it, it’s perfectly logical. When teachers engage students by bringing multiple senses to bear, they are teaching the “whole child.” We are whole people, not fractured beings, artificially segmented into disparate parts. It’s not possible to separate out our thoughts and inclinations into neat categories, although it certainly is a temptation!
This is not to say that we do not have different “preferred” styles of learning. I might like to learn by watching videos or listening to audio books, but there is no evidence that I learn better through my preferred modalities. In fact, I may not learn nearly as well through these methods. And this brings up the underlying point: it is a teacher’s job to help a student develop a love for learning, in all modalities; as Carden herself said, “Life is a joy, so should be learning.”
The assertion I am presenting here, while backed up with solid studies, is not popular. The government has learned how to usurp our tax money from us in ways that supposedly help our children who struggle with the accepted public school modes of learning. Other “individualistic” pedagogies popular in the homeschool movement have latched onto the “learning modes” philosophy; finally, well-meaning parents who want to find ways to understand their own children’s struggles have claimed this explanation because they have been duped.
Nothing replaces individual interaction with a dedicated teacher/mentor. In the ancient classical world, those lucky few who were educated had tutors who guided them into learning with personalized attention. For the past century or so, “educators” since John Dewey have been trying to find a magic bullet which will replace this traditional approach. The result has been a disastrous experiment which has damaged our children and our society beyond measure. Unfortunately, many so-called “classical educators” participate in this experiment, either unwittingly or wittingly. There is no replacement, no magic bullet. There is only the difficult but rewarding work of learning how to learn.
I don’t envy Socrates. No, not only because he drank that horrific hemlock, but because I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to play the role of a free speech advocate in his time. Talk about a tough gig. I imagine that Socrates might reiterate today in words something akin to these:
Welcome, habitués of the classical marketplace! We are here again, ready to dig into the philosophical problems of our time. And I proudly claim the moniker, “gadfly of the state,” for I reveal the foolishness of the supposed wise men of our society, and this especially includes myself.
This does not make a good sound bite today, and as we know, Socrates himself bit the dust because of his daring proclamations. But is our society that different? I’m not referring to the juvenile restrictions on free speech that are now prevalent in our universities. I’m talking about the false marketing which dominates the classical Christian homeschool movement, thus obscuring the true meaning of what it means to gain a classical education; I’m talking about what I call marketing hemlock. If you have a student who is in middle school or high school, and he or she signs up for a “classical” course in the humanities (online or otherwise) where the points of the course are “fed” to the student–that’s marketing hemlock. This poison must be counteracted by a bona fide classical pedagogy, wherein teachers/scholars are free to speak the truth about the state of classical education today, and wherein students are taught to think well enough to practice their right to free speech.
A classical approach incorporates the Socratic method, wherein instructors ask their students challenging questions, rather than lecturing them. Most teachers are terrified of “dead air time,” as the media people call it. You know–that silence in the room when no one says a thing, or has any response to a teacher’s inquiries. I understand that fear–I experienced it when I first began teaching. The problem is that if the teacher is insecure with the concept of “dead air time,” or, most likely, afraid of losing her job because silence will be interpreted by critics as incompetence, she will hesitate to practice the Socratic method. In short, the problem is with the pseudo-classical pedagogy that is peddled in much of the present home school/classical market. In 21st c. America, “results” are everything. You must have short term “provable” goals and objectives for every activity you conduct, in our utilitarian world. Those goals stand against the precepts of a genuine classical education, but more on that in another article. It may seem strange to connect silence in the classroom with free speech, but the Socratic technique is, in fact, the ultimate example of it, for the student is free to explore all thoughts out loud, without boundaries.
In the classes I teach, I force myself to wait. I – just—wait for the students to respond and interact, and they always do. Believe me, sometimes that can be awkward in an online classroom, but it always pays off in the end. I recently had a student from a last year– someone I’ve become friends with–tell me that she has missed this aspect of my class; she always looked forward to how she was going to be challenged, how she would be “put on the spot,” when she was in my class. That was encouraging and comforting to me, because teaching with a Socratic approach is an ongoing act of faith.
Sometimes in “classical” and homeschool marketing circles, teachers initially present themselves as Socratic, but revert to the regurgitation pedagogy prevalent in most schools. It’s so tempting. Teachers do this by opening the class session with thought provoking questions, but then quickly turn to answering those questions themselves. I’m not saying that a teacher should never weigh in, but once a student gets to middle school age, in the humanities courses he or she should be constantly challenged to discover the answer by applying personal knowledge, worldview, and logic, before the teacher makes any pronouncements.
Most of the time, though, teachers are dedicated, sincere, and overworked. In the online homeschool “world,” many of the school owners use the manipulative techniques of the marketplace to draw parents into their web, using catch words which resonate with those of us who have read some classical works, convincing us that they have some secret we poor, ignorant parents don’t know about. (In fact, many of these owners are not classical thinkers, and indeed, have not read the canon of classical texts they market to us.) Meanwhile, the teachers who work for these schools must conform to the prevalent marketing mold in order to keep their jobs, even when they do not agree with it.
So, perhaps you are asking, “What exactly IS the Socratic method?” Most people know that it means to teach by asking questions and then engaging with the students’ responses, but – is that it? Yes and no. The teacher must come with a good understanding of the topic at hand, of course, not just a few questions. Even more, the teacher’s larger knowledge will provide her with the ability to respond to the student’s comments with further questions. This is the challenging aspect of teaching in the spirit of Socrates. There is no “script” for what will happen next. It is also the exciting part of it: the environment which produces the “Aha!” moments that lead to independent thinking and genuine creativity.
Some committed homeschool parents feel inadequate to teach their children. They shouldn’t believe this, because they have the very tools in their own hands which will lead their children to become independent thinkers: they themselves wish to learn and grow in their scholarship. For the most part, learning is “caught, not taught,” as the old saying goes, and a parent who develops the habit of engaging Socratically with his or her children is a good teacher.
Parents should trust themselves. If they have the need to outsource some classes, they should prayerfully seek out schools which appear to promote thoughtful, genuine learning, but be wary of the hucksters who haunt our American landscape. Within the Christian community, they are the new carpetbaggers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Here are a few suggestions I have about how to try to distinguish between genuine online classical schools and those who are pretenders. These points apply to humanities courses:
If a school claims that pre-recorded classes replace the live engagement of the “great conversation,” it is not classical school. (There may be times when you need to use pre-recorded “Self-paced” courses– that is understandable. Just don’t buy into the myth that a humanities course can be taught this way and still be genuinely classical.)
If a school presents courses which are replicated, these are not classical courses. Independent thinking demands that each teacher (i.e. mentor) must interpret the information for him or herself. Of course, sometimes teachers use study questions and resources created by others–that is not necessarily a warning sign, but it could be. But when a humanities course is “canned,” it is not classical.
If a school will not allow you to choose a particular teacher or allow you to personally engage with that teacher before you sign your student up for a course, you should have your spidey senses up.
Many parents, especially homeschool parents, feel intimidated by terms such as “Socratic learning,” “classical method,” “Rhetoric,” etc. They are tempted to defer to the “experts,” but often, they have no way of knowing if those who present themselves as scholars are, in fact, qualified to pass on a genuine classical education. As I said in a previous article, we are all products of our present dark age.
There are some wonderful teachers and schools out there, but there are also poseurs who, like the ancient sirens, lure people in with their empty promises. Unlike Odysseus, we are not caught between Scylla and Charybdis; however, each of us has a God-given mind and the parenting abilities to help us wisely determine our own family’s fate. Odysseus had to choose between two evils in the Straits of Messina, but we may choose the good–not to mention the beautiful.