Texts and Timing

I have been in the thick of the classical Christian school movement from the very start of it, and I like to think I have been around. I have been to all the ACCS conferences. I have browsed more vendor tables than Carter’s got pills. I have visited numerous classical Christian schools, both the start-ups and the established ones. I have served on the board of Logos School from the beginning, have taught numerous classes at Logos, and in my role at New St. Andrews, have taught many alums of classical Christians schools (and home schools) from around the country. I am a close observer, and a big fan.tom-sawyer-spanking

So if I were to make one academic criticism, what would it be?

There is a very pronounced tendency within the classical Christian school movement to emphasize texts over timing. What do I mean? When this problem happens, the badge of the classical education provided is the mere presence of the “great books” in the curriculum, and the sooner the better. As classical schools start to compete with one another (which can be healthy within limits), one way to do this is by moving the great books up to an earlier point in the curriculum. And this is how you wind up teaching Boethius to sixth-graders.

This in turn starts to create other problems. Ironically, to accelerate the pace of learning in this way is to disregard Dorothy Sayers’ great insight on the timing relevance of each stage of the Trivium. A big part of the reason why classical education can get such powerful results when done right is that you deliver the right material at the right time. It is not enough to have the right tennis ball. It needs to hit the sweet spot on the racket. A thorough classical education in a Christian context is about both material and pacing. We are talking about both texts and timing.

One problem is that the students choke on it. And the problem is not the book itself, the problem is the timing. If material from the dialectic stage is pushed down into the grammar stage, the kids will not process it well. The same is true of material from the rhetoric stage pushed earlier. What would be edifying and enjoyable when taught at the appropriate time becomes at best a chore and at worst an affliction.

If the students stick around through their logic course in junior high, they will learn, or should learn, what is happening to them. The fallacy is called affirming the consequent. True classical learning is hard. This thing I am doing right now is hard. Therefore, this thing I am doing right now is true classical learning. But it followeth no way. Eating a bowl of driveway gravel is also hard, but that is not true classical learning either.

Some students don’t make it through. They assume they are not good or smart enough to make the grade, or that classical education is a scam being run on parents who for some reason want to send their children to a school for show poodles. They leave with a bad taste in their mouth, soured on the whole thing. Blecch.

Other students make it through, but have simply done a difficult thing, which prepares them for the next difficult thing, which is admittance to a prestigious college. They do their chores because they are good kids and know that we were not put into this world for pleasure alone. They have a certain kind of smart going for them, a will-that-be-on-the-test? kind of smart, but they are not acquiring any kind of real love for what they are learning.

When they graduate from their classical Christian high school in this frame of mind, they do so believing that they have now “done that.” It has been checked off the list. They have read Homer. Sure, they did it before they could mentally chew and digest and enjoy any of it, but they did it. When the prospect of going to a school like New St. Andrews is raised, they recoil. You expect me to do all that again? That reaction misses the point almost entirely, and it is an indicator that the school providing such alums may also be missing the point almost entirely.

But of course, a K-12 course of study is preparation for a lifetime of learning. The students are being given the tools of learning. They are practicing their tools on good materials, but those materials are capable of repaying return visits, and repaying them with interest. They can do so for the rest of your life.

In his great work, Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that a book should be rated by whether or not it attracts return readers. Who wants to read that book again? We do not evaluate algebraic skills in the same way. I learned certain things about math in high school that I still use today, but on rainy Saturdays I don’t go back to browse through old math textbooks. That math skill—for most people at any rate—is something you learn, and then you use. There is a difference between learning such skills in high school, and being introduced to the Brandenburg Concertos in high school.

If someone dismissed an invitation to listen to a glorious piece of music because they had “done that” at some time in his life before, we might be excused for thinking that whatever he had been doing before, he had not done that.

So in my view, the fruit of a solid basic education is being challenged from two directions. The first is the obvious one. Those who fail to provide such an education are the adversaries of it. Students cannot receive what no one offers to give them. But a second challenge to classical education is coming from well-meaning classical educators, and it is being done in the name of classical education. There a better way, one that pays close attention to pacing. The classroom should be life-giving milk for the students, and one of the things Scripture teaches us to do with milk is to not cook the kids in it (Ex. 23:19).

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gabe
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gabe

I would like to see a post with a similar theme on the timing of the Biblical texts. Do you think they should be taught in a similar manner?

insanitybytes22
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I think emotional and spiritual maturity are very important, too. In the secular world of education,we’ve completely flown the coop. So the forth graders are reading the Twilight series, learning all about the angst women feel over choosing between necrophilia and bestiality. Add in the Color Purple next year so they can get a good feel for pedophilia and abuse, and than top it all off with 50 shades of Gray. So those who try to escape this onslaught are often driven to war torn novels, to tales of Nazis and the holocaust, to Game of Thrones. Then there are… Read more »

jonmnoel
Member

I found this very insightful. I was homeschooled for 7th and 8th grades and I was a devouring reader. Mom had me read Moby Dick. I plowed through but found it rather boring. I read it again in my 30s and enjoyed it immensely. On the thought of the different learning seasons, my younger children spend a lot of time memorizing with their school, which is a classical based homeschool coop. They don’t have the minds for argument and analysis, but they retain information so easily it makes me jealous. But they mostly sit and listen when the older kids… Read more »

D.Paul.Beck
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The first paragraph of this post gave me high hopes. The second paragraph (a sentence) raised my eyebrows and took me to the edge of my seat. What could it be? What is it that the man who has had such a profound influence within the alternative to public education, that we call Classical Christian Education, sees as his leading academic criticism to this “movement”? Well I was disappointed. Yes, Wilson’s point regarding texts and their timing is perfectly valid, but he is still blinded to the larger issue. Here is my challenge to him whose thumb-print is all over… Read more »

jared
Member

It is entirely possible, at that stage of their classical CHRISTIAN education, the assumption is “the Bible” by default and so the students understand the question to be excluding the Bible, by default, because, well, it should go without saying that the Scriptures are the single most influential book in their life. Statistics based on singular questions like this can easily produce low hanging fruit to feed the confirmation bias of the surveyor’s hypothesis. I attended a Christian liberal arts college and I think it’s safe to say that the professors and students there would get this question “right” even… Read more »

John Carnahan
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John Carnahan

Not sure how much time you’ve spent with the kids at Logos to so confidently make your assertion: “I guarantee you that less than 25%…will provide you with what needs to be their correct answer.” From my 20 years at the school (14 in the secondary classroom), my estimation of those answering (or assuming in the question), from the heart, “Bible” would be very much higher. I believe you would find the classical approach at Logos is truly Christ-centered. Of course, there are many, many strong believing parents that pay attention to what’s going on with their kids at school.… Read more »

Tim Enloe
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Tim Enloe

Good thoughts, Doug. And to get some application from your words: (1) It is time to revamp the Omnibus curriculum. Omnibus I needs to be cut down from 40 books to about 10, and those 10 need to be much more carefully chosen with an eye especially towards readability of the translations. Very few 7th graders can handle the Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid and the Lattimore translation of the Odyssey. And it is rather dangerous to say that just because the Bible has scenes of sexual sin here and there, it is OK to expose 12 year olds to… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member

I found your perspective very interesting. I taught upper level English literature and European history for a number of years in public and Catholic schools, where we followed the state curriculum. What I found very difficult–and this was some years ago–was persuading my students to take an interest in literature they saw as dull. Even quite bright teenagers resisted the charms of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” not to mention “Middlemarch.” Is this a problem when you introduce the Greek and Roman classics to middle schoolers? I remember George Orwell saying that the traditional curriculum of schools like Eton could only… Read more »

Jane
Member

As a far less well-versed (and frankly quite lazy) former homeschooler, I’ve had this reaction to Omnibus as well. It’s not that it’s “hard,” though the hardness would have kept me from teaching it had I continued schooling my kids into high school. But what I think is objectively a problem is that piling that amount of stuff of that level of complexity into kids of that level of maturity and understanding, is going to teach kids that a nodding acquaintance with big scary books is a great education.

TedR
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TedR

” I learned certain things about math in high school that I still use
today, but on rainy Saturdays I don’t go back to browse through old math
textbooks.”

Wait a minute, I DO that! Woe is me.

Jill Smith
Member

I revisit “Latin for Canadian Schools” and marvel at the inanity of the notes I wrote in the margins. Except for:

Latin is a bygone tongue,
As dead as it can be;
It killed the ancient Romans,
And now it’s killing me.

For five long years.

Tim Enloe
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Tim Enloe

A friend stated to me that my remarks below may be taken in a passive aggressive sense. Let me clarify that that was not my intention. I have taught in classical schools for 8 years, and have seen everything that I said in the remarks below first hand in real classrooms. I have seen the poor effects that bad pedagogy – sometimes practiced by myself because I myself made some of the very errors I mentioned – have had on students in classical schools. I took Doug’s post as an invitation to think self critically about what we are doing.… Read more »

Matt Robison
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Amen to proper timing. I found I didn’t truly enjoy classics until my mid-twenties, after I graduated college. A roommate convinced me to give Gibbon a try, and I loved it. Now I always try to be reading some of a very old book of some sort. But back in my freshman year of High School, I was forced to read Great Expectations, and I hated every second of it. I’ve never read any Dickens since, because of the sour taste in my mouth. On a related note, I was also forced to read Pride and Prejudice, and I remember… Read more »

Jane
Member

I rediscovered Dickens in my late 30s after believing for 25 years that A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol were the only things I could stand. I still am not the fan that some people are, but I have learned to like his work well enough to have enjoyed reading most of his novels by now. I can’t say there’s any conscious change in perspective that makes me like any particular aspect of his writing better; maybe I’ve just mellowed with age as far as my willingness to enjoy an engaging writer with faults. As for Pride… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member

You are ahead of me there, Jane. I love the ones you mention, can tolerate David Copperfield, but don’t much like the others. Every few years I try again, but it is a hard slog. People apparently mobbed the docks in New York waiting for the next installments to arrive of the serialized novels, especially the death of Little Nell. Which always makes me think of Oscar Wilde’s comment: One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.

Jane
Member

That’s Old Curiosity Shop, right? Everything I hear about that puts me off, so it will be a long time before I get to that one, if ever. And yes, I love Wilde’s take on that. I had to read Great Expectations in school and was kind of meh on it. Then back in that late 30s time a book club I was in did Our Mutual Friend (well, actually, that book kind of caused the club to fall apart because I was one of about two of us that finished it) and I liked it better than I expected.… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member

The Victorians had this sentimental attachment to Child Brides until they actually tried to live with them. When the Snowflake got on my nerves from time to time, I daydreamed about sending her to live with Edward Murdstone and his charming sister.

Conserbatives_conserve_little
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Conserbatives_conserve_little

Assume a scenario where bilingualism in a modern language is a priority. Say, Chinese Americans wanted the children to be bilingual in Chinese, Spanish etc. this is a classical Christian school. How would you modify the curriculum?