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Where We Came From, Where We're Going

By Andrew Kern
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #25, 1998.

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Andrew Kern


Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, classical education happened at home. In fact, Cicero declared that state involvement in education was contrary to the Roman character. When the Renaissance brought about the renewal of ancient learning, children were frequently taught classically at home. Since then, many of the most important minds of western culture, such as Pascal, John Stuart Mill, and Abraham Lincoln, have been homeschooled.

Today, the modern homeschooling movement is giving classical education a new form. Since that statement may surprise some readers, maybe we should back up a step and clarify what we are talking about. What on earth is classical education?

It isn't prep school. It isn't the study of all sorts of exclusive subjects studied in order to show the superiority of the child who studied them, the family bloodline, or the school he attended. Quite the contrary:

  • Classical education is the application of the universally necessary principles of education. In the final analysis, I believe classical Christian education is the only kind of education there is.

  • It is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the nourishment of the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.

  • It is an education that respects the cultural heritage in which the student is growing.

  • In order to fulfill its goals, it uses a methodology built around the trivium (the arts for using words) and the quadrivium (the arts for using numbers and space).

Many homeschoolers are classical without knowing it because of their educational goals. In fact, most of the people who buy into the classical vision don't do so because it is new and exciting, but because it ties together and explains so many of the things they have long desired: virtue and wisdom, skill using words and numbers, and a heart to value and sustain their heritage (Christian, western, American, and family).

The classical curriculum gives a form to those desires. It does not exclude apprenticeship or training. It simply recognizes that everybody needs wisdom and virtue, skill at using words and numbers, and respect for their heritage while not everyone needs to be able to use a computer or fix a tractor. Classical education puts everything in its place and thus enables everything to fulfill its purpose.

The war for the soul of America, contested in the realm of educational theory, was fought fiercely around the time of World War I. The progressives, led by John Dewey, and his school, believed that education was a forum for experience and training. The classicists believed that the goal was wisdom and virtue. The progressives won all the major battles, and, frankly, most Christians of the time, being practical Americans trained in favoring "a good job" over "fruit for eternity," were comfortable with the results.

A movement back to classical education began almost immediately. Its most important leader has been Mortimer Adler, who has written a number of brilliant books on education and founded a movement called The Paideia Program. In addition he edited and promoted the 52-volume Great Books of the Western World.

Dorothy Sayers fired a volley from England with her seminal article "The Lost Tools of Learning," in which she described the trivium as the key to an educational revival. Douglas Wilson's Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning propelled the ideas of Dorothy Sayers to the vanguard of popular reform theory.

As the classical ideas of Adler, Sayers, Wilson, et al., were filtering down from the theorists, homeschooling formed into a powerful movement. The two ideas joined hands in the pages of The Teaching Home magazine, which published the "Lost Tools" article by Dorothy Sayers some ten years ago. It sparked a tremendous interest among homeschoolers, but many felt frustrated because detailed curricula and methodology were not yet developed.

Nonetheless, in characteristic homeschooling fashion, a number of families stepped forward to pioneer the old path. The Bluedorns created Trivium Pursuit. In the early 90's Canon Press began making its materials available. Laura Behrquist published an excellent manual (Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, Ignatius Press) specially written for the Catholic homeschooler, but eminently useful for any interested in classical education. Douglas Wilson, Doug Jones, and Wes Callihan wrote a handbook on the classical Christian homeschool (Classical Education and the Home School, from Canon Press). And homeschooling has always been well-represented at the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS) conferences.

Then classical homeschooling hit the Internet. Linda Robinson and others began Scholars Online Academy. Fritz Hinrichs, a graduate of St. John's College (another of Adler's great achievements) joined them with his Escondido Tutorial Service. Recently, David and Jennifer Hoos have published a weekly Internet newsletter for classical schoolers, called CCS Digest. Most of the readers are homeschoolers.

Meanwhile, Foundations Academy, where I work, pioneered the classical school/homeschool co-op. It makes seminars available to homeschooling high schoolers on such subjects as logic, Latin, classical history and literature, and composition. Finally, just this year, Veritas Press developed a full-fledged classical curriculum catalogue, a giant step further, presenting in its pages not only the books needed but an implicit scope and sequence as well.

Both the power and wisdom of classical Christian education have grown. We have reached a decisive moment. We may soon see the fulfillment of Michael Farris's suggestion that classical education will be the method of choice for the future of homeschooling. Whether this happens or not depends on developments I believe we will soon see. What should we watch for?

  • A broader and clearer understanding of what is meant by classical Christian education, especially its universality, its emphasis on ideas, and the application of its methodology across the curriculum

  • Increased cooperation between classical schools and homeschools, especially at the higher levels

  • Forums for further discussion of classical education as applied to the homeschool - conferences, Web sites, Internet forums, magazine articles, and so on

  • Increased variety in curriculum available

  • More people who understand classical education and can explain it to people who have to live real lives while they raise their children

I believe we may see some other exciting developments, but they may not take place for some time. For example, one of my great desires is to see a classical Christian school for children with special needs. I believe it is uniquely suited, for example, to teach a child with Down's syndrome.

I believe that the time has come for homeschooling to fulfill itself in the ideals and vision of classical Christian home education.


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