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Preparing Your Child for a "Great Books" Education

By Fritz Hinrichs
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #21, 1998.

Getting ready for a "Great Books" education is not a job for the spineless!

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Fritz Hinrichs

After perusing a list of the Great Books, the first question that comes to mind for many parents is, "How could I ever prepare my child to study such books?" Most great books lists are rather daunting, and if such fears are your first response, you should not feel alone. Even though a student needs to have a certain natural aptitude for the printed page in order to pursue a Great Books education, there are many elements that you can add to his elementary years to make sure that he is well prepared for his future studies.

A library full of quality reading will expand your child's vocabulary and develop his powers of imagination. Books that are sensational or simply try to hold your child's interest through incessant action will not prepare him to carefully observe and be captivated by fine literary description. Books akin to the style of Beatrix Potter rather than Dr. Seuss should form the bulk of your early childhood reading.

Books that draw one to see the deeper meaning behind fantasy should also be used. C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia captivate the imagination and give the mind opportunity to develop its powers of interpretation by seeing the Christian themes that Lewis weaves into his tales. Great literature requires an attentive reader who takes notice of the small as well as the grandiose in human action.

Give your child literature that draws from a broad historical background. American pioneer stories will not suffice for a well-rounded literary diet. Look for literature that will stretch your child's historical comfort zone. ( Greenleaf Press has a fine selection of literature to help you in this area.) Historical literature that grabs your child's imagination will help them love history; however, organizing history through the memorization of dates, geography, and significant personages will give your child a framework to understand and categorize the images that captivate his mind. A good knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology will keep your child from being susceptible to historical vertigo when reading ancient literature.

The study of ancient language at a young age will put your child years ahead of those of us who have had to face the daunting task of trying to force our aging minds to assimilate the information needed to master the ancient tongues. Greek or Latin will not only familiarize your child with the word roots that will allow him to break down the larger vocabulary demanded by the Great Books, but they will also provide him the rare privilege of reading many of the Great Books without having to rely on a translation. Many readers think Greek and Latin are just for the scholarly elite; however, a knowledge of a text's original tongue provides the reader with many fascinating insights.

Using the Trivium as a pedagogical guideline will help you avoid many of the pitfalls arising from poorly planned curriculum. The Trivium divides education into three stages; grammar (memorization), dialectic (logic) and rhetoric (persuasive communication). These three stages will help guide your emphases at each stage in your child's education. (Contact Trivium Pursuit or Canon Press for more information on this important aspect of an effective classical education.)

The Great Books are not a course of study for the spineless. Unless you have a zealous desire to engage the ideas that you find in the Great Books and vigorously bring them under Christ's authority, your faith will be slowly compromised out of existence. Any Christian wanting to study the Great Books will need to develop of faith of sufficient maturity to meet the challenge the books provide. Most of my students have grown up with a healthy dose of apologetics and Christian worldview thinking. Because classical education demands that we evaluate and critique what we read in the light of the Faith, it is crucial that children know what Christians believe as well as Christian standards of conduct. In addition to teaching your child how a Christian ought to live, he needs to know the answers to such questions as: "Who is God?," "How can we make ourselves acceptable to God?," "What is sin and why does God hate it?," "Why did Jesus need to become a man?" The ultimate goal of a Christian Great Books education is the development of a vibrant Christian understanding of our culture, past and present. In order to prepare our children for this task, they need to know how a Christian thinks as well as how a Christian acts.

Though classical education may intimidate the novice, the broader cultural understanding gained will not only provide a wealth of mental delights, but will also reaffirm your confidence that the Biblical worldview provides an accurate picture of the world in which we dwell. Classical education does require more work than other approaches; yet as with most other labors wisely exerted, from the salt of sweat comes sweet satisfaction.

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