Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mt. Hope Academy Curricula ~ The Great Conversation

This is the first post in a new curricula series here at Mt. Hope.

First up: the driving themes behind my curricula choices.


It is no secret that The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise was my original introduction to classical education. I was smitten from the first pages of the book, and a deep love affair was born.

What is classical education?
It is language-intensive—not image focused…
It is history-intensive, providing students with a comprehensive view of human endeavor from the beginning until now.
It trains the mind to analyze and draw conclusions.
It demands self-discipline.
It produces literate, curious, intelligent students who have a wide range of interests and the ability to follow up on them.

Twelve years ago (before I was even pregnant with Levi), this book launched me on a journey to teach my children and reclaim my own education in the process.

For me, one of the most compelling aspects of classical education is the emphasis on the connection between ideas. Bauer writes:

[T]o the classical mind, all knowledge is interrelated. Astronomy, for example, isn’t studied in isolation; it’s learned along with the history of scientific discovery, which leads into the church’s relationship to science and from there to the intricacies of medieval church history. The reading of the Odyssey allows the student to consider Greek history, the nature of heroism, the development of the epic, and humankind’s understanding of the divine.

And later:

You might read a book about the planet Mars to your second grader. If it's the first time he's heard about Mars, he probably won't grasp all the information you're giving him. But he may hear on the news that night the most recent information from the Mars space probe, and suddenly something that would have passed by him clicks in his mind. You'll tell him, in history, about the Roman god Mars, the father of Romulus and Remus, and he'll hang this detail on the peg you provided when you read that book about planets. When he runs across the word martial and asks what it means, you can tell him that it means warlike and comes from the name Mars, god of war--and the information will stick.

Marva Collins states in Marva Collins' Way:

I taught my students how to add and subtract, but I also taught them that arithmetic is a Greek word meaning to count and that numbers were called digits after the Latin word digitus, meaning finger, because people used to count on their fingers. I taught them about Pythagoras, who believed that mathematics made a pupil perfect and ready to meet the gods. I told them what Socrates said about straight thinking leading to straight living.”

And Parker J. Palmer on teaching well (HT: Mental multivitamin):

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are not in their methods but in their hearts -- meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.


I think of this as spaghetti education. Everything is intertwined, and one idea leads to another. Nothing is taught in isolation.



A few years into our homeschooling journey, I was introduced to the program Classical Conversations. I recently wrote a lengthy post on the subject, so I won’t go into detail here, but the ideas behind CC and our experience within our group served to flame my passion for classical, Christian education. In particular, I was inspired by the book The Core, written by Classical Conversations founder Leigh Bortins.

(pg. 5)
The classical model emphasizes that learning feeds the soul and edifies the person rather than producing employees to work an assembly line. The goal of a classical education is to instill wisdom and virtue in people. We see learning as a continuing conversation that humankind has been engaged in for centuries, and we are concerned that industrialization and technologies reduce contact and context between children and their elders.

(pg. 37)
Today's educators reject the importance of preparing our next generation to enter the great classical conversations of history because they no longer believe there is a core body of knowledge common to man. So personal opinion has trumped universal truth, expediency has displaced goodness, and edginess has shoved aside beauty. Families no longer know that a great classical conversation exists and that their children could become its most interesting participants.

The concept of a Great Conversation in which my children have the opportunity to participate fascinates me.

I don’t want my children to learn information so that they can test well. I want their souls to be fed. I want them to feel alive with thoughts and ideas.

Transmission of shared culture from one generation to the next is also a running theme.

In Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, Canadian doctors Neufeld and Maté confront the problem of peer-centric education:

What they learn, however, is not the value of thinking, the importance of individuality, the mysteries of nature, the secrets of science, the themes of human existence, the lessons of history, the logic of mathematics, the essence of tragedy. Nor do they learn about what is distinctly human, how to become humane, why we have laws, or what it means to be noble. What children learn from their peers is how to talk like their peers, walk like their peers, dress like their peers, act like their peers, look like their peers. In short, what they learn is how to conform and imitate.

And from Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.:

In the technological age, Washington and the cherry tree, Scrooge and Christmas, the fights historical, the oceans geographical, the "beings animalculus," and all the other shared materials of literate culture have become more, not less, important. The more computers we have, the more we need shared fairy tales, Greek myths, historical images, and so on. That is not really the paradox it seems to be. The more specialized and technical our civilization becomes, the harder it is for nonspecialists to participate in the decisions that deeply affect their lives. If we do not achieve a literate society, the technicians, with their arcane specialties, will not be able to communicate with us nor we with them. That would contradict the basic principles of democracy and must not be allowed to happen.

More recently, I’ve been reflecting on how God’s creation speaks to His nature. How man is made in His image. And how our purpose is to reflect and glorify Him.

Classical Conversations states that the purpose of education is ‘To know God and to make Him Known.’

In so many ways, I have discovered that the fullest education (and life) reflects both God’s ORDER and His ARTISTRY.

There is beauty in truth. And when there is a balance and harmony to these two seemingly opposite sides, it can result in great joy and delight.


Another book that has had a significant impact on me recently is Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education by Stratford Caldecott.

As we have seen, the “Liberal” Arts are precisely not “Servile” Arts that can be justified in terms of their immediate practical purpose. “The ‘liberality’ or ‘freedom’ of the Liberal Arts consist in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimated by a social function, by being ‘work.’” …At the heart of any culture worthy of the name is not work but leisure, schole in Greek, a word that lies at the root of the English word “school.” At its highest, leisure is contemplation. It is an activity that is its own justification, the pure expression of what it is to be human. It is what we do. The “purpose” of the quadrivium was to prepare us to contemplate God in an ordered fashion, to take delight in the source of all truth, beauty, and goodness…"

(pg. 28)
Symptoms of our educational crisis, such as the fragmentation of the disciplines, the separation of faith and reason, the reduction of quality to quantity, and the loss of a sense of ultimate purpose are directly related to a lack of historical awareness on the part of students. An integrated curriculum must teach subjects, and it must teach the right subjects, but it should do so by incorporating each subject, even mathematics and the hard sciences, within the history of ideas, which is the history of our culture. Every subject has a history, a drama, and by imaginatively engaging with these stories we become part of the tradition.

(pg. 29)
After all, science, like poetry, begins with a search for unifying principles, and the unifying factor in creation is its relation to God.

These themes run through my head and my heart as I choose curricula and resources for use in our homeschool and in our family life.

I search for authors who communicate passion, creativity, excitement, and a exhibit a masterful grasp of skills and information. I want to “hear” them speaking through the books and materials. This is the essence of “living books.”

Before I wrap up this lengthy introductory post, I want to talk about one more theme: story.

It began with the Classical Conversations practicum over a year ago. For the afternoon session, we watched the Teaching the Classics DVDs. I was introduced to the elements of story in a way that made sense for the first time.

What is surprising, though, is how the idea of STORY weaves through literature and into other subjects, and even into the very essence of life.

Just after the CC practicum, I attended a teaching conference at a local classical, Christian school. One of the sessions was ‘The Bible as the True Story of the World’ in which I was introduced to God as a master story-teller. The session leader had us fill out a story chart (from Teaching the Classics!) for the Bible as a single (true) story. (I am currently enjoying the recommended book, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by Bartholomew and Goheen.)

And then I read One Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. It was an incredible experience, bringing into focus the realization that the elements of story (character, conflict, and theme) are deep truths, even in our lives, because they reflect God as a master story-teller.

p. 59
I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants.

p. 74
Beneath the surface of characterization,… regardless of appearances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure, to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire.

p. 86
I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.

p. 87
The real Voice is stiller and smaller and seems to know, without confusion, the difference between right and wrong and the subtle delineation between the beautiful and profane.

From Imago Dei and the Redemptive Power of Fantasy—Part 1 by Angelina Stanford @ Circe Institute:

When a carpenter creates, there is a sense in which he destroys the original in order to create something new. When he makes a table, he has to first destroy the tree. The author, on the other hand, does not destroy Hamlet in order to create Falstaff. This is the closest we experience creation out of nothing. Sayers is echoing the teachings of the church fathers who taught that in creating something orderly and beautiful that did not previously exist, the artist is paralleling what God did in the act of creation.

And from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

God is not hurried along in the Time-stream of this universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own novel. He has infinite attention for each of us.

This turned out to be a much longer and disjointed post than anticipated, as usual. But if I wait to publish until after I’ve had time to tweak and refine, I’ll never get it finished. That’s just life here at Mt. Hope Chronicles.

In summary:






    • STORY


    Next up:

    Mt. Hope Academy Curricula ~ The Simplicity Version. (Do you think I’m capable of an abbreviated, simple version? Probably not.)


    Abbey said...

    Love this post. I am fascinated and can't wait for the next post.

    Rebecca said...

    So many great book references leave me salivating...

    Wonderful thoughts, all.

    Well put, as always, Heidi!

    Looking forward to more "conversations".

    Katie said...

    Thank you! You have inspired me for years. Bearing, raising and teaching children is also a creative act. Talk about something incredible out of almost nothing!

    Hannah said...

    My friend, because I know you may forget this when you behold your mounting laundry pile, your ever-demanding toddler, your active boys, your never-done housework, etc., I just want to remind you: You are truly beautiful, and you never fail to inspire!

    Christi said...

    Heidi, thank you so much for sharing this - I have enjoyed following your ideas & methods for Classical education for several years. I sometimes lose sight of the "why" for this myself - and I found this so refreshing & encouraging to keep moving forward!

    Anonymous said...

    We started homeschooling in November 2011 & our path takes us through CC & the Well Trained Mind. It's amazing to me what my young kids 6 & 5 are learning! I often say it's more than I learned in college. Thank you for your homeschool posts! I can't get enough of them.