How did I get here?

When I began to contemplate homeschooling, I was a public school teacher uncomfortable about what I saw going on in public schools. I went and looked up books, blogs, and podcasts. Eventually, I found The Well-Trained Mind. I liked it, but I wasn’t convinced. Many things sound good in theory, but are terrible in effect.

Because I wanted to know if classical education would really work, I went hunting for hard data. Of course, there is no modern research about the usefulness of classical education. Eventually, I found A Defence of Classical Education, by Livingstone. In his introduction, he mentions that in 1870 Germany experimented with allowing Realschule students (170,000 students who did not receive as strict as a classical education as the 240,000 gymnasium students) to attend university. Ten years later, the formal assessment of the science and mathematics faculty members was that:

“students from Realschulen, in consequence of their being conversant with a large number of facts, outrank, as a rule, those from the Gymnasia during the experimental exercises of the first year, but that the situation is soon reversed, and given equal abilities, the latter almost invariably carry off the honours in the end; that the latter are mentally better trained, and have acquired in a high degree the ability to understand and solve.”

As a footnote in the book, one M. Jaurès was quoted as saying, “the sterner mental discipline afforded by Latin and Greek will give way before what Americans call ‘soft options’ in school curricula …” Well, that was interesting because obviously we don’t currently teach Latin and Greek in public schools. Wanting to know more about what was considered “soft options” I hunted down a copy of the quoted book chapter, “Problems in Prussian Secondary Education.”

Apparently, Realschule students spent an average of 27 hours a week in class: 2 hours on religion, a bit over four hours on the German language and history, 5 hours on French, 2 hours on English, four hours on history and geography, 5 hours on arithmetic and geometry, three hours on science, an hour on composition, and an hour and a half on freehand drawing.

What an interesting schedule! How much time were gymnasium students spending on various subjects?

According to a report in the Texas School Journal, a gymnasium course is about ten years, and

“the boy begins Latin at nine and Greek somewhat later in the classical, and continues their study till graduation…. He recites Latin 7 hours a week … while about 4 hours weekly are given to Greek.”

What did modern education say about what to learn and how we should learn it? My teaching degree certainly didn’t prescribe any particular course of instruction. Students were to construct their own meaning of the world, and we were merely to foster their interests while teaching the curriculum standards and objectives, which were derived from what education experts in each of the content areas had deemed important.

Since I was teaching my eldest to read, I began to read books on how we learned to read: Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene, and so on. In the process, I found a book called When Can You Trust the Experts? by Dr. Willingham. It had never occurred to me not to trust the experts in education. I found this bit particularly interesting:

“There are some things that humans are primed to learn, especially how to walk, how to talk, and how to interact socially. Each represents a highly complex skill that most children learn without the benefit of instruction, simply by watching others; thus such learning can fairly be called natural and effortless. But most of what we want kids to learn in school is qualitatively different.”

Later in the book, Willingham asked,

“Does Amy Chua’s method of parenting “work”? If you share her goals, that’s an open question, and you could use methods of science to answer it.”

What were my goals? I went back to my Willingham book and read,

“What it [education research] means for schooling depends on your goals for schooling. Suppose I think that children attend school for self-actualization…But now suppose my goal for schooling is not self-actualization but preparation for the world of work.”

I thought what Willingham had to say was interesting, so I picked up Why Don’t Students Like School? The book was fascinating, because he made statements like “It is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge about the topic” and “we understand new things in the context of things we already know” and “proficiency requires practice” and “cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.” These all rang true, because they were all repeated in the books I had read about how people learn to read—and the Well-Trained Mind supported them all in its prescribed practice.

I kept reading. I read A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart. I read The Number Sense by Stanislas Dehaene, because surely math was a matter of talent? “No,” said Dehaene, and “No,” said The Math Gene by Keith Devlin.

Why were students in other countries so much better at math? I read “Word Problems in Russia and America by Andrei Toom and tracked down Singapore math as having the closest thing I could find here in the USA.

I read The Teenage Brain, and found its chart mapping students’ ability to memorize and their ability to think abstractly, and saw how it matched with the grammar stage, the logic stage, and the rhetoric stage.

Then, I read The Knowledge Deficit by E.D. Hirsch,Jr. I could see why this pressed so many hot buttons—it was anti-Establishment at its best. Gently put, thoroughly cited, and relentless in its take down of modern education truisms.

“The Romantic idea that learning is natural, and that the motivation for academic achievement comes from within, is an illusion that forms one of the greatest barriers to social justice imaginable, since poor and disadvantaged students must be motivated to work even harder than advantaged students in order to achieve equality of educational opportunity.”“ … once basic underlying skills have been automated, the almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge relevant to the subject.”  “There is no natural pace for gaining the nonnatural learnings of alphabetic literacy and base-ten mathematics. Moreover, it is impossible to conduct an effective classroom when there are attempts to accommodate twenty-five different “paces” of learning.”

Hirsch’s statement lines up neatly with James R. Delisle’s opinion piece at EdWeek, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” Carol Ann Tomlinson’s response was unconvincing—it works if you do it differently than it’s been done? The empirical research that I could find that a) took place in the USA, and b) applied to elementary/middle school showed that differentiated instruction in K-8 made students happier, but didn’t actually increase their learning (Williams, 2012Rojo, 2013).

I borrowed Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy from the library. Why, this was exactly what the Well-Trained Mind prescribed, only randomly assembled, rather than the Well-Trained Mind’s coherent timeline! I felt like I was joining a cult. I went looking for contrary opinions, and found many people who hated Hirsch, but no one who contested him because his ideas didn’t work. His Core Knowledge program is widely used.

So I dug deeper. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge prescribes Frederick Douglass and King Arthur and so on for middle school students, in order to give them what he called cultural literacy. Just like Susan Wise Bauer in The Well-Trained Mind, prescribing Shakespeare and Robinson Crusoe for all ages, to train the mind. Even Allan Bloom, for all his many faults, prescribed only one answer to his vast critique of the modern education system:

“the good old Great Books approach, in which a liberal education means reading certain generally recognized classic texts…wherever the Great Books make up a central part of the curriculum, the students … get … a fund of shared experiences and thoughts.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, Deresiewicz says in Excellent Sheep,

“studying the most challenging works of art, literature, and philosphy–“being forced every day to think about the hardest things people have ever thought about,” … is the best training you can give yourself in how to talk and think.”

Even so, I still wanted good data. But, it’s very difficult to find quality research on the effect of curriculum, because the type of parents who seek out private or charter schools tend to affect the data. However, the Center on Education Policy noted that

“Only one type of school shows an advantage over comprehensive public high schools in student achievement across subjects: Catholic religious order schools.”

Now, there are very few students who attend these schools, but let’s take a look at the curriculum at an independent Jesuit school (not part of a diocese) . Looks pretty classical to me! They even have a classics department.


Because these schools are few and far between, how does this compare with homeschooling? Dr. Sandra Martin-Chang’s research, The Impact of Schooling on Academic Achievement, was the best data I could find on modern homeschooling. Structured homeschoolers out performed public schoolers of matched socio-economic status:

“children who received structured homeschooling had superior test results compared to their peers: From a half-grade advantage in math to 2.2 grade levels in reading.”

Then structured curriculum with tough books is key. That makes sense, after reading Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.

“Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.”

I definitely want my child’s knowledge to be here today and tomorrow. I kept reading Make It Stick, and found this gem:

“All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge. … Mastery in any field, from cooking to chess to brain surgery, is a gradual accretion of knowledge, conceptual understanding, judgment, and skill. These are the fruits of variety in the practice of new skills, and of striving, reflection, and mental rehearsal. Memorizing facts is like stocking a construction site with the supplies to put up a house. Building the house requires not only knowledge of countless different fittings and materials but conceptual understanding, too.”

After six years of classical education at home, with many tough books accreting to her cultural literacy, I worry less about comparing my eldest child to her peers. Every now and then, I can see a glimpse of the adult she’ll become, with the fruits of her labors.

But, I keep reading. Recently, I read Consider This by Karen Glass. In it, she argues that the point of education is not just to compete in the workforce, but also to create a virtuous adult.

“ ‘The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.’ This idea, that education is more about doing what is right rather than merely knowing information, is founded on a long tradition. When our knowledge is transformed into action, it becomes virtue, and virtue was the goal of the classical educators.”

I finished Norms and Nobility by David V. Hicks last winter, and while I disagree with him on quite a bit, I can see that his definition of a virtuous adult is appealing.

“physically poised, mentally balanced and rounded off, thoughtful in action and active in thought.”

In a public school, physical education is not daily, and producing someone “thoughtful in action and active in thought” is not the goal—meeting the CSOs is, instead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: