Classical worldview

Fritz Hinrichs


One of the most delightful characteristics of homeschoolers is that they usually show delightful disregard for most of the educational bureaucracy that has encumbered the pursuit of true education in our country. Much to the annoyance and chagrin of most educational institutions, homeschoolers tend to blithely pursue the educational excellence of their children in total disregard of the many educational hoops that those institutions are so eager to see them enslaved to.

Most educational institutions have become so obsessed with the hoops of education (credits, students hours, etc.) because they have lost the conviction that there is a body of knowledge that comprises the corpus of an education. So what is substituted is institutional requirements. If you asked an administrator in many of these schools, “What do I need to get a diploma” you would find they would have reams of information to give you on all the specifics; however, if you asked “What do I need to know to be educated?” you would probably find them speechless and quite incapable of voicing anything but the most vague platitudes. Because they have no idea of what comprises education, they fall back on institutionalism.

One of the main strengths of classical education is its assertion of a definite body of knowledge that one needs to master to be an educated Westerner. Some educators think this notion of definite “canon” of knowledge is very restricting; however, in fact it is liberating for you are no longer enslaved to pursuing the approval of educational institutions who provide “USDE grade A” certified education. Despite their great assertions of authority, such institutions will always be befuddled when we ask “Where’s the beef?” When you got the beef, the labels you choose are of little consequence.

Put this in some article-
Remember what education is for. Not the success of some institution, but the enriching of the homelife; to make our men more courageous and discerning, to make our women more gracious and insightful, our conversations better competition for the television, out story telling more captivating, our young men less likely to be the clods that are incapable of husbanding their wives and our aesthetics tastes more akin to true beauty.

Classical education has a long history of both home-based and conventional school settings. Our word pedagogue (literally child-leader) actually comes from the ancient Roman practice of putting a domestic slave in charge of a child’s moral and academic education. Even though the ancients did have center’s of learning (Plato’s academy is a good example), it was very common for education to be carried out within the home.

A good modern example of classical education carried out within the home is the education of C.S. Lewis. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts with great fondness his years living with and studying under Kirk, a man whom, because of his tremendous Socratic abilities, he nicknamed “The Great Knock” Under the tutelage of Kirk and his wife, Lewis learned to translate French, Italian, German, Greek (especially Homer), carry on a rigorous line of reasoning and love fine literature.

Even though classical education can be carried out in a conventional context, there are some incompatibilities between conventional schools and the classical approach. Classical education aims to educate the “whole man” rather than produce specialists who are only capable in narrow areas of expertise. The pagans thought that if you were not bound to eking out your livelihood by toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk, you ought to pursue the life of the well-rounded “scholar” (from the Greek word skhole- literally, one who has leisure). It was thought menial to “specialize” in one task and develop a disproportionate level of skill in that particular area. Philip of Macedon, upon hearing his son play the harp with great virtuosity, asked him, “Are you not ashamed to play as well as that?” The King’s assumption was that the prince should obviously be in need of developing so many other skills that he would not have enough time to attain such a level of proficiency at the harp. Christians have also understood their responsibility to develop all of the talents that God has given us. If we do not set ourselves to developing the many faculties that God has given us, we are wastefully burying our talents in the earth.

Even though a conventional school can carry the vision of a well rounded education for its students, the purpose of the conventional school is often to abandon this vision for the faculty. Usually the main purpose of a conventional school is to give teachers the opportunity to specialize and avoid the work of having to develop mastery in all areas of study. Even though students are expected to follow a course of study that demands they be well rounded, at a conventional school they often study under those who have abandoned that quest. In order to avoid this weakness, some classically oriented schools, like St. John’s College, have not allowed their faculties members to be limited to particular areas of curriculum. Avoiding specialization not only shows greater allegiance to a unified conception of knowledge, but practically you find that to understand Shakespeare, you need to understand history and to understand history, you need understand philosophy and to understand philosophy, you need to understand mathematics and round and round you go until you find that you cannot truly understand anything without knowing a little about everything.

The homeschool parent overseeing her child’s education in all areas is actually closer to the classical ideal than the professional education specialist. Certainly one of the most ironic aspects of homeschooling is the fact that often it is the parents as well as the children who end up getting educated. Parents often are forced to become the well-rounded learners they desire their children to be.

Homeschool parents often feel guilty that they are not able to lead their children by the nose through the subjects they are studying; however, if the parents have given their children the tools of learning, they should count it a sign of their success that their children are able to learn independently. To become educated is to come to know how to learn. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, “The sole true end of education is simply this; to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.” The perpetual student syndrome is the exact opposite of the classical ideal. Continual reliance on educational institutions does not show a dedication to learning, but the fact that one has never really acquired the skills of learning, but just an amalgamation of subjects. It is shocking how often you see people traipsing off to the local community college to learn some subject they could very easily acquire by spending a couple of evenings with the right books. If a teacher has not taught his students to learn for themselves, he can only be seen as a failure. Sadly, we tend to equate the level of someone’s education with the amount of time they have spent in the academic institutions, rather than by how quickly they come to be free of the need for those institutions.

With the advent of inexpensive videos (see my PHS review of the Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition series), educational CD-ROMs, and the Internet there are more resources than ever for acquiring the information we need. If being an educated man means to be able to teach oneself, then the classical ideal should be more attainable than ever.

A serious drawback to homeschooling (and unfortunately conventional education) is the need for an educational community in which to pursue learning. Now educational community is not just a large number of warm bodies crammed into a dorm, but a close nit group of individuals who share a mutual desire for further education. Aristotle was correct when he said that to pursue the intellectual life, one must have friends. We cannot be completely self-sufficient; we need others who will quiz our ideas and spur us on to further thought and probing. Where to find these “friends” is a difficult question indeed; however, even conventional schools are often a poor source for these friendships. The fact of the matter is that there will never be many students who are ready to form these types of friendships and often we will be left to resorting to the Internet and other forms of distance communicating to bring such children together.

The home is the ultimate “generalist” institution. Few homes have departments where one can retreat into a narrow specialty and merely focus on their own particular area of strength. A conventional school is simply a large factory with its division of labor. The homeschool is the workshop of the individual craftsman who guides his work from start to finish. He is not fast, he is not well structured, but his work always shows the signs of his love and attention.

A student who has been given a classical education should have the tools to learn. They should no longer be dependent on the educational institutions, but be ready to seriously begin their own labors to become completed educated. But you might ask, “Don’t they need teachers?” Yes they do, but do not forget that books are teachers and great books are great teachers. To be truly educated is to be able to learn from these teachers rather than having another “teacher” lecture to you about what the real teachers have written. A student who is ready to learn from books can be the ideal homeschool student. No longer in the need of the hand holding that the institutions provide, he is ready to establish his own intellectual muscle. Sadly, we have come to see education as simply a sequence of courses at the completion of which you are deemed “educated”. If we were willing to see education as a reflection of content acquired rather than courses completed, we would be free to make educational excellence our aim and homeschooling our means.