Climbing Parnassus

Although we’re only working on preschool this year, I spend a lot of time thinking through and developing my philosophy of education.  No matter what mode of education you choose for your children – public, private, home or a mix – it’s important to have an idea of what your goals are for their education and why you’re sending them where you are or what methods and content you’re using to teach them.

Oftentimes people toss around the parlance of educational philosophies without defining exactly what they mean.  I’ve mentioned that I appreciate the Charlotte Mason school of thought, and by that I mean her emphasis on habits and character, living books, narration, and involving children in ideas in addition to facts.  However, I’m also attracted to some facets of classical education, by which I mean teaching the classics of the Western canon (not to the exclusion of other parts of the world, but our culture is based on certain knowledge and I don’t think you can be truly literate without understanding the concepts and foundational arguments of the classics).  I don’t know that I completely buy into the idea of the trivium, which relies an awful lot on rote memorization for the littlest children, but I do see value in memorizing and also in the early and ongoing teaching of Latin.  Sadly I only had two years of that language, but I think it was of great value to me even in that small dose.

In his book Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, Tracy Lee Simmons attempts to lay out an argument for returning to the form of classical education used by the British system in centuries past and in the educational framework of America up until about 100 years ago.  Along the way he delves into the fascinating history of education, with an eye to how shifting goals and ideas changed the process, and what outcomes were achieved.  I enjoyed learning that history, and particularly liked the way Simmons showed the way that classics and classical language study impacted the founders of America and shaped our founding documents.

Simmons doesn’t limit himself to classic works of literature and philosophy, but really gets into the question of studying Latin and Greek as languages for their own sakes.  He contends that although you can read the classics in excellent translations these days (which is how I read them, and I would say that’s better than nothing), you can’t replace the value of studying Latin and Greek by studying any random other languages.

He points out the fact, which you’ve probably heard, that 60% of English vocabulary is derived from Latin, thus studying Latin aids in your understanding of English.  This is certainly a good point, but Simmons takes it further, explaining how the study of Latin teaches students to be agile, eloquent and clear with their thoughts and use of language, and further teaches analysis, logic, composition and mental discipline.  Based on my own limited study of Latin and what I’ve read from other sources, I would agree with Simmons about the benefits of early and ongoing study of Latin.

However, I struggled with his defense of Greek.  No doubt, as he says, the difference between reading Homer and Plato in Greek versus just an English translation is substantial.  But I do wonder if Greek could be introduced later in the process without suffering ill effects.  Simmons argues that someone who takes up Greek in college or later doesn’t really get the full value of the language since their thought processes and patterns are already formed.  I see his point, but I’m not convinced that I need to teach Greek in the primary years.  If nothing else, I haven’t found many curricula that teach Greek in a manner geared toward younger children.

That said, I do struggle with my vision for language study if we continue homeschooling.  At this point, I plan to start Hannah in Latin next year for Kindergarten using Prima Latina.  My sister-in-law successfully used that program with her sons, and I think that we could take it slowly and stretch it over two years if we needed to do that.  I do think it’s worthwhile to continue Latin throughout, so we’ll keep that up, and then I’m on the fence about a modern language.  I took German and Russian in school but I think French or Spanish would be more useful.  So if we could find a good program in one of those languages, we’ll likely start that in 2nd grade or so.

I found Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin an interesting read, and although I was not fully convinced of the author’s arguments I did enjoy his take on the subject and would recommend it.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

8 thoughts on “Climbing Parnassus

  1. I teach kindergarten at a classical Christian school and it is about SO much more than rote memorization. I’ll forward you a recent email from our headmaster that has a good explanation of classical education. I also like the same aspects of the Charlotte Mason approach that you do. She is considered a classical educator by some, isn’t she?

    1. Thanks Bethany. I didn’t mean to imply that classical education was only about rote memorization, but rather that when many people think of it they think the Trivium and sometimes they seem to take that too far. I’ve read a lot of great books on Christian classical education (The Well Trained Mind, The Case for Classical Christian Education, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, etc) that resonated with me, and I don’t think that classical and Charlotte Mason ideas are necessarily at odds. In fact, Susan Wise Bauer had a good blog on that topic a while back (which I thought I bookmarked but can’t seem to find to link it). I’m sorry if I seemed dismissive of the classical model.

  2. Have you looked at Song School Latin? If Prima Latina doesn’t work out, check out that one… very easy, gentle, lots of songs, etc. Our kids (5 and 6) are loving it so far.

    Watch out for Charlotte Mason’s theology of the child. From what I read, she does not really seem to agree with total depravity. I love a lot of her ideas, and we use them in school too, but her view of the child’s response to education doesn’t really seem to line up completely with Scripture (from what I’ve read).


    1. I bookmarked the Greek book too when I went searching for the Latin. It looked like a good start but maybe for 2nd or 3rd graders since they would need to memorize and learn to write a new alphabet. I did find Song School Latin on Amazon and purchased it because it looked like we could start it now based on the sample pages and the fact that several reviewers mentioned using it with kids as young as 2. I’m really excited about it! I would still like to use Memoria Press for next year, but I’m glad to find something that looks doable for the preschool set too.

      I also noted that they have a beginning Spanish program that looks promising.

      Thanks again for the tips and links Anna!

  3. For anyone who is considering instruction in Latin or Greek, my advice is to dive in and early. As a parent of three teen daughters whose early education was in our home, I regret that we did not provide Latin and Greek instruction. I agree with the arguments made by Simmons and suggest that even if one is still contemplating the theoretical reasons for a classical education, one must begin with praxis while the children are still young enough to benefit fully from the opportunity of the study of classical languages. They can return later in life to study modern American fiction and all of the other “subjects” that are standard fare in public school education, but they likely will never again have the opportunity to learn languages at a time in their lives when they are particularly capable of the mental work required in those pursuits.

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