The Core

Classical education encourages us that we are capable of becoming an Oxford don who builds bicycles, or a plumber who reads Milton, or a business owner who spouts theology.  The classically educated are not defined by their occupation so much as by their breadth of knowledge and understanding.  -Leigh Bortins

I’ve been disturbed recently by a trend of demeaning the idea that everyone deserves a good education.  You have probably seen these items too: “Does one need to read King Lear to be qualified to write speeding tickets or draw blood?” or the insinuation that for most students, studying calculus and physics and classic literature is about as useful as “trying to train your cat to do your taxes.” Once you start down this road things quickly get out of hand: if you don’t need to study classic literature and calculus (which I suppose means you  don’t need to know how to read proficiently and think analytically, which is what literature and calculus teach you) to be a cop or a plumber or a salesman, then what else can you skip?  Should those people be allowed to vote?  Do they really NEED to give thoughtful input into how their communities or businesses are run?  Do some people really NEED to eat with a knife and fork?  Do they really NEED to speak with proper grammar, or would grunting suffice?

Pshaw, you say, surely there is a vast gulf between reading Plato and being civilized.  Is there really?  I think every child could benefit from learning how to think and read well, and how to understand current events in light of history.  As Leigh Bortins says in her book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, “The goal of education is to teach children to become adults who can handle complex ideas in uncertain situations, with confidence…Classical educators teach subjects not because they are practical, but because they also train people to think clearly about difficult issues.”

In this book, Bortins discusses the reasoning behind taking a classical approach to education, and I appreciated that she directed the book not only toward full-time homeschooling parents, but also to parents who have children in public or private schools, and even to teachers in those schools.  Bortins’ perspective is that all parents can be involved and take an active role in their child’s education, and all teachers can implement better standards and practices in their classrooms.

I also liked Bortins’ explanation of the classical model not as a series of stages that happen at set ages, but as a logical progression of how people learn new subjects.  One common criticism of classical education is that it only allows rote memorization for little kids, with no allowance for ideas or synthesis until middle school.  I don’t know anyone who actually does that in real life: most classical people are happy to see a four year old making connections and interacting with ideas.  Bortins expresses this well when she talks about how even as an adult she approaches new information with the Trivium model: “When encountering new information the brain must know how to store data (grammar), retrieve and process data (logic), and express data (rhetoric).”

Although it’s not as detailed as The Latin-Centered Curriculum, The Core does discuss ways to approach different subjects classically.  I got a lot out of the section on math – particularly the explanation of why math concepts have to be over-practiced to be mastered and the importance of speed and accuracy.  Bortins is an engineer by training, which explains her in depth understanding of how math and science work, and I appreciated the time she took to explain the goals of teaching math.  Because I’m a big picture thinker, I really need those “here is the vision” type explanations so I can understand how to carry out the day to day process.

Another helpful chapter is the geography section.  Perhaps because I changed schools a lot growing up, or perhaps because it’s just not taught that much anymore, I never studied geography in school!  Honestly, my understanding of where the states are located in my own nation has come almost totally via my childrens’ wooden United States puzzle.  I’ve always wished I had better geography knowledge, and have tried to teach myself geography along the way.  Bortins’ chapter on geography gave me some great ideas for map study and how to teach myself AND my children geography.  If my kids happen to take Soviet Empire with Professor Kotkin when they go to Princeton, they will not fail the map quiz like their mama did!  🙂

Although I got a lot out of The Core, I didn’t find myself in complete agreement with the author’s ideas.  That’s pretty normal for me.  I plan to put more emphasis on language study than she lays out in this book, and I would say my vision on several points is more closely aligned with The Latin-Centered Curriculum as I’ve previously written.  However, I did get some great ideas and inspiration from The Core and I would recommend it.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

3 thoughts on “The Core

  1. I think there’s a difference between needing a good education and needing a college education, which may be the main gripe in those articles. I think you can have the goal of creating lifelong learners without making a college education a necessary part of that. Certainly, in today’s society, a college education is becoming more and more of a necessity but I still don’t think it’s for everyone. Of course that’s not to say everyone doesn’t deserve a good basic education.

    1. I agree that college might not be the best option for a lot of people (although frankly I think that’s because a lot of colleges are just high school part 2, not true university educations) but I think the articles I linked made me unhappy because the implication is that the REASON some people don’t need college is that some jobs don’t require an in-depth education. As though, to counter the Bortins quote in this post, a plumber DOESN’T need to read Milton. The point, I think, is that a classical education trains a person to be a critical reader and an analytical thinker, as well as a good communicator, and we all benefit the more people have those skills. Even if all that plumber ever does with his classical education is become a more educated and logical voter, less susceptible to illogical rhetoric and better able to think through implications of what he’s voting for, I’m all for that. But I think it extends beyond voting to all sorts of civic and community involvement. Why should we build up our communities? Why is it important to follow laws (or, in other cases, break them)? How should we thoughtfully use biomedical advances and technology? You can answer those questions, even on a small person by person level, much more easily and coherently if you understand the body of thought that has come before.

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