Interview with the Classical Christian Digest
1. We understand that you believe Greek is more important than Latin. Why do you believe this and at what age would you suggest that the teaching of Greek begin?
The relative merits of Latin and Greek certainly could produce good fodder for a rhetoric class, however, the best answer should always be "both." What seems to me misguided is the rampant habitual assumption that classical education and Latin define one another.
Often it is argued that Latin should be taught rather than Greek because the Greek alphabet is so dissimilar to our English script that confusion could be the only natural result in a young student. This has never been my experience. Given the fact that learning a language requires a large amount of memorization, the inability to memorize twenty four unfamiliar characters bodes ill for any further language study.
There are two main arguments for learning the ancient languages. They improve ones ability to use the modern languages and they allow one to read the great texts of antiquity without translation. The former argument most likely weighs on the side of Latin being that English and Latin are linked more closely linguistically than English and Greek. However, the latter argument favors Greek. Given the general literary superiority of the Greeks over the Romans, Greek texts have more hidden insights that can be revealed through close reading in the original tongue.
I have no experience teaching language to younger children, however, the most interesting advice on the subject that I have found was in Montaigne's essay, "On the Education of Children." He recommends teaching children foreign languages as early as possible. He also recommends teaching them by total immersion. All the servants in his father's house were commanded to speak nothing but Latin to him.
2. Would you please share with us several things parents can do to prepare their sons and daughters for a Great Books education?
One never comes to a point where they are "ready" to read the great books. Trying to teach the great books is extremely difficult and humbling because the texts always have thoughts that continue to stretch you. However, how does one prepare to begin the journey correctly?
Great authors draw from a very large pool of human experience. They are able to write precisely because they have observed precisely. Writing mirrors life and to write well, one must know and understand much of life. The same goes for reading. The more one knows of life, the more he is able to comprehend what he reads. For example, how can know one truly understand the word "harmonious", before they have sung in a choir. The beauty produced in the whole by each member contributing their singular part must be experienced to be known. A rich life experience is necessary to lay hold of the full meaning of language.
Parents need to fill their children's lives with much that lets them taste of the richness of creation; trips to the tidepools, music, laughter, art museums, time in the park to look at leaves and muddy streams, the great stories of history, travel to foreign places and countries, an understanding of the importance of government and civil order, being on a boat where you can't see land, aching joints from hard labor, people who speak a different language, cutting down a tree, the joy of true friendship, the grief born of faithlessness, the joy of birth, the destruction brought by death. Literature draws on much of human life. It organizes the jumble of cacophonous notes that comprise our chaotic lives and allows us to hear God's sovereign harmony. If one does not know the notes, then the harmony often makes little sense. God blessed me with a mother who gave herself to provide her five children with a very rich and abundant childhood. I will always be grateful for the sacrifice she made.
Great literature requires broad readers. It is not for specialists. Oftentimes "success" comes from limiting ourselves to one pursuit and perfecting it to such a level that we can be the best in our field. Thought it is flattering for a parent to see their child "succeeding" in one particular field, allowing a child to be so focused will often draw them away from growing more general interests. Our national media exalts narrow success of many types. We often forget how droll such people can be and how little of life they often discern.
An understanding of much of life's experiences is gained from reading; however, it cannot be a substitute for vigorous life experience. To prepare for a great books education, a rich childhood complimented with much good reading is the careful balance that must be sought.
If you have found this answer quite unhelpful in planning next week's lesson plan, you might find my article at http://www.gbt.org/preparing.html a little more heavy on specifics. I would also recommend an article by my wizened partner, Wes Callihan, at http://www.schola-tutorials.com/prepare.htm. If you are not one to take a bachelor's ramblings on child rearing and education to be worth much, let it be known that Wes has six kids and thus speaks with the requisite authority.
3. One of the things that sets a classical education apart from the typical education is the "discussion" factor. How can a parent foster the atmosphere necessary to engage a child in the Great Conversation?
Ideas must be important in your home. Time must be taken to sit around the table and discuss questions. Life must not be such a rush that there is never time to let a conversation develop from a seminal idea into an involved discussion. We must also pursue the discerning balance between keeping our children from erroneous thought and allowing curiosity to wander even when it asks probing questions. We need to clearly define the boundaries of truth, so that curious thoughts may wander without the fear of serious confusion.
We must always be weary of intellectual cynicism of any sort. Cynicism can be turned towards many areas; theology, politics, art, etc. Cynicism will quickly numb the mind. If concentrated thought can come to no insights or solutions, why take the time?
The thoughts of others must be respected. We do this primarily by listening to someone when we are conversing with them. Careful listening shows that you hold their thoughts to be of value. After you learn to listen to another person, then you can learn to comprehend what they are saying. At this point, the other person will come to the startling and sometime fearful realization that they are being listened to and need to carefully think about what they are saying.
Developing a love for discussion begins with very simple courtesies. However, content as well as form is important for the development of good conversation. An active life of reading helps us gain information that will make conversation fascinating. Without the ability to talk about something outside ourselves, we are often left to talking about ourselves. The less we know of the world around us, the more closely we attempt to examine ourselves in hopes of finding something interesting. Such self-absorption cannot lead to the communion of ideas, but only the isolation of self-love.
4. At the recent homeschooling conference in Escondido, California you presented a talk on the importance of math in a classical curriculum.
Could you summarize for us here at the Digest what was said (in a way that would make us want to purchase the tape, of course...)? Please share information as to how to go about purchasing the tapes.
The tapes of the Escondido Conference on Classical Christian Homeschooling can be purchased at http://www.cassetteproducts.com/classical_christian_home_schooli.htm My general web site address is http://www.gbt.org
The talk I gave at the conference focused on mathematics and specifically the Greek geometrician, Euclid. Being that the histories of math and science are quite intertwined, many of the same observations can be applied to the teaching of math can also be applied to science. The rest of this reply will address both fields.
When teaching science, it is important to remember that science did not arise out of a vacuum but has a history of its own. When we teach science without historical context, we set it up as a dogma that can easily usurp the place of other valid authorities. Students need to develop the computational skills that scientific proficiency requires; however, emphasizing the history of science will keep your science program from becoming narrow. The history of science has been a rocky and often embarrassing saga; however, this is not the impression you will get using many modern textbooks as they content themselves with simply summarizing the theories that are most widely accepted in contemporary science.
One of the great sagas in the development of science took place in the field of astronomy. Astronomy has such a long history because the instruments associated with its study are simple. If you would like to add a segment to your curriculum to help your student understand this saga, start with Ptolemy’s "Almagest." Ptolemy, a first century Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer, put forward in his "Almagest" a system of astronomy that was widely held for more than 1600 years. What is so fascinating about Ptolemy’s flawed geocentric system is that he was able to build a coherent mathematical system to explain the observations that were made with the instruments of his day. It was not until Tycho Brahe, a 16th century Dane, combined the inquisitiveness of an astronomer with the know-how of a craftsman, that the instruments used in astronomy were improved to the point that they could conclusively show the inaccuracies in the Ptolemaic system. Given this new level of precision in the astronomical observations, Copernicus was able to set forth a system using the heliocentric model that was much more accurate than that of Ptolemy. Even though Copernicus abandoned the heliocentric view, he still held, as Ptolemy did, that the planetary orbits were circular rather than elliptical. It would take Johannes Kepler, and finally, Isaac Newton in his "Principia Mathematica" to show the advantages of employing elliptical rather than circular motion to describe the orbits. Selections from the writings of Ptolemy, Copernicus and Kepler are contained in volume 16 of "Great Books of the Western World" from Encyclopedia Britannica (ISBN 0-85229-163-9). Newton’s "Principia Mathematica" is published by the University of California Press (ISBN 0-520-00927-4).
Another great saga in the development of Science is the field of anatomy and specifically the understanding of the circulatory system. Galen, the great second century roman physician, understood the liver to be the source of blood. From the liver, the blood then flooded outward to the extremities of the body where it was consumed. It was not until William Harvey published "The Circulation of the Blood" in 1628 that this view was replaced with the understanding that the blood actually returns from the extremities to the heart to be reused. Harvey’s "The Circulation of the Blood" is available from the Everyman’s library (ISBN- 0 460 01262 2) and Harvey’s and Galen’s writings are available in the set, "Great Books of the Western World," previously mentioned.
As moderns we are quite quick to dismiss the scientific endeavors of previous generations as just so much muddle-headed nonsense; however, seeing the mistakes of the past shows us the pitfalls that can be the undoing of our own theories. Each generation attempts to reconcile its most precise observations with consistent and universal mathematical principles. Modern science has done much to enshrine itself as a "dogmatism of the present." This confidence is the grandchild of the enlightenment’s brave assertions regarding the efficacious character of "objective reason." In order to get a good taste of this confidence in the new scientific method, read Francis Bacon’s "The New Organon" (1620) (ISBN 0-672-60289-X). The German philosopher Immanuel Kant also contributed to modern man’s tremendous confidence in his own scientific powers. He declared that scientific and mathematical laws are not distillations of consistencies seen in an "external" reality, but merely products of the mind’s own ordering of our sense experience. Thus in Kant’s view, man need no longer be troubled with the suspicion that he has misinterpreted something outside himself. Accepting Kant's view, scientist began to claim that empirical observation and the scientific method were the most certain means of knowledge man could attain.
This great confidence in science has not been able to bear the weight of it own presumptuousness. Even modern secular prophets have come to acknowledge the tenuous nature of the hold that scientific theories can maintain over the human mind. In "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Thomas Kuhn clearly demonstrates this progression from one scientific paradigm to the next using a number of telling historical examples. The challenge for modern man will be whether he can face up to the mortality of his scientific idol without racing to the opposite extreme of mindless relativism. Given a few generations fed upon the touchy-feely math and science programs that are currently the rage in most educational circles, one can be sure future students will have no experience in their own education that will encourage them to develop a faith in the existence of universal scientific laws. The days of scientific presumption are most likely numbered; however, in its place the Christian must be ready to reaffirm a biblical understanding of man's ability to see God's orderly hand in nature.
Our goal should be to teach a humble science. Not one that would lead to an inordinate presumption regarding scientific claims, but neither one that has not the courage rise up and unify the often confusing experience that is the world around us. An education that will promote such a balanced view of science will not only teach it as set of given computational procedures, but also as a field with a tumultuous history of its own. A history that will never stop developing until man ceases the process of observation and reflection. Humble science will not parade about as an end in itself rewarding absolute knowledge to its epistemologically greedy devotees, but will point us beyond itself to the One whose nature we are delighted to plum by studying His mysterious yet comprehensible creation.
5. Do you see any dangers inherent in the growing popularity of the classical Christian model for education? How about advantages?
Classical education gives a greater potency for both good and evil. We seem to live in a very boring day when men's sins as well as virtues are often pitiful in their cowardliness. C.S Lewis' "Screwtape Letters" develops this theme nicely. A classical education will make us strong. Yet, what we do with our strength will be determined by whether it also makes us good. We can never be made good in God's eyes, but a classical Christian education also is the most fertile context for sensitive moral training.
A student with a good classical education will be tempted to both pride and discouragement at the same time. Pride when he realizes how superior his education is to that of most of his peers and discouragement when he realizes how far he still falls short of the great minds of the past. A student who receives a poor classical education- similar to the ideal portrayed in the movie "Dead Poets Society"- will soon be filled with far more pomp and self-admiration than understanding of the world he lives in. A mindless and unprincipled adoration of the past will soon beget a similar adoration of self.
6. Where does a beginner start on their classical educating journey? For self-education? For educating their offspring? Their students?
Trying to find the start of a classical education is a little like trying to find where it would end. The worse thing to do is to set some outlandish goal for ourselves and then keep wallowing in guilt that we have not yet attained it. A classical education will probably be more surely acquired in spurts and starts than a well ordered plan. Because classical education fits the big picture together so nicely, it does not need to be begun in one place. Rather you will soon find that all roads seem to end up leading everywhere.
After reading Pascal's "Pensees", you might find an interest in knowing something of his philosophic arch-nemesis, Descartes. After reading some of Descartes' "Meditations on First Philosophy" , you will probably fall in love with French prose and be drawn to some of the essays of Montaigne. About this time, you will find that your need for a better understanding of ancient philosophy will become painfully evident. You have a friend who has an old copy of Plato's "Republic" from Philosophy 101, so you start there. Fortunately, your friend had a good professor and there are Greek terms scribbled in the margins that were of obvious benefit to your friend's understanding. Soon enough you have the bug for learning Greek. It comes upon you slowly, but after a while, you know you have been trapped- learn Greek or forever be pained by the knowledge of what you are missing. While you are reading the "Republic", Plato keeps talking about sections in Homer that must be edited for fear they will bring down the social order. So of course, the Iliad and the Odyssey soon find their way to your bed stand.
So comes a classical education. If you are addicted to structure and have someone who will hold your feet to the fire when the going gets tough, starting with a book list is helpful. You can find my own recommendations at http://www.gbt.org/gbt.html. The disciplined approach will probably get you further along faster, but without inspiration, your efforts will soon grow sluggish.
Once having something of a classical education yourself, knowing how to educate your children will be much easier. It is very difficult to give what you do not have.
Where will you find the time for all this educating? Let me see. First, we dump any sports activity that requires scheduled practices. Second, stop any church activities outside of Sunday. Then goes the TV. Then we learn to say no to the friend who is in the habit of calling "just to talk". If you are in business for yourself, you learn to work a regular day. All this may sound brutal, however, being "busy" is the natural punishment that comes upon those who cannot discern the significant from the urgent.
7. What kind of student is going to get the most out of a classical education?
If treated as a means rather than an end, classical education will soon be discarded for means that more quickly bring one to ends that appear more desirable. If a parent's true goal is to see their child at Princeton, a classical education may be a hindrance rather than an aid. A classical education will teach a child to love truth and any institution that abandons that love will become repugnant no matter what "success" it might tantalizingly offer. Getting into Princeton is an achievement, but not one I feel a great burden to give my life helping students to achieve. It is a useful goal but certainly not the highest and in some instances (such as huge financial sacrifice), simply imprudent. Students who see classical education as a means to some other end will probably never be fertile ground for the sincere sense of curiosity and wonder that classical education attempts to awaken in a child. A classical education must be given the place of a wife, not a mistress.
Some children never seem to have the natural delight in knowledge that is so crucial to gaining a classical education. For these children, the rod must continue to be the master because they also have minds that must be shown God's truth rather than allowed to wallow in ignorance.
8. Where are your tutorials headed? In other words, what are your plans for the future of the tutorials? What classes, if any, will you be adding?
Although I am heavily involved in distance education through the Internet, I feel no great burden to champion distance education. I use it for my own purposes, but do not have a "plan" for the technological side of my work. It is wonderful that it can be used to provide education to so many whom would not otherwise have the ability to access it. To those who are concerned about the use of distance education, I say that it does not greatly concern me that technology creates communities that require a great deal of driving time to bring together. I still remain very involved with my local home-school community but am also happy to be able to create and be part of a nationwide community as well.
Seven tutors now are working with Escondido Tutorial Services. Each starts their own tutorial service and rents technical services from ETS. We work autonomously from one another (i.e. no committee meetings, yahoo!). For a complete list of the tutorials currently offered, please see http://www.gbt.org/tut.html.
The plans I do have are to develop the Great Books Tutorial as a complete program that can used as a guide to the classical Christian schooling community. Lord willing, I will be teaching the fifth and final year of the GBT next Fall. There is still much that I need to understand regarding how best to use the program to guide students towards developing a biblical worldview. I would love to see other tutors and teachers use the approach. I am not sure if the best way for me to use my time is to mentor other tutors or to work on developing a set of commentaries on the great books from a Christian perspective. Probably, both will be necessary. If I live as long as my 98 year old grandfather, I will have another 68 years to work on the project. May the Lord be glorified!
I would also like to develop a classical approach to mathematics. This is an area that seems to be painfully unexamined in the classical Christian community and I am afraid that we are still only baptizing pagan curriculum in this area. At St. John's College (my alma mater), the four year mathematics program was the most successful part of the program besides the Great Books Seminar. I have been pleased with the results running the first year of the St. John's mathematics program (my Euclid tutorial) but would also like to develop all four years of the program to compliment the Great Books Tutorial.