After an enjoyable remembrance of his own education at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, Stanley Fish reviews three recent books by authors offering arguments for schooling children in the classics.
Mr. Fish begins by discussing The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education.
Leigh A. Bortins writes as an engineer, a home schooling advocate and the C.E.O. of Classical Conversations, Inc. She sees learning "as a continuing conversation that humankind has been engaged in for centuries" and believes that the decisions we must make today will be better if they are informed by "classical content," that is, by an awareness of what great thinkers of the past have made of the problems we encounter in the present. She wants her children and ours to "hear the collective wisdom of the ages" and "regularly consult the advice of wise and virtuous men and women" when faced with modern "predicaments."
To this end, she proposes a two-pronged program of instruction: "classical education emphasizes using the classical skills to study classical content." By classical skills she means imitation, memorization, drill, recitation and above all grammar, not grammar as the study of the formal structure of sentences (although that is part of it), but grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything: "Every occupation, field of study or concept has a vocabulary that the student must acquire like a foreign language . . . . A basketball player practicing the fundamentals could be considered a grammarian . . . as he repeatedly drills the basic skills, of passing dribbling, and shooting." "Every student," Bortins counsels, "must learn to speak the language of the subject."
"Classical content" identifies just what the subjects to be classically studied are. They are the subjects informed and structured by "the ideas that make us human" -- math, science, language, history, economics and literature, each of which, Bortins insists, can be mastered by the rigorous application of the skills of the classical Trivium, grammar, the study of basic forms, logic, the skill of abstracting from particulars and rhetoric, the ability to "speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic while integrating allusions and examples from one field of study to explain a point in another." Assiduously practice, or as Bortins puts it, "overpractice" these skills, and "a student is prepared to study anything."
Notably absent from Bortins' vision of education is any mention of assessment outcomes, testing, job training (one of her sub-chapters is entitled "The Trivium Replaces Careerism") and the wonders of technology. Her emphasis is solely on content and the means of delivering it. She warns against the narrowing distractions of "industrialization and technologies" and declares that "students would be better educated if they weren't allowed to use computers . . . until they were proficient readers and writers."
As home schooling continues maturing into an even more organized community of parents seeking the most effective ways to educate their offspring, I wonder if good ideas that develop among them will eventually find their way back into public schools.
Mr. Fish goes on to discuss the two other authors who champion the classics, each from a unique perspective.