C. S. Lewis didn’t like school, but he did love learning. As he recounts in his biography, Surprised By Joy, Lewis began to get excited about scholarship when he began to be tutored by William Kirkpatrick or, as he called him, “The Great Knock.” “The Great Knock,” as he shall forever be immortalized, was a Scottish realist whose hard-line approach to logic both challenged and formed Lewis’ intellect and character. His tutor’s zeal for passing on genuine learning was infectious, and happily for all of us, Lewis caught the “disease.”
Lewis’ experience with The Great Knock was not at all like the typical classroom experience. That may seem obvious, but sadly, many online “classical” schools today appropriate the modern approaches which Lewis despised, rather than modeling themselves after The Great Knock and the real classical tradition. Here are some differences:
1. A genuine classical education includes the development of virtue along with the teaching of logic in all subjects, so students should be tutored in small groups by trustworthy teachers. This is particularly true in humanities courses. Classes which engage students in the classics of literature and history must engage students in small groups if the students are to be taught how (rather than what) to think, or the “conversation” about the texts cannot be had. This conversation involves a personal connection with students so they learn how to think for themselves and learn how to develop values based on the text. It’s just a simple fact: if your student is in a course with more than 13-15 students, that conversation cannot occur with any consistency or accountability, either for the student or teacher.
2. A classical education teaches students to appreciate and enjoy truth and beauty, not to be entertained by cutsie projects. This concept that students must be “entertained” originated in the very same modern school system which most homeschooling and classical parents say they are rejecting. Yet, many are taken in by the “feel-good” approach which the public school system has incorporated now for over a half century. That’s the contradiction of modern education: its philosophies claim to be catering to the individual needs and feelings of the student while in actuality, they deny the student access to timeless truths in the name of “feel-good” assignments. Students find real self-esteem in success and knowledge. This leads me to my next point:
3. While modern educators assert that they are trying to “relate” to the students’ interests, the larger classes, cookie-cutter demands, and busywork which many so-called classical schools implement go exactly AGAINST this goal. A classical educator helps the student find genuine joy by passing on the torch of learning, not by providing worksheets and cut and dried answers, or even the now ubiquitous “group projects.”
Classical homeschooling became popular several decades ago because parents wanted their children educated individually, mentored by adults they trusted–either the parents themselves or people they trusted to teach subject areas in which they were not competent. In other words, the vision was for the students, their children, to be tutored, mentored, guided. The advent of online schools has been both a blessing and curse to those with the homeschooling vision because while it gives parents the ability to get help in areas they are weak in, it also presents the danger of falling prey to “trusting the experts.” Many online schools present themselves as classical while actually adhering to the more modern approach to education.
What do I mean by “classical cliches” in my title, then? Many are now homeschooling for reasons which are different from those which homeschoolers who began this movement had. Those reasons are varied, and all are logical. Some homeschool to keep their children safe from school violence; some to give their children “the basics” in education which they might not get at the local public school; some in order that they do not need to vaccinate their children (such as in California). All of these families have the right and responsibility to do as they think is best for their progeny.
What is NOT right is the redefining of what a classical education is which many schools are propogating. There is no shame in education which is not classical. What is shameful is when educators and schools claim that classes which have actually adopted the modern pedagogy are actually classical, for it belies and denigrates the definition of what a classical education is. It is the responsibility of “educators” to honestly and properly define what their classes are, so that parents can make informed choices. The parents have to trust the educators, and there’s no getting around that.
Most of us were not classically trained. We want the best for our children, adjusted to our personal circumstances (geographical, financial) and our children’s personal inclinations. We tend to trust those who claim they represent the classical movement, and that is natural, especially if these educators and schools claim to hold our values.
However, the internet and the ensuing new “explosion” of internet schools have allowed people who are not experts to make many claims that they might not previously have been able to legitimize, so if we want to sign our students up for “classical” courses, it’s a good idea to give extra thought as to what that really means. Thinking about C. S. Lewis and The Great Knock gives us a concrete example of the classical model, which truly is in opposition to most of the educational philosophies which have developed over the last century. If students who are forming their character and habits are to be treated with dignity, individually, the true classical approach is the best possible approach. (Photo of The Great Knock here.)
May we all choose what is best for our own particular children/students, as we navigate this difficult marketplace, so full of complicated choices!
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