Why care about reading? Why care about reading the Great Books? What exactly are the Great Books? What value do they bring to life? What am I missing out on?
In classical education, you hear a lot about The Great Books. Many classical schools even have a statement about the number of Great Books their students will graduate having read and processed. However, most people, including many parents sending their children to a classical school, have no idea what the Great Books are.
First, a quick background nutshell of the literature road to the Great Books- in classical schools we have a high regard for, and love of, good literature. Does it matter what you read to your kids, or what you allow them to read? Absolutely! The cultural idea in education is to just get them reading, it doesn't matter what it is. But, it does matter! It matters greatly. Your kids need to eat too, but that doesn't mean you just feed them Fruit Loops!
We start reading and enjoying good, solid literature from that very first read aloud as a baby. We choose high quality literary books for their sophisticated language patterns, their solid vocabulary, and their deep, engaging stories. In the grammar school, these are books like Madeline, Corduroy, Blueberries for Sal, Doctor DeSoto, Aesop's Fables, Peter Pan, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, Robin Hood, and hundreds more. These books prepare our students to enter the great conversation of Great Books when they enter logic and rhetoric school.
What exactly are the Great Books? Why care about them? Why read them? Does it really matter?
Yes, yes, it does!
What is it about binge watching a Netflix series that we as humans love? It's exciting to get into the lives of people, to get lost in their stories, to see life, or specific circumstances through their eyes. The story, getting ourselves INTO a story, is what draws us into TV show binges.
What we don't realize is that the exact thing we are drawn to in a TV binge series can be experienced much more richly in a novel, poem, or epic. The problem is that we rarely take the time to properly enjoy and digest our food, much less a good book. A Great Book is more challenging and as a culture we have lost the ability to wrestle with a complicated book. Instead, we choose the easier, more passive route of trying to satisfy our desire to be in the center of a story by binging on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon video. It takes more endurance and actually requires something of us to feed ourselves with a book. Television requires nothing of us.
So what are these Great Books classical schools talk about reading? Who decides what a Great Book is and why should we care?
What exactly are the Great Books?
The list that comprises the Great Books is an emergent canon. Once you pick up one, you realize it's referencing Descartes and you wonder who that is, so you pick up that book, and then it mentions Aristotle, and now, you're going to the library to read him. The Great Books are self-referential and self-evident. Mortimer Adler called them a great conversation between geniuses. They are constantly asking questions, answering each other's questions, and referring to each other. Different schools, book lists, and libraries have different lists of what they consider the Great Books, but 90-95% of the time the lists are identical because it's emergent. The books refer to each other and you really have to read them all to get what all of them are saying to each other. Here's an example of some:
Why should we read the Great Books? What do I get out of reading stuff from dead Ancient guys?
The Great Books teach people to reason well and communicate winsomely. Reading and studying these books ARE for everyone and reading them helps you to become culturally literate. They teach people to know how to think, and to know what’s at stake. If all we ever do is passively receive information, especially information that is homogenous to our own beliefs and thought systems, we cripple our ability to be culture shapers, to be creators and innovators. We stop ourselves from growing as humans.
What does challenging my thought systems and growing as a human practically look like using the Great Books?
The majority of average education is very pointed. Students grow up, and as adults, they might have an education background in chemistry, biology, engineering or math, but they have major holes. The vast majority of us have lopsided educations. We reach our adult years and realize we missed out on humanities and the liberal arts. We have no idea about psychological thought or philosophical thought and we find ourselves unable to read certain types of literature. This greatly hinders our ability to participate in the great conversations of what it means to be human- testing our belief systems, engaging with people of different faiths, and challenging our own presuppositions about life.
For example, let's take Plato's The Republic. It starts by asking, "What is justice?" Justice is wrestled out, the geniuses talk about what it may or may not be. Suddenly, the presupposition I've had in my head about justice is being broken. Or is it? We have our own ideas that came from our parents, our faith backgrounds, our educations, and even pop culture. We often aren't even aware that we have a script about justice until we confront a conversation about justice.
When we use the material of the Great Books to discuss things like justice, we are given the opportunity to test the script we've been given, to talk through, debate, and analyze the natural presumptions we hold. Simply reading them isn't enough. Discussion is where comprehension, and then action takes place. Discussion is paramount, otherwise, we get a bunch of young people who, when asked why they believe something can only respond with, "well, because." It is only when we firmly believe something that we actually allow ourself to be challenged and change our viewpoints if necessary.
How to read the Great Books
There are so many ways to read, discuss, and enjoy the Great Books. There are all kinds of resources and books online that outline the works considered in the Great Books collection. The two most popular ways to read are syntopically and chronologically.
Syntopically means that you study the books according to a specific topic. For example, going back to justice. You might explore the topic of justice throughout the Great Books and see what people had to say and write about it over a thousand years. This approach is great because you move from author to author and don't get stuck on one specifically, especially if it's one where you don't particularly enjoy the writing style.
Chronologically means you study the books in order. They scaffold on each other, and the author's reference various works. When you do them in order you understand the references they are making, and the entire conversation begins to make sense.
How long does it take?
Reading the Great Books isn't something you set out to do in a year. It's a lifetime growth trajectory in which you are constantly engaging with great minds and great ideas. It's a transformative lifestyle choice. It doesn't mean you have to feel overwhelmed by a process that really is never-ending. Sometimes it means you jump in full force for a season, and dial it down a little in other seasons. But what it does mean is that you are always seeking to learn and grow, and what better way to learn and grow than to explore the great minds and great ideas of the past and then, converse with others today about it. How do their ideas flesh out today, what does it mean for humanity? What does it mean for our presuppositions and our own faith beliefs?
How does discussing the Great Books as an adult propel you towards additional growth and learning outside the Great Books?
The process of reading and wrestling with difficult content in the Great Books means you are willing to put yourself in a position where your beliefs are challenged and forced to solidify, change, or grow. How does the great conversation within the Great Books lead to other areas of growth? Maybe it's finding a challenging podcast to listen to, one that stretches your faith, or one that simply exposes you to others who are different than you, and choosing to sit down over coffee with a group of friends to discuss what new thoughts you encountered.
What does studying the Great Books look like in logic school (7th-8th) and rhetoric school (9th-12th) look like?
At The Classical Academy, we begin students on the lifelong journey of falling in love with the Great Books in 7th grade. Our Great Books course is called Omnibus and encompass history, literature, and theology. Students gain a greater understanding of our world, its history, and our Creator, while learning how to challenge many of the worldviews they will face during their lives. By the time students graduate and have gone through the complete Omnibus program throughout 7th-12th grade, they will have worked through all 66 books of the Bible.
The Omnibus courses are comprised of primary and secondary books. Primary reading material includes titles from the Great Books within the historical context, while secondary books and readings are from Scripture as well as modern fiction and non-fiction.
Cathy Duffy, a popular curriculum review expert describes the typical Omnibus class as follows: The Omnibus textbook provides background and thought-provoking material for students to read before the Great Books reading assignment. Each of these sections is written by an author familiar with the primary reading. For example, one author/expert in the area writes the sections on The Odyssey, Aeneid, and the books from the Chronicles of Narnia, while another author/expert covers some of the biblical books, and yet another author/expert writes on the Epic of Gilgamesh, and another does Julius Caesar. Each of these contributions follows a similar format with information about the author and context, the significance of the work, the main characters, summary and setting, and worldview.
Following this preliminary material in the text our phenomenal and experienced Omnibus teacher leads students through class sessions utilizing both the preliminary reading and the Great Books themselves. These vary in number and content depending upon the Great Book to be studied. Here's an example of how it works for the Code of Hammurabi, one of the first written records of a code of law. Talk about opportunities to discuss!
After working through the preliminary material, students are led through thought-provoking questions such as "Why are laws necessary? How do we know when laws are just?" After this, students begin reading the first section of the Code of Hammurabi.
The session activity puts students to work as jurists. They are given three cases with the assignment to judge them according to the Code of Hammurabi and then according to the Bible. When this is finished, students continue reading the next section of the Code.
Students have a recitation period with a series of discussion questions. Students extend their learning by drawing up their own legal code for their house rules. Students then read the rest of the Code and continue discussing questions such as "What do laws have to do with justice?" and "How is justice understood in our culture?" Our Omnibus teacher leads students through a somewhat logical progression of thought as they deal with the key ideas. As students move into the rhetoric stage, they culminate their studies with their own persuasive writings and speeches about their work in the great conversation of the Great Books.
Do logic and rhetoric school students really read every single one of the Great Books?
Studying the great minds and great ideas within the Great Books is a lifetime pursuit, and a lifetime of conversation. With that in mind, we have crafted our curriculum in such a way that allows the average child to excel and the gifted child to be challenged, all while staying true to a classical method of learning. Not every single book will be read in its entirety, but as the learning model goes, students will go deeper and deeper into the material every year.
Want to learn more about the art of dialogue and conversation in learning throughout our school and particularly in our logic school? Check out A Better Approach to Middle School
Looking to find out more about Fishers classical, Christian, university-schedule school? Attend one of our upcoming info nights!
The middle/logic school years don't have to be a daunting, dreaded, peer pressure filled time in students' lives. As adults, we far too often hear stories from people's middle school years that have negatively affected them long into their adulthood. We've all heard the stories and, in response, many have declared middle school is simply the worst idea in human history.
Another category of adults have simply accepted this as a "fact of life," a "rite of passage" of sorts to walk through the middle school years getting banged up and bruised.
The middle school years are undoubtably a unique time in students' lives. It has its own set of challenges unlike any other developmental stage. It's true that students are walking into a time in their lives where they want to test their wings, formulate their identity apart from their family unit, gain acceptance from a peer group, and also test out their own arguments, thoughts, and opinions. These are normal, natural developmental stages that every middle school age student goes through no matter how hard we may fearfully try to divert them. Walking through those phases is inevitable.
But what doesn't have to be inevitable is the personal, spiritual, academic, and social pitfalls that mar and bruise our young people while they walk through these stages as they develop into maturity.
What if middle school CAN be different? What if middle school turned into years of incredible growth? What if instead of the stories of negative peer pressure and bruised confidence, your middle school student gained a proper perspective of being part of peer group? What if instead of a drop in a love for school, they nurtured a love for learning and developed long-term motivation, and independence? What if instead of being overbearing with what they think they know, they learned that their thoughts only occupy some of the pool and that everyone has something valuable to bring to the table?
We believe middle school CAN be different!
At The Classical Academy of Fishers, we blend the best of both home influence and classical, Christian, classroom learning. Many families interested in a classical, Christian education understand the home influence part of the family years. The benefits are obvious- more time growing up with siblings, more parental involvement in education and worldview, less overwhelmed family time, less hectic schedule, and more parental guidance of finding good peer groups. The home is central to a student's development and education.
As students grow and mature, reaching these unique middle school years, we believe the classroom environment becomes even more vital to their learning.
The answer, however, is not simply enrolling them in any classroom experience. It doesn't simply mean drop them into an online "classroom," or enroll them in the local public school, or just any full-time Christian school.
The KIND of classroom environment matters. And not just in the form of nice kids, or nice teachers, or using the great books. HOW the educational environment utilizes the teacher and engages students is paramount to a truly fruitful middle school education.
The number one thing that is vital to the logic and rhetoric school years is a connection with what the teacher is communicating. Students in the logic years developmentally like to judge, critique, debate, and ask the "why" questions. This means the connection component is crucial to their education. Students must be able to form a connection with, and interact with, what's being communicated (such as the curriculum, the actual teaching, or even videos). True education and growth takes place within connection and interaction. If you pay really close attention to the traditional middle school classroom, there is little to no interactive dialogue learning in the middle school and high school years.
The two ways this crucial connection and interaction happens is through sympathy and fellowship.
Dr. Chris Schlect, master teacher and classical educator, encourages parents to evaluate the TYPE of middle school environment they are providing for their children. He uses sympathy and fellowship as a framework for evaluating the kind of education your student is receiving.
Sympathy- the vertical relationship between the teacher and students.
Fellowship- the horizontal relationship of a student working together as a cohort, rather than the student learning solo.
Most of us are familiar with the kind of education that is delivered in the style equivalent to a keynote address. The teacher or professional stands in front of the class delivering information. It doesn't matter if he's in front of 25 students or 250 students. There is no interaction to cause sympathy, maturation, and development in that environment. Students simply attempt to absorb the information. You could have the nicest group of kids and teachers in this environment, but it doesn't mean students are actually developing and learning in the most effective way.
In the classical, Christian school, our logic program embodies sympathy and looks like the Oxford model- a few students in a professors office where there is a deep oral engagement of the material. Why is this connection and interaction, or sympathy, vital to the process? The professor needs to be able read the students understanding of material, which means the students need to produce their understanding of the material and not just parrot back.
The students need to see the instructor adjusting and making meaningful adaptations to the material to meet the student. He is essentially seeing the material through the students' eyes. When the students see the instructor doing this, it creates a dynamic that makes all the difference in the world.
Fellowship is the horizontal relationship between students. This is working together as a cohort, rather than the student learning solo. This is an incredibly important piece of the educational experience in logic school because if you go through life solo, having educational experiences solo, you don't have the traction to help you broaden your own experience beyond your own experience. This is vital to the middle schools years! No matter how much we believe differently than one of our peers or teachers, we teach our students that their perspective only occupies some of the pool, not all of it. This teaches students to listen sincerely, to respect others, to practice cooperation, to seek out personal growth, and to learn about someone else, rather than just fighting to always be "right."
When we give our student an environment where they can see another student's learning process, they end up with a whole lot more experience than just their own solo experience. This means students need to be able to see the lesson through one another's eyes, just as the teacher, in sympathy, needs to see the lesson through the students' eyes. The students' creative work in manifesting their understanding is important both for sympathy and fellowship- between student and student, and between teacher and students.
Sympathy combined with fellowship=mind on mind engagement. The teacher gets the conversation directed, steps back a little, and lets their minds do the work. The goal is for students to utilize the text/curriculum, along with their cohorts, to produce their understanding of the material and not just parrot back the information. The one who does the thinking, does the learning. The collaborative momentum of this environment is incredibly rich. It is wisely guided and directed by the teacher in such a way that students are not being led to create their own versions of truth, but rather, they are taught to analyze, to discuss, and to use God's Spirit to hold all things in light of Scripture.
The entire logic school (7th-8th) and rhetoric school (9th-12th) of classical education looks very different than traditional middle and high school classrooms. When you walk the hallways, you find classroom of tables and teams of students doing much of the talking and discussing under the guidance of teachers. Students reading Homer? Absolutely. But they aren't just reading Homer, answering test questions about the book, and giving a personal essay.
When students read Homer, they come back to class and the understanding of Homer gets presented, interacted, and bantered with, all in the context of sympathy and fellowship. This is where Homer becomes valuable.
Can students work through Homer in an online video course, or in a traditional classroom where they answer multiple choice questions and write essays without ever testing their own personal thought process? Yes, they can "complete" that schoolwork. But, have they grown and learned? Education becomes alive when students have to do something with it, under the tutelage of the instructor, and within the context of the fellowship of the cohort.
The Classical Academy Logic School is a markedly different approach to the middle school years than traditional education practices. We honor the family and maintain its primary influence and guidance. We give students the gift of time, and we provide the high quality pieces of the academic experience that are difficult to reproduce in a homeschool only setting.
Do you feel that providing sympathy and fellowship is nearly impossible in a home education only setting? Or, is your student a full-time public or private school student and they are missing out on connecting and interacting in their learning environment? Come join us at Fishers classical, Christian, collaborative school. We have a special Logic School only info night on Monday evening, February 25th at 7pm.
Please contact us here to let us know you are coming so we can have materials prepared for you!