December 31, 2009

Classical Education

In Classical (Traditional) Secondary Education, Literature and History should be taught with the same procedures. Examine, analyze and discuss the text. In the grand scheme, learning material is far secondary to learning how to learn. Fiction and non-fiction are two different animals, but the mind of an author still hides behind what they have written, however impregnably. Such is ever the challenge. Thus, learning is education's only proper goal.

At what point in American History did we decide that reading and writing were skills for the "English" teacher and Social Studies could be an assortment of facts for remembering? As the public school system pushes for test based "standards", they've begun to require History teachers to "embed" reading and writing instruction into their curriculum. Typically, these "new" procedures are presented like a novelty and resisted as a pointless bother. Ah, public school teachers. And yet, I might become one again. (?)

What do my international friends think? Is it the same there, in public schooling? Or does the US have a lock on dumbing down standards for the sake of inclusion?

This is on my mind today because I've met some folks who've found a practical way to combine the ideals of inclusion and classical education in a small private school environment. And it's got me to thinking...


Stephen Hebert said...

I realize, of course, that your post is mainly targeted at the situation in public schools; however, many independent schools in the U.S., even those that don't necessarily subscribe to the "classical" model, are definitely doing their best to stress reading, thinking, and writing skills across the disciplines.

An article last year in Independent Teacher, "Introducing and Using the Discussion (aka Harkness) Table," called my attention to an interesting quote:

"International affairs expert Fareed Zakaria has recently suggested that America’s edge in education comes from its habit of making students think rather than just memorize and regurgitate" (emphasis from original).

As a teacher at an independent school, I don't have to worry about standardized tests. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I am worried that some students don't develop basic reading skills. For example, I have very sharp students who have difficulty reading a passage and answering multiple choice questions about it. They just haven't had the test-taking practice, I think. On the other hand, not having to worry about standardized tests frees me up to think about what the student needs to learn in order to successfully think -- this is almost always my focus.

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Stephen. Thanks for the comments and link.

I often appreciate Zakaria's perspective on things but I wonder about his data. What "edge"? I don't know of any Intn'l comparisons that use 'apples to apples' in terms of standards AND instruments AND populations. If US PS test scores average lower, that may partly reflect that fact that we attempt to educate 100% of our PS children in college prep curriculum. I wouldn't be surprised if we also had more privately schooled kids per capita as well.

At any rate, I agree. Thinking is more important than knowledge, and independent schools have more leeway to facilitate educational activities that provide good intellectual exercise.

FWIW, I attended a private christian school from 2nd to 9th grade, so I do understand the different distractions you fight vs. true learning. Pick your poison, eh? ;-)

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