Quality Education is Not Rocket Science

Every week it seems I receive three or four letters from people who are establishing new schools or reforming old ones.  These letters are most encouraging, and all of the writers, without exception, are dedicated to restoring what is called a “classical” education.  Sometimes that implies the study of the true classics, the literature of ancient Greece and Rome.  More often it simply means a return to sanity, both as to what the children are to read and learn, and as to how they are to learn it.

For example, since young children can commit things to memory as readily as a sponge soaks up water, the restorers are quite cheerful in their championing of that underused faculty.  They know that a child can learn the basic single-digit operations of arithmetic—the addition and multiplication tables—without a lot of fuss, and to learn them cold, acquiring mastery and making themselves ready for more complicated problems, including those they might solve in their minds.

In the movie Sounder, an African American boy living in the rural south goes on a search for his father, who has been sentenced to a year of hard labor in a tucked-away prison camp.  He finds himself in a schoolhouse, with about thirty black children and a young black schoolmistress.  The children are answering arithmetic problems called out by the teacher.

“Three sixes are!” she cries.

“Eighteen!” the children reply as one.

“Six sixes are!”

“Thirty six!”

“Two twenty fours are!”

A moment of hesitation.  Then a few voices, “Forty eight!”

“Two forty eights are!”

More hesitation.  Then the voices chime in, here and there.  “Ninety—ninety six!”

There is no reason to turn up our noses at this, to sneer at it as “mere” memorization.  Actors commit hundreds and hundreds of lines to memory.  Is that “passive”?  Singers commit hundreds of songs to memory.  Is that “uncritical”?

One of my favorite professors in graduate school grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Saskatchewan, back in the days when a wheat farmer would spend long hours behind the plow.  He told us that his grandfather’s neighbor spent those hazy hours sometimes reciting Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He had gotten it by heart.  Notice what great difference there is between the phrases “learning by rote” and “getting something by heart”?  You cannot do such a thing without considerable intelligence and love.

One summer, then, I determined I’d do the same, and got into the middle of Book Five, when September came around and school started, and I set the cherished task aside.  But it is still a wonderful thing to have so much of that splendid work in my mind, hearing its music, ready to assume form and tone and dramatic import as I cock my head, narrow my eyes, and say,

          Here at least
We shall be free; the almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, shall not drive us hence;
Here we shall reign supreme, and to my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Ah, that is but one thing, the care and strengthening of the memory, that we all know is good and a worthy object for school, though for fifty years we have been cowed by the educational “experts” into believing that it is contemptible, simplistic, backward, and ineffectual.  So we end up with sixth graders who are supposed to solve simultaneous linear equations, but who do not instantly see that 54 divided by 6 is 9, or that 12 percent of 94 is going to be a little less than 12.

What I’m trying to say here is simple enough.  My advice to all of you who are building anew: Do not be played for chumps!  This is not quantum physics.  Children learn naturally, and if they are treated well, they will learn most things with ease.  What requires practice, requires practice, and though that is difficult in one sense—you have to do the math, you have to diagram the sentences, you have to commit the declensions to memory—it is perfectly straightforward.  You know how to do it, and you know when you’ve done it.

I have similar advice for reading.  “What books shall we assign?”  My answer is simple.  You don’t have to develop some grand all-considering plan for producing scholars of Dostoyevsky.  Read good books to the children, have them read them also to you, and have them read them on their own.

What’s a good book?  John Senior came up with a fine list of the Thousand Good Books, and you could simply go to that list and pick your way about in it, like a kid exploring in the woods.  Good books are sometimes Great Books, and sometimes not.  Some Great Books aren’t for children or even adolescents.  Would you show a group of teenagers the admittedly fine but disturbing and sometimes obscene movie Midnight Cowboy?  No, you wouldn’t; so why are they reading the sometimes obscene and nearly nihilistic Slaughterhouse-Five? 

The Good Books are food for a wholesome imagination.  They are well written.  They introduce young people to characters they will never forget.  They soar beyond easy cynicism or nihilism.  They soar beyond the sweaty halls of politics.  They may well have villains in them, there may be warfare, but there will not be the creepy relish for bloodshed—no itch for the base, the sick, the bizarre, the filthy, the evil.  No girly vampires.

We know where to find these Good Books.  They are everywhere, or they used to be.  It almost does not matter in what order the children read them, and many of them can be read again and again, and are as satisfying for grownups as they are for the wide-eyed little ones: Heidi, Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, The Yearling, David Copperfield, Silas Marner, Black Beauty, Kim, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Little Women, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and of Hans Christian Andersen.

What about when the children are older?  There’s no lack of things to read.  We have all of the poetry of our British and American heritage: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Whittier, Dickinson, Frost, and many more.  We have all of the wonderful novels of Jane Austen and Dickens and Eliot and Mark Twain and Walter Scott.  There’s the great literature of the western world—Virgil and Dante and Cervantes and Tolstoy.

You cannot go wrong.  Find textbooks written before 1950—grammar, history, even geography.  Then surround young people with beauty and goodness.  It is not like going to the moon.  It is like looking up at the stars.

But will your students be ambushed by the detestable standardized tests?  Do not fear.  Do not let the confidence men and elixir salesmen fool you.  Homeschoolers regularly take those tests apart, and they do not spend a year preparing for them, nor do they use textbooks whose politically “progressive” content the tests reflect and reward.  If they can do it, so can your students.

Think: your students will know English grammar, as a coherent and fascinating whole.  The others won’t.  Your students will have a quick sense of number.  The others won’t.  Your students will have in their ears, their hearts, and their minds, and thus at their fingertips as they put pen to paper, the noble rhythms of great and good English writers, and none of the sublingual grunts of contemporary dabblers in the twisted and weird.  The only rotten English they’ll have read will be what they find in newspapers and on the internet; but you can do your best to make them aware of how bad that is.

Your students will know that the Danube River flows into the Black Sea.  The others will never have heard of a Danube River or a Black Sea.  Your students will see in their minds’ eye Hannibal mounted upon an elephant, making his way eastward towards the French Alps.  The others will never have heard the name of Hannibal.

Be bold, be bold!  Remember Hans Christian Andersen!  The superintendent has no clothes.  The commissars of the Common Core have no clothes.  The developers of curricula have no clothes.  They are all a great big herd of balding and belly-sagging naked people, swaggering and blustering and ordering everybody around.  Let some little boy cry out to any one of them, “Hey mister, diagram this sentence!”  Go for it, and let the devil take the hindmost!

(Photo credit: LIFE magazine.)

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “ Sometimes that implies the study of the true classics, the literature of ancient Greece and Rome.”

    The great advantage of this is that no question of selection arises; with a thorough grounding in the languages, it is perfectly possible to read the whole of Greek and Roman literature (excluding the Fathers and the Jurists), between, say, the ages of 13 and 18.

    Porson was right, when he said that the burning of the Alexandrian library had made classical scholarship possible.

    • msmischief

      Let’s be reasonable. The burning had help. Other fires. Time. Water. Etc.

  • kentgeordie

    Yes, but – lots of the old-fashioned education you praise was boring and pointless And lots of the up-to-date stuff, especially in the English primary school where I am a governor, is brilliant.
    We are getting much better at spotting earlier those who are likely to struggle, and taking energetic steps to put things right. We are getting much better at ensuring that every child is given plenty of challenges pitched at just the right level.
    As usual, it’s not either/or, it’s aim for the best of both worlds.

    • Tony

      Have you actually examined textbooks written eighty or a hundred years ago? I have about two hundred such, upstairs.
      I don’t know that I’d assign any literature written specifically for children in the last sixty years — creepy, crassly political, linguistically simplistic, unimaginative.
      Don’t forget — I have been teaching the graduates of our schools for thirty years. You can’t hide your “successes” from me; the failures must be much worse.

      • Ross

        Tony, I believe you teach at Providence College? Brown probably attracts the best students in your area who have enough money for a private school. I would not go as far as to say you’re left with the dregs, by any means, but compare the combined SAT scores of Brown (most over 2100) with those of PC (most over 1700), GPAs (mostly almost a 4.0 or higher versus mostly 3.4 or higher) and ACTs (mostly over 30 as opposed to mostly over 24) and you begin to get an idea why you find the products of public school disappointing. I went to Brown, and I didn’t see the ignorance amongst my fellow students that you have described in yours. My guess is that your students were indeed at some stage taught much of what you lament they do not know but forgot about it. My sister has had the same experience teaching B students in expensive private liberal arts schools. She has had to work with relatively affluent young people who are not always particularly brilliant or driven to work hard.

        • Tony

          Ross — sorry, but our Honors Program students are the equal of students at Brown, no problem.
          Please don’t patronize me. If you go and look at letters to editors, or diary entries, written by ordinary people 100 years ago, you will be dismayed by how far we have fallen.
          When I say that students are not taught grammar as a systematic whole, I mean exactly that. The textbooks don’t do it, and the teachers themselves don’t know it. Hell, COLLEGE PROFESSORS don’t know it, as anybody learns who has had the misfortune of reading academic articles from candidates looking for jobs. What is a participle? How many college professors do you think can tell you that? And don’t comfort yourself by supposing that the reason why even Honors students have never heard of Milton is that they were inattentive in school. Milton and most of the great English poets have simply vanished from the curriculum. They certainly have vanished from the curriculum at Brown, because Brown has no curriculum at all.

          • Ford Oxaal

            Yeah, but Brown has sex week.

          • Ross

            Having attended public school, I can say that we definitely touched on Milton repeatedly over the years. In middle school it was just a couple of sonnets. In high school we learned about his life and studied extracts from Paradise Lost. I think you are flat wrong when you suggest that most public school students haven’t heard of Hannibal. We studied the Punic Wars in depth in middle school social studies, and I remember learning about Hannibal back in elementary school. It’s hard for me to believe that, even if your students did sleep through most of their classes, they would not have picked up most of this information on their own outside school. In school, I was always encouraged to learn prolifically and abundantly and to explore outside the confines of the curriculum. Anyone who hasn’t heard of Milton or Hannibal, with all the learning opportunities we have today, is seriously intellectually lazy rather than merely poorly instructed.

            • Tony

              Ross — it is quite easy to go through many a public and even parochial school and never encounter any number of great English writers, especially the poets. Poetry has been dumped overboard. Not everywhere — but almost everywhere. Oh, they read SOME of what passes for poetry, like the political doggerel of a Maya Angelou, but they aren’t reading Milton, because, well, Milton requires KNOWLEDGE that the teachers do not have. You forget: I have a lot of experience teaching the people who will be your children’s teachers.

              I am meeting — constantly — Honors students who have never even heard the NAMES of Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Longfellow, Pope, and Milton. Even Chaucer … Not even the names. These are highly motivated kids who have gone to the “best” schools, too, and they work hard. You won’t be learning what is NOT in your textbooks.
              And the situation in Canada, as far as I can tell, is even worse. I had thought that Canadians would treasure British literature more than Americans do, but that isn’t the case.

          • TheAbaum

            This isn’t quite 100 years ago, but close.

            While not particularly florid, it was precise, clear and brief.


    • TheAbaum

      Much of life is “boring and pointless”. Image the tediousness of being the governor of an English primary school.

      It is fraud to foment expectations that life is a three ring circus.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Our present education intends forgetfulness- forgetfulness of what it truly means to be human- forgetfulness of our natural limits and our true form and purpose- We endure a self-imposed Alzheimer’s because we believe the lie that it will make us ready for “college and career” or give us the “21st century skills” necessary to pass the most arbitrary and strange national assessments ever conceived- it is truly bizarre. We do leave the memory to atrophy, but worse, what little we do use, we misuse by asking our students remember stupid and worthless things they are justified in forgetting- so truthfully our habits are not in remembering true good and beautiful things, but in forgetting temporary ones.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Yes, and the worst is children at a certain age are so good at memorization. We homeschool the young ones, then off to a classical school. We see memorization as a sort of skeleton that can be adorned with knowledge and understanding over time. If you have command of dates for English monarchs, or Holy Roman Emperors, you can connect more dots.

  • Ford Oxaal

    A great article. There is no contest between a classical education (grammar -> dialectic / logic -> rhetoric) and whatever bizarre experiments the modernists have conjured up and called education. It’s not even close — a bad joke. The ‘progressive’ departure from the classical methodology is a transparent attempt to rid Christ (forgiveness, love your enemy, end the insanity that is history repeating horrors ad nauseum) from our culture so we can have even more Satanic delights than we have now.

    • msmischief

      Experiments on unconsenting subjects are a crime against humanity. We learned that in school, stemming from a place called Nuremberg.

  • In a day and age where we can replace the memory with machines, I’m not sure this old fashioned classical education is useful.

    Being able to spell is more useful in a world of search engines and calculators, than being able to do addition in one’s head.

    • Vinnie

      It’s about being resouceful, not dependent.

    • MJ

      If you are concerned with educating the whole human person…your idea is …lets say flat wrong….understandable for sure…but still simply ill founded.

      • I’m saying that “educating the whole human person” has extremely questionable value to me, in a time when all the wit and wisdom of the ages is available with a google search.

        • anon

          Heaven forbid we AIM for a life of sitting behind a computer screen. Is that really the pathetic hope you have for the next generation? That they have no life apart from their screens?

          • I have no hope for the next generation at all. Some day the third world will inherit what we’ve left behind; liberal education has just led to the suicide of liberalism and the end of western culture.

          • TheAbaum

            We’re almost there.

        • TheAbaum

          “in a time when all the wit and wisdom of the ages is available with a google search”
          Wow. That’s a stunning misapprehension of reality. Part of knowledge is knowing that there are things we do not know, and cannot know.
          Combining radical empiricism with a reliance, bordering on worship of information technology, where have we seen that before? Oh yeah, some fascinatingly wrong financial valuation techniques.

        • Peter Rival

          And the person who can respond immediately without the need of a google search will have a perpetual advantage over anyone who cannot. Access to information equals neither wisdom nor knowledge, particularly without the skills to put it to good use.

    • Tony

      Theodore — but we cannot replace the memory with machines, any more than we can replace love with virtual girlies on a screen. The memory is for understanding and imagination and contemplation, not just for some immediate practical use.

      • Given what imagination has done to us over the last 40 years, I think we could do with a lot less of it.

        But perhaps that’s because we have no understanding and no contemplation. Maybe THAT is what we should be teaching, not rote memorization of facts better held in a relational database.

        • TheAbaum

          And when the hard drive crashes or the the application isn’t updated for the latest operating system?

          Just as much damage has been done by a lack of imagination.

          With all due respect you are attempting to impose your autism on the rest of us. The world is not going to conform to the limits of your perception, anymore than the math of the cosmos is going to conform to my limited capacity to understand tensor spaces.

          • Jude Keck

            Watch it. I have a son with autism. An autistic person’s experience of the world is valid, not limited.

            • TheAbaum

              Watch what? Mr. Seeber has admitted he has autism, and here expresses an uncomfortability with imagination to the point where he dismisses it as destructive.

              It is completely consistent with the disorder to be uncomfortable with the ambiguous, inobvious and indefinite and to prefer the objective, tangible, concrete. The difference is

              “An autistic person’s experience of the world is valid, not limited.”

              What does this even mean? That is as meaningless as saying a blind person’s “experience of the world is valid, not limited”.

              If you cannot perceive non-verbal social interaction that is part of human interaction others can, that’s a limit. If you are insistent on, or infer the existence of order where it doesn’t exist in ambiguous world, that’s a problem.

              If you an autistic teenager are on public transportation and the movement of the conveyance so disturbs you that you engage in a 30 minute tirade of profanity, that’s not “valid”. It’s a limit and it is a disorder (ICD-9 299.0, ICD F84.0).

              I’m sure some traits of autism have value. Nikola Tesla is thought to have had a form of it, and it is widely believed to occur in milder forms among IT professionals:


              This doesn’t mean it’s not limiting.

              • Jude Keck

                Are you autistic? Do you feel qualified to judge how another person may experience facets of life that you can not? My son has amazing capabilities. No malice, no manipulation, no dishonesty, and a profound joy for living that I seldom see in neurotypical individuals. While some environments may be overstimulating for certain auties, this is not true of all. If you have met one autistic person, then you have met one autistic person. Autism is highly individualized. My son is at the more severe end of the spectrum, but he loves riding planes, buses, etc… I have to say that the mama bear in me has come out. Were you here in person, I have no doubt that I would ask you to step outside for a nice pummeling. Let me show you a few of your limitations.

                • TheAbaum

                  No, I’m not autistic. But I’m not blind either and despite the enhanced other sensibilities that accompany being blind, I have no problem recognizing my 96 year old great aunt is limited, and neither does she. She can’t drive anymore, for one thing. Nor did the coworker who had two autistic daughters have any problem understanding they had limits.

                  On the other hand, having had adolescent onset epilepsy for fifteen years, I’m more than capable of understanding limits, so stuff a sock in your indignation.

                  Now a due word of caution. It’s pretty easy for you to issue threats on a computer, but you have no idea who you are threatening. In person, you’d run off yelping like a scalded dog.

        • Ford Oxaal

          Rote memorization is a very useful tool at a certain stage in development. Having command of some facts is the way children can tip toe into a conversation, say at dinner, that they might otherwise feel excluded from. We have poetry recitals in our family — if you were looking down at a piece of paper, you could not connect with your audience. How about acting in a play? What about being competitive in a Math Counts contest. Memory builds confidence.

        • Nick_Palmer3

          And it’s not just the memorization, per se. It’s the ability to find connections, links, and metaphor. Today so-called Big Data is all the rage. I remember as a lowly undergraduate in the Dark Ages (1970s) and later as a doctoral student in the 1990s being told that one shouldn’t simply run a whole bunch of regressions then look for the ones with high correlation coefficients. Frankly, much of what passes as Big Data is just that, under the premise that we now can run so many regressions that computers “think.” Bunk! While supercomputing — e.g., oil company’s subsurface seismic imaging technology — is pretty cool and useful, much of Big Data is IBM and Accenture and PWC trying to sell stuff.

          And this just deals with “computer-izable” data. What about ideas? What about finding Milton in Frankenstein? Augustine in Lord of the Rings? No amount of computing power will get there.

    • TheAbaum

      “Being able to spell is more useful in a world of search engines and calculators, than being able to do addition in one’s head.”

      It’s not either/or, it’s BOTH. Autocomplete and autocorrect are the linguistic equivalent of word calculators.

      As an accountant, I work with numbers professionally. I live and die with spreadsheets, calculators, multi-dimensional hypercube based performance management software, and an “ERP” system and a whole host of other things that can produce enormous volumes of data.

      My bosses are busy and they expect fast, accurate and meaningful responses to their inquiries. I have to be numerate to due my job, but that isn’t what I’m paid for-it’s attaching meaning. Unless you are numerate, you can’t attach meaning and significance to those numbers, identify trends and perturbations, know what’s reliable and what’s fragile, that is provide the explanatory judgment that you are paid to deliver in finance.

      Do you want to see in microcosm, the effects of widespread innumeracy and acalculia? The next time you incur a payment for say $18.50, hand the clerk $24.00 (in order to receive a $5 bill as change) and watch the pained and distressed look on the sale clerk’s face. Some will actually tell you “you gave me too much” or some such other statement which shows an utter lack of understanding of a necessary and routine activity.

      Then tell them “put in the register, you’ll understand”. When the machine tells them 5.50, about a third will understand you were looking for a five-spot.

      • ForChristAlone


  • smartypants

    Dear Anthony Esolen, my family has had to flee for their lives from that herd of balding belly sagging people three times in three generations. You give me hope.

  • grzybowskib

    Well. That was a heck of a pep talk. 🙂

  • Art

    I sometimes wonder if there is too much fear of adult targeted literature and theory. When I was about 12, I read the Jungle Book I and II, but I also read A.S. Neil’s Summerhill (an amazingly Freudian book). I also tried to get into a Sociobiology textbook before I moved on from that as I could not understand it. I do not think we need to reject great writing even if it is less than uplifting.

    If a young adult has been properly prepared in their childhood they can read the most radical and dangerous theories, understand them, and know why to reject them. It is only a problem in a highly modern society that lacks the groundings and foundation you prescribe for education in this article.

  • bonaventure

    Teachers and School Administrators:

    For crying out loud, just teach already. But if you cannot teach, then don’t be teachers or educators. Get another job. I mean, could you imagine if engineers or physicians, rather than building and healing, continuously rebelled against those methods and techniques that alone work to build and heal?

    “Hey, nurse, today we’ll be giving this patient a transfusion with infected blood.”

    I don’t think so.

  • Holly Opalenik

    It was a very nice pep talk, but also a Romanticized version of reality. Alas, what too many homeschoolers take from this is all I have to do is read to my kids and they will be better educated than their public school counterparts. That is a distortion of the truth. I homeschool, and I know that there are some very well educated homeschooled kids and some terribly educated homeschooled kids. I go out in public and see homeschooled kids who frankly at 13 can barely sign their name, much less write a sentence. Yet, their parents think because they have kept them at home and read good books to the kids that they have given them a superior education academically. There are many things wrong with the public school system but there are also many things wrong with how a segment of the homeschooling world chooses to educate or not educate their kids. Some children need more than just memory work and good literature in order to learn because not all kids are alike. Some children need the minutiae details of phonics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and study skills in order to succeed and that is not so “easy”. Contrary to popular homeschooling thought that all those subjects were created for textbook manufacturers to make money, I have discovered in my own family that they were developed because some children need that in order to learn. Not every child that was read to and read to and memorized hard stuff can just ace a standardized test. I know kids who have only read superior classic literature, have no TV, work their butts off on a farm all day, and can translate Latin before the age of 12 yet they bombed their local standardized test. So please do not generalize based on the experience of your children or the few homeschoolers whom you encounter. As the homeschooling community increases in size we need more honesty and less romanticized generalizations. Not everyone who has an interest in homeschooling has the same level of committment to education and making it appear to easy will not serve our community in the long run. The easy attitude will only fill our ranks with uneducated and ignorant homeschooled kids who arrogantly think that they know something because they had a few good books read to them by their mommas.

    • Tony

      Fair enough. But I will also tell you that I’ve been involved with homeschoolers for more than 20 years, and served for seven years as the president of our state’s homeschooling organization.
      I’m the last person to suggest that kids should not study the particulars of grammar, geography, history, and math. But here we are talking about literature, and that’s different. Of course, they aren’t learning grammar and geography and most of history in the schools, either.

      • Holly Opalenik

        I am aware of all that because I live just over the border and we have mutual friends. My commentary is a response to what I see actively building up around us. A core of formerly homeschooled kids who had to be remediated by the public school system because they haven’t learn the basics of spelling, math or writing but they do know minute details about Catholic history, American history, and literature; I believe that some of us are creating a sub population that will be so rabidly anti-homeschooling in the future as to bring about our own downfall. Homeschooling has the potential to recreate society or destroy itself. Homeschoolers, especially new ones, need to hear more about reality and less about romanticized visions. I find the ones most taken by idealized pictures about reading the Great Books are the most virulent anti-homeschoolers when they quit. They end up completely innoculated to the ills of public schools and the garbage that kids read in school and believe that their kids are now receiving an “excellent education” because they now know how to spell, write, and perform higher order math. Literature can open the door to the soul and human greatness, and the beatific vision but most kids need the drudgery of actually practicing the boring basics of spelling, writing, math, etc. daily in order to develop their potential. It is too easy for the overwhelmed and overworked mother of 6 or 8 or more kids to read this and say Hallelujah all I need to do is read the Great Books to them and they will be educated. This is of course juxtaposed to the public schools which say, all we need to do is make them practice trivial garbage and they will be educated.

        • Tony

          Fair enough again.

          I wonder, though, about the actual achievements in the public schools as regards math. We don’t seem to be doing well in it. I’m concerned in these articles mainly with what should be taught (and how it should be taught) in schools. I’ll be submitting an essay on grammar soon.

          • Holly Opalenik

            I would be quite interested in the grammar essay. In regards to math, I believe there are 2 public school systems. The first one does an OK job in regards to math for the top 10% and the crappy system that the bottom 90% of the kids get. I was a scientist working towards my Ph.D. in biochemistry. Math education has always interested me, even while I was in college. I will say, the biggest disappointment that I have found since I started homeschooling is that big families rarely have kids graduate from homeschool highschool with more than Algebra II. I understand why, if you aren’t a natural math whiz and you have a bunch of kids, they will not learn the material because you simply won’t have the time to teach it. That is an issue that ought to be faced front and center by homeschoolers. You can mock the public school system all you want but if your kid is not even going to complete 3 full years of highschool math at home, then you better label yourself a hypocrite and be done with it. In order for homeschooling to be taken seriously but the overall public, we need to take a serious look at ourselves. If we are keeping our kids at home because we don’t want them exposed to immorality and materialism, then just admit it. If you are keeping your kids at home for superior academics, then you better have superior academics at home. My experience is that few Catholic famliies have superior academics going on. They may have equivalent academics with better history but certainly not better math or science.

            • Tony

              And that’s where a genuine Catholic school system comes into play. I know quite a few people who keep their kids home for the first six or seven grades, then send them to a good Catholic school where they will get the education in math and science that you are looking for.
              The thing is, if we were honest and humble and repentant, we might dust off a few of the pre-new-math textbooks and pre-ditched-grammar English books and see what the kids used to learn and how they learned it. I have about 200 such books upstairs, most of them between 80 and 140 years old. My sense of it is that algebra was not taught all that early, but when it was taught, it was taught very well, and that arithmetic — there used to be a subject called “higher arithmetic” — did most of the work of the first year of algebra in any case. The arithmetic problems that a 12 year old would be expected to solve were pretty sophisticated. Nobody could possibly graduate from such schools and be unable to figure out how much interest he’d have to pay on a 25,000 dollar loan, at 8 percent per annum, for three months, compounded monthly….
              The grammar texts are most enlightening. First, there were grammar texts; I don’t know that we still have any such, for grammar school pupils. They are systematic, complete, and clear. They double as books on strong English style. If you used The Mother Tongue, over the course of a year or two, you would learn all you’d need to know about English grammar, and you’d be ready to learn other languages to boot….

              • Holly Opalenik

                Lily’s or Alvarez for grammar. 🙂 I am quite well aware of the difference between past education and current education. Current education is a veneer of facts lacking the wisdom of the past that discovered “the facts”. As a side note, The Classical Liberal Arts Academy does a fabulous job on grammar and axiomatic Arithmetic for those students of superior quality who can master the trivialities of modern education without much effort. But alas, for those children with only mediocre abilities, a thorough study of grammar and axiomatic arithmetic is not possible without a real live teacher and classmates to spur one to higher achievement. But I digress, my original point was that quite a segment of the homeschooling population fails to even reach the veneer of facts that our modern educational system deems important and necessary. Some of them fail to even reach, Walmart level competency, by the time they hit highschool but yet they still love to slam the public school system for it’s failures. And they firmly believe that they are actually educating their kids because they have “The Great Books” in their home and have even read them to the kids. More homeschool proponents need to address the realities that exist in some homes and deromanticize the movement before we all suffer for it.

                • Extollager

                  Thank you for these thought-provoking messages. As a father of four homeschooled children who have now completed their college coursework, I appreciate your taking time to call for honesty and for a de-romanticising of homeschooling. We started homeschooling in the early 90s when, perhaps, there was a need for some “romanticism” to give us courage to do what was, in our area at least, very much a minority thing. But it had only limited usefulness.

              • LeAnn

                Could you give more information on The Mother Tongue? The only book I can find with that title is by Bill Bryson. I am guessing that is not the same book you are referring to…

    • Tervuren

      Obviously I do not know you, or how you teach your children. Many years ago, when my children were young we had a girl babysit while we went on a Date Night. She was an excellent sitter. She left her US History book at our house. I read some of it the next morning with my coffee, and was ready to go see the local High School Principal. The book was full of distortions, and flat-out lies about the US. Then my wife told me that she was home-schooled. So, I have a general low opinion of Home Schooling. But I know this is only one example. Your community does have to prove itself to be taken seriously.

      • Holly Opalenik

        I would be curious who wrote the History text and whether it was Protestant or Catholic because history is one of the few things that I think homeschoolers do far better.

        • Tervuren

          First: I forgot to say that this experience was over 20 years ago. The family was Protestant as I remember. The text insisted that the US was founded as a Christian Nation. Which is profoundly wrong, as most of the key founders were Deists, with some being hostile to Christianity. It could have been written by the crank David Barton. They also took a swipe at Evolution. which had me laughing, as the the time it was discussing was over 40 years before the Beagle sailed.

          • jpct50

            Actually: The phrase “Founding Fathers” is a proper noun. It refers to a specific group of men, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention. There were other important players not in attendance, like Jefferson, whose thinking deeply influenced the shaping of our nation. These 55 Founding Fathers, though, made up the core.

            The denominational affiliations of these men were a matter of public record. Among the delegates were 28 Episcopalians, 8 Presbyterians, 7 Congregationalists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodists, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 unknown, and only 3 deists–Williamson, Wilson, and Franklin–this at a time when church membership entailed a sworn public confession of biblical faith. [John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), p. 43.]

            This is a revealing tally. It shows that the members of the Constitutional Convention, the most influential group of men shaping the political foundations of our nation, were almost all Christians, 51 of 55–a full 93%. Indeed, 70% were Calvinists (the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the Dutch Reformed), considered by some to be the most extreme and dogmatic form of Christianity.

            • Tony

              And even at that, the “deist” Franklin seems to have believed in the efficacy of prayer, which would make him a semi-deist, semi-Unitarian.

          • cestusdei

            Take a look at current history texts. They are simply appalling. Leftist distortion is a far worse threat.

            • Holly Opalenik

              I remember seeing a Rosary among the effects of George Washington at his manner. Deists would never keep that kind of “mystical item.”

      • TheAbaum

    • Ford Oxaal

      School is, by any reasonable standard, an extension of the family, not the other way around — unless you are really into Spartan or Nazi culture. These days, schools often teach values that are completely at odds with millions of families. The reaction is homeschool. Some families are good at the academics, some not so good. But even the not-so-good homeschools allow the family’s values (its raison d’etre) to exist. Homeschool is a matter of family survival. And if you think about it, the “social contract” itself is, in reality — ultimately, between families. Families will win, but it may take a few generations.

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  • Tervuren

    Is there any point to this article other than longing for the ‘good ol days’? I know what I do not like about the Common Core; but what, specifically do you have against it?

    • Tony

      I’ve been writing about it, specifically, here, at The Catholic Thing, and at Front Porch Republic. In short:
      1. It dismisses works of the imagination — they are at best second-class citizens in the “language arts” city.
      2. Its aims are baldly utilitarian. Its emphasis on “skills” squeezes out any reading for the genuinely human reasons why we prize great literature.
      3. Its own authors write atrociously. What they consider to be good English writing is even more atrocious: pseudo-sophisticated, vague, puffed-up, “academic” in the worst sense, stylistically contemptible, and often downright ungrammatical.
      4. Grammar has not returned to the curriculum — it is scattered here and there across the grades, taught sporadically, superficially, and incoherently, catch-as-catch-can.
      5. The questions that it asks of “text” make it nigh unto impossible that teachers will have the time to spend on the more difficult works for young students: poetry in particular, and literature written before 1900 generally speaking.
      6. The “Standards” militate against anyone who might want to teach English literature as a coherent subject to study, with its own history and its glories. You can’t ask students to learn enough about the Middle Ages to read some Chaucer, if those same students are supposed to be leaping through the educational / bureaucratic hoops specified by CC.
      7. No federal entity has any business poking its nose into what is taught in our schools, period. We are supposed to be the owners and the employers of our public servants; our children will, so to speak, come into their inheritance and their part of the “business” when they come of age. They serve us; we do not serve them; we instruct them; they have no business instructing us through our children.
      8. The math standards are a bloody incoherent mess…..

      • Holly Opalenik

        I totally agree on the question of the standards. But I will firmly state that in large Catholic families, few children are actually even meeting those Common Core Standards when they homeschool. Only those large Catholic families that use a consistent program develop children that even meet the Core Standards. My children are exceeding the core standards because I have made homeschooling my full time job that runs 70-80 hours a week for me. But I know darn well that many large family moms do not. Homeschooling is not the long term solution, it is only a stop gap measure until we rebuild a new Catholic and private school system with teachers willing to walk both lines, using what modern teachers know is needed to teach children of lesser gifts and the wisdom of the Classical education. I earnestly wish that someone of your stature, would address and chastize the homeschooling population for faulty logic and failing to actually do the job that so many mothers have signed up for. I am so sick and tired of listening to homeschooling mothers make excuses for sloth within their own home but yet hypocritically slamming the public school system for it’s imperfections. A teacher or school isn’t allowed to have a bad day but homeschooling mothers can go weeks with their excuses for having a hard time. They can slam Common Core for only creating students with minimal Algebra II education but yet create kids that didn’t even study Geometry or Algebra I well. Large families are not creating superiorly educated students, unless it is the Number 1 priority of the mother and the mother has the self discipline and order to get up 6 days a week and ensure it gets done. Yesterday, I encountered blog after FB post of lazy Catholic homeschooling mothers who failed to do their job and instead “confessed” watching Frozen (isn’t that actually the sin of stealing since it is not yet out on DVD), talking on the phone, or wanting to only school 3 days a week? Really. No wonder less and less people are taking us seriously because it has become more and more about playtime than serious education. Yes, we as a movement may be creating children who are more innocent than their peers in school and who may be less materialistic and more open to the beauty and truth of the Classic literature and wisdom but we are also creating lazy, arrogant ignoramuses who may not even be able to function in this world. I have been praying for a long time for someone of stature to address the Large Catholic homeschooling community in order to rebuke them for failing to do the job that we mock the public school for not doing, lest the government use those very families as pretext for ending homeschooling completely.

        • Jude Keck

          It is a good thing that our Lord and Savior studied mathematics beyond Algebra II and immediately rejected carpentry for a career as an academic. I think perhaps you should remove your posterior from your high horse for a moment. I have one of those large Catholic families, and I do homeschool full-time. But I learned that there is more than one way to skin a cat. So while my children are receiving a classical liberal arts education (Latin, Greek, and Great Books on top of the basics), I keep a healthy perspective. My children can exceed the core standards, the Catholic school standards, and the SAT standards without my spending 70 – 80 hours a week on it. I have been homeschooling for 17 years, and I have yet to meet a single homeschooling family that is turning out “arrogant ignoramuses.” What is first and foremost in my mind is NOT preparing my children to be future engineers. You actually spend time PRAYING for someone to rebuke your fellow Catholic homeschoolers? Well, that’s one way to lead your life. And step into the 21st century. “Frozen” became available for download legally last week. I have a sick seven year old watching it right now.

          • Holly Opalenik

            Yes I know a number of large families that are actually educating their children as well, mine included. And the next time I will check to see if the movie in question has been released legally. Not everyone should be an engineer but how can one say they are exceeding the Core standards if they are not completing Algebra II, since the standards require a chunk of Algebra II to be covered? Homeschooling has reached a point where some people are beginning to question it again as a valid educational platform because they are seeing the fruits of poorly educated homeschooled children. As our numbers increase, more people see our kids and more public highschool teachers are getting our kids After they have not been educated. Teachers who were not adverse to homeschooling 5 years ago are becoming adverse to it now because they are cleaning up our mistakes. The biggest mistake we make is to tell each other that it doesn’t matter what we do at home because it will all be better than what they get at school. I can’t tell you how many homeschoolers that I have encountered in the past year who are not at a public school competency level but yet have parents who will nitpick the public school over books, history, and Common Core math standards. I originally replied to Anthony’s article because it is the one facet that homeschoolers latch onto. I read good books and therefore I am better than but it clearly takes more than that to educate a child. The schools have failed in many facets but are we doing any better? That is the question that each family should ask itself. If you are then Praise the Lord. I unfortunately have encountered a few teachers who will tell me that homeschoolers come in 2 varieties: those who came from a home with order and daily instruction and those who did not appear to recieve much instruction after they learned to read and therefore can not function except in a remedial class. The teachers and one Catholic principal, who have all expressed these thoughts, indicate that it drives them crazy because they know that if these children had been in school in the first place the result would be different. I know many fine homeschool graduates and a few exceptional homeschooling families but nowhere do I hear anyone talking about the negative side of homeschooling from inside our community. However, former homeschoolers and ex homeschoolers are beginning to make large noises and push for more legislation and oversight. I think it is time that our community recognize that not all homeschooling strategies create children that are educated as well as their public school counterparts. It was a powerful witness to the legislative bodies of many states those first educated homeschooled families and it will be just as powerful a witness when they encounter those first uneducated homeschooled families.

      • Tervuren

        I actually agree with you for the most part. Here in NY we are required to teach ‘Modules’. These are completely incomprehensible units that are hated equally by students and teachers; and they are separate from the actual English.

        The big problem I have with math, as an elementary Special Education Teacher, is the huge emphasis on writing. I sometimes have a student who can do grade level math, but cannot read and write anywhere close to grade level. This student cannot pass math now as he cannot explain his steps in proper English.

        I especially agree with you on the lack of imagination. I have been reading Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll (a math teacher) to my 3-4th graders to give them something silly.

        • Tony

          Tervuren — that is actually cruel. Why do they do that to the poor kids? Boys especially must suffer under it. An engineering professor the other day suggested to me an analogy between learning arithmetic as a child and learning chords on a musical instrument. You want these things to enter deep into the subconscious, he said, and I think that is right — you want the kids to develop the knack, the number sense. All of that is destroyed if you make them write everything out — worse, if it has to be written out in a whole paragraph.

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  • In 1965 I literally forced myself into one of the most popular Top 40 radio stations on the west coast. I came in as a newsman. One of the DJs (a man who later married Annie Herring and produced the second Chapter of Acts vocal group) sat me down and forced me to diagram all of the sentences in a single news story. It was fortunate that Sister Mary Clemencia had drummed diagrams into my head. I read news after that and to this day with those rule in mind. Today I read the Liturgy as a priest.

  • cestusdei

    Modern culture dreads the idea that children would be exposed to such books. The last thing they want is for children to see what is good, beautiful, and true. That makes it harder to indoctrinate them.

  • FranklinWasRight


    Support these wonderful classical education programs and spread the word to existing schools if you can!

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  • msmischief

    “This is not quantum physics” is a much better metaphor than the rocket science of the title. Everyone who’s taken high school physics knows rocket science, which is Newton’s Laws of Motion.

    Now, rocket engineering is hard.

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  • momoffive

    Best article on education that I’ve ever read!! So simple, and yet never followed in public schools. I’m staring my homeschool journey this fall and look forward to old grammar books and classic novels. The Wind in the Willows will be our first book! Thank you so much!

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