Classical Educations can be ‘Core’ for All

Sep 10, 2010 | Articles

One Smart Mama’s Core Teaching

by Jennifer A. Marshall

These days women get more bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees than men do, and yet, many women don’t feel up to the task of educating their own children.

Never mind that we live in a country where women are brain surgeons, CEOs and presidential candidates. Schooling is best left to professional educators, moms have been told, so pack the kids onto the school bus and leave the rest to the real experts.

Contrast that with the “go-girl” themes that have saturated American culture since at least the early 1970s: Set your sights high; be anything you want to be.

That includes being your child’s teacher, educational entrepreneur Leigh Bortins says. She was one of those girls challenged to “be the CEO, not the secretary.” As a teenager, Leigh had her eye on the Naval Academy when she learned she needed glasses. At the time, it disqualified her from piloting, and taking the second seat as navigator didn’t interest her.

Instead, she went on to study aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.

She married and had four boys. She and her husband decided to home-school their sons. Math and science went fine, but literary classics such as Aristotle and Shakespeare were a little tougher. That’s when the Bortinses found out about the classical approach to education, which makes the great works accessible through the learning tools of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

“We discovered that we could participate in the conversations of mankind’s greatest thinkers,” Bortins writes. When son Robert was in high school, she launched a learning community called Classical Conversations. It included 10 of his peers. This fall, Classical Conversations enrolls more than 25,000 students.

Once the dominant model, classical education has been sidelined in favor of a paradigm that’s supposed to equip students more effectively for modern economic and social life. The public school system has been built around a factory model: one-size-fits-all mass production. It’s the wrong direction, Bortins warns.

Renewal, she says, will require shifting from “factory techniques” back to “the ideal that education prepares mankind for freedom.” In her book, “The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education,” she challenges all parents — no matter how their children are educated — to aspire to this ideal.

The classical standard is high, to be sure. For example, Bortins recommends that by the time students reach high school, they should be able to discuss the Bible, award-winning children’s literature and articles from newspapers or specialty magazines.

Another “core” is in the news, though: The Common Core Standards Initiative is the project pushed by the Obama administration to impose national standards on local schools. But this core will empower bureaucrats, not parents. The emphasis is on uniform measurement and comparable data — in other words, tools of efficiency for national policymakers, not tools of learning for parents and children. That kind of standardization perpetuates the factory model.

Conformity to government norm tends to limit educational formats to three: public, private and — the model that breaks the mold — home schooling. Yet countless options and combinations exist for configuring a child’s learning, Bortins says.

Online learning in particular provides vast possibilities.

More parents are taking advantage of these options to create an approach that suits their children’s needs and gifts.

They’re operating as educational managers to make the most of opportunities for their kids to reach full potential. Circumstances don’t have to be a hindrance. Bortins suggests pooling resources to share teaching or hire a tutor.

There’s no limit to creative solutions when we encourage and empower parents to pursue them. Too many voices out there are telling mothers, “You can’t.” Here’s one assuring, “You can.”

Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.