This article was originally published in 2009 -WM
Obviously to most parents the classical liberal arts curriculum is unfamiliar. The ideas are clear, the arguments persuasive and there’s something that simply suggests this is the answer. Everything seems great until it’s time to enroll. The most common question we receive (by far) is “What classes should my child take first?”. This article will lead you to a bird’s eye view of our study program and will help you wrap you brain around the whole thing.
Step 1. Understand your Situation
If you are interested in enrolling at the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, you are most likely educating your own children at home. If so, your family enjoys a level of stability and order that most American families do not. Your children should receive an education that is marked by continuity and freedom, not change and containment. Remember the story of the ugly duckling? Home-schooled children are not ducks and shouldn’t be judged by duck standards. Much of the pressure among Christian families is that they suffer from UDS (Ugly Duck Syndrome). We’re swans! Take a few minutes and watch, asking whether the story explains your stress in educating your children.
The average American moves over 11 times in his or her life and this mobility requires a flexible school system that allows students to move in and out while still completing curriculum goals and maintaining records. This severely limits the depth and restricts the nature of courses that may be studied by school students.
Moreover, whether a child moves or not, they move between at least three schools. A student begins in school A from 1st through 5th grade, then moves to school B from 6th through 8th and on to School C from 9th to 12th. When the time comes to apply for college, students present their coursework from grades 9-12. This has negative effects on the studies children can be offered. For example, no school can offer a course in Classical Humanities (in original languages) because it would require that a child complete a multi-year course through classical Grammar. These subjects require special teachers who cannot possibly be found to serve in every school district. Therefore, these courses cannot be offered. We see this problem in Mathematics where schools need 12 years to complete but a few years’ worth of Math.
As a home schooling family, all of these limitations are removed. There is no reason to follow a program like that in the schools. Students can begin young and continue on a long climb into lofty studies well before college. Nevertheless, most home schooling families fail to re-think education and follow a course similar to that of the schools.
The Classical Liberal Arts Academy assumes that students are free to set out on this journey to heights most students cannot possibly reach. Moreover, since the studies are independent, there is no need for assembly-line planning as seen in the schools. There is no need to schedule 9 courses per year between 8:30am and 3:00pm from September to June! School is open all day, every day, all year. There is no need to wait to begin college preparatory courses until 9th grade. This understanding is essential to quality education: we must eliminate all of the unnecessary restrictions of modern schools. We don’t have them.
Students in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy begin with studies that will be on their college transcript. Why? They are college-level courses. The Grammar work our youngest students do is the same work college Latin students do. It’s not that we achieve so much–but that the schools achieve so little.
Step 2. Understand the Goal
The goal of true education is Wisdom. We are not under any stress to make sure all of our children’s college requirements are completed–that is easy once free from the limitations of the modern school system. Our concern goes much further. We want our children to reach the highest studies, and this begins as early as possible. We need to allow them to climb for long enough to make great progress. The key to classical education is perseverance.
The education of our children should look nothing like that of the schools. We are are starting them on a long course of studies leading to mastery of the liberal arts and penetrating studies of philosophy and theology. Everything we do today has our long-term goals in view. Everyday we waste today closes doors we could have entered in the future. This is the urgency we face in classical education. Our children must be given the opportunity to advance as far as possible on the path to Wisdom, and that opportunity is narrowed–or extended–every day.
Step 3. Establishing the Objectives
Objectives are intermediate steps that lead us to accomplish goals. We identify objectives that will lead us to our goals so that we can focus our attention on specific objectives everyday.
Objective 1. Language Access
Ignorance of a language bars an individual from all of the riches of its literature. The greater and broader our language mastery is, the greater and broader the range of resources available to them becomes. As Christians, we believe that the original Scriptures are inspired which means every Christian’s goal should be to know Greek and Hebrew. As the language of much of Church history and the bulk of history’s greatest literature is Latin, every Christian should learn to communicate in Latin. From this classical foundation we continue into the Romance languages and then whatever remaining foreign languages we can study.
Included in this is mathematics, which is little more than a language. It consists of symbols, definitions and rules for how to build sentences. If a child does not learn the language of algebra, he has no access to any of the benefits of those studies in the same was a man has no access to German literature.
This objective requires years and years of study and there is no better time for acquiring languages than in youth. These years must be seized upon for these studies. Remember also, languages go on a college application no matter when they were studied.
Objective 2: Cultivation of the Liberal Arts
When all is said and done, the difference between great students and average students is not how many sports they played or how many course they took in school. The difference has to do with skill sets. Information is cheap in our generation and should not be thought to mark the great student. The talk of kids being “smart” is ignorant when it means they know a lot of facts and figures about various subjects.
The classical liberal arts curriculum is not concerned with information, but skills. Languages are skills. Dialectic is a skill. Rhetoric is a skill. Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy, Logic–all skills. On a more practical level, the illiberal or mechanical arts include computer programming, agriculture, auto mechanics, carpentry, cooking and so on. These are what ultimately make an individual useful and valuable to a community. For our children to be “well-equipped” they should have skills to offer to their communities (whether home, parish or neighborhood). We do not want children wasting years on information which can later be accessed with the press of a button. We must use their years of schooling to cultivate arts that can be gained in no other way. Google will never be able to debate, interpret Scripture or express an individual’s feelings. These skills we must gain through learning and practice.
Objective 3: Sustained Thoughts
The classical liberal arts curriculum is a long journey or ascent from the simplest ideas and skills to the most complex. Think of it as a road along which we collect gifts, with the gifts getting more and more extravagant the further we go. Success requires that we stay on the road and advance as far as possible.
Most modern students are like the hare from Aesop’s fable, running all over the place, but not getting very far–certainly not winning anything. Our children need to be like the tortoise–slow and steady moving consistently through the entire course–and winning in the end.
It is very simple: students need to start at the beginning and stay on course as much and as far as possible. Again, this is an advantage the home school family should enjoy and maintain.
Objective 4: Sustained Influence from Wise Men
The Scriptures teach us that “He who walks with the wise becomes wise.” Our desire is to immerse children in the thought of history’s wisest men. We hope to have children through enough of their core studies by high school that they may spend many hours with Cicero, Aristotle, St. Thomas and other masters of philosophy and virtue. Without a solid foundation of language and thinking skills, the writings of the wisest men will be off-limits to our children. We must first make sure this does not happen and second make sure that time is allowed for our children to walk with the masters.
Answering the Question
Now that we see the goals and objectives, we can answer the question about planning classes. We begin with what is most simple and build upon it for the following 10+ years.
- We begin with Virtue
The curriculum is not our first priority. We must begin with training our children in virtue. For a detailed treatment on Christian parenting, read the article: My Sheep Hear My Voice. You should also read our Admission Requirements, which treat of the role of virtue in true education.
- We begin with Catechism.
As said above, we must supply our students with a solid foundation upon which great, complex ideas can be built through the years. This starts (for Christians) with Catechism. The storing up of basic truths provides the materials on which reason may work for the rest of one’s life. Children in our generation receive no systematic instruction in the faith and never progress in religious thought. This leads to a shallow faith that cannot stand up against the attacks of modern materialism. The fall of many teens began when they were five years old.
Note: Regardless of whether your child is Catholic or not, we recommend they complete our Catechism course. To think that because your child is not being raised Catholic means that they’re better off not being catechized is surely not a decision flowing from Wisdom and certainly not from God. We offer historically orthodox Christian catechism that we recommend for all students.
- We begin with Grammar.
Students must begin with a solid foundation in Grammar. This consists of the study of Classical Latin and Greek–the parents of not only English, but all of the Romance languages: Spanish, Italian and French. These studies will open to our children six languages, plus Hebrew when possible.
Note: It doesn’t matter that a child has completed a year in this or that Latin program. Other language programs don’t teach systematic Grammar and are quite useless. If your children really do know their stuff, they will progress quickly through the course since a student who passes the exams passes the course. There is no time limit.
- We begin with Arithmetic.
Ultimately, a student’s ability in science will be limited by his skill in mathematics. Modern schools rush to introduce children to science, but it is a sham. Students who do not know Calculus cannot learn Modern Physics, as (real) Modern Physics depends upon Calculus. Therefore, a sound curriculum would have children scheduled to complete Calculus before they study Modern Physics. However, when we look at the schools, we often find Calculus studied by a small group of 12th grade and Physics offered to all students. How can this be? They present students with a (fake) Algebra-based Physics course in high school. This is not education for real life, but education for education’s sake.
There must be a realistic plan to lead children to the level of Mathematics they need to actually use it. This requires that we start with Arithmetic.
- We may add any other studies desired.
Once the essential core of Grammar, Religion and Arithmetic are in place, we are free to add whatever additional courses the children can handle without neglecting these. With the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, this includes Chronology, Classical Vocabulary or any of the other standard courses. With the core courses set and prioritized above all else, all other studies are set in their proper place and become most profitable. Music lessons offer a relaxing distraction from the intellectual work of Grammar, Catechism and Arithmetic. Sports provide an opportunity to exercise the body and burn off steam. Boy Scouts provides a great source for friendships and recreation. All other activities fulfill their role asextra-curricular activities, not anti-curricular activities.
Modern schools foolishly assign essential courses to one slot in their schedule–just like every other class. In the end, a child spends 45 minutes per day in Grammar, 45 minutes in Math and the same 45 minutes in Home Economics! We cannot allow foolish planning to crowd the core studies out of the schedule. In the old days, students spend 4 hours per day on Grammar. Your family may not be ready for that, but it gives a glimpse into why 18th century schools produced great writers and why modern schools won’t. Don’t follow the folly of modern schools.
Note: CLAA courses will not be modified or changed to fit into an unbalanced plan of studies. Our courses must be given the primacy on a daily basis.
Do Not be Anxious
Until a child masters Grammar, there is no use worrying about Humanities, Rhetoric or Philosophy. Until a child masters the Catechism, there is no use worrying about Scripture study or Theology. Until a child masters Arithmetic, there is no use worrying about Algebra, Geometry, Calculus or Modern Sciences.
Home school parents often are concerned about “planning” but what they mean is jumping ahead. There is no use worrying about tomorrow until you’ve taken care of today’s work. This is not “planning” but worrying, and it leads to bad decisions in education.
The main reason why you should not worry about scheduling is that when the subjects are studied rightly, it does not take 12 years to prepare for college. This is why we read of students in the past going to the university at age 13. Sure, it takes a modern school 12 years to get a student through the minimum requirements for college admission, but that is the modern school’s fault.
We at the CLAA will guide your children through the curriculum and make sure they are on track to be ready for college admission. We will focus on the objectives set out above, and thereby will achieve the goal mentioned before them. As for now, let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. Failing to do today’s work will lead only to further troubles tomorrow.
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy
Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. He graduated from Rutgers University with an honors degree in Classics & Ancient History and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the National Association of Scholars. Mr. Michael has worked in private education as a Classics teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is a Roman Catholic homeschooling father of ten children, and keeper of a quiet family farm in North Carolina. Mr. Michael enjoys studying ancient natural philosophy, gardening, and running.