I would like to take this opportunity to thank the CiRCE Institute for awakening me to the concept of teaching classically. I am a masters-educated, certified teacher, yet I don’t think that I was ever taught how to educate! I was taught how to write lesson plans; how to understand IEPs and 504s; and how multiculturalism was the new fad of education (white man bad.) What I missed was the instructors’ desire to ignite a fire in my belly to soak up knowledge—not to pass a course, to get into college, to get a high ACT score, but to read a novel because I couldn’t put it down, and just simply for the sake of learning!
I began this recent journey to discover the benefits of classical education by reading blogs post from CiRCE’s veteran contributors Joshua Gibbs and Andrew Kern. I then discovered Justin Jackson (Hillsdale College) and Christopher Perrin (Classical Academic Press) from watching their lectures on YouTube. Then an article from Eric Wearne (“3 Ways Public School Teachers can Teach Classically”) fueled my newfound interest and desire to begin to implement what I was learning into my daily teaching. Like Bill Murray in the movie What About Bob?: “Baby steps, get on the bus, baby steps, down the aisle, baby steps . . .” More like baby steps, start choosing better material; baby steps, let students retake the test or rewrite essays; baby steps…
It isn’t surprising that I was not taught classically (unless you count those three years of Catholic School education). I was educated in an era where in public schools the goal is to teach to the tests, the enemy of true learning. Unfortunately, I have not yet fully immersed myself in Homer, Dante, or any of the great books, but I do listen to classical music and have read Macbeth several times: remember . . . baby steps, get interested in the great books of the Western canon; baby steps, listen to Beethoven; baby steps . . .
As mentioned before, my education courses concentrated on teaching to the test, gathering data, and providing tips or tricks on how my students could do well on standardized tests. It makes sense that my students (and most students) care only about their grades, their scores—not about actual learning for the sake of learning. One of my students recently commented: “Mr. Burns, I heard you don’t teach much ACT Prep. Is that true?” I responded with a resounding “Yes!” I’m not concerned about your grade, your GPA, or your ACT score; I’m concerned about what’s in your chest and what’s in your soul. Men need chests and men need souls! You’ll have those for the rest of your life, not some grade or some GPA or some ACT score!
Classical education appreciates the classics, appreciates the truth, appreciates goodness, and appreciates beauty. Now I strive to bring these ideas into my classroom. My focus is on reading literature that has stood the test of time, and we have healthy discussions, rather than me handing them a worksheet or giving them an objective test. Class discussions have sadly become somewhat of a lost art; time is not on the side of a classroom teacher, and it is difficult to indoctrinate if students are allowed to give their opinions. This change in my approach to education is not progressive, but classic, slow, and steady. I may still be somewhat of an imposter, but remember: baby steps, get the students to hear me read with a dramatic voice; baby steps, get my students to discuss what we read; baby steps…
The public school system would like to do away with the classics, such as Shakespeare, and replace them with regional multiculturalism authors and postmodernist literature. One of my colleagues even suggested: “Do we even need to teach Shakespeare?” But I could not stand up for William Shakespeare, the man who wrote Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and my favorite play, Macbeth! I shyly sat back in my chair and stared at her, and I thought I was dreaming. If you take away Shakespeare, then you might as well cancel British and American literature classes. Luckily, Shakespeare will not be stowed away in a back storage closet to gather up dust and cobwebs.
Society would like to rid education of great pieces of literature because they were written by a bunch of white-haired old men. On the other hand, classical Christian education embraces the old and embraces the great text of Western culture. It is not looking to change itself every year like progressive public education. It is looking to re-embrace a movement lost amongst educators in the United States. Classical Christian education giggles but doesn’t openly mock progressive public education; it just forges its path or the path already established centuries ago.
Don’t replace great classical literature written by a bunch of white-haired old men with post-modernist literature because it is trendy. Christopher Hitchens wrote about the postmodernist writers: “The Postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.” Our kids are already bored and read semi-literate texts like Twitter and Instagram posts. Why give them more during school?
Robin J. Burns