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Mutiny to My Classical Bounty

What should you do when your students rebel against the project?

There’s a picture of Pitcairn Island stuck to the side of my refrigerator. It’s actually a postcard sent to my youngest son by one of his buddies who had the thrill of cruising with his family to that historic place. Pitcairn Island became the famous refuge of mutineer Fletcher Christian some time in the late 1700s, along with several other dissenting crew members of the HMS Bounty. The mutinous crew famously set their captain, Bligh, afloat in a launch with some of his more loyal followers so that Fletcher and his lot could sail back to Pitcairn Island where Tahitian sirens called. It is a story of mutiny that would later be immortalized in both book and film.

Several weeks ago I became aware of the mild stirrings of mutiny among my own children. After classically homeschooling them for nine years with mornings steeped in read-alouds and recitations, and later enrolling them in a classical school, I thought I had pretty well brainwashed all of my crew members in the purifying waves of the classical education model. This summer, however, I discovered that at least one of my crew was not understanding or not appreciating the bounty of a classical education.

Near summer’s end I had my daughter help me go through papers and books in order to start preparing for the coming school year. She came across a physical science textbook I’d be using to teach her eighth grade science class in the fall (a fact she has not been super excited about, insisting that I will pick on her and require more of her than the others in the class. I told her I absolutely would!). Anyway, she flipped open the textbook inquiring, “So this is what we’ll be learning in science next year? Maybe I can get a head start by reading it.” (My heart soared!)

“Yes!” I excitedly responded. “That’s the main text I’ll be using to teach the course along with several other resources.”

“What other resources?” she suspiciously asked. Rifling through the pages, she discovered different writing exercises, notes about narration and recitation, as well as outlining ideas that I had stuck in the pages of the book to help with my pre-planning. Her nose wrinkled up distastefully as she queried, “What are you doing with writing and recitation exercises in a science class? You can’t teach writing and outlining in science, Mom! It’s just not that kind of a class!”

Now my heart sank and I paused in the middle of putting away groceries to look her in the eye and perfunctorily reply, “It is called integration of subjects, sweetie,” feeling that this explained everything.

“Well, whatever it’s called, you can’t do it in science class. We’re already writing and outlining in English! You can’t require us to do that in science, too. It’s just not done! And poetry, too?”

I found myself gasping, despairing, and aimlessly placing a jug of cold milk in the pantry and pancake mix in the fridge. I was completely befuddled! Had none of my classical upbringing worked? I felt as if my own child was holding a saber against my throat, threatening to make me board an open launch with all of my beautiful writing-across-the-curriculum ideals going out with me. Other kids think this way. Kids in public school, or that other private school down the road, right? Not my own kids! This smacked of mutiny!

Thankfully, I pulled myself together and quickly remembered who was captain of the ship. Unlike Bligh I would not be so easily overthrown! I was well aware of rough sailing in the ideals of modern education and societal pressures when I first embarked on this journey. I just never expected it to come from one of my own.

Although the classical education movement has seen a huge renewal over the past decades, we are still sailing in somewhat uncharted waters. Yearly we must restate our course and, as I am learning, enable our students to resist the sirenic lure of compartmentalizing subjects and acquiring just enough knowledge to pass the test while never fully being on board with our lofty aims of cultivating wisdom and virtue. Perhaps the fault lies with us as the parents and teachers, failing to fully pass on the mission through actually modeling our expectations for our students and children—what subject integration and wisdom cultivation looks like, not on the website and not in chapel, but in the classroom setting.

Often the theories and ideals we espouse in pre-planning lose momentum when we arrive at first period or when progress reports need to be sent and the need to dole out homework and take in grades seems to command our time and energy. Before we know it, our classes look pretty similar to the public paradigm we grew up with, maybe with a little opening liturgy thrown in to help with the “virtue” part. Limiting virtue only to our opening or closing liturgy or devotional time is yet another way we compartmentalize. We may speak “integration” but we often do segregation.

I do not claim that as educators it is our motives that are askew, for I know my own heart and the hearts of those I work alongside and learn from. I believe that sliding into the conventional way of teaching is just the easier way. It’s sort of like backsliding in our spiritual walks if we are not intentional in evaluating where we stand according to the Scriptures. In the same way, we must be ever intentional in our lesson planning and classroom patterns if we are to resist the tendency to just cover the subject matter or get through the chapter. Just the other day I squelched a slew of engaging questions from my students in favor of “getting through the material” and later on had to repent. Sadly much of the moment was already lost. Regularly we must evaluate our practices and our motives and ask ourselves if we are teaching classically and assessing in a way that blesses rather than in a way that merely reduces a child’s learning to just another piece of data. In my dream world of classical education, be that at home or within a school room, I still visualize the students with the joy of learning shining in their little eyes. Sigh.

When I share all this with my daughter, she just rolls her eyes. Nevertheless, I am more determined than ever. I am well aware of the assault against this style of teaching where classes are divided by “subjects” and writing skills are not part of science class. Yet I remain convinced that we live in a universe and not a multiverse and we must stand firm for our beautiful theories and actually put them into practice in our classrooms so that they become our students’ new norms leading to renewed nobilities. Let’s not walk the plank nor cede our sailing vessels of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And whether sounds of mutiny come from my own household or society itself, let us hold true to course.

If there is to be mutiny, let it be against compartmentalizing subject matter. If there is to be desertion, let us desert conventional ways of assessing that we still hang on to out of ease. Let science class embrace the practice of recitation and let English class focus on writing that deals with the ethos of stem cell research. Let history and Bible and math all teach the relationship of Ezekiel to Pythagoras and how their theories and philosophies changed our thinking today. In other words, let’s be classical and let’s be proud of it. Let’s take our beautiful pedagogy and give it year-long application. In doing so we will demonstrate to even the most mutinous of our kids just what an educational bounty they are blessed to be sailing upon.

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