Ask the Autodidact, #1 (FREE)

Ask the Autodidact

This column is a work in progress.  I have invited several teachers and home-schooling parents to work together in improving the reading list, posting articles on important aspects of the classical  inheritance, and to take part in discussions initiated by questions

Brother Martin, who works in a classical academy, writes in to ask:

Would you mind sharing your thoughts on an educational issue, namely, the length of the school day, amount of homework, and such things. 

When you have time, would you mind sharing your thoughts on an educational issue, namely, the length of the school day, amount of homework, and such things.  I am asking both as teacher seeking to make improvements to our curriculum and as a father faced with the decision in two years of where to send his daughter for middle school and high school. 

There are several classical or liberal arts schools our area, yet they all have the attitude that the longer the school day and the more homework the better.  I am partial to the idea that less is more.  Our children's minds and bodies need a rest.  I'm given to understand that many European schools today produce better results with shorter days and less work.  And long ago, the Romans called school "ludus."  Do you have any strong opinions on this matter?  There are several classical or liberal arts schools in the Dallas metroplex, yet they all have the attitude that the longer the school day and the more homework the better.  I am partial to the idea that less is more.  Our children's minds and bodies need a rest.  I'm given to understand that many European schools today produce better results with shorter days and less work.  And long ago, the Romans called school "ludus."  Do you have any strong opinions on this matter?

L Cornell, a homeschooling parent and teacher, responds:

Our children are 11, 9, 8, 6, and 3.  The older two average 3-4 hours a day on school--Latin, spelling & handwriting, Math, Writing, Science, Fine Arts, Grammar, History, Catechism, and Korean (my husband's mother is from Korea).  The next two study similar subjects, but their lessons take less time.  Our other weekday hours are spent at Mass and in family prayers, horse riding lessons, karate for the boys, visiting the nursing home and attending Adoration as part of the Jr. Legion of Mary, independent reading, sewing lessons for the girls, piano practice, chores, and plenty of time (although my children would disagree with that) playing outside or in the playroom.  We also have various monthly activities such as choir practice and a girls' hospitality group.

We know at least a dozen other homeschooling families in our community, and our situation isn't unusual.  As the children grow older, they spend more time on their assignments, and by high school, the average time changes to about 6-8 hours.  A few high school students are taking science and math classes at the local community college.  Some families spend more time on other activities, such as sports or music lessons, and they study some subjects through the summer in order to do that.

For us, figuring out what we want our children to learn has been more important than making sure we spend a certain amount of hours with schoolwork.  Because I'm able to speed up or slow down depending on the child's comprehension or knowledge, we're able to make the most of our time in each subject.  We're also able to incorporate our goals into family activities and trips--like enjoying an opera together on the big screen in the basement or taking a trip to a nearby battlefield.

The Autodidact would add a few general observations.

First and very obviously, school boards, administrators, and  many teachers like a fairly rigid system because it means one does not have to treat cases individually or make up the schedule ad hoc.   This is not a bad trait, but being human, we often take it too far and sacrifice the welfare of the students to the majesty of the system.  I always tried to recall that the sabbath—and every other good human institution, whether of divine or human origin—was made for man and not man for the sabbath.

Second, while I do not think there should be much “play” in the class or in homework assignments, children should not be overscheduled.  One of problems created by having two wage-earners in the family is that parents think they can discharge their parental responsibilities by sticking their kids in sports and enrichment programs.  I am not opposed either to sports or music lessons, but if children are not given a healthy amount of free time, their imaginations get stunted and their ability to provide for their own amusement gets limited.   I like houses with a certain amount of wasted space, and if our lives do not have a certain amount of loafing and doing “nothing” we turn into organizational people who cannot tie their shoes with forming a committee or joining a club.

Third, it is very important to kick out new-fangled courses that occupy the students’ time—not just sex ed and psychology but civics and government and lit crit.  When I was a headmaster, I tried hard to focus on the development of skills—foreign languages, music, math, geography, and leave the discussion of what Keats meant in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”  to informal conversation.

I’d be happy to continue this conversation, if we receive more responses or some follow-up queries.

Our colleague Mrs. Flanders writes in:

Christos Anesti!

My Dear Dr. Fleming,

Mrs. Cornell emphasized the significant aspects of the homeschool schedule, which will develop the Christian imagination in the children and foster academic excellence, especially that of spending time in prayer at home and at church. When our children were small, I, the cradle Orthodox, told my husband that we could not afford to take the time to go to church so frequently; he, the convert, said that we could not afford not to. He was right, of course. Ours now both attend a truly Catholic college which fosters their growth in faith and reason. Like the Cornell children, ours had plenty of unscheduled time - and NO electronic devices.

Gratefully and Joyfully yours,

Niki

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I have posted Mrs. Flanders’ response in the text of the article, but here it is for those who have already read the initial posting:

    Christos Anesti!

    My Dear Dr. Fleming,

    Mrs. Cornell emphasized the significant aspects of the homeschool schedule, which will develop the Christian imagination in the children and foster academic excellence, especially that of spending time in prayer at home and at church. When our children were small, I, the cradle Orthodox, told my husband that we could not afford to take the time to go to church so frequently; he, the convert, said that we could not afford not to. He was right, of course. Ours now both attend a truly Catholic college which fosters their growth in faith and reason. Like the Cornell children, ours had plenty of unscheduled time – and NO electronic devices.

    Gratefully and Joyfully yours,
    Niki

  2. Avatar Ben says:

    “NO electronic devices.” Is it not ironic that the lead buccaneers of silicon valley with children would send their children to schools that ban electronics.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all

    also, how does two wage earning parents find time to home school children?

  3. Avatar Ben says:

    yikes. my grammar is terribles. I’ll need a question mark and “how do two wage…”

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    First off, it can be done if one spouse works very part time or if both work part time, but, more to the point, I was referring generally to the problem of all families, not only home-schooling but those involved in private schools, consortia, etc.