Piling it on . . .
Over the years, a question has continued to rise before me like a puppy on alert after hearing a strange sound. Why do we organize a school day over eight periods, and why do we teach up to twelve subjects to students—sometimes all in one year? Like so many of our modern school practices, it turns out that this is not a traditional, classical practice. The classical tradition insisted upon multum non multa—much, not many—as a meaningful approach to study.
We moderns, however, have fallen in love with the buffet line. We like to sample many foods and fill our plates with small servings of nearly everything. I myself love the buffet line, or a really good potluck. Our church hosts one every Sunday (yes, every Sunday). I scan the line of dishes as I approach to make sure I don’t fill my plate with some good x when there is some scrumptious y ahead. I usually succeed in gathering a remarkable collection of about eight to ten different dishes.
It turns out that a buffet can be a marvelous way to eat, but not such a great way to study. To study and learn well, humans have learned that it is important to study a few things deeply, even to mastery, rather than to dabble and sample dozens of things. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, while recounting his junior-high education:
In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life. Smewgy taught us Latin and Greek, but everything else came in incidentally.
Studying and learning well is more akin to building a house than to strolling through a buffet line. A foundation must be laid, and laid very well. It is no good doing much of anything else until a solid foundation has been dug and poured. Then we turn our attention to framing; then to wiring and plumbing; then to exterior walls, windows, and a roof; last to interior walls, flooring, and finishing work. There is a natural sequence to building a house, and each stage in the sequence requires mastery for a lovely, strong home to exist. The sequence matters—no one can start building with a roof. Mastery matters—a poor foundation will risk destroying the entire edifice.
I am sure that to you, reader, the analogy is obvious. In “elementary” school we should teach the foundations; in “primary” school we should teach what should come first; in “secondary” school we should teach what comes afterward. “Higher education” should follow secondary education, and so forth. We know this, and our educational vocabulary signals it. Yet we don’t follow this wisdom well. How can a secondary high school student reasonably track ten to twelve subjects across an eight-period day without dabbling? After all, “no one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty.” How many of us, looking back on our own secondary and college educations, realize that we mostly dabbled, and mostly have forgotten all of our dabbling? We are not even a “jack of all trades,” but instead commonly a “master of none.” Why, then, are we so comfortable having our children do just as we did?
Even AP high school courses, despite granting students high school and possibly college credits, are often not much more than another kind of rapid-pace dabbling. Students who read twenty-three novels in AP English in a given year may get to skip English 101 in college, but many have not digested or grown to love the books they raced through in high school. CliffsNotes are quite popular with such students, as we all know, but surely reinforce our dalliance with literature.
Classical schools, like other modern schools, generally follow a curriculum that, according to Lewis, dabbles far too much. Our graduates really don’t “know” Latin; many of them don’t do math, or study literature, history, math, or science “incidentally.” There is usually no room for any of this incidental or accidental learning, because we fill students’ every hour with all matter of what becomes academic “stuff.” Sadly, loves are not cultivated by rapid sampling or “drive-through” courses of study—or by simply asking students to pile their plates high with great heaping helpings of the True, Good, and Beautiful. We have a phrase to the effect that one’s eyes can be too big for one’s stomach. In contemporary classical education, I fear that our eyes are too big for our students’ souls. We dish it up, eight periods a day, with eight different enthusiastic chefs serving large amounts of what we know our students will want and love. They, however, have had enough.
I have exaggerated a bit to make a point, hoping the point will reach its mark. Some schools employ block scheduling and have dialed back the number of subjects students must track. And, yes, some students can manage our rigorous schedules and curricula. Many, however, burn out or lose their passion for study.
To those of you still chafing under my critique—well, I chafe, too. I find myself, however, compelled by Lewis and the classical tradition that knows little of our wide curriculum and eight-period day.
What I think we should do in response will have to wait for another post. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts, suggestions, ideas, and criticism.
Here is a video version of this post, for those of you who are interested:
I totally agree with this! But am at a loss as to who to make it a reality, even in our homeschool. As I study and continue to learn about classical education and the liberal arts specifically, there are so many wonderful areas of study. It’s really hard to not feel the need to look at least a majority of them before our students leave home. I’m looking forward to the next post on how to narrow it down and focus on what matters, especially for middle school and high school. How do we choose between in-depth Latin, other foreign languages, understanding informal and formal logic, deep understanding of mathematics and sciences like chemistry and physics, as well as being well-read across ancient, British, and American literature and understanding the flow of history, government, economics, plus music education, playing instruments, athletics. Oh my goodness. How do we know what really matters when it all seems to matter so much!? 🙂
How can multum non multa be done in a classical way for homeschooling? This is how we did it and some of the outcomes.
Our homeschool had three foci. They were Bible and Language Arts first, and then math. Every choice for prioritization of study or school activity was decided by especially the two primary priorities. These are super classical priorities. When we added history, we made the projects for it language ones, writing ones. We studied Grammar, Latin, and the Progymnasmata as our main subjects.
All 4 children not only were admitted to colleges of their choice, but also had very different majors. One majored in music and literature, one in economics, Bible, and finance. Another majored in accounting and our youngest in Biochemistry. One is even working on her doctorate in Musicology at a university that is very well respected in this area of study.
It can be done and it really can lead to marvelous outcomes.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have been struggling with this same concern for several years now and am at a point where I recognize something needs to be done, but I am not quite sure what it is or how to begin! I think this “piling on” can be even more problematic in a homeschooling environment where, as the teacher/mother, I feel my duties extend beyond providing the academics, but making sure my children are grounded in household knowledge as well. So much to consider and do yet only so many hours in a day! I’m looking forward to your follow up.
I am a teacher and also an academic affairs director at our small classical school in CA. We struggle with this issue. So what do you think are the most important subjects that a classical student must take in logic and rhetoric stage?
I think we should allow students to determine what they wish to study and focus on objective-fulfillment as opposed to rigid time-frames. Return to tutorial-style education and allow students to take ownership of their education and thus fully invest themselves in it.
You have a point here. If a student doesn’t emerge to the point where she becomes her own teacher, we could say she is not yet a mature student. I also agree that we should know what goals we seek when we teach or learn. Lewis was tutored (by the Great Knock and then later at Oxford which employs the tutorial system) and tutoring is widely regarded as the best form of teaching.
The challenge: young children are not mature nor wise enough to wisely choose what they should study—unless guided by a wise tutor (and perhaps this is what you mean). The other challenge of course is that tutoring is expensive. Yet, this is what homeschooling mothers are doing for the children across the nation. It is expensive for the average middle class family to homeschool in the sense that an intelligent, well-educated parent (usually a mother) will forgo professional employment and income to tutor her children. I tip my hat to all of those giving up $40,000 or more a year to educate their children!
Wonderful article!! As someone who also loves a buffet (both with regards to food and academics), I have also struggled with wanting to teach my students so many things and having them move on not really being proficient in much of anything. So with that…what do we focus on in the various stages? What do we give up? How does this effect music and art? Looking forward to your follow up article.
At our classical school students only take four academic subjects each term. Math and classical language are continuous throughout the year but all other academics are taught on a block system with double periods for science, literature, history, and rhetoric OR theology–two per term. We do have an 8-period day but the other two periods are for Fine Arts, which most students find relaxing and require no homework, and/or a study hall. This works much better but students in high school still feel stressed because they fill their lives with so many other things as well–long hours of athletics then social media late into the night, leaving little time for even sleep, much less study. We can fix the schedule but I’m not sure we can fix this drive to fill every hour with busy-ness. It seems to be the American curse.
I posted a rather lengthy thing down below, but you put it much better in your concise comment – couldn’t agree with you more – keep fighting the Good Fight!
— Eric Fullgraf
I have felt this way for a long time, but had a hard time coming to terms with it because it made me feel lazy.
I started my children at kindergarten in a classical school and fell in love with their education. We moved, and there was not a classical school to put my kids in, so began our classical homeschool education, and my training as a teacher. I remained true to the classical method and about killed myself and my children’s love for learning because I felt like I had to do everything the classical homeschool curriculum I chose told me to. At one point I attended a classical education symposium where I officially was turned off by classical education. Rather than leaving there excited and renewed, I left realizing that classical education was an idol I was chasing at the expense of my children’s childhood.
When my oldest was in 8th grade I officially gave up on a true classical education and opted for “classical-ish” at a block style school that allows for Fridays off. I immediatwly found myself choosing as many classes as I could to put my children in and felt pulled to supplement at home with still more. I had been brainwashed into thinking that 10 subjects needed to be taught, or the education was not good enough.
I have finally jumped off that train and opted for less, realizing that my kids have a lifetime to learn. I don’t have to teach them everything by the time they are 18. Less is more, quality over quantity. Five books read aloud and discussed at length is better than 10 read just for the sake of checking off a classical checklist. I can occasionally throw poetry into my 6th grade grammar class I teach, it’s ok if it takes 2 years to get through one Latin book in high school.
I love the idea of teaching truth, goodness, and beauty, within a rigorous framework, but not to the point that rigor mortis sets in. My classical education goal is to create an environment that fosters a love for learning in my children and students that extends beyond my reach and for their lifetime.
Thank you very much for writing this article and beginning this overdue dialog.
YES!! You have been able to articulate everything that I have been feeling! Thank you, Aimee W.
In a perfect world, the core subjects: English, math, Latin, Greek, and music. Other fine arts, history, and science could be spread out or rotated until upper school. The core subjects can also seek to include elements from the arts, history, and natural sciences.
I have often felt everything Dr Perrin has succinctly expressed in this article. I often wonder what the “perfect world” is for each of us. My 14 year old loves her voice lessons and logic. An odd combination to me, but perfect to her. So I let her artistic side find expression and this keeps her happier and better able to do other “chores” like Algebra, literature, composition, science, and Latin. There is more given by her program but it is very overwhelming to her so I scale it back since we are homeschooling through a classical program that lets me.
Eight periods? Every school in which I’ve taught has had only seven. But even that I think is too many. I’m realized this the last few years teaching Latin. Most of my students get 7 years of Latin by the time they graduate, but even the best of them are scarcely doing more than intuiting their way through heavily modified and very much excerpted classical texts in their last year.
What is the solution? So much of it is driven by classroom management issues, because the sad fact is the most students even up into High School fail to develop the personal and academic virtue necessary to do long stretches of independent studying in the truest sense of the word study. Classes are accordingly structured such that most of the burden falls on the teacher to “keep them busy” for the allotted time span – which eventually means the teacher is holding their hand through everything that they do so that they never learn to be independent. And because there is no real sense of multum non multa, not only are the students subjected to insane, factory assembly line-like conditions going from worksheet to worksheet and class to class, but they then have to go home and do several hours of homework just to make sure “all” of the “important” material gets adequately covered.
The problem is a Gordian knot. Parents expect this sort of thing because they tend to believe the purpose of school is job preparation, and every adult knows that a job is nothing but insane busyness all the time. (Also, since everyone MUST go to college in order to be “successful” in life, the buffet line of subjects must be taught because that’s what the colleges expect to see on their entrance applications.) And since parents expect that, administrators feel the pressure to provide that, so the teachers get stuck trying to make it happen.
Unfortunately, I fear Classical Conversations is falling into this same trap. So much, and no time to digest. I have to ask myself “why?”
Jen- that is what I use. But use it the way you want to, don’t let it control your teaching. It’s just a tool to use, especially at the challenge levels. I’m learning this the lInger our family uses it, I’m no expert yet. Some kids can keep up with it all but some can’t. Scale and you will be so much happier. Happy Mom=Happy Kids ?
I have one in Challenge II and fear this myself. This year has been terrible for my son – 19 books in 30 weeks, he used to love reading now hates it. We do tailor it for what works for our family and our director continues to “hint” that we should be doing more . . my “pie in the sky – perfect education” that I fell in love with in CC is dying a fast death . .
Perhaps a little different way to view this would br “spreading the feast” as Charlotte Mason calls it. They read from many books but short segments daily, with younger children doing no more than 10 minutes per lesson and older ones a little longer. They need to digest, yes,and narrate back in order to show they are digesting. Speeding through a lot of books isn’t the point; rather covering a wide variety so that children are beginning to be exposed to may beautiful things brings about a love of learning. Art, music, Shakespeare, folk tales, the Bible, reading about nature, drawing, painting, math, poetry, etc. I would never leave them out but I don’t necessarily spend hours on any of them. Music appreciation is once a week about a single composer for a term so that the child begins to love them and recognize them.
Thank you for speaking to this! I think a CM approach addresses the need to digest through short lessons, slow reading, and, of course, narration. It also allows for the buffet in the sense that children can experience all the beautiful but less “academic” subjects of art and music. How do we know what will strike at our children’s hearts and capture their imagination?
What a cliffhanger!! I am anxiously awaiting your continuation of this topic! The majority of the discussion has been about upper school, but I have experienced this with K-5 students as well. I’d love to hear thoughts about how to address this issue in lower grades without resorting to unit-study-like teaching. Now that my oldest is older, I have realized that, despite being a very smart student and eager learner, they have retained pretty much ZERO of what they were taught in their very rigorous and full science curriculum in a classical school, although it was a sit-and-get type curriculum. The same holds true for history. What this student does remember are the wonderful stories they read and all the nature experiences they’ve had. This has provided me the freedom to not repeat these curriculums with my younger and rather take a Charlotte mason approach with nature study and reading living books for history, but I occasionally backslide into doubting that I’m doing the right thing. Maybe part of the answer lies in educators realigning our mindset….
my academic director send me this article today. I agree that we have to be wise in choosing what is the “healthy diet” for us and our students. Thank you.
Can I say I agree with your post 120%? Perhaps that would reveal I only dabbled in math as a child. As a homeschooling mom I have always refused to call myself a classical homeschooler. This post sums up one of the primary reasons that what I do does not “look” like modern classical education. I do not think it possible to cram truth, goodness, and beauty into our modern framework of school. Yet this is what I see in the classical movement, both within schools and within homeschools. Modern schools are simply not capable of holding truth, goodness and beauty. So we shrink truth, goodness, and beauty down to fit into our inadequate framework. Because it is both frightening and difficult to build up a new framework. I fell in love with the idea of classical education when I read The Liberal Arts Tradition. However, calling myself classsical would conjure up in other’s minds a completely false idea of what goes on in my homeschool each day. We need to talk more about this because too many moms feel guilty if they don’t get to eight subjects every day. We think “doing it all” poorly is better than doing one thing fantastically.
A few days ago I listen to a very popular Charlotte Mason podcast where they said this very thing, “doing it ALL (referring to “the feast”) poorly was better than choosing only a few things to start with and do them well.
Thanks for this note about the CM podcast. Charlotte Mason is very concerned that students feast on very good books, and also frolic in nature (while doing nature study) while young. I think “spreading the feast” can be reconciled with doing fewer things well, if the “feast” is understood as being “spread” over sufficient time. There is also a place for “sampling” books and study that can be viewed as part of the “feast.” Note, for example, how C. S. Lewis mentions how he learned so many things “incidentally.” This incidental learning he speaks of could very much be considered part of the feast as he sampled many great books and subjects. Note, however, that he was not forced to do this by a set curriculum with associated assessments, tests, and deadlines. Such a forced or required “feast” becomes something less than a feast in my opinion. Whether Charlotte Mason herself can be understood to be “forcing a feast” I doubt based on my reading of her. I would love to hear from other informed CM educators!
Charlotte Mason studied and knew children in a way that I think few educators have. I cannot imagine that she would ever say “spreading the feast” poorly is better than doing a few things well. She spoke of three tools at our disposal used to educate our children: atmosphere, disciple, and life. Addressing discipline, she would say lessons were meant to be done in a orderly way, with routine and structure in place. There is little benefit to haphazard homeschooling.
It’s important to distinguish between people speaking ABOUT Charlotte Mason and what CM herself has said.
What a great proposition. You mentioned the kids and how they are burn out by the great many subjects they are taking but let’s talk about the ones teaching them. I am a homeschooling mom of 5. The curriculum method that I have used has me burned out with the sheer amount of subjects I have to teach, even if they are 10 minute subjects (that sometimes turn into more than 10 minutes) or oversee and prepared; times that by all the students I have!
And a typical year goes like this: we start full force with all “the feast” has to offer and then by the end of the school year only bare bones are left because, I cannot keep up. It’s becoming predictable, and I don’t like it.
I look forward to the next segment on great topic because, something has to change, at least in my home it does.
I’d love to see how this could work on a classical public school, where the state mandates certain subjects and of course those blasted tests. Thank you.
I am anxiously awaiting the post about how to do this differently. Did I miss it?
Today I posted the next article in the series, “Cutting School: Why Classical Schools Fragment Learning and Turn Learning into Subjects.” I am planning yet a third article that I will title something like “Re-unifying the Classical Curriculum.” Thanks for posting!
Are these follow up articles no longer available? A search is not producing results.
Since Charlotte Mason has been mentioned, and Classical education is all about The Great Conversation, what was her take on The Great Conversation?
Thank you for your fine thoughts on this subject.
Our Faculty has arrived at some of the same conclusions on our own and are seeking to address them. We’re a small, Classical and Christian Academy. We went to a block schedule several years ago: 4 one and a 1/2 hour periods per day. The last one of the day is for electives (Visual & Performing Arts, Cullinary, Human Health, etc.) P.E. or Directed Study (Study Hall).
I believe a big part of our frustration is because our culture is SO behind – having neglected the Great Books and the Great Conversation at Home, Church, School and Public Discourse for so long that we are desperate to expose our students with as much as we can in the brief time the Lord has given them to us. There seems to be great pressure to transmit the vast body of knowledge from 35+ centuries in 12 years of education. If you add all of the organized sports opportunities, Youth Group outings (including short-term Missions trips), and College-readiness training such as Standardized Testing prep – it’s all too much. My students regularly tell me, “I’m tired.” (and this comes from the ones who are or were some of my most energized kids)
Scholar James Taylor (author of “Poetic Knowledge” – not the “Fire and Rain” singer/songwriter) recommends making time for Middle School students to read really good books (“Treasure Island” or “Anne of Green Gables”), lying under the night sky singing sad Irish Ballads together before we introduce them to the Great Books. He argues that these young folks need to learn to love to learn, so that they WANT to become life-time self-educators. We simply cannot force-feed them all the great stuff in the time we have with them.
I feel the desperation you mention as I work on plans for my son’s 5th grade year. Your words were helpful and encouraging…thanks!
As part of homeschooling my elementary age girls, arithmetic and language arts (phonics, reading, grammar, spelling, writing) are our main areas of formal instruction. I read aloud carefully curated literature (that is just a click or two harder than grade level in vocabulary and reading level) that meshes with our very laid back history and timeline book. Because I read aloud we take the time to discuss or ask questions or share opinions as we go. My oldest is a fifth grader and she loves animal and vet science. I’ve taught her how use Dewey Decimal system at the library. She finds nonfiction titles on her own and I also do extensive searches to help her find appropriate titles. All on her own, she’s learned about classification of living things. Taking her lead, I then found some materials to flesh out classification of living things and specifically animal and plant life units. Since I’ve adopted this approach, I don’t feel stressed about choosing curriculum and I don’t have fears that I’m leaving anything out.
For mid primary-schoolers, how do you set strong expectations for what comes next in the day without cutting up the day into subjects?