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 manyas 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:


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