Crossing the Educational Rubicon: Charlotte Mason Through High School
- 2010 17 Sep
Choosing the path of home education is challenging at any time, but it becomes downright daunting when facing the academic rigors of high school. For those committed to a Charlotte Mason approach to education, high school seems to present the proverbial Rubicon, whereby upon crossing one enters into an entirely new, frightening, and unpredictable current. Faced with the swirling rapids of lab sciences, foreign language requirements, algebra, and geometry, stepping by faith into those icy waters seems, well, not so enticing. But it is arguable that in crossing this Rubicon, the greatest benefits of the Charlotte Mason approach are possible.
Albert Einstein's notions of the modern tendency to cultural myopia—seeing the world only through the narrow constrains of our own contemporary lens—seem particularly apropos at this juncture:
Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium. Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist's snobbishness.1
Students of history also know that it was the painstaking work of dedicated monks in abbeys and monasteries across Europe—copying those timeless works—that made them available to the world emerging from the Dark Ages. How tragic if, in this generation, their labor is lost on us because we simply fail to include them in our studies! Because the Charlotte Mason approach advocates a curriculum richly based upon literature, history, biography, and original source documents, it is particularly in high school that students have achieved the academic maturity and skill sets required to read, enjoy, and be enlarged by the great works of history. Without this exposure at the most critical time in a student's academic career, students are subject to the same cultural myopia that is pervasive in our society. The study of the great works, the philosophical questionings, and the dramatic writings of the most "lucid minds" of history is the special purview of the high school student following the Charlotte Mason paradigm.
The rigors of a college preparatory course of study necessitate the adoption of standardized texts in the areas of math, science, and foreign language study. While these courses require focused concentration on the materialist/scientific world, a curriculum balanced with a rich selection of the humanities provides perspective and the very raison d'être. If we apply the maxim of Socrates, that "the unexamined life is not worth living," so, too, the un-philosophical quest for knowledge is not worth pursuing.
As an example of how one might approach high school while keeping a rich literature and history-based approach as the goal, let us consider a typical freshman year of ancient studies. Assuming a student has been well versed in history and literature in his grammar school years, a course of study might look like this: Beginning with ancient Sumer, students will read The Epic of Gilgamesh* by David Ferry. As the first recorded epic in human history, students will have an opportunity to realize how world literatures reflect and resonate with one another in their pursuit of wisdom. Literary components that form the foundation to many classic works are evident here—the heroic quest, the road of trials, the seductress, apotheosis, and so on. Students can compare and contrast the Utnapishtim story of a worldwide flood with the Biblical story of Noah and redemption typology. Upon learning the elements of the heroic quest—so clearly depicted in The Epic of Gilgamesh, a literary analysis of the Biblical Joseph will provide the close reader with the narrative of a heroic journey so sublime that Gilgamesh will pale by comparison. In addition, not only does the story of Joseph's road of trials provide literary moments of profound pathos, but the story also operates as a foreshadowing and a typology of the life and ministry of Christ.
In the establishment of law, students will read from the Code of Hammurabi—the first Babylonian lawgiver. Progressing from ancient Sumer, students will discover the works of Ancient Egypt and explore Egypt's obsession with death in the Book of the Dead. Herein are copious rules, albeit many of them highly moral, written sixteen centuries before Christ was born. The complexity of these injunctions will be contrasted with the simple yet transcendent Decalogue given by God to Moses just three centuries later, which prescribed the righteous life of a God-fearing Hebrew. Students will compare and contrast the origin story of Creation in Genesis with the creation stories of the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians.
Moving on to ancient Greece, students will naturally read both the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. As the French writer Charles Péguy noted, "Homer is ever new: nothing is as old as the morning paper."2 For life lessons in courage, sacrifice, and tender familial affection, Homer continues to inspire over three thousand years of history. In the Iliad, Hector stands as the embodiment of the faithful husband, father, and son. The understated pathos of his final farewell to his beloved wife Andromache and his baby son is rarely equaled in world literature. In the Odyssey, the long journey home of the battle-weary Odysseus after the Trojan War represents the soul's longing for home, both temporally and eternally. The truly blessed home is that place where we are fully known and fully loved.
Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way will introduce students to the great minds of ancient Greece, shot through with a clear Judeo-Christian perspective. Lavish seminal quotations portray the ancient's continual pursuit of truth and beauty, exposing the young scholar to an appreciation for the birth of philosophy—the love of wisdom. For Hamilton, an understanding of the Greek way is essential to true education. She shows deftly how ancient Greece established the Western foundations of art, literature, architecture, sculpture, drama, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, and science, and overarching all is the relentless and intractable pursuit of truth. As Hamilton notes, these Athenians, "being free from masters they used their freedom to think. For the first time in the world the mind was free, free as it hardly is today."3 We moderns would do well to sit with Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Their wisdom can inform and enlighten our understanding of God and the transcendent truth to which we ascribe as Christians in a postmodern world.
In ancient Greece, the three Tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—established the very foundation of tragic drama in all its marvelous complexity. Indeed, it is unlikely there would have been a Shakespeare had he not drunk at the spring of these ancient Greeks. Isaac Asimov calls the three Tragedians "the most important literary figures, perhaps, between the time of Homer and Shakespeare."4 Students who have read Shakespeare in grammar school will have little trouble following the magnificence of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound—where the noble Prometheus as a messianic archetype suffers interminable and inexorable pain for his love and service to mankind. As Hamilton notes, this play explores the "mystery of undeserved suffering" and the great conundrum of divine justice and fallen humanity.
In Oedipus Rex, the great tragedy penned by Sophocles, the noble Oedipus stands as a metaphor of how goodness and evil can be resident within an individual. Only through a painful and exacting process of anagnorisis—self-revelation—can we see ourselves as we truly are. In the following passage, the tragic Oedipus realizes too late his true history and finds his pride has brought his ruin. In much the same way, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus contemplates Caesar's meteoric rise to power through his prideful ambition. The literary influence of the ancient Greek poet upon Shakespeare is clear in this comparison. Both texts present marvels of metaphor, alliteration, and lyric beauty.
But tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face,
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.
—Julius Caesar, II.I.21-27
Pride is the germ of kings;
Pride, when puffed up, vainly, with many things
Unseasonable, unfitting, mounts the wall,
Only to hurry to that fatal fall,
Where feet are vain to serve her.
Moving from ancient Greece, where we could easily spend an entire academic year and only scrape the surface, we find ourselves in Ancient Rome. Here, too, are great minds and literary treasures to mine. Every student studying this period should undertake at least Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare's source for both of these plays is Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Olivia Coolidge's Lives of Famous Romans is an easily accessible abridgement of Plutarch by an Oxford-trained scholar. Coolidge has provided the same service in her Caesar's Gallic War, giving the modern reader access to one of the most important historical records of Roman conquest. A novel of Rome set at the time of Nero is Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905. The novel involves a beautiful Christian convert named Ligia and a young Roman patrician who fall in love amidst the terror and corruption of Nero's escalating depravity and megalomania. Richly layered with historical and philosophical context, the novel accurately presents the growth of Christianity set against the barbarity and cruelty of the dying Roman Empire.
As Edith Hamilton so aptly does for ancient Greece, she also did for Rome. In her book The Roman Way, students will have the opportunity to see how Greek philosophy carried over to Rome and enabled Rome for a time to establish an empire built upon republican principles of law and civil order. Reading the letters of Cicero is instructive in light of the apathy and indifference that allowed Rome's noble system of government to fall victim to usurpation and abuse of power. The poetry of Horace, his love of simplicity and gentle virtue, the love poems of Cattallus, and the war diaries of Caesar all form the foundations of modern history and literature. While this cursory overview is hardly reflective of the riches to be mined in studying this period, those that are fortunate enough to discover the treasures here will likely form a lifetime curiosity that will lead them into still greater discoveries.
While the challenges of the Charlotte Mason approach to education carried through high school can be daunting, the benefits and blessings of perseverance can be most beautifully realized at this level. Discussion of the great questions with your high school students richly grounded in timeless works of history and literature can offer some of life's most invigorating, enjoyable, and inspiring moments. Even more importantly, you will have provided your scholars with a knowledge of the works that have formed the greatest minds of the ages. In that, you will give your students a priceless gift that will carry them through the rest of their lives.
*All literature selections are subject to parental discretion.\
Rea Berg has homeschooled for twenty-five years and loves organic gardening, travel to historic sites, nineteenth-century literature, and dance. Rea has a B.A. in English from Simmons College and a graduate degree in children's literature. She has written numerous guides for studying history through literature and has republished many classic children's works. With her husband, she owns Beautiful Feet Books( www.bfbooks.com) and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her blog at http://reaberg.wordpress.com.
1. Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1953.
2. Péguy, Charles. qtd. in The Core Curriculum by Mark C. Henrie. Wilmington: ISI. 2000, pg. 26.
3. Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, pg. 33.
4. Asimov, Isaac. The Greeks: A Great Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965, pg. 133.
Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine®, Summer 2010. Used with permission. Visit them at http://www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com. For all your homeschool curriculum needs visit the Schoolhouse Store. Be sure to check out our new Student Planners!