Homeschooling through high school and beyond: The best years of classical education
Note: This article is adapted from the introduction to my recently published book: The Conversation: Challenging Your Student with a Classical Education.
As my eighteen-year-old son flopped down in a chair with his food, I asked, “What’d you do today?” He prayed over his food and then responded, “I tore up a deck with John, and then I studied wealth transition. I learned about the rule of 72. I think I do want to be an apprentice to that finance guy when we get back from Australia.”
My husband, Rob, and I have four sons, homeschooled through high school with at least some semblance of a classical education. We didn’t start educating classically until the older two, Robert and John, were in middle school, but both of them have caught a lot of what we taught their younger brothers, William and David. As I worked on my latest book, The Conversation, on teaching in the rhetoric stage of high school, our last two sons were completing their home education. At least that’s the way it may look to the rest of the world. To us, education is never finished. Our eldest sons are about thirty years old, and they are still learning. After earning college degrees, they moved back to our neighborhood to build the family businesses, and raise their own families. The dynamic nature of life inspires them to learn constantly.
While sitting on the deck, completely exhausted from eleven hours of hard labor, William shared his plans to study finance, reminded us to bring his needed data so he can work on college applications, and applied the economic ideas he had studied to the family businesses. No one told him he had to work this week. No one told him to study finance in the evenings. His school year has officially ended, but he has big decisions to make about his future, and he wants to be sure he can afford them. Young adults have active minds and bodies, so they need to be busy. In the rhetoric stage, the classical model teaches them to be productive and to include others while pursuing the things they love.
William also recently performed both vocally and instrumentally before an audience of two hundred, even though he is new to these studies. He spent an intensive year studying performance, voice, and music theory while continuing his classical studies in history, philosophy, astronomy and physics, and all while working part-time. Yet he managed on a weekly basis to play rugby, attend church, help clean warehouses, and watch many movies. He does these things because he loves life, not in order to earn a degree.
Our youngest son, David, is the fourth classically educated son in our family, so he grew up around all kinds of stories from different subjects. David hangs out with both theater types, who speak with good diction and memorize long passages of Shakespeare, and rugby players, who use crude language and seem to have a limited vocabulary. He likes to learn big words from the one crowd, and share them with the other crowd. He uses a “Word of the Day” app in case he doesn’t hear a good word to use from his daily conversations. I found out about this as David was demanding from a friend a very clear definition of a word. I asked him why he was so adamant about understanding the proper use of the word, and he explained, “The guys on the team think I am smart, and I don’t want to let them down.”
David is also committed to athletics. He does cardio, weightlifting, speed training, agility training, and rugby practice on a daily basis. One of the reasons we homeschool during high school is so that our boys have time to work hard at the things they love. David has used this freedom to his advantage athletically. He would love to play rugby in college and even in the 2020 Olympics. Our current conversations deal with kinesiology, nutrition, fitness, college in England, rugby academies in Scotland and New Zealand, and how to keep him free from injury. More importantly, we discuss parameters on attitude and responsibility so rugby does not become an idol. David happily completes his school assignments because he can’t practice until he’s finished all of his other tasks.
Do William and David and their friends have exceptional lives? I hope all of my children do and that yours do too. But their lives are comparable to the other classically-trained, homeschooled students in my community and in communities around the world. They dance, sing, travel, play instruments, study rigorous subjects, work with their parents, and serve in the community. They love Latin, physics, and literature. They take SATs, APs, and apply to colleges. They quote Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas as well as Sherlock Holmes, Bilbo, and Adele. They paint houses, plant gardens, and play Ultimate Frisbee. They do the same things as other high school students but with a subtle twist: they know the names of the giants of history on whose backs we all stand.
We all benefit from the hard work and sacrifice of those before us, but these students not only recognize the names “Einstein,” “Kepler,” “Washington,” and “Lincoln” they also recognize the men’s influence on modern times. They don’t measure their thoughts by their own opinions but by those of individuals who are older and wiser. They seek answers in light of truth, goodness, and beauty, rather than personal preference or modern trends.
Does this description sound unrealistic? It is not. I am privileged to work with dozens of students who have been classically trained by their parents, and their maturity is remarkable. They have conversed with adults most of their lives rather than primarily with groups of other children. When you add quality content to their educational mix, it is not surprising that these students do well with academics and with life. Even more impressive is that their parents were not necessarily classically educated. Instead, these parents have entered classical education from many different backgrounds, unified by a hunger to access the great classical conversations of history and to realize great opportunities in the future.
Homeschooling is not perfect, but it does provide opportunities to transition young people into adulthood. Older children can be given the responsibility for younger siblings, even teaching them subjects like reading and math. Centering education at home naturally affords more time for chores and home improvement projects. Our boys have laid tile, painted rooms, and helped build an addition to our house. Because our boys are not tied to a classroom, they have also worked in our family businesses. In all of these activities, we have been blessed by other interested, loving adults who have mentored our boys.
As a society, parents must reclaim the wise, loving guidance of their young people. Business owners should offer apprenticeships. Pastors should walk alongside children, and answer their questions.
When Rob and I first began homeschooling, we hadn’t decided to homeschool through high school. However, by the time the boys reached that age, we knew we wanted to continue. We had grown to love being with our boys and to love the home-centered life we had created. We loved the freedom of reading books together, studying with other families, and exploring new activities like camping, scuba-diving, and flying lessons. We loved running our business together, sharing great books together, and engaging in long hours of great conversations together. It has been a joy for a few main reasons:
A big classroom
My boys weren’t confined to a school for the best hours of their day. Instead, we were able to explore life. We could learn on family vacations, take advantage of classes with traveling experts, and minister to our neighbors.
I loved rocking our babies, but there is something really special about the conversations I have with our children as they mature. They begin to ask really good questions about life. We walk alongside them and witness the opening of their minds as they begin to make sense of suffering, injustice, hardship, and heroism.
It is curious that people consider school to be preparation for real life. At no other time in life are we segregated by age or moved in response to a bell. It is no wonder that students ask, “When will I use this in real life?” School doesn’t show them real life. I am grateful that my boys have been able to study great books, work, and explore interests like rugby.
Real life seldom happens in a man-made classroom; it happens all around God’s classroom.
Leigh A. Bortins is author of the recently published book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. In addition, Ms. Bortins is the founder and CEO of Classical Conversations, Inc. and host of the weekly radio show, Leigh! At Lunch. She lectures about the importance of home education nationwide. She lives with her family in West End, North Carolina. To learn more, visit her website, www .classicalconversations.com, or her blog, www.1SmartMama.com.
Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.