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Classical Education can Address the Problem with Fake News

The current focus on fake news in the media is something I was reflecting on this morning as I did my grad school reading. It was in Fountas and Pinnell’s 2001 book Guiding Readers and Writers that I found the quote:

We cannot predict with certainty what today’s students in grades 3 through 6 will encounter in the twenty-first century, but we do know that their world will be driven by information and those who seek it. For these students, quality of life will depend on their ability to use a wide variety of texts — in both print and nonprint media.” (p. 390)

As I read this, I realized that in 2001 the authors had no idea that there would be a problem with students, and adults, being able to ascertain the reliability, validity and importance of a given text.  It simply didn’t occur to even the best minds at the turn of the century that we were creating a group of people who believed that their belief was a sufficient justification for an argument.

Classical education, of course, spends much time in the study of rhetoric, the structuring of argument, and on history, which helps a reader understand the perspective of the author.  Decades ago I began a practice of checking the copyright of books.  I need to know what was happening in the world at the time a text was written.  And I am aware of the relative quality of books.  Wuthering Heights is no easy read, but the depth of its thought makes it still of value 180 years after it was written.  As I read it, I think about the author:  where in her psyche did she draw the character of Heathcliff from?  Did Emily Bronte have a friend or acquaintance that he is based on?  Or is he based on the Bronte’s father, Patrick?  As I read Claire Harmon’s biography of her sister Charlotte, I consider the details Harmon gives to support various interpretations.

This is the type of discursive reading that classical education seeks to develop in students.  We read the finest books, and then we break them down.  Last week, as we were discussing Alice M. Hadfield’s King Arthur (1954) my students and I discussed the use of the ordeal, or joust, to determine the validity of a legal claim.  “People in those days believed that a person who held a false belief would not be able to win a joust,” I explained.  “The ordeal was actually an improvement over the method for extracting justice before it, which often was no more than a blood feud.”

“You mean like family feud?” asked a student.

“No, no no!  The name family feud is a play on the concept of the blood feud.  The original feud was where they killed a member of your family, than your family killed one of theirs, and it went on, sometimes for more than a generation … you can see why having a single joust to determine a matter of justice is preferable.”

The students nodded their heads.  They could both see my point, and see the distance we had come since the Middle Ages.

This type of instruction, with texts drawn out of history, allows the student to see how writing is a truth claim that may or may not be completely valid.  In our day, the blood feud, the duel, and the joust are antiquated.  But in our history, they had their place.  This understanding of history and how life has changed teaches students that we must continue to evaluate the methods we use to settle disputes and work to improve justice for all.

The skill of reading between the lines, of questioning of the text, is developed by reading excellent texts and dissecting them.  This is something that the smartest students will do spontaneously.  Derrida’s rhetoricity is something that is understood implicitly by the very sharpest students, but it needs to be painstakingly explained for the average ones.  This is why the fake news phenomenon is so vexing for the intelligentsia:  they are not taken in, but the everyday among us are, because they have not been taught to think rhetorically and discursively.

The foundational cause of fake news is technology, of course.  But the modern educative impulse, which demands that every writer has an equally valid voice, has put us now in the company of a huge cohort of students who do not believe in the argument that some texts and ideas are better and more valid than others.  The idea that Huck Finn is not necessarily better than Captain Underpants allows people who go to fake news or politically divisive or even violent websites to claim “that’s just your opinion” when their motives and beliefs are questioned, instead of taking a look at the arguments.  The idea that if all texts are equal, all opinions are equal, is inescapable.  This is why I say that the abandonment of certain classical education impulses, such as the study of rhetoric and history along with the awareness of the relative merit of texts, has made the fake news crisis worse.


The Italian Licio Classico: Education from the Heart of the Classical World

By Giulia Bertagnolio, guest blogger

Aristotle had a school where he used to teach philosophy in a small village near Athens called Liceo, which explains the origin of the Italian word for a certain kind of secondary school. In Italy, liceo classico – a classical studies high school – has existed since Napoleon, 1796, even though some schools had been teaching Greek and Latin before he reformed the school system.

In 1923, G. Gentile proposed a law to reform the liceo, which became a school aiming to shape students’ way of thinking and educate them in the humanities, including Latin and ancient Greek. It was an elite school that trained students to reach the most highly paid and important professions (surgeons, politicians, lawyers). After five years of liceo classico, students could enroll in any university, while other licei did not give the same opportunity. Other reforms followed and more subjects were introduced. For example, philosophy turned into a core subject. Classico was structured almost as it is today (some schedules might differ slightly, depending on the school): the first two years are called gymnasium and the last three are called liceo. Students learn grammar rules within the three languages: Italian, Greek and Latin; they learn how to translate texts from the classics (versioni), which is the foundation of the classical method.

After 1969, access to any kind of university was made free to students who completed high school, regardless of the type of secondary education the student had received. This caused liceo classico a loss of prestige and importance. However,  if you want a rigorous education nowadays, liceo might be the right choice. It is considered that Latin and ancient Greek help develop the brain’s ability to reason and to interpret history, from its ancient roots in Greece, from the spread of writing and through all the ages in which Latin was used as a lingua franca in Europe. These two languages’ grammar systems and vocabulary increase students’ logical abilities and creative skills and allow them to learn about old populations and their literature, for example, epic poems such as Homer’s The Odyssey, and great  Italian poems like Dante’s Divina Commedia and many other works of art. Students who attend liceo classico face a weekly curriculum of 21 hours of History, History of Art, Philosophy, Latin, Greek, and Italian out of a 27-31 hour weekly schedule. This is a large amount of hours dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of those subjects: students translate classic texts, learn to recite poems, learn to read ancient languages that represent the basis of our European culture and origins.

Liceo classico is the only high school where ancient Greek is taught and where Greek authors (historians, politicians, philosophers, poets and playwrights) are studied. This distinguishes it from every other high school here in Italy. This does not necessarily mean that it is a better school, though it is a high level preparation and the effort required often discourages students, who end up choosing other schools.

As for my experience, I attended Massimo d’Azeglio liceo classico in Torino, Italy, from 1992 to 1997. This liceo is a rather famous one in my city; Italian poet Cesare Pavese and book publisher Giulio Einaudi studied there. My time at liceo was very happy, despite the amount of time I spent studying. I loved ancient Greek and its free way of writing and I really fell for the Greek playwrights: Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and their exploration of the human condition at the very beginning of western civilization. I did not always appreciate the long tests, unexpectedly challenging pop quizzes or scary teachers (there were some…) but I can say now, more than 20 years later, that it was worth it.

Giulia Bertagnolio is an English teacher at “IPIA Plana” vocational school, Torino, Italy. She has been teaching ESL in secondary schools since 2004: she has worked in adult education, night school, liceo linguistico and liceo artistico. Giulia has taught English language and literature for eight years in a linguistic school because of her love for the language and the classics.

The first aim of Giulia’s teaching is the relationship with her students; her teaching degree thesis was centered on this very topic. She loves researching and practicing action-research in her classes. She loves reading books to her two daughters and adores the cinema.

Toward a School Culture of Instruction Instead of Just Innovation

I was minding my own business reading grad school materials when a sentence jumped out at me and my head almost split open:

“It is clear from the writings of (researcher name and researcher name) that (grade level) students are not getting enough time in (skill, subject matter) and it is affecting the quality of what they can (do in skill in subject matter.)  ”

This is what I’ve heard innumerable times over the years, from administrators, from text books, from professors, through articles from researchers.  “Spend more time on X!” they say again and again.”  But Mr. or Mrs. Administrator, Mr. Superintendent, Mrs. Board Member, we only get five and a half hours of instructional time each day.

This problem of the limited school day was addressed in the early 2000’s by teachers being told to assign more and more homework, until some parents were overseeing three to four hours in a single night and parent rebellion was in the air.   Homework, then, was not the answer.  We’re still human beings with only 24 hours a day.

How can we make the day more efficient?  The economy of scale in factory production, where producing more widgets is more efficient an cheaper, is mimicked in schools by the economy of repetition of various instructional components in the classroom.  Repetition of any known effective routine or practice  saves time.  There’s a reason why we schedule the day.  There’s a reason why lunch is always at the same time.  Can you imagine the chaos that would result if we switched the lunch time every day?

By the same token, time is lost when we switch curriculums and teachers have to sort through them all over again and “find out what works.”

Why can’t we develop a culture of instruction, based on what teachers have seen in the past, and using what works for us, to make the school day more efficient? Then we would only have to search out new practices and curriculum for actual student needs in our own schools.   Not everything we do is a failure, some of it is already quite good!  If we are allowed to repeat our past successes it will be and accrued gain. Yet every year teachers are told to abandon successes of the past in pursuit of something that might be better — might — while time is lost in transition and translation.

Certainly we need professional development.  Teachers should be learning and improving their game all through their careers.  Textbooks should be updated and when technology changes we have to innovate and evolve.  But  we should be building on what we know, not replacing it wholesale.  Forcing massive adoptions of new and often untested practices and curriculum on teachers who already know what they want to do and how to do it is courting … well not disaster, but slow academic progress.

And researchers who make the impossible demand that we “just need to spend more time on (insert academic subject here)” without metaphorically goring any other subject’s ox are unrealistic.

If we can do that, we’ll next be ready to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.

A Classical Educator Reflects on Writer’s Workshop

The ancient Greeks wrote on papyrus, made of cross-hatched strips of the plant.

Just to be above board at the first:  I think Writer’s Workshop is 100% compatible with classical education methods and curriculum.  If you don’t think so, let me explain …

In grad school this week, we were assigned an essay about Writer’s Workshop by the famous (to public school teachers) Lucy Calkins. I have glanced over her materials in the past, but a vignette from the Calkins essay we read struck a nerve with me.  She told of a writer who remembers being sick as a child and her mother bringing her orange slices that were almost too beautiful to eat.  If she ate them, they would be gone forever, and this thought seemed awful.  “These oranges are part of my life,’ she thought, ‘and I am going to forget them.”  Thus was born in her the desire to write.

How deeply I have felt that same sense of the treasured moments of life slipping away.  Once, I jokingly told a friend that I had a “disordered attachment to being alive.” Attached to every second, I clutch at time as it slips past.  I feel a momentary sadness for every passing day.

I can’t be sure, but I have the belief that students feel the same way about their lives.  When Calkins says “we can’t give children rich lives but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there … “ I feel like agreeing  “everyone’s life is rich in some sense.”  Even boredom is a kind of gift, if used in the right way to drive us to become creative.  But is this seeking the richness in life, and writing about feelings, really a classical strategy?

Writing freely and personally is what the ancient Greeks did when they studied what interested them the most (such as philosophy and education).  Dialogue about what we are writing and thinking is what Plato did at his Academy, arguably the first university.  Writing workshop can be seen to descend from these impulses and practices, giving every student the treasure of time to seek out and sift out what is really important to them, and bring it to a sharper focus.

Sometimes classical educators have the impulse to eschew all “new” methods.  However, Writer’s Workshop is not actually a new method.  It reminds me very much of the activities of the aforementioned-in-this-blog Bronte sisters in Claire Harmon’s biography Charlotte Bronte a Fiery Heart.  The three sisters wrote and shared homemade books and stories for years and years, wrote letters and diaries … all the types of activities we now do in Writer’s Workshop.  In other words, Writer’s Workshop mimics not just ancient scholarly environments but the home school of the early 19th century.

As a classically inspired educator in a public school,  I’ve always had faith in students to work by themselves or together in small groups. From the earliest I have found that although we can’t dispense with direct instruction, independent learning is powerful as well, and proceeds mystically as students self-engage in meaningful tasks.  Of these tasks, I know of none more powerful than writing.

Therefore, as we seek to classically educate students, I think we should look to these earlier models, and answer “yes” to students writing on self-selected topics and sharing their writing.  Although I never agree with anyone all the time, I admit that I believe we owe a great deal to Lucy Calkins and her writer’s workshop promotion, for allowing this venerable method of developing young minds to be known all over the country, to the  good of students.

What is Classical Education — Definition for my Grad School Colleagues

Music and dance as well as fine art are all part of the classical education tradition.

I was asked in online grad school for a quick definition of what classical education is.   I paused for a moment, then thought: wait!  I can do this.  And here’s my response.

What is classical education? Well that is the $64,000 question …

I will say that classical education emphasizes literature and history that is considered excellent over time, and also certain pedagogical methods that are actually truly ancient such as memorization of poetry and speeches, live performance of drama, and ancient language study especially Latin. There is a focus on chronological history, and great books. Many classical programs include the ancient subjects of music, fine arts and dance. The result of this education plan has been high achievement for students across a wide variety of abilities and backgrounds. Although classical education has been at times misused and misunderstood, so that people often think of it as exclusive or repressive, as I understand it, it is a humanistic and progressive method of education.

Favorite Blog Posts of August

Favorite Blog Posts of August

My very favorite:  This post by @RewardingEdu about how you can combine whole-class book studies with independent reading so that your students can develop both comprehension skills with your support and analysis of their own reading on their own level.

Education News and the Hurricane:  posts from teachers in Houston, where I live: 

Woman spots two alligators in back yard due to Houston floods via @sarahtaylorbran

@Colliding with Science’s post about school being closed for a week due to flooding and feeling sad to miss the kids … this was before the flooding got really ugly.

Arts and Literature

The words writers say most often says something about their writing’s theme – check out John Updike.  Honestly I’m not surprised … this is from @guardian

Education Theory:

Will the Common Core work as described?  Problems with the Common Core’s literacy objectives.  This was shared by @LHudson – thank you for this very concerning article.

Do Teachers Have to Be Readers?  A painful but serious question – and you all know the answer.  By @MrZackG.

Can you make homework effective even in primary grades?  Well – As one colleague said to me, whether homework is effective or not depends on what homework you’re assigning.  And in this blog post, what you’re willing to do after hours to back up your students.  From @MrZackG again.

Classical Education: 

Thanks to @CanaAcademy for this reflection on various Classical Education programs and their contexts, linking Rev. Martin Luther King’s writings with classical sources and showing how Classical Education is for all, not just the “privileged.”

Finally, do you think the SAT and the ACT are good or bad?  Whatever you believe, now there’s a new test for students from classical schools.  A classical test for college entrance:   from @FirstThings.

The Difference Between Classical Education, Modern Education, and Traditional American Education

It would seem that in these days of educational innovation and simultaneous looking back at successes  of the past, there would be two “warring” impulses in education (actually, they’re not always at war, many times they both are fighting against the same ineffective practices, but that’s another post) the Classical and the Modern.  This goes back to Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books of 1697 in which the war between the classical and the modern was worked out into a metaphorical campaign of war in which the Ancients won. What’s remarkable to me is that now, three hundred years after Swift’s work, many which were then called “moderns” are now considered “classics,” but that’s yet another post.

What I am driving at here is that often, methods which are loosely termed “classical” are not classical methods at all, but traditional American methods.  Such as an emphasis on rigid grades and handwriting.  I made a chart over the three educational philosophies:


Classical Traditional American Modern
Overarching structure of the method Trivium – Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic Skills based reading, math science and social studies.
Approach to History Chronological history of world going back to 4000 BC Patriotic American history focusing on presidents and generals Anecdotal history, driven by current politics
Assessment practices Poem recitation.  Dramatic performances. Music and art participation.  Writing about what has been read. Pass-fail grading. High stakes assessments such as STAAR; End of Course pass or no-graduate standards; special education (coding) of students unable to pass exams.
Favorite classroom techniques Reading of Mythology and Ancient stories; Ancient Language (Latin); memorization Cursive writing and handwriting;  Sentence diagraming Educational technology ; Small group reading
Classroom management strategies Reading of Mythology and Ancient stories; Ancient wisdom; aphoristic thinking Rules and regulations Situational ethics, thinking problems through; student centered classroom; teamwork
Underlying philosophy Education in the best that has been thought and said will bring the students to the best that they themselves can be. Based in American values of the 19th century, the goal is raising and good citizen in a “Christian country.” Education as a method for improving society; College and Career readiness, schools which represent the best of what America is today.

To look at the chart is to see, I believe, that the classic method, done well, can be argued to be the most interesting, the most effective, but perhaps surprisingly if you look at the row for assessment practices, the most humanistic and humane.  A proper classical education did not function on failing students.  It focused on building up students as far as they would go.  Ancient school teachers were all private school teachers, and they developed assessments such as memorization and performance, which all students could complete.  Students who were able to do more would then be expected to do more. 

It remained for the interpreters of Horace Mann at the end of the 20th century to come out with the idea of No Child Left Behind, make rigid academic standards (and one might argue arbitrary ones too) and then proceed to put legal codes on those who could not fulfill the requirements.

The intervening method between the Classical Method and the Modern, the Traditional American method, is perhaps the culprit for this unfortunate turn of events.  Although I am not an educational history specialist, the view I have of American public schools before 1920 suggests a rigid curriculum taught by teachers who were only roughly prepared to educate students whose home background did not make them particularly ready to learn.  The cruelty and failures of this method brought the advent of modern education practice, but any educational researcher worth their salt knows that when you start with underprepared teachers (such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, 17 years old when she took the school at DeSmet) or uncaring teachers (such as the inhuman teachers of Betty Smith in the ghettos of turn-of-the-century A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and combine them with students who lack appropriate school preparation, results will be poor.

I have compiled this blog post in order to introduce this trichotomy of school philosophies and test it out on colleagues who read this blog.  What do you think?  Are all educational practices before 1920 to be considered “Classical?” Or was there a third way, responsible for the backlash of Mannian education reform, the Traditional American School?  I welcome any thoughts.


The Link Between Boredom and Creativity

This article actually got started back in May with a TrueEnds blog post about The Middle-School Aged C.S. Lewis’ Daily Schedule which states that Lewis spent not less than two hours per day walking in the park just thinking.  This aligned with some things I had heard recently, about the Bronte sisters walking around on the moor and Tennessee Williams walking around New Orleans.  Walking around and thinking was part of creating artwork.

But walking could be seen as a greater sign of having a lot of free time on one’s hands … in short, what we call boredom.

I began to see articles about the phenomenon of boredom driving creativity or achievement.  This seems like a subject for extended study, but I keep losing track of the articles I read and not being able to remember the right keywords to retrieve them.  So, I decided to start a log of all such “Bordom drives creativity” articles and post them here.

And before I posted them, I reasoned, I’d better re-read them, because I needed to make sure they were interesting and did not repeat each other.

(reading all the articles … )

It was about the time that I got to Mark McGinness’ article that I began to think about turning off the internet for most of the day and just having it on from, say, 5 to 7 p.m. Of course, planning such a serious offensive against the teenagers in the house when I have just managed to get them to turn in cell phones at 10:30 at night is daunting.  But after reading the articles I’m convinced:  there is a point at which unrestricted technology becomes … the enemy of all that is creative, and that’s not all.

More on this topic later.  Below I have listed the articles and blogs.


Bored and Brilliant website


Offers a set of tech-free challenges.  Day one challenge:  take a ride or drive and put that cell phone away.  For the whole drive.

You’re at your most creative when you’re bored via  @CatMoreWrites


Tolkien, Garcia-Marquez, and C.S. Lewis began great works while bored … a reflection on the creative life and the need for boredom.
The Scientific Link between Boredom and Creativity  via @JordanRosenfeld A blogger and freelance writer talks about the costs of smartphone addiction for the worker in the creative fields.
Creative Benefits of Boredom via @HarvardBiz Reflection on how boredom at sales meetings drove salesmen to late night dinners full of solutions for problems … and then goes over two research studies which show that stone-cold boredom improves both convergent and divergent problem solving skills.
 Boredom Stimulates Creativity via @YourStoryCo Goes over the same research as Harvard Business review, but then talks about specific creatives and their lives:  Maya Angelou worked as a street car conductor, Charles Bukowski at “soul-suckingly” boring  jobs, before breaking out as artists.
 How Kids Can Benefit from Boredom via @ConversationUS and @tbelton1 Links current problems with child creativity to earlier concerns about the effects of television watching.  Gives recommendations on how to parent once you’ve taken away the digital devices and kids say, once again “I’m bored.”
 Why Boredom is good for your creativity via @99u and @MarkMcGuinness Gives specific steps to unplug from the grid and create creativity with “put your butt in the chair” seriousness.
 A link between boredom and creativity via digital humanities blog Blog post talks how reading allows us to maintain our “dense cultural heritage,” and the difference between writing digitally and writing on paper, types of creative output.
7 creative writers who had boring day jobs via @CreativeLive Seven well-known writers who seem to have benefitted from boring day jobs.
 Back to walking for thinking inspiration:  A passage from Agatha Christie’s “Taken at the flood,” (1948) in which a character, perplexed, seeks inspiration to solve her money and personal problems:

“She wanted to get out of Warmsly Vale, up onto the hills and open spaces.  Setting out at a brisk pace she soon felt better.  She would go for a good tramp of six or seven miles–and really think things out.  Always, all her life, she had been a resolute clear headed person … ” … pg. 93.


What the Bronte Sisters Read Part II


Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte’s literary gift was born of family tragedy, a unique home schooling situation … and perhaps of boredom as well.

Thanks to Claire Harmon again for her biography: Charlotte Bronte, A fiery heart.


When I wrote about the Bronte’s library, last month I did not include notes about their periodical reading.  It would seem that the Bronte’s were not reading just books (and among books, they did not read just cannonized or classic works) they were reading three different newspapers a week.  And they were deeply involved in politics.

The papers were the Leeds Intelligencer, a conservative paper, the Leeds Mercury, a “liberal” paper(though they didn’t call it that, the liberals were, back then and there, called Whigs)  and they were also able to borrow a paper called the John Bull, which Charlotte Bronte herself called “High Tory, very violent.”

The Brontes also read a magazine called Blackwoods, which according to Ms. Harmon, “exactly suited the Bronte sisters tastes … conservative and satiric, mandarin and yet … deeply romantic.”

I can’t help but feel that these periodicals represented the best approximation of the world wide web in the Bronte’s day … and yet, they were different, because they were written and there was no sound or video.

I have yet to give up my malaise about the war that goes on between the image and the decoded word.  In graduate school, we learned that an image can be processed and identified 60,000 times faster than a word can.  Recognition is that quick.  But … how long does it stay?

Part of the reason the Brontes remain is because their art was in words, that pre-eminent medium.  But there were other factors too: The power of boredom, also noted in the modern self help book “From Bad Grades to a Great Life” by Dr. Charles Fay is suggested as a reason why the sisters creativity developed the way it did.

As Harman writes,  “It was clear to [school friend] Mary that Charlotte’s upbringing had been odd and unhealthy, and that the make-believe powers that were so highly developed in her were the result of having insufficient other interests or stimulus. ”

Boredom.  The very opposite of the cell phone, which puts the world on your doorstep.  I will have to reflect on this further and gather more notes from other authors.