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.

Why viewing video and listening to recordings CANNOT replace reading

Never give up on teaching and learning reading!

Last spring I had a conversation on Twitter with a school administrator who told me that his struggling readers had their deficits totally made up for by technology. They had stopped struggling to teach reading because actually, it wasn’t necessary. I was quite skeptical. How could a child who can’t read well keep up in high school using only technology? After investigation, I figured out that what they were doing was using a computer that read text and spoke it aloud to the student. Angered by the decision to shortchange these young people by misinforming them that having a computer read to you is an appropriate replacement for knowing how to read, I began writing a list of why reading skills can never be replaced by technology:

1. Competent reading is a much faster way of getting information than viewing video or listening to audio. As we go on through school, speed of information gathering becomes more and more important.

2. Reading allows scanning to find information, which is almost impossible with sound or video.

3. Reading material is cheap, quick and easy to produce, like this blog. Words require minimal storage space compared with audio and video.

4. Because it is easy to produce and archive, reading is available on a diversity of topics which video and sound do not cover.

5. Because of these factors, a competent reader has huge advantages over a weak reader in the speed, location, expense, production, and range of information they can find about every topic in the world.

So there it is: As they said on TV when I was a kid, Reading is Fundamental. Don’t give up on students learning to read. And don’t ever say that reading can be replaced by technology.

Favorite Blog Posts of July

Culture and Letters

@Longreads   published this long and somewhat two-sided reflection by Hampton Sides on coming to a belief in truth within the era of “Fake News.”  Including the idea that the internet is like a locomotive in a pastoral garden.


Research shows how early readers learn more from Fantasy stories than from non-fiction.  via @GraniteClassical.   I might have included this under Classical Education, but it’s mainline research done in a public school.

Home school parents are leading the way in a potential education-method revolution: mobile learning. From @VarkeyFdn.

Teacherblog:  Why are we lying to our students?  In terms of Santa Claus and other things.  It’s a case of epistemology, I would say, not of whether teachers are wanting to do the right thing …   via @JasperFoxSR .

Value-added rethink via @matt_barnum: challenging value added methodolgy, and also challenging the very idea that higher test scores [mean] improved life.

Talented Teachers who might have too much time on their hands, or at least more than I do?  Try this:  “It’s all about that place, place value” – terrific remake of “All About the Bass” by a math teacher who likes to beatbox: Elementary math teachers take note.  Via @Bookmaster84.

@RewardingEdu gives his Ten Ps of Positive Classroom Management in UKEdMag just in time to get us ready to prepare for the coming year.

A thoughtful blog reflection on reading the classics vs. reading for the heart, and a call to child-centered education.   via @NowakRo

Classical Education

Want to read more about #classicaleducation but don’t know where to start? Thanks to @flsplano for providing this list.   And here’s a similar list from consortium for Classical Lutheran Education. Via @ClassicalLuthEd. Now that it’s time to make a classroom management plan, this unusual suggestion via @circeins. The classroom catechism: Could it be a new classical education tradition?

Alright, so it’s a little short on the classical angle.  I started a Google news alert on “classical education” so … hopefully … I will have a better selection next month.

Thanks for reading!

Guest Post: Why Most Fantasy Novels Have The Same Setting

katniss fan art
The character of Katniss has inspired a wide range of fan art such as this drawing by yulss

by @thesk3tchbook, my daughter


It is curious to me that today many young adult novels take place in a rural world where people live in villages and hunt to find food and live in a state of lawlessness. It is very much unlike our current state of existence in which our daily lives involve forcing ourselves to get up in the morning to go to work and navigating various enclaves of the internet for both social and business purposes, and where much of our entertainment is from a screen. The rural poverty-stricken village of centuries ago becomes attractive as a scene for a story, first of all because it is exotic.

Characters in this kind of universe deal with severe hunger, disease, perhaps raids from invaders; and there is a lack of structure, predictability, or a middle class in this lawless storied environment.

Why do young readers romanticize such a place so much?  It seems a lot of people don’t realize how much happier they are in the modern world than they would be in such a crude setting. Or are they happier?

Decidedly one thing that distinguishes the rural world from the modern is the context in which skills are exemplified. It is much more interesting to highlight a character’s attributes through an exotic or centuries-old environment than today’s. For instance, let’s say the author wants to point out how intelligent a character is. Which is more interesting to read? “Thomas was known for his clever disposition all throughout the village due to his expertise in creating and placing hunting snares to maximize on prey,” or “Thomas got a perfect score on the SAT so his fellow students knew he was smart”? Let’s say the author wants to highlight a character’s beauty. The average reader would much rather read “She was indeed pretty; rumor had it that she had been pursued by many knights due to her astounding beauty” than “her beauty was undeniable; her selfie on instagram received an astounding five hundred likes!”. A rural old fashioned scene is just more interesting. In fact, we might even go as far as to want to live there instead of our own world due to the excitement.

Many popular novels in this type of setting center around a character we wish we could be: in the hit novel and movie series The Hunger Games, female heroine Katniss is a pretty and strong girl with a brave spirit and two handsome boys in love with her, and despite her humble background she rises to be an icon for rebellion against oppression in the book due to her generous and self-sacrificing nature. Is this book so popular due to its wish-fulfilling nature?  Most likely.

Modern youths (and probably youths in the past as well) are likely bored with modern life: after all, where is the excitement, the exhilaration, the passion that is so prevalent in these books with rural and fantastical settings? Ultimately escapism is the goal of everyone, not just novel readers. You see this frequently in video games as well.  We like these kinds of settings and storylines, I suppose, because we get to experience the excitement and wildness up close but the pain and suffering of any character is only imaginary.

So why are poverty stricken villages from the medieval times so popular in stories? It’s simple; they’re more interesting to write and more interesting to read. People don’t want to read what they already know and experieenc; they want to read what they know they want to experience. Besides, it’s much, much easier to watch excitedly from the sidelines than to experience it yourself.

What do we do in classical education for pre-K?

A friend wanted to get her child ready for kindergarten at a local classical school.  She wrote:


I am very interested in classical education for (3 year old son). I only taught in public school which did not teach classical education. I would love to hear more about it. I really feel like he could greatly benefit. There is a classical school near me, its a charter school and its k-12. I am thinking if I know more about it I could give him a good preschool education by homeschooling him with classical teachings. That way he will be all prepared for kindergarten.

I do want to add that he knows his alphabet, basic sounds for each letter, numbers to 12 by identifying, 1-25 by saying independently, shapes, understanding of patterns, and colors. I am a proud mamma bear!


It sounds like you’re doing a great job. I’m sure he will be fine in any school.

At his age, the classical approach would encourage nursery rhyme memorization, child’s song singing times, playing with blocks and Duplos, going on walks, drawing pictures, both of books and of what he sees outside, copying letters and words if he wishes to, learning good manners, reading aloud as much as he will listen, and orderly home routines (putting his toys in a toy box before coming to supper).

Also you might begin to practice counting with association (how many) and putting groups together just for fun. Though they’ll teach all that in kindergarten, he’ll be a little ahead.


I found the following blog post by Amy at Living and Learning at Home helpful.  Most of this is a detailed expansion of the same type of things I wrote about above, but she also includes narration, which I hadn’t thought of, and which would appear helpful as well: Five Days a Week Preschool.


Favorite Blog Posts of the Last Five Weeks

Many of which are from June …

Culture and Letters

Torching the Modern Day Library of Alexandria — from the Atlantic — in which it is explained that the Google Books Project,  which I might term “One World Library,” (not to be confused with Bernie Sander’s One World Netflix Password) failed due to … concerns with monopoly on the sale of out-of-print books.  Via  @philosophybites.

An article in Salon  asks “Is the Atlantic Making us Stupid?”  In case that title is too vague for you (clickbait?) the article accuses the Atlantic Monthly for publishing revisionist feminist dogma, and using women writers to do it.


I’ve been wondering what’s the deal with being a “google certified educator.”  But I never thought the googlian goal with this educator certification might be that which is suggested by the @nytimes … which is to get their products into the classroom by any means necessary and control the philosophy of education to a degree that reminds one of John Dewey …How Google took over the classroom.  Guess I was naive.

Accountability testing for charter schools may be taking the focus off of parent participation and educational innovation.  Via @matt_barnum.  Has the charter school movement gone awry?

Students’ test scores tell us more about the community they live in than what they know — from WTOP — this has been known to the teaching profession and university schools of education for some time (at least 50 years)  but apparently it’s now seeping into the news.  On the fringes like WTOP.  Via @thegrade.


From @RewardingEdu … A how-to article on how to participate in twitter education chats, grow your #pln, and meet interesting people.  Via @Edutopia.  Fear no more:  you don’t have to answer every question.

A plan for creating an editable schoolroom timeline … with notes on setup and downloadable forms … linked by @DoodleMom

When you don’t want to get the box of unifix cubes out, or, more likely, you don’t have the right type of counters — The power of digital manipulatives — this from .  And he has the link to the product, from

More on the positive effects of music study: How music in school and at home can help kids who struggle in language development — from @GCTutorials.     

Classical Education

A reflection on the true, the good, and the beautiful, asking classical educators: is success in imparting the true and the good really enough?  Isn’t the beautiful required too? Via @dimitrios111               from  @circeins (Circe Institute).

An interview with David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility (1981) on the direction classical education should go.  This takes us back to the individual student’s needs and development vs. the desire of the World to create “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.  (T.S. Eliot)” Via  @GCTutorials  and also from @circeins

St Benedict Catholic School in Natick MA is thriving, and things are going well for classical schools in the nation today .. . Catholic Classical Education on the Rise.  From @firstthingsmag.

Almost but not quite off topic … Hobby Lobby has been fined for being in possession of stolen antiquities, which they were, apparently, planning to sell in that front part of the store where the décor items are offered.

That’s all for now.  Thanks for reading!


What the Bronte sisters read

Bronte_Parsonage_MuseumYou’ve probably heard of the Brontes, Charlotte, Emily, and Ann, sisters who were brought up in a remote parsonage on the English moor in Yorkshire and were responsible for several great gothic novels, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey.  My adult daughter was mentioning that she was re-reading Wuthering Heights and she felt a strong sympathy with the characters.  They seemed somehow familiar to her.

“Well you know the Bronte sisters, of whom Emily was one, were like you in a couple of ways. They were home schooled, and they didn’t have a lot of social life.  They became very close,” I said. I remembered this from my undergraduate English Literature before 1865 course.  I hadn’t read a biography, except the two page one in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

She was interested.  Though she was on her second reading of the novel, she had not read a biography either.  “Hmm.”

“And I think they felt socially isolated, you know, there was a story of how they were just in the house by themselves and they read and made up plays and created their own imaginary world. And went for long walks on the moor.”

“Yes, in Wuthering Heights Cathy is always going out on the moor.  Honestly, Mom, I think the moor in that book is rather an evil place … every time she goes out there, something seems to happen.”

“Well, that’s gothic for you, brooding, dark.”

“Yeah, that describes it,” she said.

This made me go down to the used book shop and look for Wuthering Heights.  But before I started that, I was lured by another book, Charlotte Bronte: A fiery heart by Claire Harman. This new (2016) biography was just what I wanted to read about to learn more about the childhood that created these famous writers.  Were they really home schoolers?  And what exactly was it that happened at the parsonage in Yorkshire in the early 19th century?

As I read I was re-acquainted with the nightmare privations of a charity girls school attended by the four oldest girls in the family and reprised by Emily Bronte in Jane Eyre.(after attending, the oldest, Maria, and the second, Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis).  After such a tragedy, the children’s father (of four remaining children, there having originally been five girls and a son, and their mother having died as well) asked his sister-in-law to come and help raise the girls.  It was she who oversaw the schooling they received, which included reading and writing, and housekeeping tasks such as needlework and making of clothes, and French, although only the son, Branwell, received education in Latin and Greek from his father. This brooding and domineering father was part of the situation indeed, and though he provided a literary environment, it cannot be said for from the first three chapters of Harman’s text that the children received much paternal warmth.

The books they are known to have been familiar with, according to Harman, include:

Aesop’s Fables

Tales of the Genii

The Arabian Nights

The Pilgrim’s Progress

Gulliver’s Travels

The Bible

Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets

The Seasons by James Thompson

The History of Rome by Oliver Goldsmith

Grammar of General Geography by Rev. J Goldsmith

and the History of English by David Hume.

Also there were editions of Shakespeare, Cowper, Southey and anthologies of contemporary poetry. In addition the children read from their father’s periodicals, which included Blackwood’s magazine, and The Leeds Intelligencer .

One detail that Harman includes in her book is that the creativity of the Bronte children was engaged because as Charlotte described in a recollection, they were bored.  There was little to do but read, create plays, and go for long walks on the moors.  This, even more than the list of books, engaged my curiousity. Of course, effective as their education may have been for creating great novels, it’s impossible to wish on your children a childhood as dark as the Bronte’s appears to have been.  And in the end, I have to say that while my own children spent much of their time alone together in the house, and read from a set of classical and contemporary books, the analogies with the Brontes are incomplete, to say the least.  The entire gothic angle is missing.