Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back to Basics: Classical Education and the Count of Monte Cristo

I read an article today that was a breath of fresh air: A Classical Education: Back to the Future, by Stanley Fish. I have already read one of the books that he speaks of in the article: The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch, so I was fully primed for his views. I have not read the other two books he mentions (The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, by Leigh A. Bortins; and Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, by Martha C. Nussbaum), but they are already loaded into my Kindle app, waiting for me.

But first they'll have to wait for me to finish re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.  I recently noticed that I was experiencing the most profound bout of burnout I've ever been through, and decided the cure was to do only exactly what I have to do and no more, and to spend the remainder of my time doing things I used to enjoy when I actually had spare time. I went looking for books and movies to add to my "cure," and stumbled upon The Count of Monte Cristo in the library.

Ah. The count. The Count of Monte Cristo, was the first book I ever read more than once (it was assigned reading in a high school English class, and I read it 3 times that year).

I didn't understand this when I was in 11th grade, but the reason that I was so enthralled with the book was because it told a story of justice. Yes, yes--Edmund Dantes sought vengeance on his enemies for the injustice and cruelty to which they had subjected him for fourteen years, and for the life they stole from him. But in the end, everyone gets exactly what they deserve; so the repayment meted out on them is justice, not simply revenge. 

But that's not all....I have always been interested in a lot of things, but I never gave much thought to why I am interested in so many things. I think it is likely that it's just the way I'm wired--I like to learn things for the sake of learning things. I like to make stuff. I like to learn about other people and cultures, because I find them interesting, and I want to be a better person. 

I had forgotten, until this fourth re-read through The Count of Monte Cristo, that while Edmund Dantes was in prison he received the equivalent of a university degree in the humanities under the tutelage of the Abbe Farria. Edmund already spoke several languages because of his life as the First Mate of a trading ship in the Mediterranean, but he learned several more, plus Latin, from Farria, and also learned the cornerstone subjects in a classical education: mathematics, science, philosophy, etc. 

It occurred to me as I was re-reading this book that that is why I became a teacher: I love to learn, and I love to share what I learn with others. 

The joy of learning and teaching has left me in the public school system. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have made what was originally conceived as a way to "close the achievement gap" in America into a general lowering of academic expectations. Moreover, it has taken all of the fun and excitement of learning and discovery out of teaching and learning. 

In re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo it occurred to me that this is exactly what is missing in public education. Those of us who are enthusiastic and exuberant about what we teach despite the current climate of hostility toward our profession face the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of a general populous and student body who just doesn't care anymore about learning for the pure joy of it. This is very discouraging. 

However, having already made the decision to leave public education because of this (as well as other numerous, demoralizing factors), it occurred to me that there is no reason I can't pick up where I left off when I was 16 years old, and go to school with Edmund Dantes and the Abbe Farria. So I decided to reignite my own excitement around learning new things, and resume my education in the classical style. (You can read about my progress with Spanish in my new blog: Montana Gringa.)

Meanwhile, I encourage you to take the initiative and learn whatever it is that you have always wanted to learn how to do. There are so many resources on the web these days that there's almost no excuse not to.

But don't stop there--if you have children, take charge of their education and make sure that they get the most enriching and well-rounded education possible. If you don't know where to start, begin with The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. A classical education will teach your children how to teach themselves, and how to be life-long learners, and provide them with the education they are missing out on in public school, as more and more the curriculum is narrowed to basic skills. It is no longer enough to simply send your child to school and trust that they will learn what they need to know, even when they have really good teachers.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab a book and let the learning begin.