The Question

The Question

Teaching Your Child the Essentials of Classical Education

by Leigh Bortins
Trade Paperback, 224 pages
Price: $16.00

Sequels are rarely as good as the original. In the case of Leigh Bortins'sThe Core, however, the book wouldn't make any sense without a sequel, andThe Question is the only logical sequel it could have. The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education focused on the first stage of Classical education (grammar), whileThe Question: Teaching Your Child the Essentials of Classical Education probes the nature of the second stage (logic, or dialectic).

Bortins is the mind and energy behind Classical Conversations, a group developed to promote Classical education, demonstrate to parents how to implement it, and draw students and teachers into conversation across the academic disciplines. InThe Question she says that one of the reasons she considers herself to be an amateur in the field of education is that the Latin form of the word means "to love," and she educates because she loves to do so.

The other reason she calls herself an amateur is that she doesn't have any official qualifications like a degree in education. It's pretty obvious from this book that such credentials are unnecessary, and that Bortins has more than done her homework. One of the main points this book makes, in fact, is that getting a diploma or scads of credentials isn't really the point of education anyway—the point is to learn how to engage with other people and ideas in order to organize and articulate one's own.

Hence the title. Appropriately,The Question is filled with questions, helping parents explore the tragic state of education today, why education in the past actually worked, and how to implement those same methods today. It's important to point out that when Bortins and most contemporary educators use the term "Classical education" they're referring to the methodology, whereas in the past the term referred to the content of the education.

That's not to say there isn't plenty of overlap in terms of content. Renaissance students and modern Classically educated students alike are exposed to Homer, Plato, Aristotle,The Aeneid, etc. The point is to place oneself firmly within the stream of history in order to understand what has come before, where we are now, and what may be coming. To do this, students must be taught not only to ask questions, but what to ask and how to ask it.

This is the dialectic stage of Classical education. In the grammar stage (covered inThe Core), students are basically fed massive quantities of information and expected to memorize it. This information becomes the basis for the next stage, in which students learn to analyze, compare, sort, and test their knowledge. Educators and philosophers often refer to this as the Great Conversation, one begun by the biblical writers and Socrates long ago, and continued by all who heed them today.

ThroughoutThe Question, Bortins keeps an eye to the previous stage while looking ahead to the third and final one (rhetoric), in which students learn to form their own ideas and present them in a coherent and winsome manner. The last chapter of the book is a reflection on writing the book, with Bortins comparing the experience to the rhetoric stage.

This comes after part one where Bortins defends the need for the Classical model, and the intervening chapters in which Bortins shows how to apply the dialectic to ten subjects: reading, writing, math, geography and current events, logic, history, science, and the fine arts. Appendix one provides sample questions, and a second offers resources related directly to the topics covered in each of the book's chapters.

The Question will not provide the curriculum you'll use to educate your kids, nor will it give you quick fixes or shortcuts toward shaping your children into creative critical thinkers. As Bortins emphasizes more than once, this approach to education takes a long time and a lot of work (a longer, more difficult time for some students than others!), and trying to cut corners is not only not advisable, in many instances it simply won't work.

Which is one reason this book is so necessary. It's more of an apologetic for the effectiveness and importance of the Classical method in our day of Twitter and online TV, and a confidence-builder for parents on the fence. While other viable means of education exist, Bortins makes a compelling case which isn't easily dismissed. Read this afterThe Core, and ideally after Dorothy Sayers's essay "The Lost Tools of Learning." Highly recommended.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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