Growing Gracefully: Introducing New Families to Classical Ed
Whenever we get people together around Classical Education, one thing we can always count on is that we are all at different places on that journey, and we represent a plethora of diverse experiences. This dynamic adds interest, new perspectives, and beauty to a community, but it also presents challenges.
One of the questions that comes up frequently from leaders of classical education communities is, “If someone is brand new to Classical Education and joins our community, how will that go and how do we help them begin to ‘get’ classical education?” This is a great question, and I would like to speak directly to homeschool community leaders about it.
Let’s be honest—leading a classical homeschool community is challenging regardless of how rewarding it is. Not only is there a lot of work involved, but there are a lot of ideals involved as well. We have this beautiful and high goal of cultivating wisdom and virtue and studying the seven liberal arts, all with an undercurrent of wonder, piety, and unity in the community. That is a tall order!
We see these high goals and want to protect the vision, making sure it does not morph into something else. We want to ensure we are faithful to the ideals of the classical curriculum in what and how we teach and that students and parents experience rest and wonder as they participate. As the director of a Scholé Group, I can relate to all of these hopes, and they are all good. In fact, as a leader you are responsible for discussing these things and cultivating them in your community. At the same time, we cannot expect everyone to be where we are. In fact, if we are honest, we still have a lot of growing to do ourselves. So, what do we do then? How do we wrestle through this tension between the ideal and the real? How do we lead others without compromising the goal? How do we lead others when we still have so much to learn?
Over the last three years, our homeschooling community has worked on these questions. We have made a lot of mistakes; we have done some things well, and we have learned a ton along the way. Here are a few of the practices we have discovered that help us lead others who are new in a way that is consistent with the principle of scholé.
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classical Exploration of Christian Community
I believe the primary way we can love others as leaders of a classical community is by taking the position of a co-inquirer, or the first student. A co-inquirer is marked by humility, respect, a commitment to the truth, and a realization that they are walking the same path of discovery and sanctification as everyone else is. We love the people around us when we respect where they are in this journey and do not try to control them. We love those around us when we do not objectify them by only considering what they can or cannot bring to the community. Rather, we see them as images of God, with eternity in their hearts.
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
We love those around us when we are simply part of the group, when we hug a mom who is struggling, pray for another who is sick, or take longer to close up the day when someone else needs to talk. We make ourselves available and communicate through all of this that we love their hearts more than we love our agenda. We love those around us when we invite them to the ideal through our example, and, as a result of loving them, they are much more likely to accept that invitation and believe they can follow.
Love What You Teach
We can also lead others by loving what we teach. Loving what we teach is part of taking the position of a co-inquirer. I have been teaching for seven years, and when I began it was primarily my love for what I was learning that excited and inspired people around me. The key here is “love for what I was learning.” In the early years especially, we do not yet have the experience to name and explain everything well. However, if we are first students, who are learning the same things that we are teaching, then what we model becomes the primary way people receive instruction from us.
Therefore, as leaders, we should always have some continuing education going, whether it be a book about classical education, a ClassicalU course, a great work of literature, a CiRCE conference, or the like. You should talk about what you are learning with your people, and operate in those conversations with the assumption that activities and conversations like them are the norm in your community, even if this is not the case yet.
Another thing our community does is require the director and co-director of the community to have had at least two years of experience teaching in a scholé or classical manner. The experience does not necessarily have to be in our community, as long as the experiences are similar enough. In making this a requirement, we are holding up the expectation that leaders are first students who love what they teach because they love what they are learning.
Communicate a Clear Purpose
The next thing I learned, which may have been the toughest lesson for me to learn, was to describe the community’s purpose at every level in a very clear way.
Of course, this means that one must first know, for themselves, what their purpose is and what words to use in describing it. Many times we have thought about our ideals so much that they are only ideas in our heads. We must tie those ideas down and name them so others can understand and therefore decide if our purpose resonates with them. If we want to lead new families, or any family, deeper into the classical tradition, then we have to use concrete language that causes them to visualize what to expect. The goal here is that when I share the purpose of our community, a parent should be able to sense pretty quickly if the community is a good fit for them or not.
We could have avoided many of the challenges we faced in our community had I spent more time from the onset clarifying our purpose. For example, as I began learning more about Classical Education, the beauty of it overwhelmed me, and I felt that beauty when I would listen to a talk, see a presentation, or go to a conference that embodied those ideas. Therefore, when I began to explain what our community was all about I would offer descriptions of the abstract purpose of our community, like, “We are seeking the good, the true, and the beautiful,” or, “We are participating in the classical tradition.” The problem is that those statements can mean a lot of different things depending on where a family is coming from and the experiences they have had. I learned that I need to discuss the abstract ideas in very concrete terms that most can understand. Almost any Christian would agree that we should seek good, true, and beautiful things, but that does not mean he or she is committed to pursuing the seven liberal arts as a course of study. Therefore, as leaders we wrote down a purpose statement that leads with the abstract and then immediately lays out a more concrete description. You can read our purpose statement on the first page of our group’s website here.
Set Beauty Before Them
Finally, we learned to trust the impact that beauty has on a person. In his talk “Beauty, the Cinderella of the Transcendentals,” Gregory Wolfe talks about the power of beauty to invite.
Many times we make things all too hard on ourselves. We worry we have to find the right words and explain everything perfectly. It is true, the right words matter, but, they do not have to be our own words. We can call on the help of metaphors, art, stories, experiences, and the like that are replete with beauty and draw us to the true and therefore the good.
The people in our communities need to be enchanted by beauty through their own experiences, not just ours. Therefore, the best thing we can do for them is to introduce them to beautiful things in the form of great literature, books, art, conversations, and excellent learning opportunities for both students and parents.
Each of us needs to be “recalled to life.” Each of our senses are somewhat dulled in its ability to perceive. Experiencing beautiful things is the best chance that any of us has to be awakened to the truth. We can help lead others deeper into the classical tradition by setting beauty before them and living a life consistent with it. I love the way the following passage describes such an act:
“He was not long in discovering that it was worse than useless to speak to him, since, on being pressed, he became worried. He abandoned that attempt on the first day and resolved merely to keep himself always before him, as a silent protest against the delusion into which he had fallen, or was falling. He remained, therefore, in his seat near the window, reading and writing, and expressing in as many pleasant and natural ways as he could think of, that it was a free place.”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Christ is always before us in everything around us, as a silent protest against the delusion into which each of us has fallen. When we set beauty before ourselves and others, we are helping turn our gazes to Christ.
May we each remember that leading others is not about what we have to offer, but what Christ has to offer.
Jennifer Dow, the founder and owner of The Paideia Fellowship is a classical teacher, writer, and speaker. Jennifer has completed the CiRCE Apprenticeship program as a CiRCE certified Classical Teacher and has taught humanities, rhetoric, and the fine arts since 2009 throughout the local and online homeschool community. Jennifer researches, writes, and speaks about classical teaching, serves as the director of the Paideia Fellowship Homeschool Community, teaches online at St. Raphael School, works with Classical Academic Press on the Schole Groups team, and is the co-host of The Classical Homeschool Podcast. Jennifer’s published works can be seen on the Paideia Fellowship blog and other blogs and podcasts across the web.