As a young woman, twentieth century playwright and author Helene Hanff cherished ambitions of academic achievement, but finances and life circumstances intervened and curtailed her college days. This did not, however, check her pursuit of a life well-read, which is, after all, the truest sort of education. Her surprise runaway bestseller detailing one facet of her ongoing education eventually gave birth to two more books and a feature film. Hanff’s journey is inspiring and instructive:
“Q (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Cambridge professor and author in the generation preceding Lewis and Tolkien – ed. note) was all by himself my college education. I went down to the public library one day when I was seventeen looking for books on the art of writing, and found five books of lectures which Q had delivered to his students of writing at Cambridge. Q was lecturing to young men educated at Eton and Harrow. He therefore assumed that his students―including me―had read Paradise Lost as a matter of course and would understand his analysis of the “Invocation to Light” in Book 9. So I said, “Wait here,” and went down to the library and got Paradise Lost and took it home and started reading it and got to page 3, when I hit a snag: Milton assumed I’d read the Christian version of Isaiah and the New Testament and had learned all about Lucifer and the War in Heaven, and since I’d been reared in Judaism I hadn’t. So I said, “Wait here,” and borrowed a Christian Bible and read about Lucifer and so forth, and then went back to Milton and read Paradise Lost, and then finally got back to Q, page 3. On page 4 or 5, I discovered that the point of the sentence at the top of the page was in Latin and the long quotation at the bottom of the page was in Greek. So I advertised in the Saturday Review for somebody to teach me Latin and Greek, and went back to Q meanwhile, and discovered he assumed I not only knew all the plays of Shakespeare, and Boswell’s Johnson, but also the Second book of Esdras which is not in the Old Testament and not in the New Testament, it’s in the Apocrypha, which is a set of books nobody had ever thought to tell me existed. So what with one thing and another and an average of three “Wait here’s” a week, it took me eleven years to get through Q’s five books of lectures.” – Helene Hanff, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
There are certainly more direct—or at least less meandering—ways to accomplish what Hanff did in her self-education, but I wonder if they could possibly be more delightful? The striking thing about her educational path is that it does not follow the “ideal” that is often set forth for classical education—begin at the beginning and work your way through history, reading the best works of each age. Hanff’s journey, on the other hand, began with a great work from a relatively late age in time, and then allowed that work to reveal her prior deficits. Each of those deficits sent her on what may have seemed to be a “rabbit trail,” but which actually may have been a path around some tall trees and deep ravines, and which would meet the original trail a bit farther on.
My own journey has not been unlike Helene Hanff’s. As I began homeschooling, lo, these many years ago, I quickly realized my own educational deficits. Education is, indeed, repentance! I could see all that I should know but had somehow missed. And there was no time to go back to the beginning. I was already learning phonics and Bible and math and Latin and grammar along with my children. I could not possibly pursue a completely separate course of study in those days, yet our Morning Time furthered my education along with my children’s. To this day, if I want to learn more about a particular person or time period, I begin with a well-written children’s book—and I have my high school students do the same. I kept a commonplace book and a reading journal. Eventually, when my oldest children moved into high school, we sought out tutors like Wes Callihan and Dr. George Grant. Though our children were the ones enrolled in the courses, I was within earshot, listening and learning, often with pen in hand. I studied Wheelock’s Latin just ahead of my students so I could review lessons with them. Eventually, they got ahead of me, but at least I was still ahead of their younger siblings…well, for a while.
Nota Bene: I chose my particular areas of study because they kindled my interest. Math and science did not ignite that kind of fire within me, and so eventually I outsourced those studies to teachers whose love for their subject could set alight my children’s. If you are the sort of person who is much more excited about science or math than literature, perhaps you would alter this plan. Of course, you should still read history and literature with your students, because they are part of what makes us human – the Humanities. But perhaps instead of studying Homer on your own, you would dig deeply into Euclid and share the wonders he unfolds with your children. And Euclid might lead you to Aristotle and to Genesis and to Einstein and to Newton and—who knows?—even back to Homer!
Home educating parent, take heart. If you do not have the time, or inclination, to set up and follow a strict chronological study of the masterworks of Western culture, it is perfectly fine to start right where your kids are in history or literature or science or Latin or grammar. You will not be able to study everything, but do what you can. If you are really serious about learning something, teach a class. It is a cliché, because it is true, that the teacher always learns more than the students. Writing curriculum and teaching other students besides my own, both in our Scholé Group and in my home, has kept me accountable through the years to persevere in a course of reading, writing, and learning. It has also brought me some humbling—sometimes even humiliating—moments. These young folks grasp and retain ideas more easily than I do. Truly, as Dr. Grant has reminded me over and over, education is repentance.
Scholé, above all, must be modeled. Taking the time for my own studies has been a primary scholé practice in our homeschool. Even my students who loved school the least have attested that my desire for a life well-read inspired their own. My grown children have told me so, time and time again. As I finish this final semester with my youngest, I am deeply grateful that new opportunities for study and learning are opening before me. When we began home educating all those years ago, we were guided mainly by the conviction that we were doing it for our children. From where I stand today, I see that God’s purposes were much larger and kinder than I could imagine. What I thought in the beginning was my sacrifice for the children’s sake has truly been transformed into a gift for my own.
Kathy Weitz is a lifelong Virginian and a lifetime learner. Over the past twenty-five years, as she and her husband Rick have educated their six children at home, she has pursued a classical education for herself as well. In addition to her own children, she has taught a number of other students, both online and in the classroom. She is a founding board member and the Director of Curriculum at Providence Prep, a Scholé Community in Purcellville, Virginia, and a Scholé Groups Mentor. Kathy shares some of the fruit of her experience at Cottage Press. This spring, with the graduation of her youngest son, Kathy will transition to Home Educator Emerita; in preparation for this new season, she has recently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Christian and Classical Studies at Knox Seminary. In January, she joined Scholé Groups as Administrator. Kathy blogs about Morning Time and commonplace books and self-education and scholé at The Reading Mother.