The Core Curriculum Teaches Connections
Whenever the weather permits, I eat lunch outside on the patio in the edge of the woodland. At this time of year, there are spiderwebs everywhere. It doesn’t matter that I come out every day and sit in the same chair, I still have to brush away an accumulation of delicate webs.
I hadn’t been sitting there for more than a minute or two today when I noticed that one fine strand of web had already been spun from arm to arm on my chair, like an airy version of the festive ribbon that outlines special seating sections at a wedding. Since I had been reading from Charlotte Mason’s Toward a Philosophy of Education, my thoughts turned to the gossamer threads that link ideas and subjects, and from there to the single greatest benefit of learning through the classical core curriculum.
Although many students never suspect it while they are in school, knowledge is not naturally divided into separate subjects, each fitting neatly into a 50-minute space in the day. Rather, math walks hand in hand with science, and both affect the course of history. Literature and the arts not only reflect, but also forecast trends in their culture, creating an enduring portrait of what is, and sometimes, what is to come.
I first discovered the web of great ideas through books I read on my own, rather than through the dessicated textbooks and neatly segregated subjects I encountered in school, and I suspect that it’s the same for many of you. It’s been a joy to introduce these idea-connections to my children — to present a feast of big ideas, and to share the excitement of seeing those ideas spark, connect, and catch fire.
What is the core curriculum?
The classical core curriculum provides the type of education that The Great Tradition describes as “first and foremost as the hard work of rightly ordering the human soul, helping it to love what it ought to love, and helping it to know itself and its maker.” The core curriculum helps students grapple with questions such as
- What is the purpose of life?
- Is there truth?
- Can it be known?
- By what standard is something right or wrong, good or evil?
Through the integrated study of history, science, mathematics, the arts, and literature, students are able to grapple with these questions and many more, developing their ability to think, reason, write, and speak effectively. Students educated in the classical tradition are equipped for any challenge in life, and capable of the higher order thinking required for leadership of people and nations.
Another way the core has been defined is as “the organized exposure of students to the basics in and the links between each knowledge area — history, literature, the arts, science, mathematics, language.” It is designed around the great ideas and great books. Like a healthy diet for the body, the core curriculum offers nourishment for the mind and soul, equipping it for wisdom, virtue, and eloquence.
Homeschooling is ideally suited for teaching the core curriculum as an interconnected web. Many of our best mentors and books — Charlotte Mason, A Thomas Jefferson Education, unit studies, classical homeschooling — offer ways to bring knowledge to our students in a way that emphasizes the connections, rather than the differences.
Teaching the core curriculum helps avoid the dreaded “gap'” problem, because each core subject intersects with many others, allowing knowledge to steadily multiply and stick. If your student has basic pegs of knowledge in each of the core subjects, and each year sees the connections between them increasing, he or she will instinctively understand how to structure and analyze new information as it arrives.
Each student will inevitably find one or more of the core subjects to be more fascinating or comfortable than others, and it’s certainly logical for him to major in those subjects. I have done it throughout my own life with literature, history, and the arts, but I can see where these intersect with math and science, and it is useful to know the vocabulary of each.
As you begin to plan for the next school year, remember the core curriculum, and for your children’s sake, erase the artificial boundaries that are often placed between the disciplines. Use real, living books, including classic literature, rather than dry textbooks, to bring knowledge to life. Education is far more than job training — it’s nourishment for the mind and spirit, and necessary for the whole person. Institutional education may have brushed aside those delicate webs of connection, but once you understand their power, I think you will be eager to preserve them.
Books I’ve learned from
The Great Tradition by Richard Gamble is my favorite resource for discovering ideas that have stood the test of time. If you want to know what any of the great thinkers of western civilization, from Plato and Plutarch to Aquinas, Calvin, and C. S. Lewis, believed and taught about education, this is the book you need. I don’t think I’ll ever finish mining its riches.
Another helpful resource is The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer. It will help you train your own mind as you prepare to help your children learn.
And finally, anything by Charlotte Mason is worth reading. If you are not used to reading old books, you may find her books a bit of a challenge, but I encourage you to persevere. It is worth it, and you’ll be broadening your education and strengthening your own mental muscles as you read.
As always, book links are to Amazon. If you choose to purchase something through them, I receive a tiny percentage as a referral fee, and I thank you for that. It helps me keep the site up, and I appreciate it!
You might also enjoy “What Grade Are You In? Practical Wisdom from Understood Betsy.”