This is the thirteenth article in the series How to Get an Elite Prep School Education on a Homeschool Budget.
Master teacher John Taylor Gatto studied elite private prep schools, those that produce leaders in government, industry and the professions, to discover what characteristics, if any, they share.
This series of articles has examined the fourteen themes that Gatto found, and I encourage homeschoolers to seriously consider incorporating these ideas into their parenting and their home learning.
Society has a tremendous need for leaders who are not only prepared academically, but also formed in Catholic values. We homeschooling teachers have only one unrepeatable opportunity to form them.
John Taylor Gatto’s 13th theme, “Encourage children to develop a habit of caution in reasoning to conclusion” is especially important in our own times. Many Americans base their opinions on short articles they read on the Internet, interviews they see on television, or even views of their “friends” on social media.
Low Information Students
In politics, this situation has produced the “low information voter”, and the issue of caution, or its lack, in forming conclusions is certainly one where private prep schools, and hopefully our homeschools, will distinguish themselves from America’s public schools.
My own experience with government schools confirms this situation. For ten years I was a pro-life educator in New York State.
Public schools would contact me — often “talented and gifted” classes — and ask me to address the class with arguments against abortion or euthanasia. They would also ask a representative of a group like Planned Parenthood or The Hemlock Society to come in and give opposite points of view. Then, typically, the “talented and gifted” students were asked to write a persuasive essay supporting whichever argument seemed stronger.
Think of it. Based on a couple of forty minute classes, these students were asked, even required, to form and express opinions about life and death issues. These types of assignments are common in public school, and many of them have a strong politcal agenda. Students are asked to write papers on global warming for example, talk about the need for stronger government social welfare programs, or even decide who gets tossed off the lifeboat so others can live.
While principles of Catholic dogma are never up for debate, many questions are more prudential than dogmatic. We should teach our students to form opinions cautiously and humbly enough to change their minds when circumstances warrant it. Our children need to gain the virtue of humility and be willing to admit that what they thought to be true needs to be looked at again.
Even better, they might reserve judgment entirely until they have more facts or until a decision must be made. It’s okay to say, “I am not sure what I believe about capital punishment, fracking, or educational vouchers. I need to know more about subjects before I form an opinion, and my opinion might change as new information comes to light.” How can we help our children develop the humility to reserve judgment, as well as the intellectual curiosity to search for the truth? Here are some ideas to get you started.
1. Turn off the screens
Very little on TV or in a video game will inform your child about the world around them. Children are passive recipients of what passes for entertainment, and virtually no effort is required of them. Screen time is a huge vacuum sucking precious, unrepeatable opportunities to ponder and learn right out of your kid’s brains.
Unless they are watching nature shows, a dramatic or musical performance, or practicing their math facts, they are probably wasting their time. Shut off the tubes and get out the books.
2. Non-fiction will open your children’s eyes to the world around them.
Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Learning about the world by studying history, art, music, or science engages the child’s mind and perks curiosity. Children discover that really smart people make mistakes, and knowledge can change over time.
They understand that informed people look to upgrade their understanding, make better decisions, or understand that they can reserve judgment.
3. Grammar aids in more than writing!
Studying intensive grammar accomplishes more than making a student’s compositions easier to read. Young people need to think logically and precisely when working on grammar assignments. Fuzzy thinking just will not work.
Is that noun common or proper; singular or plural; masculine, feminine or neuter; subjective, objective or possessive? Where does it belong in the sentence diagram? Is it used as the subject, predicate nominative, appositive, direct object, or object of the preposition? Is that phrase used as an adverb or adjective?
Too many public and Catholic schools have abandoned intensive grammar, and it shows in more than sloppy writing. Thinking has become pretty sloppy too.
4. Analyzing literature
Some high school students complain about literary analysis assignments in their English classes, but this work is key to what is often described as “critical thinking”. Reading increasingly complex literature and analyzing elements of plot, theme, conflict, characterization, and setting force students to think about their reading.
In addition to building writing skills, essay writing requires students to back up their assertions with facts from the story. Fuzzy thinking will not earn a good grade.
To Sum Up
Reading about the world around them, studying high quality literature, listening to great music, and looking at artistic masterpieces gently impress on children the humility to realize that their own talents and abilities still need to develop.
Analyzing what they learn, filtering it through Catholic values, and employing logical thinking patterns help children realize that they may need more information than they have. These help to develop habits of caution when reasoning.
Let me make one more suggestion: put your children’s minds to the test – put them on the spot. If they complain that the kid next door is not fun to play with, ask them to give their reasons, then press them to say something nice about him.
If your children want to accompany their friends to the movies, ask them to find out how it rated, and give you three reasons why they should be allowed to go.
Ask them if they can think of any reasons they should not be allowed to go. If they tell you video games are a good use of their time, ask them how they know that and ask them to prove it. Ask them to list reasons why video games may be bad for them. Teach them to look at both sides of an issue to understand that both sides may have valid points.
A bit of thought and you will see that even the youngest children can be helped to reason carefully. Guide your children to be the high-information voters of tomorrow.