Classical Conversations: A Review

This is a guest post from a writer who would prefer to remain anonymous. It is published as it was submitted to me.

My first blog post is a product review.

I spent a year in Classical Conversations. I went into the program so caught up in its marketed vision that I saw our family being K-12 participants. My perspective has since changed.

I read many, many reviews prior to signing up for CC, but none of the reviews comprehensively covered the following information. I hope this review is helpful to homeschooling parents as they make the important decisions about their children’s education.

Here are my opinions, as a former customer, regarding the program:

Foundations appears to be primarily a neo-classical program

Foundations is a program where students aged 4-12 gather to memorize a large series of facts. Also included in the co-op day experience is a 30-minute science block and a 30-minute art block.

The structure is based on a particular interpretation of the “trivium.” If you’re not already familiar with that concept, I will encourage you to spend a little time researching it. I provide some links and suggestions below.

CC’s “ages-and-stages” interpretation of the trivium is based on Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 speech called the “Lost Tools of Learning.” In that essay, Sayers draws a parallel between the trivium and her perspective on children’s developmental stages of learning. Martin Cothran has called her approach to the trivium “a taxonomy of learning.” This is not how the trivium was traditionally understood.

In his book, The Latin-Centered Curriculum, Andrew Campbell says:

If they are classical home schoolers themselves, they will probably have read popular guides like The Well-Trained Mind or the essay that sparked the neo-classical revival, Dorothy Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Many, however, will be unaware that Sayers’ ideas represent a radical redefinition of the term “classical education.” This new definition is so different from the one known to anyone born before this century, that it would have perplexed most of the writers who now populate our Great Books reading lists – and indeed, many of Sayers’ own peers.

Karen Glass addresses this in her 2014 book, Consider This,

I will only briefly address the reinterpretation of the trivium as stages of child development, because this idea is actually a recent one without classical precedent. Dorothy Sayers presented the concept first in her 1947 essay/speech, The Lost Tools of Learning. Modern educators, looking for something better than our woefully inadequate progressive practices, have built her non-traditional ideas into an entire educational movement called “neoclassical,” which distinguishes the newer idea of stages from traditional, historical classical education.

Unfortunately, this view places the burden of rote memorization, often without understanding, upon young learners who would be better served by a relational, synthetic approach to knowledge. […] This bears little resemblance to the historical understanding of grammar, and the concept of the trivium as stages of child development can be found only in materials written within the last few decades.

Cindy Rollins, the author of Mere Motherhood, and a frequent conference lecturer, addressed the issues of ages-and-stages classical education and the place of Charlotte Mason within the classical movement at the 2017 Kindred conference. Starting at minute 53 of the recording of her session entitled Mothers are People Too, she says:

She [the woman asking the question during the question and answer session] said her idea about classical education was that it was a really strict idea of you memorize in the early years, and that Charlotte Mason had a more of a broader…used stories. It wasn’t these very strict categories that classical education was promoting.

That is real good question because that is not true. I mean that is not…that is a misrepresentation that we have all had foisted on us about what classical education really is.

And so somebody threw that out there because we were all searching for something. It was a genuine attempt to find an answer for people that were…See, at that time, a lot of people that were promoting Charlotte Mason were promoting her as a very, very light, child-centered philosophy. So Classical education and Charlotte Mason had nothing to do with each other.

Because number one, Charlotte Mason was presented as something she wasn’t, and classical education was also presented as something it wasn’t. A very strict ages-and-stages model that came from Dorothy Sayers’ essay.

Now Dorothy Sayers is my favorite, one of my favorite authors. I love her to death. But I do not like that essay. I don’t think she would have …she would never have wanted to find out that people had built whole product catalogues based on her philosophy – on what they – she was just like us, she’s sitting down: “Maybe this will work with education, this, this, and this.” And she wasn’t saying “Let’s create a system.” Whereas Charlotte Mason was definitely trying to help people come up with a way to implement her ideas.

So that idea of classical education has kind of been debunked for the most part. CiRCE has gone a long way in debunking that idea of classical education.

Sayers’ essay mostly stayed dormant, and then decades later, Douglas Wilson wrote his book on education and included Sayers’ essay in it. And thus began the outworking of the “neo-classical” movement.

Many parents include some memory work in their homeschool. Some focus on Scripture verses, poetry, and parts of significant documents and speeches. The inclusion and the prioritization of the memorization of a large selection of facts (history, science, etc.), which were chosen by someone at some point and typically provided without context, is a product of the neo-classical movement. While this works well for some families, it did not work for mine. Also, some companies and educators have reframed Classical education as being “the trivium” or styled it as “trivium-centered,” whereas we know that Classical education is so much more than that.

This interpretation of the trivium is felt most fully, in my perspective, in CC’s Foundations program. A phrase often repeated by CC directors, and tutors, is that “the memory work is all you need [plus math and language arts] to be prepared for Challenge [the high school-level program].” I am unsure whether that is a marketing phrase mandated by the company. I’ve heard it shared most often to calm anxious parents and to persuade potentially interested customers that CC’s curriculum is all you need to educate your children.

I feel that guts the beauty of classical education for younger children. There is so much missed by by-passing, for example, the incredible and formative classical children’s literature that’s available.

I would recommend that you be sure you know the difference between that neo-classical “trivium-centered” expression of classical education, “traditional” classical education which is working hard to get back to the roots of a classical Christian education, and the Charlotte Mason approach to implementing classical education.

CC is not an inexpensive program, and it is not clear to many new homeschoolers what the differences are between the various expressions of classical education and their philosophies. You may very well enjoy a neo-classical program, and you may not. If you’re informed, you can best choose the classical “expression” that bests meet your needs without sinking a lot of money into a program that doesn’t, as I did.

Sources to read on the new ages-and-stages approach to the trivium: Karen Glass’ book, “Consider This”; Martin Cothran’s article “Classical Education is more than a Method”, Schole Sisters podcast episode 54, Adam Lockridge’s article How the Arts were Liberated, and select parts of Andrew Campbell’s The Latin Centered Curriculum.

Classical Conversations did not provide me with a complete curriculum (“with the exception of math and language arts”)

I thought it would be a full curriculum, as I had read that in various places. Once in the program, I did not feel it was complete. I felt there were significant gaps and lost opportunities.

I jumped online and found mother after mother creating companion programs to fill the gaps, writing up booklists to provide context and depth to the facts covered, and selling resources on sites like Etsy. A great example would be Brandy Ferrell at Half a Hundred Acre Wood. She has been a great blessing to CC families due to her booklists, project ideas, and companion activities. She released a curriculum last spring which matches Foundations’ cycles. In my opinion, it fills gaps and provides the enrichment missing from Foundations. (She withdrew her family from CC a few months ago.)

I reached a point where I was trying to pull all the beauty and riches of a classical education together to create a full classical program for my children, and I had to stop myself. It was eating up so much time. I realize some families very much like the idea of building their own curriculum around CC, but it’s just not appealing to me given the cost of CC and the time required. I can spend that money and time in better ways.

This therefore may be a pro or a con for the program depending on your preferences.

CC did not provide my child with a Christian education

CC markets its business as providing three things: classical education, a Christian worldview, and community.

From ages 4 to 12, via Foundations, I was hard-pressed to find much Christian content in the program. There are some “memory pegs” related to Biblical historical events, and a few little things here and there, but that’s it. I didn’t feel there was anything substantive weaved throughout the program. Our community members contacted corporate about this, and we were provided with a supplemental PDF of Bible-related memory work to do at home.

If you are aware of this and you prefer to teach your children a separate religion curriculum at home or via your church or another means, this may be a real “pro” for your family.

CC’s materials weren’t what I was expecting

Every few years, CC releases a new edition of Foundations materials. CC is 21 or 22 years old this year, and the fifth edition came out last year. Families in CC communities were required to work with the new materials and learn the new songs.

If you’re a large homeschooling family and plan to be in CC for years, budget to buy new materials every few years. If the past is any indicator, you will need to purchase several more editions of the Foundations guide.

The fifth edition materials contained a number of errors, both in the facts and on the maps. There is an Errata for the Foundations guide, but I’m not certain it includes all the corrections. Several moms I’ve crossed paths with were frustrated that the Errata was not updated more frequently to reflect the errors identified.

Given that a neo-classical education, in the grammar stage, is bent so heavily on the memorization of facts, this was disappointing.

That said, the Timeline cards are beautiful, and the Timeline song is very well done. My husband and I loved it. If you like certain aspects of a neo-classical education, you may very much appreciate that particular resource. Cathy Duffy has a positive review of the Classical Acts and Facts History Cards here.

Our community lost its facility

In the spring of 2019, there was some confusion for a number of CC communities as to whether their host churches could host for-profit entities, such as most CC chapters. It appears to depend on where the church is located and what the applicable laws and policies are in that legal jurisdiction.

This was an issue for our particular community.

It was a very difficult, challenging, and emotional time for our community.

Community Day was inflexible and taxing for my family

Community Day is the one day a week where you get together, in Foundations, to run through memory work, do a science experiment and an art project, and participate in a short public speaking exercise.

Halfway through the morning, my child was exhausted of playing games or singing songs to memorize information that meant little to him. He was spent, and I was too.

The morning is hurried, moving from one part of the schedule to another. And if we made it until noon, which wasn’t always the case, we were dragging ourselves out of the building.

After a few weeks, I also realized that there wasn’t much room for fellowship unless you come early or leave late. If you’re the sleep-deprived parent of a young family, coming early isn’t an option. And if you or your children are worn out by noon, you may not be able to stay late.

CC community days are structured quite rigidly, and there is very, very little room to customize the schedule to accommodate chapters’ families’ preferences.

If you like the idea of a very full morning, and you tend to be a high-energy person seeking to check off quite a few things on your homeschooling to-do list in one morning, this program might be a great fit for you.

What am I doing now? What are the options?

A number of families in my area have been gathering weekly for playdates and simple educational activities. It has been a breath of fresh air for me. We moms are really getting to know each other in a way I couldn’t know the moms in my CC co-op. Come September, we’re going to start a gentle and age-appropriate Classical co-op that we structure and plan ourselves. We couldn’t be more excited.

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