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    Norms and Nobility: On Curriculum and Schools

    July 19, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I always love it when a book on theory turns practical at the end, giving long lists of examples and ideas for putting feet to its grand thoughts. This is precisely what occurs in Part II of Norms and Nobility. Hicks, now that he’s convinced us how right he is, shows us what could be, what might be, what ought to be, if we planned curriculum with care and excellence.

    I’m not going to run through and summarize all of it, but it is beautiful. It is the education the me now wishes the me back then had had, and it’s the education I hope to have, right along side my children. I pulled up Ambleside Online’s website, and found the similarity striking, which wasn’t surprising since Lynn said that Hicks was an inspiration for the upper years.

    What makes it so very beautiful? I suppose the most obvious detail is the simplicity…coupled with an almost complete lack of textbooks. The breadth and depth of an education based upon primary sources thrills my very toes.

    If you know what I mean.


    So, that’s basically it for Chapter 9. It’s mostly a beautiful list of Hicks’ ideas for a curriculum covering the 7th through 12th grades. Which, naturally, begs the question as to how Hicks would go about preparing a student for those years. I know of very few programs that mold a student capable of this high standard of work–or even the high standard of literacy it requires! {Goodness, we even have a shortage of adults who could take this course of study.} I think Ambleside Online is an obvious choice for getting a child ready for such an undertaking. I am sure there are others that, in the spirit of Charlotte Mason and the classicists of the past, have striven for such things.

    Questions for our Schools

    Chapter 10 asks a lot of questions to provoke the sort of thoughtful pondering about school that our culture needs. A number of the questions are not really pertinent to home educators. We have the luxury of very little bureaucracy, and lots of flexibility for growing as we go along. But other questions are very much pertinent, no matter who we are and how we are educating. I’ll list a sample of the questions I underlined during my reading:

    • What are your school’s priorities?…Is your school organized to reflect its priorities? For example, if you believe that ongoing scholarship is important to good teaching, does your school’s curriculum and budget reflect this commitment? This got me thinking that we hadn’t thought about our priorities in much specificity. Have you? I think it’d be interesting to come up with a list of our top ten priorities, listed in order of importance, so that I have something to work with when making decisions–especially in situations where our budget is limited and I have to choose one thing over another.
    • How do you challenge your faculty to maintain spiritual and intellectual growth, to burn always with a gemlike flame, to infect their students and colleagues with a curiosity in ideas and an enthusiasm for the life of the mind? This is one of the reasons that we have committed {barring all financial disasters, of course} to purchase the CiRCE Conference CDs every year. I know this year’s conference was this past week, and I cannot wait for the CDs to make their debut! This conference seriously inspired my husband and I for a full year. I also try and find free sermons, speeches, and presentations that keep up the inspiration.
    • How do you teach better writing? This is an interesting question. For now, I don’t spend much time on anything other than exposing them to the best writing I can find. Eventually, when my son is a bit older, I plan to purchase The Lost Tools of Writing. What about you? Some say “write every single day,” and I’m wondering about implementing something simple that accomplishes this for Year Three.
    • How do you provoke from your students the important questions?
    • What is your opinion of yourself as a teacher? What do you believe to be your true competence?…[A]re your methods dialectical? How much reading and reflection precedes your entrance into the classroom? That last question is huge. One of the unfortunate consequences from the “no me-time” argument has been to belittle time homeschooling mothers spend reading and thinking. And then we wonder why we have burnout! Yes, there are times {like after the birth of a third or fourth baby and all the other children are under four or six–I’m just saying} when we will have only a few minutes a day to read a tiny snatch of Scripture or a bit of poetry, but I am just not sure how we plan to be inspired to cultivate a spirit of learning in our homes if we ourselves do not spend time learning. Besides, spending time learning is part of the definition of living the good life, and I definitely believe homeschooling should lend itself to such things.
    • Do your students have time…to read beyond the syllabus, and to pursue ideas in informal conversations with you?
    • Do you keep a written record of your teaching methods’ successes and failures? This might not be as important when you only have a student or two, but at the same time I have found a written record to be invaluable for teaching reading, and it really does enable me to look back and see what I did right…and wrong. Do any of you keep written records for all that you are doing? What does that look like? I keep my plans from the beginning of the year, and write dates next to each item as it is accomplished. Is this sufficient? I think he is looking for more depth than what is essentially a to-do list.
    • What is your school’s ideal image of itself?
    • How do you define the person that you wish your graduate to be? What are his or her peculiar virtues? What is valuable and enduring about your school’s stamp upon the student? This is the question I want to put to my husband to answer me in writing. It’ll help me hone my priorities throughout the day. I often let Latin slide when I’m short on time, and then I feel guilty. But then I think about it, and I wonder if languages would be anywhere in my husband’s description of an ideal graduate. I’m not saying I’ll drop languages, but it makes me think that perhaps I drop Latin because I instinctively know it is not one of our top priorities.

    Assumptions on Education

    Hicks tells us some of his assumptions from which he worked up his curriculum and educational approach, and here are my favorites:

    • Cardinal Newman’s description of liberal education remains, to this day, unimpeachable: that which teaches the student “to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.”
    • Before he is 18, no one has time to do more than a few things well. If you look in person at Norms and Nobility, you will see that, though the curriculum is most generous, it is also quite simple. Hicks creates “three schools within the school” {all of which must share common goals for a whole education}: maths and sciences, arts and languages, and humane letters. That’s all, though he does include some PE in there. But it’s a good thing to think about when we start to see all those notebooking people getting all notebook-y* and making us feel like we’re not doing enough. There are only a few things we can do well in our youth, and so we focus on the majors, and that’s okay. {And the majors will differ from house to house–so if your kids read Rousseau’s Social Contract and mine don’t, that’s okay, too.**}
    • Any subject, no matter how potentially complex, can be taught to any student at any level. The secret is not in what is taught, but in how it is taught. The compromise to the student’s level of psychological development should be made by altering the teaching method rather than by substituting facile subject matter. In other words, you don’t dumb it down, you figure out how to reach the student in spite of all difficulty. This truth {that anything can be taught at most any age, within reason} is why large homeschooling families with children of a wide age range can all read a single book together and benefit from it. One of our world’s most unfortunate characteristics is how polluted it is by the mythology of grade levels.
    • “Nothing–not all the knowledge in the world–” wrote Sir Richard Livingston, “educates like the vision of greatness, and nothing can take its place.” Here we have…the Ideal Type.
    • Only the careless and unskilled teacher answers questions before they are asked. The teacher’s chief task is to provoke the question, not to answer it; to cultivate in his students an active curiosity, not to inundate them in factual information. Charlotte said something similar, that practically every answer the teacher gives should be in reply to a student’s question was the general idea. Goodness, I am constantly struck by the fact that I talk too much. The habit of narration is as good for me as it is for my children–it disciplines me to remember to listen and wait for the questions which inevitably strike them as they are narrating..
    • The teacher has to have a zest for learning, and zeal for learning new things. Expertise and specialization are not required for this–the teacher who is excited about learning all sorts of new things will be very inspiring.
    • The school should not nurture and ape the attitudes and beliefs of popular culture–what Erasmus calls “the false opinions and vicious predilections of the masses”–but it must call these into question with the inherited wisdom of its lofty paideia, its vision of greatness, its ideals of conscience and style. This, my friends, is why we don’t have a television in our living room {it is hidden in our room for the occasional movie for the parents and the eight-year-old} and we don’t expose our children to lots of electronic media. At the end of the day, our family really cannot do both. If we had TV and video games in our home, they would become the spirit of our home–which means our home would become conformed to the spirit of the age. Wendell Berry once called the television a tube pumping life and meaning out of the home. It would definitely do this to our family. Building a new culture takes extreme steps. {And it’s fun!}
    • [E]veryone involved in a classical education is a student, whether teacher or pupil, for only the example of a teacher’s learning evokes the creative tension necessary for an effective dialectic within the school. We have to live it out. Good thing we have access to a great God!

    *No offense to notebookers who find that notebooking is accomplishing their school’s goals.
    ** I am still trying to decide if we could pull off combining Ambleside with King’s Meadow Humanities Curriculum, or if that would be insanely ambitious. I have never taught the upper levels before. Can you tell?? I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about…

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  • Reply Dominion Family August 1, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Every year I have to decide between King’s Meadow and Ambleside. I use Ambleside for years 7 and 8 and King’s Meadow with dashes of Ambleside in 9-12, but I do not think there is any way to fail using Ambleside’s upper year suggestions. I just love Dr Grant and my children love him also so I know that they pay attention.

    I believe Lynn made one of her daughter do both πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts July 21, 2010 at 3:52 pm


    After you said you preordered, I went and followed in your footsteps. πŸ™‚

    Thank you for reminding me about memorization. That has been something I haven’t been very deliberate about because we participate in Awana, and so they have memory work for that and I didn’t want to overdo it. However, I really want them to memorize longer chunks and “beautiful language,” as you put it.

    I think I will try Charlotte’s approach of reading to them while they are doing something else and seeing if they just absorb it!

    I will be praying for your sleep situation. I know that desperately tired feeling…


    You’re welcome! I ate up all these questions! I hope that Si and I get to try and answer them on paper soon…

    Mrs. H,

    I love the philosophical, but I often have trouble putting feet to it–it’s like all those ideas are just floating up above somewhere, and me right along with them! So the latter half was great. I still wish that he discussed the younger grades and actually getting children to this point. With that said, I think that I can rely on CM and not worry about it! πŸ™‚

    Getting this book is hard because it is SO expensive, especially for how few pages it is (though admittedly the pages are worth every penny). I was blessed one day and found it used for less than $20–hardbound and in awesome condition! If you really want a copy (at a decent price, anyhow), you have to watch for it for quite a long time. I think it took me a year to find it in my price range. Sometimes Alibris has good copies for less…

  • Reply Mrs. H July 21, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Wonderful post! I love the practical and struggle with the philosophy. Thanks for taking the time to type out your thoughts and share them – I don’t have access to this book – yet.

    Mrs. H

  • Reply Kimbrah July 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks for the post Brandy. Lots to think about. I really liked the part about setting priorities. I think Eddie and I both have priorities in our heads, but sitting down together and putting those ideas and priorities into a plan sounds like just what we need. Thanks again for “digest”ing this book for me. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Mystie July 19, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    These posts have all been excellent, Brandy. I am in a place again of not having the wherewithal to post and comment, but I have been enjoying reading.

    I preordered my conference CDs. πŸ™‚ I am looking forward to them, though I’m not sure I’m mentally ready to handle them yet. Sleep would be so nice!

    Another writing help is memorizing beautiful language. I am counting poetry, Scripture, and catechism memory as pre-writing. Even if all of it doesn’t stick well over the long haul, they are getting complex language patterns and good words into their heads and mouths.

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