I didn’t need much convincing to implement most of Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas but I did think that including the study of Plutarch was rather random. Who was this guy anyhow? And as one of my sons remarked, ‘Why do I have to do Plutarch when I’m not studying that time period?’
Plutarch was a Greek historian who lived c. AD 46-120 and is mostly known for writing Parallel Lives (also known as Plutarch’s Lives), a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans. But although Plutarch was a historian he was not so much concerned with the historical aspects of these Greek and Roman figures as he was in studying and comparing their characters. Plutarch’s aim was to shed light on their moral strengths and weaknesses and explore how their individual characters influenced their decisions and ultimately the course of their lives. Charlotte Mason placed the study of Plutarch under the umbrella of citizenship.
Citizenship: the character of an individual viewed as a member of society; behaviour in terms of the duties, obligations and functions of a citizen.
Earlier this year our fourth child finished his home education. As we came to this point in each of our older children’s lives we weren’t concerned so much with whether their maths was up to scratch or their writing was grammatically correct etc. We’d spent many years honing these and other skills and were confident they were proficient enough in these areas. We were more concerned with how they’d conduct themselves in life — among people who didn’t share their beliefs or values; in the face of disappointments; when they found out that life is not always black and white; when they were confronted by the problem of good and evil and finding out that good people are capable of evil. We wanted them to have the wisdom to discern ‘what to avoid and how to avoid it’ (Vol. 6, p. 186).
Plutarch looked at the lives of real people placed in positions of power, authority and leadership and examined how they dealt with the realities and challenges of their circumstances.
Now Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification.Vol. 6, p. 186
Character building is a theme that is often discussed within home-schooling circles and I think the study of Plutarch offers a way to address this topic in a different but more satisfactory manner than simply giving our children moralistic, doctored tales to read. To my way of thinking it’s akin to giving our children principles as opposed to rules to help them to make a judgment or decide the best course of action to take in different scenarios.
So, in unlikely ways, and from unlikely sources, do children gather that little code of principles which shall guide their lives.Vol. 6, p. 189
What we did when we first started to include Plutarch studies:
We started with the life of Poplicola, which is considered to be a good one to start with.
I went to Anne White’s Study Guide, had a quick look at the introduction to his life and we did an overview of the Roman era. It was already familiar to my children so it didn’t take long.
I read the ‘before you read’ section of Lesson 1 and discussed the comments and then we went through the vocabulary. We discovered words we’d never come across before: hugger-mugger, garboyle, rakehell, rap and rend, pilled/polled, bib and drink drunk, traduced, obloquy …
Then I read the lesson aloud.
Sometimes I read a paragraph and asked for an oral narration, at other times I read for a bit longer but we usually ended up narrating a couple of times during this reading time. This was often helpful for me as sometimes I was more confused than my kids were.
After I’d read the selection I followed Anne’s suggested questions and we looked up any Scripture references she included. This part of the study has generally yielded some very interesting and sometimes hilarious conversations. There’s a tendency at our place for discussions on a particular topic to morph into all sorts shapes and directions because we all like to talk and we are all very opinionated.
When we first started with Plutarch about two years ago my children were 17, 15, 12 and 7 years of age and they all participated. My youngest usually played with Lego in the same room when we read Plutarch. I didn’t think she’d follow along but often she would pipe up with her version of the story showing that she’d understood what was happening, which surprised me.
If there was a suggested written narration I often asked the boys to do that. Sometimes I’d get them to try to include some of the vocabulary words in their writing or use the vocabulary words in a poem or ask them to write a newspaper article for ‘The Roman Times’ or the script for a play on a scene from the life being studied.
There are study guides for twenty-one of Plutarch’s Lives on the Ambleside Online site, enough to keep you going for a long time, and personally I’ve only covered the Lives that have a guide as they do actually enhance the story.
I would never have come up with the idea of reading Plutarch myself but I had enough experience of the wisdom of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy that I was willing to give it a go. Educating ourselves and our children can be uncomfortable at times and it’s not natural (to me at any rate!) to take a more difficult route if an easier one is at hand but our minds need exercise as much as our bodies to acquire strength and agility.
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