The Core is a practical guide to those who are new to the idea of classical education and are looking for an outline of what to teach in different subject areas. Leigh Bortins has written this book for all parents and teachers--those in a regular school setting as well as those who are homeschooling--but her methods would work particularly well within a home education environment. Bortins uses the ideas laid out in Dorothy Sayers’ oft quoted 1947 essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, as a guide upon which to build her lists of necessary skills for students of the trivium.
Trivium is Latin for the “place where three roads meet.” The trivium comes from the medieval idea of education, and represents the lower level of the liberal arts: grammar, logic and rhetoric. The main emphasis of this book is to show educators how to take modern subjects, i.e. reading, writing, math, geography, history, science and fine arts, and teach students the fundamentals of these subjects through memorization of basic facts. Bortins explains how this corresponds to the grammatical stage of the trivium. Every language has its structure, i.e. grammar, which is key to understanding and developing good reading, writing and speaking skills. Likewise, the other subjects also have their grammar, which are the foundational rules of the subject.
The subtitle of the book is not just an afterthought. This book is about the foundations of a classical education. And this foundation is memorization. This method, although simple and nearly free from textbooks, requires a lot of adult involvement. If you’re not interested in helping your child memorize things, then read no further. This book is all about acquiring facts, information and skills through memorization. Bortins doesn’t try to sugarcoat it; memorization is hard work for both teacher and student:
The purpose of a classical education is to strengthen one’s mind, body, and character in order to develop the ability to learn anything. This requires consistent discipleship or mentoring by a concerned adult over a long period of time with very specific academic goals. For eventually, the child wants to know why she must learn so much terminology and what to do with what she has learned. These natural questions lead children into dialectic and rhetorical studies.
Bortins tells us the modern educational system, with its emphasis on things like “critical thinking skills” and “experiential learning” has demeaned the traditional method of having children learn things through imitation and memorization. She says:
Though critical thinking skills and experiential learning are very valuable, the education associations forgot two things: first, that students needed to memorize information so they would have something in their brain to critically think about or to compare to their experiences, and second, that the brain needs to be intentionally trained in order to think well.
We readily accept the idea that to learn to play an instrument or to do a sport, students must first memorize certain fundamentals. Yet in many, if not most, schools today children are expected to analyze a book or write their own story without first being made to memorize, or even copy, good examples of prose or poetry.
Bortins did her undergraduate studies in aerospace engineering and her love of math comes through especially well in her chapter on teaching the grammar of math. Most educators would probably agree that a child must first acquire the basic math facts—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division—before moving on to more complex mathematical equations. Bortins not only advises all students memorize the multiplication tables through 20 x 20, but she also advocates students learn to quickly multiply and divide double digit numbers in their heads, and memorize the common squares and cubes, among other things. These fundamentals, she says, are the grammar of mathematics. Some authors point out the growing illiteracy of the American public, and Bortins speaks of the massive innumeracy of our culture that depends upon calculators, cash registers and computers to do all of our basic computations for us. A person learning a foreign language must wrestle with the grammatical rules of that new language, and so must students of mathematics learn the rules and grammar of math in order to become fluent in the language of math.
The other subject areas get similar treatment, and Bortins offers practical advice for parents and teachers, with lists of things to have students memorize in order to become competent learners. For example, in the chapter on science, Bortins admits it would be an impossible task to memorize all the science facts, but she offers an impressive list to get us started. When she was devising the lists for science for her own students, she arranged them as a series of questions, similar to the “ancient catechisms used in the schools in Alexandria during the first three centuries A.D.” (If you’re like me, you’re thinking, Baltimore Catechism!) Bortins tells us, “The term ‘catechism,’ [although] usually associated with religious instruction…is actually a classical method of memorization for any subject, in which a preconstructed set of questions and answers are used to teach precision in responses.” The emphasis in all subjects should be on understanding the fundamentals of the subject, through memorization, prior to moving on to the higher levels of learning in the logic and rhetoric stages.
Bortins gives us a general, yet very practical, outline of lists of things to have our students memorize. However, she has not given us all the particulars of those lists. Instead she gives us topics and tips to get us started either making our own lists, or seeking out lists from other sources. She gives some suggestions for further reading and sources in the back of the book.