Saturday, February 23, 2008

Latin? Greek? In a Steiner Approach?

A couple of months ago, I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine about our favorite topic -- what else? Home education! We hadn't spoken in a while and she shared with me how she was mixing in some Classical Education with her Waldorf flavored approach. Of course I had heard of CE, but had basically put it down as too heavily academic and an out-of-balance approach. However, after talking a bit, I was intrigued. So naturally, I picked up one of the best known recent authors on the subject -- Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind.

I knew there was something to the of specific types of learning being well-suited to specific stages of development -- an idea not unlike what is found in Waldorf education. However, I had a hunch that Susan's age/stages were off. So I began to dig deeper -- to other authors of CE. I now understand that Susan and several others actually practice and preach what is known as "neo-classical" education. (And yes, I found that not all authors agree with Susan's age breakdown. It seems that her age breakdown simply "fits" into a 12-year traditional education which nicely divides into three four-year rotations of history -- her chosen centerpiece to this educational approach.)

My research led to Tracy Lee Simmons’ Climbing Parnassus. By tracing the history and roots of original CE, what you find in Mr. Simmons’ book is that he actually traces the history of education in general. CE WAS the only choice in education for eons; although it did not necessarily have the title.

Many people seem to think that "modern" educational ideas and innovations came around the mid-20th century. However, it really began around the mid- to late 1800s. Before that, if you were a student, you received CE. Also, Mr. Simmons helps to define exactly what CE is. While SWB places history as the centerpiece of CE, Mr. Simmons traces the roots of CE to the study of just that: the classics, meaning the Classical authors in their original languages of Greek and Latin. He connects the study of the ancient texts, in their original languages, as a key link to all of Western civilization as we know it. Over and over, he indicates that this connection to tradition, to our roots, is inseparable from our understanding of ourselves. So much of what I read echoed the ideas conveyed in much of the Waldorf literature.

In fact, Simmons' many references to Truth, Beauty & Goodness, led me right back to Steiner, where I found a number of references in his lectures to Latin and Greek. He refers to them in such a matter-of-fact manner that one gets the impression that these subjects were a "given" in the education. Also, on the Waldorf Curriculum wall chart, copyrighted 1991 by David Mitchell, under languages, you will find Latin and Greek, starting with fifth grade and up through high school.

However, an online search for a Waldorf school in the states that offers Latin & Greek, turned up only one school, but they do have since dropped these subjects other that the little bit that is mixed into the Main Lesson.

For nearly 20 years, the subject of Waldorf education has been near and dear to my heart. And I am fortunate enough to live near Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks where I have attended a number of lectures and programs. There are also a number of Waldorf schools in our area and my older son attended two of them. Yet not once have I heard the study of the classical languages mentioned. Yes, the tales of the classics are talked about, as well as the history, but not the languages themselves, nor the study of the original texts in the original language.

The importance of studying a text in its original language recently hit home when I viewed a movie set in Germany near the end of WWII. A German woman ends up with both German and American soldiers in her home on Christmas Eve. An American soldier notices a copy of Huckleberry Finn in her son's possession; his mother is a teacher and has taught him English. As the soldier questions the boy about his studies, I recognized just how difficult it would be to convey the nuances of a story like Huckleberry Finn in a foreign language. Only the original text, in the original language, could offer the reader all that this book has to offer. Similarly, the ancient texts, like any text, lose something in translation.

So how does this relate to Steiner and his educational approach? In Steiner's time, I do not know that CE was referred to as CE. I think that some institutions had become stale or rigid in their approach to education (what we would call CE). As a response to the seeming lackluster approach of traditional education, innovators brought in new ideas and methods, much of it influenced by the Industrial Revolution and the need to turn out "workers" rather than "scholars," especially once education was seen as something for the masses, rather than just for those who could afford it.

Steiner clearly recognized the varying needed outcomes of education. He knew that even though not all children were destined for the university, there was no need to sacrifice a balanced full, education for that of a vocational education. He held in high esteem the beauty and truth of what might be considered "classical education" (with the intent to "improve" the man, the character), along with the "practical" aspects the innovators were striving to find a form for. Both of these aspects are found in the attention paid to literature and the arts along with the practical arts of handwork, woodwork, and the basic knowledge of how mechanical devices are made, etc.

It is clear that Steiner accepted Latin and Greek as a core piece of the education. However, it seems all but dropped from modern day Waldorf schools. Climbing Parnassus gives overwhelming reasons as to why this is a critical piece of education. I believe that Steiner agreed with this and that is why he saw no need to remove it from his approach. Furthermore, Simmons makes many references as to the original intent of CE: to make a better person, to improve the person, citing the ideas of Truth and Beauty as critical pieces to the development of the Good. This, of course, sounds so much like what we hear in Waldorf circles. Another point to keep in mind is that Steiner often used the phrase "a renewal of education," indicating not a new-fangled approach, but rather a connection to the original intent of education. This intent had become lost in both the stale, rigidness of CE gone dry, and the well-intentioned methods of the "new" educational approaches and the emphasis on vocational education.

At one point, Steiner mentions that it would be perhaps better if Greek could be introduced before Latin. Since we are going to be studying ancient Greece this year, I am starting my son now on Greek. He practices 2x per week in a book called A Greek Hupogrammon, by Harvey Bluedorn, a modern CE author. This is basically a copybook for writing the letters in and it provides exercises in recognizing the letters in context (using original Greek bible passages). We also have Mr. Bluedorn's companion book A Greek Alphabetarion, although we have not used it that much yet. With this approach, the student becomes well-grounded in the Greek alphabet before moving on to other aspects of the language. Next year, we will continue with Greek and also bring in Latin, in conjunction with the study of Rome in the 6th grade.

I am interested in hearing about others' experiences of working the Classical languages into their Waldorf-inspired home education!
Copyright 2008 by Sandra M. Russi. Reprint, or re-use, only with written permission of author.

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