In my last article I talked about various techniques that can help to motivate our home schooling children to learn. Eventually, of course, our students should be motivated by knowledge itself, or by the end to which knowledge is ordered, God Himself, but often as he moves to that goal, there are intermediate steps. I mentioned some of the techniques involving material rewards, like stickers, and some involving immaterial reward, like praise. The effectiveness of this last motivation depends on something else, however.
Motivation is a very important consideration in teaching, whether one is teaching in a home school setting, or in any other setting. A teacher can only teach. The student has to do the learning. If the student is not motivated to learn, the best teacher in the world can’t teach him.
I home schooled my own children for many years. As a home schooling mother, I have been concerned about motivation for all of those years. In 1995 I started Mother of Divine Grace School, which now has over 4600 students enrolled. I have, of course, had even more opportunities to think about motivation since then.
As Catholic Christians, we all share in the universal vocation to evangelize and witness to the Truth. For us as parents - and educators, too - our unique contribution to that task of evangelization lies in the formation of the children in our charge – not only by our own witness, but by both the information we impart, and the intellectual formation we give them.
When I first started homeschooling I had this vision of what it would be like in my home every day. Serenity was king. Peacefulness reigned. My kids running through a field of daisies like Little House on the Prairie. All of us sitting down quietly on a rainy day to read out loud. The house was always clean, all food homegrown and homemade. I was always calm, that picture of perfect motherhood where all I existed to do was be patient with my children no matter what they did. Well, that vision quickly died a violent death, especially as boys started entering our household.
Aristotle tells us that we are made for happiness. He spends the whole of his work on ethics leading us to understand that happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue. (Nicomachean Ethics, Ch. 13). He explains that activity is better than passivity, that a man is happier when he acts than when he is sleeping. He shows that activities of the soul are more noble and enduring, and more truly said to be human, than activities of the body, as they are characteristic of what makes a man a man, rather than one of the lower animals. We are happier acting according to what characterizes us as men, that is acting reasonably, than if we act unreasonably. He shows that it is better to use one’s human powers well, and that this is what we call virtue, namely the right use of our highest powers.
I have one more general thing to say about discussion. The materials and the questions have to fit the stage of formation. Don’t use complex materials, at least for discussion, before the student is ready. Reading the Greek myths from the Oxford World Classics to young children would be a mistake. They aren't ready for the complex language, let alone the complex ideas. But reading D'Auliare's Greek myths would be fine. The material has to suit the child.
Classical Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness and beauty, so that, in Christ, the student is better able to know, glorify and enjoy God.
People who are in the tradition of classical education speak of it that way, that is, of being "in the tradition". The tradition they are usually talking about is the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas. In this tradition education is understood to be of a certain sort and to have various parts which have an order among themselves. In St. Thomas' commentary on Boethius' De Trinitate. he speaks very clearly of this order.
About ten years ago I started giving talks and writing articles about classical education. At first, people warned me not to do it. They said that my audiences wouldn't be interested. They said people, homeschooling mothers in particular, only wanted practical, day by day directions. Now, we all like practical day by day directions, but my experience, contrary to the predictions, is that mothers want to know the end of education, not just the means. The mothers I know and work with are philosophers; they think about the nature of reality and educational philosophy all the time. I'm glad, because this talk is going to be in that category.