What if your child died at the age of 8 or 10? What would her eulogy be about? Perfect school attendance? What wonderful grades she got? How well-behaved she was in school? No. It would be about her smile, her love, the way she laughed. Sadly, many children who are simply prepared for adulthood, just as adults who merely prepare for retirement, find the time and space of their lives monopolized by what is not most important.
Tomas, our eldest son, turned six on August 8. By state law he is exempt from compulsory school attendance this year. Kindergarten is optional, but he will be expected to enter some form of schooling next year. Last year we decided quite easily to not enroll him in school before we had to do so under penalty of law. So this year, with the present law, things are no different. But then there remains the question of what to do during this year. There was an almost magnetic, ideological force making us feel as though we needed to do something extra special to justify not sending Tomas to school. And when these feelings faded, we received a barrage of questions from well-intentioned family, friends, colleagues, and strangers.
We are not so sure that this is the only education that we want for Tomas, or any of our children. The most important thing imaginable is to live by preparing well for death, with or without, inside or outside of, schools and their institutional counterparts. As Catholics we cannot accept a pedagogy that lacks mystagogy.
The problem I’ve found in “home schooling,” “classical education,” and even “unschooling” is metaphysical: they carry all the trappings of schooling through their somewhat defensive approaches. They may not be brick and mortar institutions, but they have something like a psychology of institutions; they think in many of the same ways. One of these ways is in their approach to curriculum. A curriculum for school is just what it says: a curriculum for school. It is self-serving; preparing people for degrees for employment for raises for retirement and so on. But when do we prepare for life and death? For theosis?
My wife and I looked at alternatives and have recently begun our own experiment, our own search for an education that has the potential to prepare Tomas for life by letting him live today, not constantly putting it off for the next stage. We have structured it around “Three L’s”: Logic, Literature, and Love. (And the unspoken foundation of this trivium is the Catholic liturgy.) The slogan describes a trinity of things that, ideally, work in a complimentary and comprehensive way to guide how we will try to educate Tomas without concerning ourselves, for at least this year, with schooling.
The first “L” is based on the belief that we need a rational sense of order, derived from ordinary ways of thinking. We need logic if we ever hope to understand things from grammar, mathematics, and science to building a cabinet, cooking, and taking out the trash. Logic unifies all these experiences. Tomas and I talk about simple visual and conceptual comparisons, and we’ve just begun studying some elementary analogies: What are they? Where can they be found in everyday life? I also purchased a very good workbook, Analogies for Beginners, for him to play in as he wants or as I direct him. We will eventually move to “if/then” statements. Until then, he’ll be disallowed from doing much other than very intuitive, visual work in simple addition, subtraction, reading, and writing. That way, we can introduce him to logic in mathematical operations and the complex and highly irrational grammatical rules and usages of the English language. This can lead as far as he cares to take it in terms of complexity and academic sophistication, but the point is not academic. It is to provide a foundation for the general use of his intellect.
The second “L” builds on the belief that story and myth (mythopoesis) are important for reasons much more serious than literary fancy, reading comprehension, or memory exercises. Logic often pervades stories, but we also want to emphasize literature in an aesthetic, non-instrumental way through the reading, writing, and general activity of story-telling, story-making, and other histories. I’ve banned checking out “fact books” from the library for precisely this reason. We have two sets of encyclopedias and yearbooks and a few other reference materials, which is sufficient. The rest of his books are to be based in story, myth, fable, and poetry. Since Tomas has been reading for some time now, we have some technical work to do with him to help his acquired literary crafts: penmanship and things that, once they can be explained through logic, might enable him to write down his own stories. He makes up stories on his own all the time. Play is usually very rigorous story-work. This notion of story extends to coloring, drawing, visual art, listening to and making music. Just as logic, it should permeate everything in the right proportion and degree. In this case it is aimed at the general use of his imagination.
The third “L” is based on the absolute, unchanging beauty of love that reveals itself in a life that is lived fully and richly. It is not purely sentimental; but it is quite simple. It requires that Tomas spend his time with people who love what they are doing, or who at least do not hate it. Avoid self-loathing places and people and routines. At home, it forces me to invite Tomas to see what I do in my study, to show him my love for the crafts of study and writing. It will one day bring him into my classroom. Not to learn anything, but simply to dwell and be present while I do something else I love. We’ll go fishing too. We will also send Tomas away from home, spending time with other people doing things they love to do, in the deepest sense of practicing a craft or ministry. I think that he will witness the incredible tedium and immense rigor that go into doing something with love. Perhaps he will find a craft of his own, but, as wonderful as it would be, it would be entirely beside the point. A very happy accident. This task is aimed at the general use of his heart and of his time.
The only thing that this curriculum of life requires is that he live and live well, dwelling in the presence of those seeking to do the same. First and last, God willing, will be the daily example of his mother and father. This is the most challenging task for us, his primary educators, a task that requires the full use of our hearts and our time.
My wife and I believe that we are the primary, but not the exclusive, educators of our children. This puts my professorial duties in second place, at best. We may one day decide to send Tomas and his brother to be schooled at a church, a public building, a textbook sitting on our kitchen table, or wherever. But we must never allow a curriculum for school to replace a curriculum of life; schooling mustn’t take over the education of living. When it does it becomes deeply mis-educative and disenchanting. It robs our children of the present gift of life they have been given by God.
If—heaven forbid—they die young, I hope they will have lived beautiful lives even in their youth, perhaps even more so than those who survive them. This educational task is not prescriptive or pedagogical; it is aesthetic and mystagogical. It will require more than a curriculum for schooling or for anything else; it will require a curriculum of life.
Samuel D. Rocha is an assistant professor in the educational foundations and research graduate program at the University of North Dakota.