While browsing the homeschooling section of my local library, I stumbled across The Well-Trained Mind. Having heard traditional homeschoolers refer to this book many times, I was curious about its contents, so I checked it out.
The book's first chapter argues that modern education has become too focused on self-expression, without giving children any tools with which to express themselves. It puts forth the idea that childhood should be a time of building skills and knowledge so that a child can better express herself later in life. While I don't think there's any such thing as "too much" self-expression, they do raise a good point. Self-expression is easier once you've learned the skills to do it. I find there is a certain appeal to the book's focus on teaching skills like logic and rhetoric, skills that I find the population at large to be sorely lacking. And I can understand their position that exposure to lots of good art and literature helps "fill the well" of creative inspiration.
So while I find the idea of a classical education intriguing, I still have many objections to it. Primary among them is its treatment of children as empty vessels to be filled, as non-persons whose time and energy can and should be controlled by those who "know better". I find the very idea of "training" children to be dehumanizing. But there is another problem with classical education that I'd like to focus on here, and that is the pedagogy itself.
Classical education is based on the idea that there is a highly specific set of knowledge that all people should have. On the surface, this isn't a terrible idea; it's not hard to argue that reading, writing, math, logic, history, and science are important things to know. So my problem isn't with the idea that everyone should have this set of knowledge. My problem is with the idea that everyone should have this set of knowledge to the exclusion of everything else.
There are worlds and worlds of knowledge out there, and I personally think all of it is equally valuable. A classical education seems to be focused on the idea that Greco-Roman and Western European history are essential for everyone, but African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Eastern European, and Native American history are not. I find this notion to be rooted in Eurocentricism, colonialism, and its accompanying racism. On the subject of religion, The Well-Trained Mind makes brief mention of "explaining" religions like Buddhism and Islam, but ultimately treats Christianity as truth. As a person of faith myself, I understand their position that faith should be part of education. But even if your family happens to be Christian, my own belief is that children should be offered a buffet of possible ideas about God and allowed to work with those which make the most sense to them. It is possible to teach "our family believes this about God" without teaching that everyone else's beliefs don't matter.
A classical education does seem to include lots of exposure to art, music, and literature - but again, this is the art, song and story mainly of dead white men. Why is it more important to study Mozart than to study aboriginal tribal music or watch a Bollywood dance scene? Why is the Bible to be studied at length but the Koran only glossed over and the Tao Te Ching left out entirely? Classical education seems, again, to be rooted in the idea that the elements of Western civilization are the only ones worth studying, and by extension, that (mostly white) Westerners are the only ones whose ideas are worth caring about. This is fundamentally racist in nature.
And that's my ultimate objection to The Well-Trained Mind and its accompanying philosophy: it teaches that some people's lives and perspectives matter more than others. It offers children the same restricted, whitewashed world that was offered to me in school - and even more regrettably, to my non-white peers, who continued to see their own histories and people devalued and ignored, sometimes even having their destruction glorified in the name of justifying white imperialism. This kind of treatment of the world of knowledge is not okay. Children should be taught to see the world whole, to see all people as equally beautiful. They need to learn to live in a world that contains all kinds of people, and to treat all those people with respect. When I am interacting with an adult, whether as a friend, a coworker, a consumer or a voter, this is the knowledge I am most interested in seeing them have. If they can do that, I really don't care if they need to use spellcheck to send a good email or a calculator to do simple math. Seeing everyone as equally human matters more.