Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: The Core by Leigh Bortins

I really like Leigh Bortins.  I've heard her speak several times both in person (at the Midwest Homeschool Convention) and on CD (via CiRCE); I follow her blog.  I have little interest in her organization, Classical Conversations (time, price, and some pedagogical differences come into play here), but like the ideas of how she approaches the Liberal Arts seeking Christ in them all. I would love to attend one of the Classical Conversations parent practicums. Because of my general happy impressions, I picked up her  new book: The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education.  Overall, I'm not unhappy that I own or have read the book.  Mrs. Bortins' writing is clear and direct if occasionally it seems to get bogged down.  It isn't the most engaging book on Classical Education I've read, but it is readable and gets its message across.

The first part of the book starts out with, well, a diatribe against contemporary schools. I think this section has the potential to turn readers off altogether.  I am not anti-school or even anti-public school.  It isn't the choice that we have made for our family, and I certainly deplore the prevailing mode and philosophy of education, I refuse to definitively say that the public schools must be closed.  My philosophy for home education is more of a positive action (creating a family culture of learning and serving the Lord) rather than a defensive/fear-induced/reactionary response to another system.  I am thankful for those home educators who went before and cleared the path that I might hold to the philosophy I do.

In the second part of the book, Bortins tells us what "Classical Educators" do.  This is my second big issue with the book.  I've read many books on Classical (Christian) Education (eg. The Well Trained Mind, Wisdom & Eloquence, Latin Centered Curriculum (2nd E), Dr. Perrin's Classical Ed booklet, etc.), over the past 6 years or so, and I've got to tell you, I can think of very little that they "all" do, let alone chapters worth of methods and curricula.  She also tends to recommend one curricula.  There are so many things out there that can appeal to so many educators, that to have one Phonics or Writing or Arithmetic choice seems paltry. 

My third disagreement with Bortins is the out of context Memory Work.  Now we do a lot of Memory Work and will continue to do so, and intend upon adding more.  We also will review and review and review.  However, the adding will be as or after we've studied a specific item, rather than not tied to our studies in a more natural way.  She does make an attempt to explain her reasons

I think the above disclaimers are outweighed by the following positives. 

I *love* the concept of "overpracticing" skills and content as Mrs. Bortins describes it.  She compares intellectual pursuits with an athlete, musician, or one highly specialized in some physical field. "We accept that to be good at sports or music you must practice over and over until your fine motor skills become gross motor skills, meaning that you can play Tchaikovsky in your sleep! Over-practice implies enough repetition to make new skills seem easy and natural." (p 15)

I found Bortins' chapters on different subjects to be interesting and, while writing from a completely secular perspective, oddly encouraging.  I found it surprising that she of "this is what Classical Educators do" didn't talk more about the traditional Liberal Arts (Trivium: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric; Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, and Music) as disciplines rather than ages/stages (of the trivium).  She incorporates, but has no chapter on Latin or Greek (some Classical Educators are appalled).  Bortins' chapters are: Reading, Writing, Math, Geography, History, Science, and Fine Arts.  I was not as positive on the book until I read the Science chapter (which is obviously her first love).  The chapter on Geography is also quite good, which was what I expected from early reviews of the book, but the chapter on Science (followed by the chapter on Fine Arts) were my favorites.

Science is where Bortins lays out a  clear goal: being able to read classical science. "Classical educators what to prepare their students to study original scientific treatises and theoretical math proposals ..." (p 193)  It is where she makes the clearest case, almost convincing to me, of uncontextualized Memory Work.  It has to do with overpractice in the grammar stage making in depth scientific study possible in the rhetoric stage.  She makes science sound fun and engaging.  Do an experiment every week.  Ask some questions.  Write about it.  Memorize. Done. Observe, define, do. I do think I'd like to purchase her science memory cards, for use when we study the topics and then for review.

Her Fine Arts ideas also seem doable. Look and copy some art.  Listen (and copy where appropriate) some music.  Throw in some drama, athletics, and home arts for good measure.  Good stuff.

Overall, I'd give this book a solid B.  I'll use and refer to it, but not like I do other Class Ed books. 


  1. Thanks for the review, Dawn!

  2. Thanks, Dawn. We are joining a CC group this year (and I am tutoring!), but I also have a few misgivings about it. However, I'm hoping that the fellowship we have will outweigh the negatives for me. There are few classical home educators in our area, so I was really excited about the prospect of this community. We shall see what we shall see, I suppose.

  3. I have to admit my issues have to do with 1) cost and 2) my loss of control. We'd have to give up our place in the history rotation and I'd lose control over what and when we're learning and the fun of teaching - which is part of why we homeschool.


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