Posted in Book Lovers Community

Little Men

(Check out our Facebook Book Club for Little Men here.)

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In May of 1868, Louisa May Alcott started her most famous novel, Little Women. It was a story that she was loathe to write and would ultimately call “moral pap for the young”. Her editors demanded it of her so she obliged, begrudgingly.

Despite her reservations, readers love it. I don’t believe that Little Women has ever gone out of print. It has been illustrated multiple times and has been made into at least four movies (1918, 1933, 1949, and 1994) and two different t.v. miniseries starring actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Winona Ryder, Meredith Baxter, and so many more. 

I think there are many reasons Little Women persists as a great American classic. More than just a book for children, it is a book that captures very true things about American culture at that time, has some beautiful storylines, has a spirited but traditional moral point of view and, essentially, captures something of what it meant to be an American woman who was coming of age during changing times. Even though Alcott resented having to write it, we as a culture have been blessed by it.

Lucky for us, however, she didn’t stop at the end of Little Women. Her sequel, Little Men is, in my opinion, her very best book. (Little Men is followed by the series conclusion, Jo’s Boys.)

Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, was part of the American transcendental movement. His friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne may have been something akin to the famous Inklings friendships of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.  Louisa ultimately eclipsed her father in recognition, but she was strongly influenced by her father’s intellectual appetite and work in social and educational reform. She grew up knowing some of the great American thinkers of that time and feasted on their ideas.

Bronson Alcott was a teacher, a poet, and a transcendental mystic. At one point in his career, he formed a school in Boston called “Temple School” (1834-1841) where he honed and “perfected” progressive methods for education. (The word progressive here is not to be confused with today’s political association of the word.) Instead of the dry rigor of conventional schools, he believed in a more living approach to education. His ideas of education were inspiring to Louisa and she used them as the backbone of her beautiful story about Plumfield in the 1871 sequel to Little Women, Little Men.

Readers of Little Men are treated to a utopian educational model. One that concentrates on the character of children while tending to their very hearts and souls. The boys and girls of Plumfield live in an idyllic old mansion complete with sprawling natural property and a barn with animals. Each student studies Latin and Greek, gets excellent exercise, has pillow fights, takes care of his own plot in the garden, studies nature, learns useful skills, converses with good mentors, and feasts on living books. Modern readers may easily see this as a model for a Charlotte Mason boarding school and wonder if Alcott was inspired by Miss Mason. In fact, Louisa was ten years older than the British education reformer. Miss Mason formed her “House of Education” in Ambleside, England in 1891 – a full twenty years after the publication of Alcott’s Little Men.

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In Little Women, Louisa blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Sort of like Charles Dickens in David Copperfield, Little Women is based very loosely on her own life and experiences. In Little Men, we get something different.

There is no way for me to write this without spoiling the end of Little Women. If you are unfamiliar with the conclusion of that book, you may want to refrain from reading the rest of this review. And yes, that means that you cannot read Little Men without first reading Little Women if spoilers bother you. The story does stand on its own, but it is impossible to avoid knowing who marries whom and who dies.

At the end of Little Women, we learn that Josephine and her Professor Bhaer have inherited the great old mansion of wealthy Aunt March. A poor German immigrant teacher and an equally poor author could not hope to occupy Plumfield as the fuel costs alone would devour their meager salaries. What they could do, however, with some help from Jo’s brother-in-law, was lovingly fill it with a school for boys. In typical Alcott and Josephine March fashion, the school would be nontraditional and very lively.

When Little Men opens, a poor orphan musician boy is deposited on the stoop of Plumfield. He is ushered into what he thinks must be a little heaven on earth. Nat is one of many charity students at Plumfield sponsored by Teddy and Amy Lawrence. We are oriented into Plumfield as Nat is. Just as he settles in, however, Nat fades into the supporting cast and we view Plumfield through the eyes of another newcomer. This technique is used several times throughout the book to help the reader see Plumfield from different perspectives.

While each student comes under very different circumstances and for very different reasons, their reception is essentially always the same: they are welcome, their souls are attended to, their minds are trained, and Plumfield strives to correct their flaws.

“July had come, and haying begun; the little gardens were doing finely and the long summer days were full of pleasant hours. The house stood open from morning till night, and the lads lived out of doors, except at school time. The lessons were short, and there were many holidays, for the Bhaers believed in cultivating healthy bodies by much exercise, and our short summers are best used in out-of-door work. Such a rosy, sunburnt, hearty set as the boys became; such appetites as they had; such sturdy arms and legs, as outgrew jackets and trousers; such laughing and racing all over the place; such antics in house and barn; such adventures in the tramps over hill and dale; and such satisfaction in the hearts of the worthy Bhaers, as they saw their flock prospering in mind and body, I cannot begin to describe.”

On a first reading, this story has a sufficiently rich texture to occupy the imagination of the reader. On subsequent readings, however, it becomes obvious that this story is a treatise on education. Through each of the different characters, we see how the Plumfield education is customized for that child’s best end. Each of the principal players has different strengths and different weaknesses and we see how the educational philosophy of Bronson and Louisa May can be adapted to suit the needs of the child.

The summer between my junior and senior years at Hillsdale College, I did my first of two terms at the University of Oxford. Between terms, I backpacked through Europe. My pack was very heavy so I had to be very judicious about which books I would bring with me. The only two I remember reading during that month were the Count of Monte Cristo and Little Men. I think this was my first time reading what has now become my most favorite Alcott book.

What I remember most about that first reading of this classic was how I fell in love. Something about Plumfield stirred something in the core of my being. Something about the approach to formation of character and helping to shape souls prompted me to want to become a teacher and, most assuredly, a mother of boys. Even though Alcott grew up in the home of sisters, she clearly loved boys. Thanks to Alcott’s Little Men, I too now love boys and their boyish beauty.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

Planning Reflection

“…the more a man looks at a thing, the less he can see it, and the more a man learns a thing the less he knows it.” – The Twelve Men, GKC

Like nearly all of the homeschool moms I know, I approach term planning with a mixture of anxiety, guilt, and eager anticipation. I regret the ground we haven’t covered – the times we did not make the most of our morning symposium, or when we let our commitment to nature walks slide, or when we ignored the math books in the corner of the room. I am anxious about whether or not the plans I have for the next term will be adequate, effective, appropriate, and attainable. And, I am full of eager anticipation about the fun new things we are going to learn, the stories we are going to get lost in, and the worlds that will open up to us. Planning is terrifying, overwhelming, and exciting all at once. And, for me, it comes every six to eight weeks.

Over the last couple of weeks on Facebook I have been casually talking about planning, and folks have asked to peek at my preparations. Surely it is not because I have any special wisdom, but rather it is probably because we homeschoolers are always, always, always looking at someone else’s plans. Presumably to be inspired and encouraged. Sadly, however, it often means that we take on more anxiety than we already had because it puts us into that awful comparison trap. For this reason, I try pretty hard not to look at other people’s plans when I am in planning mode. I want to lean into the Holy Spirit and trust my planning to Divine Providence instead. It is safer to look at other people’s plans when I am in the middle of my term – when I am too far away from changing my plans and have plenty of time to pray about what else I might be considering.

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In our family we have discerned a “relaxed classical” approach. What this means to us is that we borrow from the principles of classical education without being legalistically bound to the recommendations that classical experts have compiled.

Along the way, I have read from a wealth of brilliant, wise, and good educational experts. But like the Chesterton quote above, I have found that the more that I have studied education, the less I have understood it. The more scrutiny I have applied, the less focus I have been able to muster.

In November of 2015, I read Teaching from Rest, and it was a game changer for me. This incredible little book was absolutely on point: not one of us is the master of our homeschool. Our homeschool does not belong just to us. It belongs first and last to Him. And, because He showers us with tender mercy and boundless love, we can absolutely trust Him with the details of all things – our homeschool notwithstanding.

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As I have leaned into the Holy Spirit I have marveled at the confidence He has gifted to me. Eric Liddell, Olympic runner, said: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” While I cannot run (really, me running is laughable), I think that I know what Liddell means. When I rest in the Holy Spirit and pray my way through my planning, I feel His pleasure. When I summon my little chicks to the patio for our summer patio school and we are learning beautiful things, I feel His pleasure. When I consciously avoid the comparison game, I feel His pleasure. When we are enjoying beautiful and excellent books that He has led me to, I feel His pleasure.

Now, all of that said, I do know how helpful it is to take a peek at someone else’s plan. I know how just seeing how someone else plans things can help us tweak our planning tools, inspire us to try something new, and encourage us to plan what is right for our family’s unique needs. So, in the hopes that this will be encouraging and not competition inducing, inspiring and not overwhelming, I will offer you a peek at my humble plan. It’s not perfect. It will likely change a little. I will love parts of it and I will regret other parts. I will fail to follow it exactly. But, my plan is a tool in my homeschool tool kit – not a tyrant or taskmaster.

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You may wonder how I make the curricular choices that I make. A combination of factors: there are core subjects my husband and I simply think are important. There are key principles my husband and I desire to instill in our children. There are things that simply seem like a good idea. Because we practice a relaxed classical approach, we adhere to the basic classical form, but we interpret it into our situation.

You will notice that there are a number of Childcraft books referenced in this plan. The reason for this is because I think that the Childcraft books are some of the most brilliant elementary school resources available. They are like living books in that they are conversational, they are intelligently designed to respect the child, and they absolutely cultivate wonder and awe for their subject matter. I use Childcraft in lieu of textbooks, but in addition to solid living books.

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My July-September plan is a roadmap – not a law. The October-December is a work in progress where I am catching ideas for the next planning cycle.

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Generally, we run a 3 day cycle. This means that no matter how many days per week we actually meet (usually between 5-6), we just know if we are on day 1, 2, or 3. This allows me to have a vision for our next few days, spread some things out, hit things in good balance, but also not be too distracted by detailed schedule plans.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

Mere Motherhood

Last week I had the immense privilege of attending the CiRCE National Conference in Charleston, SC. It was an incredible week, and one of the main highlights of the conference was watching homeschool mother Cindy Rollins accept the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, given in honor of one who has dedicated a lifetime to the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. Most people know Cindy from her (now inactive) blog Ordo Amoris, or from her podcast on the CiRCE podcast network, “The Mason Jar.”  She speaks primarily about how she used a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education in her homeschool, and she is frequently sought out for her wisdom and experience as a mother of nine grown children (8 boys and 1 girl).

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In conjunction with the awarding of the Paideia Prize, CiRCE also released Cindy’s debut book entitled Mere Motherhood: Morning Times, Nursery Rhymes, and My Journey Toward Sanctification. At her book release and signing, where they recorded an episode of The Mason Jar, I was lucky enough to grab one of the first autographed copies. My roommates and I then met a few new mom friends in the hotel lobby.  We all went back to our room and immediately began reading the book aloud together.

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We each took turns reading, but it was hard to get through a page without laughing or getting teary-eyed. Cindy writes in a very conversational tone; you feel as if you are hearing her stories over a cup of coffee in her living room. And, Mere Motherhood is very much Cindy’s story. More memoir than mommy-manual, the book is filled with recollections of her children and her homeschool days. Full of grace and encouragement, she recounts both her successes and failures in a way that tells the beautiful story of her sanctification and God’s constant hand in her (and her children’s) lives.  Our little reading group only made it through a couple of chapters because we kept stopping to exclaim how much we could relate to one of her stories, or to commiserate with her feelings about a particular aspect of motherhood. I had to finish the rest of the book after I returned home from the conference and I am so glad that I did because, by the end of the book, I was utterly sobbing. Cindy’s beautiful accounts of her fleeting time with her children and the impact that time had on them after they left home hit my mama-heart hard. I cried as I realized the influence that a mother truly has in the lives of her children. Sometimes, as a mom with a specific mission to raise little men who are followers of Christ and preserve the Christian Classical tradition, I feel as if I am spitting into a hurricane. But I must continue to daily cultivate a love of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the hearts of my little boys. In the end, it will matter.

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Someone asked Cindy during the conference what is the one thing that a new homeschooling mom needed more than anything and Cindy answered, “Perspective.” And that is exactly the gift that she has given us through this beautiful book. She has run the course; she has finished the homeschooling race, and she writes as one looking back through all of her mistakes and victories and shares what mattered most. It is a beautiful love letter to her children and to the books that she read with them.  As I closed the last page, I went and watched each of my three small boys sleeping soundly in his bed, and I vowed to take Cindy’s words of wisdom, encouragement, and warnings to heart. I felt a pang of melancholy as I realized that it will only be a brief moment—I will blink—and I will be in Cindy’s shoes. I do not want to squander even one second of the time that I have for this sacred work of motherhood.

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This book is for the weary mama who needs to know that what she is doing really matters.  This book is for the new mama, who is full of visions and ideals about life with this precious new little person. This book is for the mama who is trying to trust the Holy Spirit to guide her while the cacophony of “experts” sings in her ear. This book is for the mama poring over curriculum magazines, burdened by all of the choices at her disposal, praying to make the right choice. This book is for the lonely mama, whose children have already left the nest and is wondering “what’s next?”

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Cindy talks frequently about the “long haul” of mothering and homeschooling, and I will be forever grateful to her for giving us this book to fuel us for the journey. It is a beautiful book of encouraging words that I know I will turn to again and again.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education

I enjoy writing book reviews. I love reading, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts and recommendations with my friends and online groups because (as many of you know) I am also passionate about the power of books to nourish our souls. I have often said that I believe that stories and books provide the fertile soil in which Truth, Goodness, and Beauty can take root in our hearts and grow into wisdom and virtue. So when I read a great book—fiction or nonfiction—that nurtures my heart and soul in that way, I cannot wait to share all about it with my friends here at Plumfield and Paideia.

Until today.

The truth is, I have been procrastinating writing this review for months now and, even as I sit down to write, words fail me. It’s not that the book is hard to review; it’s just that it is so good and so important that I am afraid I cannot do it justice. My Plumfield and Paideia partner, Sara Masarik, and I joke that we often just want to say over and over, “This book is just SO good…read it!” And that is exactly what I want to say about The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain. This book is just SO good. Read it.

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There have been so many discussions about Christian Classical Education in recent days. People are asking: what is Classical Education? Why is it important? Why do the “experts” seem to disagree on what it entails? What is the Trivium? How is classical education different from modern educational philosophy? What do I need to know in order to teach classically? Novices and veterans alike have lent their voices to the conversation as they attempt to recover an understanding of the fundamentals of a philosophy of education that has been out of fashion for decades (or centuries). It can all be a bit mind-boggling.

That is why I am profoundly grateful to Clark and Jain for their contribution to the conversation via The Liberal Arts Tradition. I felt that, as I was reading it, I was able to sort through the cacophony and gain a solid understanding of the history, development, and importance of a true Christian classical education for the first time.

Clark and Jain come right out of the gate with a somewhat controversial thesis:

“The seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own as the entire curriculum, for they are designed particularly for cultivating intellectual virtue. Since human beings are more than just intellects, however, the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue. Creatures formed in God’s image must be cultivated in body and soul – mind, will, and affections.”

Now, I had always had an inkling that there was more to Classical Education than grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the Trivium). When I learned a bit more about the other four liberal arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—the Quadrivium), I thought that perhaps I had found the missing piece of the puzzle.  According to Clark and Jain, however, the seven liberal arts are part of a much larger model that makes up the education of the whole person–mind, heart, and body. In other words, there is much more to Christian Classical Education than even the seven liberal arts. For a girl who cut her “classical” teeth on the understanding of the Trivium from Dorothy Sayers, and who originally planned her curriculum via The Well Trained Mind, this idea was somewhat revolutionary for me.

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Clark and Jain argue that the seven liberal arts actually fit within a much larger educational narrative that is “grounded in piety and governed by theology.” It includes not only the seven liberal arts, but also gymnastic, music, and philosophy. They use a somewhat awkward and hard to remember acronym to describe this comprehensive model of Christian Classical Education: PGMAPT (Piety, Gymnastic, Music, Arts, Philosophy, and Theology).  And although the acronym itself may be forgettable, the model it represents is remarkable. They assert that:

“This full-orbed education aims at cultivating fully integrated human beings, whose bodies, hearts, and minds are formed respectively by gymnastic, music, and the liberal arts; whose relationships with God, neighbor, and community are marked by piety; whose knowledge of the world, man, and God fits harmoniously within a distinctly Christian philosophy; and whose lives are informed and governed by a theology forged from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus as it has been handed down in historic Christianity.”

And, in my humble opinion, they deliver. Although the book is a short 150 pages, they cover each of the components of their model in great detail. They explain how, even before one begins education in the seven liberal arts, one must start with a foundation of piety, gymnastic, and music. And education doesn’t end with the Trivium and Quadrivium either; it continues, ultimately, with philosophy and theology. Thankfully, they lay out all of the components of the model each step of the way. For this reason, this book is essential for every classical educator, whether veteran or novice, and regardless of the age of the student. My boys are 7, 5, and 3, and I am deeply grateful that Clark and Jain have provided a roadmap for how I should approach the education of my young children if I want to give them a Classical Christian Education, even though we are not yet ready for the Trivium.

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Clark and Jain are particular about terminology and seek to bring clarity to the muddy waters that the differing definitions of terms has caused in the Christian Classical Education conversation. Their treatment of each person who has contributed to the Classical Christian Education revival thus far, from Sayers to Susan Wise Bauer to Littlejohn and Evans, is deeply respectful. I believe that regardless of where one is in her understanding of classical education or what model of classical education one currently follows, The Liberal Arts Tradition can provide coherence and insight into the fundamentals of the educational philosophy and methodology as a whole. More philosophical than practical, it allows educators to lean into the Holy Spirit as they implement the ideas that they put forth. Clark and Jain do provide extensive footnotes and bibliography for further reading and study, as their book seeks to serve as a mere introduction to Christian Classical Educational philosophy.

I think this is essential reading for anyone who is interested in Christian Classical Education, particularly if you are like me and agree with Clark and Jain that:

“If education is enculturation, then we are not just fighting for our schools. We are fighting for the entire culture of Western Civilization.”

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain have given us extensive ammunition to fight for the preservation of our civilization through a Christian Classical Education.

This book is just SO good. Read it.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition


I can clearly remember when I first discovered Classical Education. As the recipient of a full scholarship for prospective teachers, I had intensely studied educational philosophy and methodology for four years in college. However, it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I finally encountered the pedagogy of the ancients. I recall hearing a radio advertisement for a local Classical school that piqued my interest and caused me to begin my research. I remember thinking, “Classical Education? What in the world is THAT?” It wasn’t long before I was drinking deeply from the well of Dorothy Sayers, Susan Wise Bauer, and the Trivium as developmental stages. Shortly after I began my research, I also discovered the CiRCE Institute and Andrew Kern, with their focus on Christian Classical Education as a means to cultivate wisdom and virtue. It was then that I felt as if I had finally come “home.” After years of immersion in the dry, progressive ideas of modern education, it seemed as if I had finally discovered a philosophy of education that could quench my thirst for Truth. I knew that when I had my own children, I would be giving them a Classical Christian education at home.

I cannot recall at all, however, when I first learned of Charlotte Mason. I am sure that it was a link within a link within a link on the Internet somewhere that I first encountered her name. When I read about how she was a 19th Century educator who had labored to recover sound educational ideas and practices in response to the Progressive English schools of her time, I felt as if I had encountered a kindred spirit. I began perusing blogs that advocated for a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education. I bought and devoured her six-volume Original Homeschooling Series. I began to collect books from the Ambleside Online reading lists.

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At no point in my research did it ever occur to me that Mason’s ideas and practices were at odds with a true Christian Classical Education, so I was shocked when I began homeschooling my oldest son and encountered so many people who proclaimed that the two philosophies were in conflict.  I had difficulty communicating why I felt that Charlotte Mason’s ideas were not counter to traditional Christian Classical Educational philosophy, and I began to wonder if I was missing something. There were so many arguments from the various “camps” that I began to doubt my own intuition that Charlotte Mason and Christian Classical Education were just two sides of the same ancient coin. Instead of trusting my instincts, the ones that told me I could draw from one philosophy without compromising the other, I became confused.  I was excited, then, when I found Karen Glass’ book, Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. I was hopeful that Glass could explain what I believed intuitively but could not articulate—that a Charlotte Mason education IS, in fact, a Classical Christian Education.

Karen Glass is a founder of Ambleside Online and has homeschooled her children for over twenty years. She uses her personal experience and her many years of study of educational history and philosophy to make the case that Charlotte Mason actually developed her philosophy of education by harvesting from the traditions of the Classical past.

In this concise but rich little book, Glass does an excellent job of explaining how, although ancient educators did not always agree on the method, they did agree on the purpose of education, which was the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the pursuance of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Like the ancients, Mason was also explicit in her advocacy for a moral education. Glass states that

“[Mason] defined virtue in much the same way [the Ancients] did, as the actions that result from acquiring wisdom.”

In that sense, Glass makes the case that Classical Education and a Charlotte Mason education have the same overarching goal: the formation of character and right actions by means of right thinking.

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Glass traces the history of education and the major shifts in pedagogical thinking, and quotes frequently from the writings of ancient educators like Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, and Augustine. She shows how Mason was steeped in these classical works and how Classical thinkers directly influenced the development of her philosophy of education.  She contrasts the methodology of modern, progressive education, and convincingly demonstrates how Mason was firmly camped in the principles and methodology of Classical Education.

Glass does make important distinctions between some of the methods advocated by a few modern Classical Educators and the methodology of the ancient educators. She respectfully calls into question some of the practices that are often implemented without full understanding of the underlying Classical principles. But, overall, she makes a convincing case that a bridge does not need to be built between Classical Education and Charlotte Mason’s philosophy; they are already standing firmly on the same ground.  I came away from the book solidly convinced that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education was a modern application of thoroughly Classical principles.

It is typical in these times to see homeschool parents segregate into various camps depending on educational practices and methodology. Whether one is Classical, Charlotte Mason, eclectic, traditional school-at-home, or an unschooler, it seems to be common practice to stand firmly on “our way” and be suspicious (or outright acrimonious) toward those who adhere to a different philosophy. Glass’ book is a breath of fresh air in a conversation that is sometimes polluted with vitriol. Instead of focusing on the differences, Consider This does exactly as the title suggests: it asks us to consider the rich educational traditions that we have in common, and the ways in which they have evolved and influenced our modern day philosophies.  Regardless of the educational camp in which you may find yourself, this book is one that will enlighten and encourage you as you labor to cultivate wisdom and virtue in your students.