Homeschool Advice from 400 AD
Our Common Mistake
Homeschooling families often make the mistake of believing that the problems we face are unique.
Actually this problem is not unique to homeschoolers. We all make this mistake. The family is under attack, the government is incompetent, or corrupt, or both. Public schools don’t work. Public morals no longer exist. It comes as a surprise to us to discover that other ages have been equally difficult and equally turbulent. Hard as it might be to believe, some ages have been MORE difficult than our present age.
The Impact of Studying History
One of the advantages of studying history is that it gives you perspective on the culture we are living in.
If you will study European history rather than just American history, the perspective you gain will be a bit broader. If you study ancient and medieval history rather than just modern, your perspective will be broader still. One of the biggest, perspective-changing lessons of history is that there has been no such thing as “progress” when it comes to human nature. In the 3000 years of recorded human history, human nature has not changed. We are still wrestling with our sinful natures and with sin and its consequences.
We are also still wrestling with some of the basic tasks of parenting and teaching.
Not only has human nature not changed in 3000 years, but the nature of children has not changed either. They can be charming and cherubic. They can also be stubborn, willful, and difficult to teach.
A Letter from Jerome
I ran across a beautiful and reassuring confirmation of the enduring challenge of raising children a few years ago while I was reading some of the letters written by the early church fathers. Now, lest you think I’m an incorrigible Luddite, let me sing the praises of technological progress. I used to have to make a major research trip to a university or seminary library to get access to the thirty-eight volume set of the Writings of the Early Church Fathers. One of the great accomplishments of the internet is that they are now all available online — in several places. There is a complete set, in English translation, at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (www.ccel.org). You can browse Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome to your heart’s content — a pursuit I recommend.
You can imagine my surprise and delight when I came across the following letter, which might be entitled, “Homeschooling Advice from 400 AD.”
One of Jerome’s acquaintances had written him asking for advice on how to educate her daughter. Jerome takes it for granted that mom will be teaching her child to read — perhaps the earliest reference to Christian homeschooling. Read the letter and then I’ll close the article with a few comments.
. . . Get for [your daughter] a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound.
Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the style upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these.
Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. And let her have companions in her lessons to excite emulation in her, that she may be stimulated when she sees them praised. You must not scold her if she is slow to learn but must employ praise to excite her mind, so that she may be glad when she excels others and sorry when she is excelled by them. Above all you must take care not to make her lessons distasteful to her lest a dislike for them conceived in childhood may continue into her maturer years.
The very words which she tries bit by bit to put together and to pronounce ought not to be chance ones, but names specially fixed upon and heaped together for the purpose, those for example of the prophets or the apostles or the list of patriarchs from Adam downwards as it is given by Matthew and Luke. In this way while her tongue will be well-trained, her memory will be likewise developed.
Again, you must choose for her a master of approved years, life, and learning. A man of culture will not, I think, blush to do for a kinswoman or a highborn virgin what Aristotle did for Philip’s son when, descending to the level of an usher, he consented to teach him his letters.
Things must not be despised as of small account in the absence of which great results cannot be achieved. The very rudiments and first beginnings of knowledge sound differently in the mouth of an educated man and of an uneducated. Accordingly you must see that the child is not led away by the silly coaxing of women to form a habit of shortening long words or of decking herself with gold and purple. Of these habits one will spoil her conversation and the other her character. She must not therefore learn as a child what afterwards she will have to unlearn. The eloquence of the Gracchi is said to have been largely due to the way in which from their earliest years their mother spoke to them. Hortensius became an orator while still on his father’s lap.
Early impressions are hard to eradicate from the mind. When once wool has been dyed purple who can restore it to its previous whiteness? An unused jar long retains the taste and smell of that with which it is first filled. Grecian history tells us that the imperious Alexander who was lord of the whole world could not rid himself of the tricks of manner and gait which in his childhood he had caught from his governor Leonides. We are always ready to imitate what is evil; and faults are quickly copied where virtues appear unattainable. Paula’s nurse must not be intemperate, or loose, or given to gossip. Her bearer must be respectable, and her foster-father of grave demeanor.
When she sees her grandfather, she must leap upon his breast, put her arms round his neck, and, whether he likes it or not, sing Alleluia in his ears. She may be fondled by her grandmother, may smile at her father to show that she recognizes him, and may so endear herself to everyone, as to make the whole family rejoice in the possession of such a rosebud. She should be told at once whom she has for her other grandmother and whom for her aunt; and she ought also to learn in what army it is that she is enrolled as a recruit, and what Captain it is under whose banner she is called to serve. Let her long to be with the absent ones and encourage her to make playful threats of leaving you for them.
What We Can Learn
There are a number of things that are striking about this letter.
First, as already noted, Jerome starts with the assumption that Laeta (the mom) will be teaching her daughter herself. Then, in the specific advice he gives, he shows that first, he strongly believes in phonics (“see to it that she learns all the letters by sight as well as by sound”), but also that he believes that manipulatives are a useful aid to instruction.
Then, he suggests some practical tips for teaching handwriting and follows with a ringing call to make school fun (could this be a call for delight-directed studies, or even unschooling?). He also recommends that even for spelling and memorization, the Bible should be the child’s most prominent textbook. His closing comments suggest a warm appreciation for family ties and the natural affection between not just parents and children, but especially between grandparents and grandchildren.
Surprise, surprise! Even in 400 AD, parents faced the same practical problems that we still face today. Each generation has to climb the same hills and overcome the same obstacles. Jerome’s little letter was an encouragement to me in our own efforts at homeschooling. It also serves, I think, to humanize the early church fathers and helps us to understand and appreciate their struggles.
Take heart, moms and dads.
We have a great cloud of witnesses who have been through the struggles before and who have not left us bereft of some of the wisdom of their experience. Not everything new is better, not everything old has been surpassed. We would do well to study and reflect upon not just the faith of our fathers, but their practical wisdom as well.
So, who is Jerome?
Born around 347 AD in what is now northeastern Italy, Jerome is best remembered for his translation of the Vulgate, the first Latin Bible to include translation from the Hebrew Bible rather than from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). He also translated and wrote a number of commentaries as well as history texts.
Jerome’s direct manner of teaching and his willingness to strongly confront what he believed to be heresy caused him to be disliked by many of his peers. The struggles against temptation he experienced in his own life led Jerome to boldly teach on practical issues of morality and holy living.
Jeromes legacy, powerful even during his lifetime, has continued through the centuries, still challenging, motivating, and teaching Christians of today.