Trivium Pursuit

Revolutionary War Math and Is It Too Late?

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Taken from Drums by James Boyd (first published, 1925)

The time is about five years before the War for Independence. The place, North Carolina. Thirteen-year-old Johnny has been sent from his backwoods home to Dr. Clapton (a Church of England pastor) in the nearest city to be tutored. He had been homeschooled up to that point. In this passage, Dr. Clapton is determining where Johnny stands academically.

“Now,” he said, “fetch down your school books and we shall see.”

What Dr. Clapton saw by the end of the morning was this: that Johnny wrote a fair hand and spelled within reason, that he read the easier passages in Caesar’s Commentaries passably but with no pretensions to elegance; and that his efforts to write Latin were uniformly deplorable. In the realm of science he could add, subtract, divide and multiply infallibly if given ample time, but of fractions the less said the better.

“You must learn to cipher, Johnny. It is unfortunate that gentlemen’s sons should employ their time in the commercial branches, and I should never subscribe to a young man’s going a step beyond fractions and decimals, unless, of course, he were to enter his Majesty’s navy, and even there I consider that the mathematics should be left as far as possible to the lower ranks. But with clerks and stewards what they are nowadays, a gentleman must know fractions if he would protect his affairs.”

“Yes, seh. Dadder said I must learn fractions.”

“I have no doubt. A knowledge of ciphering is commonly demanded by the parents of this Province.” His eye wandered. “I have concluded,” he murmured, “that ciphering is one of the unavoidable disadvantages of a new country. Yes.”…

“…as to Latin exercises; that is more serious. When I was a Colleger at Eton the meanest scholar your age could do his fifty lines a day with never a false quantity.”

People often ask if it is “too late” to start the classical approach with their 11- (or 13 or 15 or 17) year-old. I always respond that it is never too late, but I would like to mention that in some cases it would be very difficult. If you have, say, a 15-year-old who has been raised by the government school, fed television and video games for 3-4 hours a day, seldom been read to and reads only lite literature, and generally not been trained how to think or been trained not to think, then homeschooling with the trivium will be a great challenge for you. But, if the student and the parents are motivated and willing to make changes in their lives, then it can be accomplished. A classical education is not just Latin and logic, but a way of life.

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