Good To Great: Teaching Literature From Grammar To Rhetoric

Some time ago, the CiRCE Institute shared a 2003 conference talk by Dr. James Taylor on the topic of using the Good Books and the Great Books as part of teaching literature.  It is an extraordinary talk and I took copious notes, just a few of which I’ll share with you below.

As Dr. Taylor observes in this talk,

The Good Books cultivate the language, the situations of song, rhythm, and meter that we will find in the Great Books.”

If you’re wondering how a Charlotte Mason education (one which embraces the “balanced whole“) fits within a Classical education, this talk offers an illustrative key!  Charlotte Mason lays the foundation through a liberal education of GOOD and worthy books and methods.  Through an education of atmosphere, discipline and life, which points to the good, true and beautiful a student is made ready to enter the Great Conversation through the Great Books and Great Ideas.

In a nutshell:  Not only should we fit Mother Goose and Peter Rabbit before Aquinas and Shakespeare – they are necessary.  They pave the way.  Good unlocks and allows for a true appreciation of the Great.

Unfortunately, Dr. Taylor’s talk is no longer available through the CiRCE Institute.  However, I have a fantastic late Summertide gift for you!  Mr. David Kern of the CiRCE Institute, as well as Dr. James Taylor of St. Raphael Orthodox Online School, have both given me permission to share this inspiring talk with you right here.  Isn’t that wonderful?

If you…

  • Have a middle schooler or high schooler
  • Love the Great Books and the Good Books
  • Embrace a Classical and/or Charlotte Mason education
  • Love literature

…then you are going to want to wait until it’s {relatively} quiet at your house, grab something to take notes with, and listen to this amazing talk!  (Just so you know, the talk is about 56 minutes long)

Updated to add the media file directly:  Good To Great: Teaching Literature From Grammar To Rhetoric


Not that you need my observations to appreciate this talk, but I thought I’d just share a few of my own notes:

  • All mothers should read stories and sing songs to young children.

Did you need affirmation that this is time well spent?  Here it is.

  • Good books cultivate the language, songs, rhythm and meter necessary for eventually approaching the Great Books.

“To everything there is a season…”  Be patient and embrace your child’s season!  Don’t rush head over heels – temperance is a virtue.  Good before Great.

  • Mother Goose lays the foundation for approaching Shakespeare.
  • Fairy Tales such as Grimm and Anderson lay the foundation for Chaucer, Thoreau and others in the Great Books.
  • There is a natural and necessary progression from Good –> to –> Great.  Circumventing that necessary framework and introducing a child to the Great Books too early may result in a student that isn’t prepared to approach those deep ideas yet, in spite of the fact that the child may be able to understand the writing.  The meaning will be elusive, and the student may opt for a “cliff notes” approach to be able to go deeper.
  • Education is rooted in reality, and particularly the reality of the natural world.  Seek to bring children in closer, daily contact with reality in order to avoid an “insulated” existence.

Wonder what that looks like in practical terms?  Nature walks.  Nature study.  Unstructured play time. Real discussions. Exposure to beautiful…art, music, ideas.  If you’re over scheduled, and relying heavily on electronic devices to babysit and entertain, here is a clarion call to reconsider your schedule and opt for the beauty in reality as opposed to an insulated and artificial experience.

  • In the Q&A, I loved Dr. Taylor’s advice when someone asked about his recommendation on which curriculum he would advise as well as suggestions for grading. His advice is wise and succinct:

I would take a curriculum, as old as you can find, and I would throw out all grades and go to an informed…INFORMED rigorous pass/fail.”

As you consider “the oldest curriculum you can find,” I’m throwing out a few things to consider:

1000 Good Books compiled by educator John Senior – if one pulled their curriculum from this one list, you wouldn’t go wrong.  Looking for a starting place?  Start here.

Gateway to the Great Books is a 10 volume set of books that would be a treasured addition on any shelf!  Like the Great Books of the Western World, this smaller set which includes short stories, plays, essays, and excerpts from some of the “Great Authors” like Plutarch and Shakespeare,  is edited by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins.  This set includes a syntopicon that is similar to the Great Books Syntopicon along with suggested reading guides for the Gateway series.  The syntopicon alone is worthwhile reading for any educator – you could design a pretty extraordinary middle and high school course around this one volume of books!  You can usually find these sets used at a decent price – we found ours used some years ago – I have the 1963 edition.

Building a Considered Booklist is a post I wrote a few years ago; in it I try to address the HOW of building a booklist. In this post, you will find my favorite sources for Good Books and some ideas to start with if you want to design your own booklist.  Remember, we’re educating persons – not grade levels – and we’re educating as a part of real life and all the different seasons we’re each blessed with.  This is the *considered* part of building a booklist!

Look at other booklists – like Ambleside Online, Mater Amabilis, other bloggers & friends whose reading choices you trust.

Choose curriculum tools prudently and wisely – it’s fine to have a curriculum helper for something like Latin lessons (especially if you, like me, didn’t know Latin when the homeschooling ball got rolling!) – but don’t over choose or over spend on curriculum.  They’re tools, they should not form the bulk of educational offerings.  And if you have a preschooler – 1st grader, you don’t need to purchase anything except good books!  Read wisely, and read aloud – choosing from excellent, worthy books.  Build your home library and/or take advantage of your public library.  Allow for real experiences in your day, plenty of free play, time to nurture good habits, and come alongside your child more than you allow yourself to be overly concerned about missing some scope-and-sequenced curriculum thing.  Have peace right there and let your day flow out of that peace and I guarantee a lot of GOOD!

I hope you enjoyed Dr. Taylor’s talk as much as I did!  Are you using Good Books in your home education planning this year?  If you know of some sources for building on this idea of using Good Books – articles, booklists, resources – please leave me a comment and we can build a nice collection for sharing and encouraging the Good so that we might build up a generation ready to step into the Great Conversation.