Two Simple Ways to Prepare the Soil for a Classical Education


Preparing the soil.  It’s such an evocative expression, isn’t it?  Most of us are tending our gardens, attempting to coax some semblance of life out of them while the heat and lack of rain seek to thwart our best efforts.  We water, tend, weed – and if we are attentive and nurture, there is growth and fruit.  Sometimes an abundance of growth.  Enough to share even.

Our Lord emphasized this lesson in The Parable of the Sower which is recorded in three of the four gospels: Matthew 13:1-8, Mark 4:1-9, and Luke 8:4-8.  Each time the parable is recorded by the gospel writers we’re exposed to very powerful imagery used by Our Lord to convey this lesson – the kind of imagery that takes root (I couldn’t resist – pun intended!)

Emphasis is mine:

Now when a very great crowd was gathering together and men from every town were resorting to Him, He said in a parable: “The sower went out to sow his seed.  And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and was trodden under foot, and birds of the air ate it up.  And other seed fell upon the rock, and as soon as it sprung up it withered away, because it had no moisture.  And other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it.  And other seed fell upon good ground, and sprang up and yielded fruit a hundredfold.  {Luke 8:4-8}

This parable has been on my mind lately, so I’ve been giving it some space to develop.  I’ve really been thinking about how to ensure that the atmosphere of my home, and the Classical principles and Charlotte Mason philosophy and method we live, and especially the books we read and experiences we enjoy ensure that in my children, the seed falls on good ground.

Then, this weekend, I had the privilege of listening to Father James Jackson, FSSP, of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Littleton, Colorado, speak about Liberal Ideas in Education and reclaiming education as a pursuit of wisdom and growth in virtue. The talk was extraordinary – to say the least!

Fr. Jackson, before he was a priest, before he converted to the Catholic faith, was a student at the University of Kansas.  He recounts with great wit and vibrancy his early experiences with Dr. John Senior (the originator of the 1000 Good Books List – here is another excellent tribute worthy of reading) as part of the Integrated Humanities Program in the 70’s.

One of the themes of Fr. Jackson’s talk was the wonder that he and many of his classmates rediscovered as part of this program.  The idea of wonder is something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately, too, and what struck me (not as something surprising, but as something wonderful and underlining what I knew and had witnessed in my own experience) is that wonder is inborn in each of us and therefore relatively simple to find our way back to (if we feel we’ve been off that path).  A key for him in recognizing his need for wonder, Fr. Jackson said, was in the stark realization (as part of the conversational dialogues through the program) that he knew nothing.  How many days have I felt that way!  Humility is a gift that opens doors, and one of those doors is wonder.

As I listened to Fr. Jackson speak further, quoting Quixote and just off-the-cuff recalling and reciting many poems (one of which was, The Destruction of Sennacherib which he learned as part of the Integrated Humanities Program), and recounting how the written form insisted upon in the Integrated Humanities Program was calligraphy (ALL written work was penned in calligraphy!), one theme began to stand out, and that was how necessary in his own reawakening of wonder it was for the good to lay a foundation and prepare the way for the great. Good poetry prepared the way for an appreciation of the Psalms, and so on…  In fact, one may not be able to appreciate, may not even be able to recognize the great if that person has not prepared the soil of their heart and mind first of all with the good.  The ground may be too hard, rocky and thorny and not able to receive the seed.  Fr. Jackson gave many compelling and illustrative examples, and I kept thinking of this parable of the seed: the soft, fertile ground, the open-ness to goodness, truth and beauty and how good turned the soil so that it could receive the great and bear fruit.

As I came home from the Denver conference, I finished reading Dr. Stratford Caldecott’s amazing book, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, and it all came full circle.  (By the way, if you only read one book on education this year – let this one be it!)

The home is the place where the foundations are laid, and homeschoolers – even if they send their children to school later (and these children form the backbone of the new liberal arts colleges in America) – are the ones who today are fostering the ability to read and think and experience in traditional ways.  …  The starting point is always reading (and playing music) to the child as soon and as much as possible.

So there it is – the connection between the parable of the sower and the seed, the beginning of that good that must precede great, and the positive direction for almost every question in home education when some *thing* is not working as it seems it should.  It is our starting point and a point of refreshment.  And it’s so simple.

We have to prepare the soil with the good in two ways:





Reading & Music

 How simple is that?  Eminently simple.  Utterly do-able!  And of primary importance.

  • If you’ve wondered about pulling your children out of school (regardless of grade) and wonder what curriculum to use for your first attempt at home education – I suggest something a little radical – no formal curriculum, and rather prepare the soil with reading and music.
  • If your child is utterly resistant to {insert method or moment here}, and has lost a sense of wonder?  Read aloud and listen to music.
    • Father Jackson added an additional admonishment: go look at the stars!  One cannot help but come away with a sense of smallness in relative proportion to God’s majesty and awesome creation after gazing at the heavens and looking at the stars!
  • Are you eager to begin with your preschoolers and not sure where to start, what curriculum to purchase and use?  I’m about to save you oodles of money!  Read aloud and listen to music.

Of course, there have to be some understood boundaries – we can’t prepare the soil with a paperclip and feather duster.  We’ll need to work it with good tools that can break through, moisten it, and gently yet firmly turn it so that it sees the sunshine, is watered and receptive.  We must use good books and beautiful music.  It’s just as simple as that.

As you consider the myriad of curriculum options for your children and prepare to begin your new year…or perhaps you’re not a home educator, but you’re committed to ensuring that truth, goodness and beauty have a place in your day – I suggest something simple, delightful and lovely.  It will only require a library card and some music options.  It requires no teacher’s manual nor Masters level understanding of literary analysis.  It’s a starting point…

It is THE starting point – and it’s a path that nurtures wonder.

Reading & Music

The jewel and treasure is in the idea!  If you’re interested, I’ll share a few of our favorite resources toward that end!


Pictured above:

There are so many, many more to recommend.  The best place to start are the 1000 Good Books Lists – these are the fruit of Dr. John Senior, and by his own assessment, his greatest work was coming up with these lists.  So…not sure what to read and check out from the library?  Find these lists and start here:

The one thing a liberal arts or great books education will not do is create a moral imagination where there is none.

For a little more reading and understanding, I suggest:

  • Eva Brann’s article What Is a Book? at The Imaginative Conservative
  • Read Aloud Revival podcasts by Sarah at Amongst Lovely Things – if you’re looking for inspiration, ideas, and a positive sense of “Hey, I can do this!” then this series is for you!  The podcasts are utterly delightful (all free!!), and the ideas are unintimidating to pursue.  Her guests give richness to the idea of reading aloud.  It’s not to be missed!


Ever notice how small children (toddlers especially) are naturally tuned in to music?  Play any catchy tune and my toddler will begin smiling and rhythmically bouncing.  Music wires the brain, my brother used to tell me.  Choosing that which is beautiful may cause some of us to question our own judgement or tastes (…especially those of us with…ahem…memories of 80’s one-hit-wonders bouncing through our heads).  Fear not! John Senior, in his essay outlining his thoughts on good books and music offers a very workable plan.  I offer it for you in whole here:

Avoiding extremes of difficult and light—neither Bach nor Debussy—the distinction between “great” and good is blurred.  The student should listen to one work only for at least a week, going over and over the separate movements or acts until the repeated themes are recognized as they recur.  It is better to know a very few works very well than to run over vast amounts.  The following is a good order for neophytes:

Beethoven.  Violin Concerto
Beethoven.  Pastoral Symphony
Verdi.  Rigoletto

With an opera, read the entire libretto in English, then take only a single scene and play it through several times trying to follow the words in Italian (or French or German) with an understanding of their meaning.  Having gone through the whole opera scene by scene, pick out great moments – arias, duets, etc.  It is good to have two recordings, one of the complete work, another of the highlights.

Puccini. La Boheme
Mozart.  Clarinet Concerto or Oboe ConcertoJupiter Symphony; Piano music (especially as played by Gieserking)
Beethoven.  Seventh Symphony
Brahms. Fourth Symphony
Chopin:.  Selections

(Most important:  Students should attend live concerts)

I’ve found that one of the most workable options for including beautiful music in our days is making use of iTunes, and using iTunes Radio.  There are several classical station options and I can set up our favorite stations as pre-sets.  It’s free – no charge to make use of iTunes Radio.  I set up the iPad and a simple, very inexpensive bluetooth speaker wherever we happen to be during the day.

If you’d like to branch out in beautiful music from here, Ambleside Online’s Composer schedule offers an excellent starting place to build a repertoire.  Or simply purchase a general compilation of Classical CDs and just appreciate the beauty.

Whether you play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, or simply tune in to Classical Piano on iTunes Radio, allow beautiful music to become part of the atmosphere of your day!

I’ll leave you with a final thought or two from Dr. John Senior on this idea of preparing the soil –

…the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, adventures, which have developed into the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest.

{John Senior, Essay: The Thousand Good Books, The Restoration of Christian Culture}

And in case you wondered how important real, touchable experiences like those spent building block towers, legos, and spending time out of doors in nature are to imagination:

…When you plant even the best children’s literature in even the brightest young minds, if the soil of those minds has not been richly manured by natural experience, you don’t get the fecund fruit of literature which is imagination, but infertile fantasy.”

{John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture}

Our job is to prepare the soil, so that imagination may flourish and our children may become accustomed to only the best – nothing but the true, good and beautiful will do.  Two simple steps inspire us along this path, whether we’re working with young students, or find the need to remediate, to go back and reawaken soil that is lacking in natural receptivity –

Let us read.

Let us listen to music.

So that the seeds of wisdom and virtue fall on good ground and our children may know, love and serve God.