How I Discovered Classical Education
A Conversation with Andrew Pudewa
by David Kern
Andrew Pudewa was once described by a young Alaskan boy as the “funny man with the wonderful words”—perhaps the greatest fan endorsement in world history because it’s both humorous and accurate. The founder and director of the award-winning Institute for Excellence in Writing, Pudewa is a much-loved public speaker best known for his ability to communicate complicated ideas with clarity, humor, and profundity all at once.
For years he has been speaking about writing, music, spelling, memory, and much more, but, of late, he can also be found at various classical education events (including at CiRCE conferences). In a way this makes sense, because classical education brings together so many of his interests; but he was late in discovering classical education, as he explains here.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
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When did classical education first come on your radar?
I read a book by John Taylor Gatto entitled, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education. That was probably in 1991 or 1992. I found the book to be very freeing, as it helped me answer the question I had been asking myself at that time, “Why am I so stupid?” I had, at the age of 31, with a young and rapidly growing family, become acutely aware of how poorly educated I was, and in reading Gatto’s book, I realized it might not only be because I was lazy or unapt. Perhaps it was the type of education I had experienced. The only problem, however, was that Gatto didn’t really explain any alternatives other than his kind of eclectic teaching style . . . but that book planted the seed in my mind—there must be a better way. After a while, the Gatto thinking kind of went off my screen, as I was busy teaching violin and early childhood music classes.
Then, for a couple years, I quit teaching entirely and started a different business in California, which—to make a long story short—I found dissatisfying and even depressing. However, my wife and I were always thinking and researching the best options for educating our children, a couple of whom were in a small Christian school at the time while a couple were being home schooled. I don’t recall exactly where it came from, but somehow a copy of Doug Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning made it into our hands, and that was the beginning of our pursuit of classical education. It provided the solution to the Gatto problem. We were excited.
So excited, in fact, that we left California and moved to Moscow, Idaho so that one of our children could attend Logos School! So I got to know Doug Wilson, James Nance, Wes Callihan, and other “pioneers” in classical Christian education.
We lived in Moscow three years, and that’s where I started IEW. In fact, the second TWSS (Teaching Writing: Structure & Style) seminar I ever taught was at Logos school for their teachers and a few homeschoolers in town. By the time we left Idaho in 1999, there were many other classical schools coming into existence around the country, and soon after that, Veritas Press began to provide classical education curriculum to the home education market.
So in those days when you were first discovering Classical Education, what about it was most attractive to you? Was it initially just that it was a viable alternative to what you found in Gatto, or was there more to it?
I would say that in the early days, things were a bit confusing. It was possible to go to a homeschool convention and hear three different talks on classical education and come out more confused than before, wondering if the presenters were actually talking about the same thing. Trying to sort it out and reading more books, I came to see better the commonalities and found that the differences were more in priority than in content; some people explained classical education primarily in terms of methodology (talking about the “grammar stage,” “logic stage,” and “rhetoric stage” a la Dorothy Sayers’ essay). Others seemed to talk more about curriculum, with Great Books and Latin at the core. Others, like DeMille in his “Leadership Education” model (which he never called “Classical” but instead “the education of great leaders like Thomas Jefferson”) had a fuzzier approach: Classics and Mentors (with the mentor idea pointing toward a Socratic teaching approach). One large book published around that time seemed so comprehensive that it made me feel a bit overwhelmed and hopeless; giving up halfway through, I thought, “We’ll never be able to do all that in a million years!”
So I was attracted to Classical Education like by a tremendous force of gravity, but what I came to realize was that it is a huge planet with different continents. The question for me was, “On which continent do I want to plant myself and my family?”
Did you settle on a particular flavor of classical education? Where did your studies take you?
One of the most significant influences on our direction was John Senior’s collection, The Restoration of Christian Culture, which I found in 2002. Reading it, I really woke up to the vital importance of literature. Until then I probably gave lip service to literature, but I didn’t truly see the good and great books as the core of a curriculum. Being the product of the public school system and having been required to read many depressing existentialist books in high school, I was somewhat ambivalent towards literature. Then, as a young adult, I read mostly non-fiction and books pertaining to my professional interests. Honestly, I probably didn’t read a novel for ten years. But Senior’s book opened my mind and heart to the need for placing an emphasis on literature in my teaching and in our home. For the first time, I read—with a group of teenagers—books such as Jane Eyre, Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities.
So I guess the “continent” I landed on might be called the “Why Classical Education” with the answer provided by Andrew Kern: “…the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nurturing the soul with goodness, truth, and beauty…”
For my wife and me, this gave us a good discernment tool: If a curricular decision would bring goodness, truth, and beauty into the lives of our children, it should be considered; if it didn’t, we could comfortably ignore it. It helped us navigate the many options available.
Now almost fifteen years later, most of my children are grown up and out of the house, and I wish we all could have done even more reading—aloud to each other at home, in discussion classes, and individually. Fortunately, I still have some classes of students in our local homeschool community, so I have an excuse to keep reading and teaching literature.
What other aspects of classical education do you consider most important?
Well, obviously writing, since that’s my business, but I might unpack that a bit. Composition is obviously the integration of the skills of Trivium—the liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and while I have continued to teach our system of Structure and Style, I have also become aware of the importance of the formal study of those three foundational liberal arts as well.
About seven years ago, I heard Cheryl Lowe give a talk entitled, “The Top Ten Reasons to Teach Latin,” and by the end of it I was miserable—and convicted that I was going to have to teach Latin in our community, something I had only a smattering of in high school decades ago. In California, my kids had a Latin teacher and I didn’t know much of what they were doing, but at least I could trust that they were getting something.
After moving to rural Oklahoma, it became evident that if the younger kids were going to get any Latin, I was going to have to teach it. So I did.
I started a first year class with twenty-three students age ten to seventeen. Desperately trying to stay a few lessons ahead of them, I carved time out of my life to learn and teach. The next year I lost a few few students, but continued on. The third year, I started to learn all sorts of interesting grammar things, and by the end of teaching the fourth year, I realized that I had learned more about grammar and the structure of language in four years of studying Latin than I had in the past twenty years of teaching English composition! Needless to say, I am now a strong proponent of Latin for every student—it is absolutely the best way to have “x-ray vision” into English.
I also undertook the teaching of formal logic, also something with which I had very little experience. As I taught a two-year logic class, staying just a few lessons ahead of the students, I watched it slowly improve my own listening and thinking. Some of the students, of course, were faster than I was at grasping concepts, but persistence paid off. I am now convinced of the importance of explicit teaching of logic, not just within the context of math or writing.
Then with a smattering of experience in real grammar and logic, my teaching of rhetoric was more effective (or at least easier). I only wish I had begun twenty years ago, since at my age now it is unlikely I will become a master of any of it, though I hope to continue to study the rest of my life. Sometimes, when discouraged, I remember a most helpful G.K. Chesterton quote: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I do believe my floundering pursuit of a real education has been worth it.
In what ways has practicing classical education in your life changed you? That is, has your attempt to study and teach classically affected your daily habits, rituals, etc?
Well, that is hard to say, since I don’t really know what I would be like had I not taken this path. Certainly there’s been a need for more discipline in study and preparation. Owning a growing business has made it a challenge for me to carve out time to teach for a day each week during the school year, but it’s been very good for me—kind of slowed me down a bit. And we all know the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I’m on my second or third time through some books—books I probably would not have read twice had I not volunteered to teach them.
In teaching writing, Andrew Kern and I both discovered the same thing: it’s all about the questions. So I hope I’ve been able to learn to ask better questions of my students and myself. Now with my own children grown and the available grandchildren quite young, I’m tempted to quit my classes, but something inside me says no, keep doing it for the other people’s kids—which may be an excuse for me to keep studying myself. I do want to read Homer and Dante again, and without some teenagers to do it with, I doubt I would take the time. So it seems that the pursuit of a classical education for me has become a lifestyle and a journey, although I feel a bit like Moses—I can see the promised land of a great education although I may not live long enough to get there myself. But getting closer is worth the effort, so I shall blunder on.