Dear Classical Families and Friends,
Each of us can think of a hero – fictional or nonfictional – who courageously acts in the service of others and inspires all of us through these selfless accomplishments. I would like to share three stories of significant, yet relatively unsung heroes. These are the stories of three educational pioneers – a retired Air Force officer, a philosopher, and a professor – all of whose inextinguishable determination to share unique visions of academic excellence have each had a significant impact upon the success of Classical School since its founding.
John Saxon had always had an interest in mathematics, but he came to his later success only through arduous setbacks and struggles. After initial subpar performances in his math coursework, he challenged himself to repeatedly retake trigonometry and calculus until he mastered the material. Following his retirement from the U.S. Air Force, Saxon taught algebra at a junior college. Over the ensuing five years, he developed a step-by-step algebra program using continual practice to achieve high student proficiency and accomplishment. In 1980, after successfully piloting his Algebra textbook in twenty schools, yet remaining still unable to find a publisher, Saxon independently published his Algebra textbook by mortgaging his home and borrowing $80,000. While often maligned by the educational math community because of his “back to basics” approach, Saxon retorted, “Results, not methodology, should be the basis of curriculum decisions.” In 2017, twenty-one years after his death, Saxon math materials are in the hands and minds of over six million students a year.
Siegfried Engelmann certainly did not take a direct path toward producing effective reading and spelling programs. After graduating with a B.A. in Philosophy and working for an advertising agency in Chicago, he was charged with determining how many television advertising spots were necessary to instill a concept into a young viewer’s mind. This charge led him to study the learning habits of children, which carried him out of the advertising world and into the field of education. The Direct Instruction programs that he subsequently created were clearly shown to be the most effective curricula in the largest federal educational study ever conducted – Project Follow Through. Despite this national success, Direct Instruction was not endorsed by the Office of Education, and Engelmann, like Saxon, was often ostracized by the mainstream educational community. I often recommend his book, How to Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, when parents tell me of non-Classical School students who are struggling beginning readers.
In 1987 E.D. Hirsch, then the head of the English department at the University of Virginia, wrote an educational theory book called Cultural Literacy-What Every American Needs to Know. Hirsch’s general observation was that while many children can be taught to decode words, a vast subtext of conceptual knowledge is necessary for effective communication to occur between writer/reader and speaker/listener. At the end of the book, Hirsch collaboratively generated an index of over 5,000 essential subjects and concepts that every U.S. citizen should know. “The List” led to the creation of the Core Knowledge sequence that forms the backbone of the concepts studied at Classical School. Today, over twelve hundred schools use Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence to teach the foundational knowledge every child needs–grade-by-grade, year-by-year–in a coherent, age-appropriate arrangement.
While we are regularly captivated by the effectiveness of our staff and CCSA board, the dedication of our families, and the enthusiasm of our students, I would like all of us to reflect on the influence these three heroes have had on our school’s program. Their tenacity and perseverance in following their convictions makes Saxon, Engelmann, and Hirsch true educational heroes.
Mr. Thomas Bomann