The Curriculum of A Twelve Year Old in 1779

As I mentioned in another entry below, I’ve been listening to biographies of the Founding Fathers lately. Inspired by my current one, on John Adams, I picked up William Bennett’s Our Sacred Honor at the library. Thumbing through the section on the Founders’ views on education, I came across the following list of study topics written by John Quincy Adams to his father, John Adams. Then but twelve years old, here is what John Quincy was studying:

+ Latin composition
+ Explaining Cicero
+ Explaining Erasmus
+ Explaining the Appendix on the Pagan gods and Heroes
+ Working on the Phaedrus (a collection of Latin fables)
+ Greek grammar
+ Geometry
+ Fractions
+ Writing
+ Drawing

Duly impressed by this list of his son’s intellectual activities, John Adams nevertheless urged his son to practice better penmanship in his letters to his father. He also advised him to spend less time on geography, geometry, and fractions, because although those were important and useful sciences in their own right, “the most satisfactory of al human Knowledge” was to be found in the Greek and Latin tongues. In closing, John expressed a wish that his twelve year old son would find time for Virgil’s poetry and Cicero’s orations (in Latin, of course), or Ovid, or Horace, or better yet, all of them.

It is absolutely mind-boggling how far education has fallen since John Adams’ day.

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3 Responses to The Curriculum of A Twelve Year Old in 1779

  1. kepha says:

    It gives hope for the way in which we rear our children.

  2. Albert says:

    Of course the senior Adams never had to tell his son to turn off the television. I doubt it states as much about our children as it does about us and our expectations for them.

    It is ironic that a society that makes a national issue of having “no child left behind” considers the diminishing of standards as an acceptable method for achieving this goal. The goal of the educational system seems not to raise each to the highest level they can achieve but to make sure none achieves standards others cannot reach.

  3. Tim Enloe says:

    Albert, I think you’re right on all counts. As Neil Postman demonstrates in Amusing Ourselves to Death, TV watching requires an entirely different mode of mental activity (really non-activity) than does reading, and if it is indulged in excessively, it breaks down the attention span and the ability to reason in a linear fashion.

    I think you’re right that the problem really is with us and our expectations for our children. There surely is no reason why a twelve-year old today, if properly trained before that point and properly overseen as he went along, couldn’t do the sorts of studies that John Quincy Adams was doing at that age. Of course, some would excel at it, some would do “OK” at it, and others would have a lot of trouble with it. But that’s just the human condition, and, as you say, education ought to aim at raising each person to the highest level he is capable of achieving, not at lowering everyone to the same level of mediocrity.

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