Our Founding Fathers Were Right, by a Florida Mom

Our Founding Fathers were right, about education, too. Have you ever wondered how a generation with one-roomed schoolhouses produced so many great thinkers? Have you wondered what types of books were available when Abraham Lincoln studied on his own? Unlike many instructional books today, the educational books our founding fathers used were designed for simplified teaching, and self-teaching. They used McGuffey’s Readers, Harvey’s Grammar, and Ray’s Arithmetic. These were not grade level books; they were progressive level books, and they produced great thinkers who became great men.

Pioneers could only pack a few books with their belongings, so they picked the best. You’ve included many resources in your prepping library, but have you included these? Are you ready to teach another generation “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic”?

Basic Library

  • The Bible is the bedrock of our faith, but the King James Version is also great literature. Familiarity with its phrasing and concepts allows you to see its reflection in the documents of our nation’s founding fathers.
  • McGuffey’s Readers(primer through the 4th reader) begin with a primer to teach reading and spelling. However, the sources they used were good literature and taught a sound moral code. By the time you’re in the Third Reader, the depth of the lessons becomes apparent: Effects of Rashness; The Consequence of Idleness, Advantages of Industry; On Speaking the Truth; and so forth. It also encourages critical thinking, if you answer the questions after each reading, and it provokes much laughter and discussion with other topic choices and antique word usage!
  • Ray’s Arithmetic(primer through higher math) starts with drills and memory work with practical applications. Practical Arithmetic teaches the rules to memorize and follow for basic operations, establishing a logical thinking model for mathematics. If you can’t get the entire set, start with Practical Arithmetic and the answer key.
  • Harvey’s Elementary Grammar and Compositionteaches sentence structure as well as composition with a structural plan to accomplish the assignment. The 8th grade graduation test that’s been floating around the Internet asks you to parse a sentence. If you make it through this book, you can do it. This also has an answer key (for busy parents).
  • Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, which Noah Webster saw as the “profitable use” of his talents. It unified spelling and language usage in the United States, reflecting usage from the great literature of the time, especially the King James Bible. A prolific writer, he also authored the Blue-Backed Speller, grammars, readers, and Elements of Useful Knowledge (the history and geography of the United States).
  • For me, this list is not complete without a newer phonics manual. The best I found was The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Spalding. This program was developed to train children with language disabilities; then someone realized that teaching sound phonics with a multi-sensory approach actually prevented many learning problems. The method is teacher dependent: you have to study the book, listen to the “recording”, and learn how to do it. I purchased the book and set of flash cards for $30, and it gave me enough training and information to teach my children to read at an advanced level as soon as their brains were ready. It didn’t limit them to simple words, but it gave them the tools to advance at their own pace. (This methodology also makes it the best book I’ve seen for teaching older readers.) The book is still $20, and now the sound recording is available on CD or DVD. Another plus for the book is that the method requires teaching, writing, and spelling as a logical thought process, not just memorization, and not a guessing game.
  • I skipped history in the list above because the focus was reading, writing and arithmetic. We found one history book– Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Grandfather’s Chair– that relates the history of New England in light of the ornate chair sitting in their home. Hawthorne, as grandfather, didn’t hesitate to introduce the history of our nation into story time with the grandchildren, so much so that they begged him for more stories. For the history of the United States, I’d also recommend The Light and The Glory series by Peter Marshall and David Manuel.
  • When we began homeschooling, I used several “scope & sequence” charts from curriculum publishers as an outline to plan our study schedule. With a list of topics to cover each year, we started collecting a resource library instead of textbooks. The books listed above are the ones I used with my children. Those books and your preparedness library of gardening information, animal husbandry, medicine, repair manuals, country living, and a world atlas will give you plenty of information for elementary level studies.

Critical Thinking

More importantly, teach them how to think! Did you catch the hints in the list of books? Can your children think logically and critically? Do they know how to find foundational principles? Have they learned to reason from truth to its application in daily life and thought? [Disclaimer: The definition of critical thinking in education has been re-defined to be a focus on politically “correct thinking”. That is not the focus discussed here. Be aware when you read “critical thinking” in educational standards.]

“Mom, why do we have to learn this?” As a parent and teacher, I wanted to be able to answer that question. In a teaching workshop, I learned how to research with my children to find the answers to questions they had. Also, as we looked up answers together, I realized I was laying a foundation for critical thinking. With a Bible, a concordance, and Webster’s 1828 dictionary, we could find a Biblical answer: We learn to read so we can read the Bible and learn from what others wrote. History is studied to remember what God has done for us and can be seen in the greater picture of what God is doing in the world. Math and algebra are practical, but they also teach logical thinking. Grammar, composition, and spelling are essential to effective communication. Science is important in recognizing God’s hand in an awesome creation, in everyday life to avoid disasters and scams, and to teach principles of life. (“Consider the lilies” implies a lot more than looking at pretty flowers!)

One way we learned to apply logical thought was during the disciplinary process. We didn’t ask “Why did you do that?”; instead, we asked, “Why was that wrong?” We asked them to make a connection between one or more of the commandments and the choice they had made. For example, “You shall not kill,” includes deliberately causing hurt to your brother or sister! (Questions 99-153 in the Westminster Larger Catechism deal with the applications of the 10 commandments. The questions clarify very specifically “where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden….” In the example above, “You shall not kill” then also encourages actively looking out for the safety and welfare of others.) Another interesting (non-disciplinary) activity is reading Leviticus case law to see if you can figure out which commandment is being clarified. (Hint: Building a parapet around the roof is based on preventing injury and thus comes under “You shall not kill.”) Eventually, they will realize they can’t “keep all the rules” without God’s help and you have the joy of explaining to them that Jesus did it for them and offers it as a gift.

By “Teach your children to think critically”, I mean teach them logical thought processes. Start with the foundation of absolute truth. Explain why you do things the way you do. (“I wear gloves/use safety glasses for this activity because…”) Talk through your decision-making process with them. Evaluate what went wrong with a project and why. Learn to ask leading questions that guide their thoughts to logical conclusions and accurate analogies. (“What would happen if I did it this way?” “What do you already know that could help you figure this out?”)

Tell them the goal of an activity or lesson and give them several options for achieving it. Eventually, they will come up with creative options on their own that meet the goal. Also, be prepared! Pray! Teachable opportunities will present themselves, sometimes when you don’t expect them. You’ll have to be ready to give an answer, so think ahead. There will be times you aren’t ready with an answer for a decision you have to make, so please come up with something better than “Because I said so!” (“Will you trust me on this one and just obey?”)

[Another Disclaimer: When you teach your children to think, they will sometimes come to different conclusions than you have. Listen to them; evaluate their thinking process; correct any logic errors; and let them have their own opinions! Aren’t we teaching them to be independent thinkers? Lay the foundation in God’s word and His principles; trust Him with the outcome.]

Another application for high school involved essays and papers. For my children, no paper was complete unless there was also research and application of principles from Scripture. They started with research on their topic, defining terms; then they used those terms with a concordance to find the principles in Scripture. The conclusions included summarizing main points and bringing in applications. Your children will amaze you, when you give them the tools they need to succeed.

Find a good logic book. We used Better Thinking and Reasoning by Ron Tagliapietra. Have your children evaluate advertisements or commercials based on the reasoning being used to sell the item. What are they appealing to? Editorials can be interesting to analyze. Start with the definitions of the key phrases. Is the writer using the words accurately or twisting the meaning? Are the facts accurate? Do the reasons given support the conclusion?

I mentioned Webster’s 1828 Dictionary compiled by Noah Webster. The information contained in the definitions is challenging. For example: Education “The bringing up, as of a child; instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.” A government school cannot address all of these issues. We, parents and grandparents, have a great responsibility to train up the next generation.