Classics, Not Textbooks – TJED 101


The debate on education is a hot topic these days.  The introduction of Common Core State Standards is only just the latest in the never ending debate on education.

In our home we use literature as our core curriculum.  I believe literature is the most effective and meaningful way to teach the vast majority of subjects needed for the average person to thrive in the world.  This is one of the many reasons that I oppose CCSS, because it stresses informational texts over classic literature.

I thought I’d spend a little time today telling you WHY I think literature and the classics are so important.

We follow the Leadership Educational Model, also known as Thomas Jefferson Education or TJED.  The first principle to getting a successful education is “Classics, Not Textbooks”.

I have written in the past about how we use literature for math, language arts, and music.  But WHY do I use classics for them?  What makes literature more effective in learning?

The stories.

Let’s take history for example.  Which is more memorable?

George Washington was born in 1732.  He was general of the American army during the Revolutionary War.  He was first president of the United States of America and served from 1789 to 1783.  He died in 1799.


George Washington was born in an old farmhouse to a grumpy and ungrateful woman.  His mother’s hovering kept him from following his dreams again and again but he often found solace and companionship in his older half-brother Lawrence Washington.

At the age of 14 he finally convinced his mother to allow him to become a surveyor, a career to which he was well suited and proved to be the basis upon which he gained many of the skills which allowed him to rise quickly within the ranks of the British Army in the early 1750’s.  In May of 1754 he was leading a small platoon when he ambushed a French patrol and killed a man who turned out to be the French ambassador.  This was the spark that began the French and Indian War (also known as the 7 years war).

During the War he suffered through several bouts of dysentery, before he had fully recovered he found himself in a battle that would many would remember for years to come.  In June of 1755 he rode on horseback to carry messages back and forth between command and the troops, all while bullets coming from the enemy hidden within the trees picked off his fellow soldiers one by one.  George himself had two horses killed out from underneath him but he continued to get up and soldier on.  When the battle was over he was the only officer left standing, and was completely unscathed.  Later he found four bullet holes in his coat, and one in his hat.  One of his fellow soldiers said, “I expected every moment to see him fall. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him.”

It is said that one of the Indian Chiefs fighting against the British Army later remarked, “I called to my young men and said, mark yon tall and daring warrior? He is not of the red-coat tribe–he hath an Indian’s wisdom, and his warriors fight as we do–himself is alone exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he dies. Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for [him], knew not how to miss–’twas all in vain, a power mightier far than we, shielded you… Listen! The Great Spirit protects that man [pointing at Washington], and guides his destinies–he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire”

Need I keep going?  We haven’t even gotten to the Boston Tea Party yet!  I could tell you story after story, plucked from my memory.  I need only to look up the dates.  Yet the dates are all that textbooks expect us to remember.

History is rich.  History is absolutely captivating!  History is filled with more than names, dates, and places and there is just NOT enough room to put all of that in one book.

Text books are mostly written by committee, and since they have to put so much information in one volume, they don’t have room for what many consider “non-essential” details.  But I believe the “non-essential” details are what make history WORTH remembering!

History textbooks certainly have their place in a home… I even have a few in mine… but even the best history textbooks are nothing more than a glorified timelines.  You can’t learn history from three or four books, you learn history from hundreds of books… thousands of books!  You are cheating yourself out of some of the most amazing experiences and lessons if you think otherwise.

I had always WANTED to love history.  Every single school year I would lovingly pick up my history textbook and gently turn the pages hoping that THIS year, would be the year that history would come alive for me.  Year after year I was disappointed.  I mean, how on earth do you make the Holocaust boring?  You do it by killing the stories.

What is the most important part of history?  Are exact dates really all that important?

Before I go on I want to clarify what “the classics” are.  I’ve been using the term literature and classics interchangeably but they aren’t.

My favorite definition if “the classics” is by Oliver Demille.  He says, “A ‘classic’ is a work — be it literature, music, art, etc. — that’s worth returning to over and over because you get more from it each time.”

Isn’t that beautiful!  I would like to add that a classic is any work that inspires you to learn more.

By this definition every person should have their very own classics list that consist of movies, music, art, books from every genre (both old and modern), and even people (babies are a classic).  I even know of a few “textbooks” that are classics for me.

Shakespeare alone can teach us diction, history, ethics, language, poetry, grammar, communication, vocabulary, and more.  Using only the works of Shakespeare you can leave high school with more ability to function and succeed in the world than most people graduating these days.  Fortunately we have far more than Shakespeare at our fingertips.  Using public domain books alone will allow anyone to get an absolutely superb, world class, leadership education.  How much more rich of an experience will it be when we add modern and personalized classics to that list?

If you are having a hard time finding classics for your family, literature is a fabulous way to start.  If you aren’t ready for Shakespeare, try Dickens.  Is Bastiat too verbose?  What about CS Lewis?  Having a hard time with Jane Austen?  Lewis Carroll might be a little easier to understand, or even Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There is classic literature for every level, every age, every ability.  Once you love the the Chronicles of Narnia you may be drawn to The Screwtape Letters, or The Great Divorce, then on to the Abolition of Man.  Don’t try and move on to things you aren’t ready for just because you are an adult, and old English can be really difficult to navigate for anyone that is out of practice.  Start where you are and move from there!  Classics are worth reading again and again even if they are “for kids”, THAT is what makes them Classic.

That being said I do admit that it is very difficult (and few of us are brave enough) to get away from textbooks entirely.  As I mentioned, I do have several textbooks in our homeschool library.  So, I would like to give you a few pointers if you find yourself needing one or two.

  1. One author.  Modern textbooks are written by committee.  Texts that are written by one person (or at most two people) are much more likely going to be written by someone with a passion for the subject and the desire to share.  Honestly, who takes the time to write a chemistry book other than someone who absolutely loves chemistry?  You lose that passion when you subject a book to the critical eye of a committee.
  2. Don’t ever assume it is “all encompassing”.  Textbooks, by definition, can NEVER be all encompassing.  History texts are glorified timelines, science texts must always be supplemented by experiments and hands on activities, and math can easily be misunderstood without real life examples.  Textbooks can be a really great starting point but they should never be the ending point.  Think of them as a reference only because that is really all they are (and if one turns out to be more than that, wonderful!)
  3. If you find an author you love and trust, stick with them.  Dr. Jay Wile is the author of our high school science books.  I love the conversational and clear way in which he writes.  It feels like you are having a conversation with an expert who is trying very hard to help you understand.  When I heard that he was starting a new series for the elementary grades it was a no-brainer for me to buy it even though I already had elementary science texts.
  4. Do your research to make sure that the publishers/authors share your world view.  Chances are you aren’t going to find anything you agree with perfectly, and I’m not saying that you should shield your children from other ideas and views. What I am saying is that you want something that you can trust to not teach things that are contrary to your family values.  A handful of discrepancies can easily be addressed with conversation and added teaching, but a text or curriculum with a completely opposing world view will make it difficult for you to teach what you feel is important.  For example, I am not likely going to appreciate a textbook that views the traditional role of a wife and mother as oppressive.  Nor am I likely going to buy something that views Joseph Smith as the devil’s spawn and claims all Mormons are going to hell.  It doesn’t fit my world view and it would be far too time consuming to try and address those claims in a text riddled with them.  Fortunately we have countless options to choose from!  There are texts out there that support every worldview, choose the one that fits yours most closely.

It should go without saying (though I’m sure someone will take issue if I don’t mention it) but once you get into professional training (doctor, architect, engineer, etc.) you will need to study the books that are necessary to learn what you need to learn, textbook or not.  Since I don’t teach specialized professional training, I don’t need to worry or write about those resources :)

Classics are an absolute treasure.  Just imagine what it would be like to learn from someone who speaks to your heart and soul.  What would it be like to have a friend tell you just what you need to hear just when you need to hear it?  To have someone push you just hard enough to grow (like having a personal trainer who helps you feel pleasantly sore after a workout), someone who whispers suggestions about how help you with your problems or what you need to help you out of your funk–that is what the classics are!

This is why classics are more effective than textbooks.  Classics are meaningful on a personal level.  Classics speak to YOU in a way that is different from the way they speak to anyone else.

So what are you waiting for?  Go see what treasures the classics have waiting for you!


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Cari Osborne says:

    Wow Courtney, you totally nailed Your example was incredibly poignant- this is how we keep the love of learning alive!


  2. Kendra says:

    Great post Courtney, While I don’t do TJed exactly, We LOVE using literature in our studies. The Family School curriculum is very literature based, along with LDS principle based and has taught me (and my children) so much. They finally LOVE learning. We did k12 the first year I homeschooled about 5 years ago and It was so much like your first example. It drove me nuts. I love what we are doing now where we 4R and then read from our literature book! For history we are reading The Bronze Bow right now while learning about the time of Christ and the Romans and my kids are soaking it up! Literature is a wonderful way to teach!


  3. Jeanne says:

    This is a great post! I’m looking forward to reading more!


  4. Patrick says:

    I totally agree. There is so much valuable information in the classics that people seem to overlook so they can just pick up the latest redesigned book with the same core information. What a worthless pursuit. Do we really need another book about something that happened 100 or 1000 years ago?


  5. Melissa says:

    Thank you! I struggle with “the classics” in General, because I find the language in many of them to be cumbersome. Your have inspired me to find my own classics, as well as to try again with those revered by others. Thank you for inspiring me to reach higher!


    1. Thanks Melissa! Not being limited by what other people believe are good and worthy books has made a world of difference. We find learning experiences in almost every book we read (which isn’t awesome for our bank account and limited space, but it is great for our minds :)


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