Old Traditions Not Outdated In Modern Education

The Washington Post Magazine turns its focus on education this week. Religion writer Julia Duin writes about a Catholic School just outside Washington, D-C, that boosted sagging enrollment by adopting a classical approach to education. Classical in this instance literally means Greek mythology, philosophy, Latin, rhetoric, and grammar. In the same issue, Post Magazine contributor Karen Houppert discovers the print version of a college campus newspaper thriving in the digital age of online media. Host Michel Martin speaks with both writers about their features.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week's whole issue is focused on education. And buzz words like innovation, change and retooling have become as commonplace in education as number two pencils.

In her article, "Back to the Classics," religion writer Julia Duin writes about how classical education is helping to revive dwindling enrollment at a parochial school just outside of Washington, D.C.

Also in this issue, Post magazine contributor Karen Hooper, discovers "Ink-Stained Students." That happens to be the title of her article about a college newspaper that's alive and well even in this digital era. And both Karen and Julia join us now to talk about their pieces in the education issue of The Post magazine. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. KAREN HOOPER (Writer, The Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

Ms. JULIA DUIN (Religion Writer): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Julia, let's go chronologically. So let's start off in kindergarten, OK?

Ms. DUIN: OK.

MARTIN: And your story is about a school called St. Jerome's, which was a parochial school in the highest failure rates in suburban Washington.

Ms. DUIN: Right.

MARTIN: Wasn't doing well.

Ms. DUIN: Right.

MARTIN: Losing enrollment. And they decided to retool and become - focus on the classics. Now, tell me what a classical education means.

Ms. DUIN: Well, I have been following the trend toward classical education for about 20 years, the writings of Susan Wise Bauer and other people who had been talking about it. But it was mostly protestants who were doing it, 'cause it's mainly people with some kind of faith base who feel that the classics also point to the truths of Christianity.

But what it is, is bringing the Greek and Roman classics into education. And they're based on something that's called the Trivium. They divide childhood development into three stages: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Grammar is kindergarten through fourth grade where the kids soak up knowledge. They memorize facts learn phonics, poetry, more so than maybe a typical kindergarten or first grade would do. Instead of having something about Dora the Explorer, they would have an Aesop's Fable. They don't have some of the modern stuff that a lot of the kids have - basic math and animals. They study that.

Then in the logic stage, children - which is like five through eighth grades -they learn how to analyze question and discern, evaluate. There where I saw kids doing all sorts of arguments and they were starting to think for themselves. And then there's the rhetoric stage which is in high school.

MARTIN: OK. And what do parents like about it? One of the things you point out in the piece is that - and I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned earlier, which is that a number of Evangelical Protestant schools seem to have embraced this method of education first, and I'm curious why you think that is. But what is it that parents are drawn to?

Ms. DUIN: Well, it's a great method of education. I mean, the kids don't get fluff. I saw things going on where they were studying Greek history and Roman -there were - the maps of Ancient Rome up on school walls. On the walls of this school, they would have the virtues listed: Truth, goodness, beauty. Again, like one of the people in the article said: We don't have Snoopy on our walls here. Not that they're anti Harry Potter or Snoopy.

I mean, they have Harry Potter books in the library. So, they're not, like, retro in that sense. But they really feel that the classics have eternal truths in them that schools would be doing really well to incorporate in their curriculum.

MARTIN: But what about people like, you know, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass and, you know, modern-day people that other people feel - many people feel would be important to learn about too?

Ms. DUIN: Oh, they do. They do go through history. I mean, I was listening to them recite speeches. In fact, they had a speech by Frederick Douglass that they were having to recite by heart. But same thing about Abraham Lincoln, too. So they don't ignore history, but they do a lot of referrals back to Greek and Roman

MARTIN: And there's a lot of memorization.

Ms. DUIN: Yes.

MARTIN: One of the things you were talking about earlier. There's a lot of homework. There's homework even in kindergarten.

Ms. DUIN: Right.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know how much homework there is in kindergarten, but there is homework even in kindergarten and a lot of memorization. Now, as you know, this is controversial now. A lot of people feel that in an information age where you can look anything up in Google, is that really the best use of your time, when, really, creativity, flexibility, resiliency, inquiry - those are things that need to be emphasized? Talk a little bit about that, if you will.

Ms. DUIN: They feel like kids' minds are very elastic at this age. And to memorize things now is when it comes back to you later. And so they -everything from multiplication tables to - I mean, they would sit there and chant stuff in the classrooms. And, again, it wasn't like an automaton type of thing.

But they were giving, like, segments of speeches from Martin Luther King to, you know, some ancient Greek philosopher. I mean, they would do Shakespeare, they would do all sorts of things.

MARTIN: Well, you were obviously impressed by it.

Ms. DUIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And, obviously, other people are too because one of the things that was interesting is that the enrollment really has turned around.

Ms. DUIN: Right.

MARTIN: Do you see other school systems, perhaps even public schools also embracing this model? What does your reporting turn up?

Ms. DUIN: Hard to say. I also visited a school in Texas for this article and because the Catholics are really buying into this now, there's more and more schools that are starting to do it. The Protestants have been in on this, like I said, for 20 years. Public schools - it would be great if they could take on some of the stuff. It seems like most people complain that there is too much fluff and too much stuff in public schools that people really don't need to learn. That they should go more back toward a classical model.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're digging into The Washington Post magazine, as we do just about every week. I was just speaking with religion writer Julia Duin, whose piece, "Back to the Classics" appears in this week's Post magazine. It's about how a parochial school outside of Washington turned around dwindling enrollment by embracing classical education.

Also featured in this week's issue is Karen Hooper's piece, "Ink-Stained Students," which takes a look at the vitality of the campus newspaper at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Karen, how did you get on to this piece?

Ms. HOOPER: Well, we were sort of drawn to the idea - we saw a study that said there was this interesting - really high percentage of students that had read the print edition or that regularly read the print edition of their college papers. In this case it's 85 percent of students, from a recent study, read the print edition of their papers.

MARTIN: Let me just read the piece - let me just read the paragraph from your piece. It says: Although hard data are scanty, a national survey of 600 students conducted between January 31st and February 11th by Alloy Media - a marketing and research firm, Hall and Partners - found that 85 percent of students had read the print edition of their campus paper in the past month and 72 percent had read the paper online.

Now, obviously, this is interesting to a lot of people who work in the media because you're thinking, how is this possible when we're struggling to stay alive and everybody thinks college kids just live on Facebook and they don't even know what paper is, you know?

Ms. HOOPER: Yeah. It was very, I mean, it was very interesting to hear, you know, that this tech savvy I generation of kids were actually picking up the print edition. And one of the things that was interesting was they were citing its convenience. They said, oh, it's just easy to pick up the school newspaper because it's in all these, you know, newspaper boxes all around the campus, which is funny, 'cause, of course, you know, the fact that you can read it online and all that sort of stuff is always touted as a more convenient form. But these students were finding it more convenient to read the print edition.

But on the flipside, you know, it's not exactly a clear model for the problems that plague media in general when you look closely. When we kind of unpack the situation, you know, it turns out that, you know, a lot of students are reading it, but on a college campus you've got, you know, 100 percent intellectually curious group of people that you're giving your newspaper to, and that's not necessarily true of the broader world. So that was one thing.

And then, also, when you looked in the The Hoya's case, this is a newspaper that is still continuing to make a profit in the last nine out of 10 years, which is sort of startling.

MARTIN: And it's free, too, right?

Ms. HOOPER: It's free.

MARTIN: The campus papers are all free.

Ms. HOOPER: Yeah. The campus papers are free. And the students are working mostly for free. I mean the editor in chief earned something like $650 for the entire semester and he's working, you know, 50-plus hours a week. So, you know, there's a couple of things there that you can't exactly translate to the rest of the newspaper industry.

MARTIN: Well, it's also true that the students are very attuned to their markets, that they eat, sleep, study, live in the same universe as the students. So they're very - it's kind of a 24/7 immersion experience, which is also not true in the real world.

But the other thing that I found interesting is that as engaged as the students were in student journalism, the student journalists were very engaged, the students in the audience were very engaged, a lot of the kids said that they don't - that you interviewed - that they don't plan to pursue careers - well, they're not kids - why did I even say that - the young men and women, they don't plan to pursue careers in journalism. Why is that?

Ms. HOOPER: Well, I think they were - the students I talked to still wanted to keep their options open. They're pretty, you know, they're a pretty savvy group of students and they know the state of the industry. So they're aware of that. They loved the excitement of it. I mean, all of them talked about, you know, kind of the excitement of journalism, of reporting a story under deadline and breaking news and, you know, suddenly seeing your byline splashed on the front page the next day. So that was exciting and attractive to them.

But they were pretty realistic about, sort of, you know, the newspaper industry being in flux. A lot of them - a lot of student journalists today, you know, maybe they work in print, But they are also wanting to do video or already doing video and video editing. Their online sites are pretty active. They're tweeting. You know, they're a pretty sophisticated group of journalists. And, you know, they're not really sure that this is exactly what they want to do in the future, but they all feel pretty confident that the skills they're gaining through doing this - and the knowledge - is going to be useful and applicable later on no matter what career they pick.

MARTIN: Julia, final question for you. Does St. Jerome's have a newspaper, 'cause I bet all those kids can write.

Ms. DUIN: Oh, they can. And no, they don't. I mean, they've only started -they're just getting going as a classical school so I know they have a lot of dreams for the future.

Ms. HOOPER: They write Greek tragedies.

MARTIN: They write Greek tragedies.

Ms. DUIN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. Well, send us some interns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Julia Duin is a religion writer who lives in Maryland. Her most recent book is "Days of Fire and Glory." She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Karen Hooper is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post magazine. She joined us from the studios of the Baltimore Sun newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland.

If you want to read both of their pieces in their entirety - and we hope you will - just go to our Website. Go to NPR.org. Click on the Programs tab, then on TELL ME MORE. Ladies, thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. DUIN: You're welcome.

Ms. HOOPER: Thanks for having me.

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