10 Feb 2015

On studying Plutarch

One of my very favourite Parent's Review Articles is one written by Charlotte Mason herself in 1892/3 entitled The Home School. In the article, Miss Mason compares children educated at home using her correspondence materials, to children enrolled in the Parents' Review School, and I love it, because it is as if she is writing to me, telling me where my fellow homeschooling mums and I are doing well, and where we could do better. Look at this quote. Can't you relate instantly? I can.
(T)he organisation and government of a school is a task requiring special aptitude. Now if this be true of the public (including what is commonly called private) school, how much more is it true of that which is truly private--the family school, whose schoolroom is the morning-room or the study--for it is much easier to work a class of twenty, all doing the same thing, than a school of five children in three different classes.
Notwithstanding this difficulty, home teaching has its peculiar and very marked advantages--into which we will not enter here, except to say to those parents who regret deeply their inability to send their children to school, that our experience in connection with the Parents' Review School tends to show that the average home-taught child may keep well abreast of the average school-taught child. We should even say, may keep well ahead, were it not that the children in the Parents' Review School are in a sense picked--that is, they are the children of parents who take education seriously.
Miss Mason believes that one of the areas that homeschooling mums do best at is teaching Bible, that 'most valuable instrument of education' for its moral, spiritual and intellectual lessons. Charlotte extols scripture, not only for its excellent literary power, but more especially for its ability to teach ethics, and she is pleased to report that the Bible teaching her homeschooled pupils received at home was particularly good. I love that. I think homeschooled mums do a pretty good job of teaching Bible today, too, don't you?

This whole article is worth reading in detail. It is all wonderful, but the bit I want to talk to you about today, is the next part, talking about our good friend, Mr Plutarch. This is what she has to say about him:
Next after the Bible narratives in ethical value ranks history; and because Britain has had no Plutarch amongst its chroniclers, we must give the place of honour to Greek (or Roman) history as told in Plutarch's Lives, "to help the children to realise how personal and intimate is the relation of the individual to the State." The stories from Plutarch are extremely well told, and show that children are able to follow the old-time moralist as he traces conduct to character and character again to conduct.

Here we have an answer from the pen of the great lady, herself, to that oft asked question - Why should we study Plutarch? And what does she say? That after the Bible, history has the greatest ethical value, and that we read the history as told in Plutarch's lives to help children realise the importance of the link between individual and State. Okay, so now we know. We read Plutarch, not as literature, but as a study of ethics - or citizenship, as she calls it in later years.

Miss Mason then goes on to tell us that her homeschooled students are able to follow Plutarch's links from conduct to character and conversely from character to conduct. So that was homeschooled students in 1892. One hundred and twenty three years ago.

What about the students of 2015? Can they follow the old-time moralist too? Judging from questions and comments on the AO Forum, I would say that many mums find the study of Plutarch pretty daunting, and if they do dip a toe in the water and try, they often find him overwhelmingly difficult. Many mums leave him out all together, or try for only a very short time. That's sort of a concern, given what Miss Mason says about Plutarch above, isn't it? She says Plutarch is second to Bible in ethical importance. That makes it pretty pivotal, wouldn't you say? And we leave it out? Really?

Jemimah started studying Plutarch in AO4. I am nothing but compliant, and that's when AO told me to start, so start I did. I felt pretty nervous, and was eager to follow the advice of those who had gone before and begin with the Life of Poplicola, and to make use of the wonderful study guides prepared by Anne White. Oh, my! Those run on sentences! Plutarch, as translated by Mr Dryden in 1683, was hard. Really hard. Still Jemimah and I are not known as quitters, and we soldiered on. We read shorter chunks, sometimes even sentence by sentence. If Jemimah really couldn't get it, sometimes I tried narrating. We struggled through, and finally we got to Lesson 12, and Poplicola was done.

Since then, Jemimah has studied 12 lives, three per year. We are on to Marcus Cato now. And do you want to know something? Plutarch is easy. And one of our favourite subjects. I can't remember when we noticed our work getting easier, although I remember once thinking that...whoever we were reading...was easier than Poplicola. Then we read another and it was easy too. Then, suddenly, they all were. Did you hear that?  Easy.

What we did was not rocket science, but I'd like to share, if I may. It may just help one of you to stay the course, and Plutarch really is worth staying for.

:: First, just make a start. People say Poplicola is easiest, and who am I to argue, so maybe start with him. Alternatively, if you are familiar with any of the characters,  start with them. A reading of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar would pair really well with a study of the Life of Brutus or the Life of Julius Caesar, for example.

:: Second, if Anne hasn't written a Study Guide, find another life. For the first time this year, I feel that I might just be able to attempt a life alone, but it has taken twelve lives to get here, and I haven't tried it yet. For starters, Anne's guides are just so helpful. They define vocabulary, help with context, provide maps, suggest expurgation. They offer narration tips and exam questions. They are just wonderful. Don't try Plutarch without them.

:: Third. You don't need a copy of the book, Plutarch's Lives. If you use Anne's Study Guides, the text is included, or she links to an online version. That's all you need. Miss Mason used the version by North, written in 1579. It is even older than Dryden's version, but I find North easier to follow because his sentences aren't quite so long. He does use thee and thou a bit, though.

If you look at the PNEU Programmes you'll see references to Blackie's Plutarch. Blackie is a publisher, not a translator, and they published the lives in pairs, one pair to each little volume, using North's translation. They are sometimes slightly abridged for school students. This is what they look like:

:: Fourth, just get started. If your child doesn't understand much, don't panic. If you don't understand much, don't panic at that either. Just read!

If you don't understand much, you may find that reading the passage through a couple of times before reading it with your child will be all you need. If you really, really don't understand a big portion, you might choose to read a more recent version, or even an abridged children's version (for you, not for the kids), just to get an idea of what is going on. If you don't understand a sentence or two, but you get the gist, then that is perfectly fine. If you don't understand even that, keep reading. Don't give up!

If your child doesn't understand much, there are a few things you can do. Firstly, Plutarch is best done with mum reading to kids. This subject is much better done together. Make sure you child knows what happened last time by recapping last week's lesson before reading. It is not good to correct a child's narration too much, but you can certainly give the correct version before continuing with the story the following week. Next, don't panic if he doesn't understand every sentence. Provided he knows what is basically going on, then that should be fine. Reading builds muscle. Every week he will understand more and more. You may not notice this in the short term, but believe me, once you've done 13 lives you'll certainly realise that you understand more than you did with life one.  Again, don't give up!

:: Sixth, have your child narrate regularly, but not so regularly that he loses the sense of the story. Jemimah prefers to narrate at the end of each of Plutarch's very long paragraphs, and again at the end, but sometimes when the language is really convoluted, she will narrate each sentence singly, paraphrasing as she goes. Encourage your child to stop you to narrate if he thinks he is losing track of the story.

:: Seventh, remember that you're studying ethics and character, not literature. Look for character, conduct and consequences. Why did he do what he did? Was it in character for him? Would you do things differently, perhaps? Can you see similarities between our hero and another person, either in real life or in a book? Could our leaders learn from this man? Would a Christian agree with his decision here? If your kids don't understand the ins and outs of the battle, but they know that he was brave, or foolish, or proud, or cowardly, and what his men though of him, then they have done great. Really.

:: Finally, we know that Miss Mason considered Plutarch important, so doing anything is better than doing nothing. Keep plugging on. You'll get there, you really will. One day in four or five years or so, you may just wake up and discover that Plutarch is easy and you look forward to the next exciting instalment each week. I know it can happen because that's what has happened with us. It can happen for you too. Promise!


  1. Test Test :D I've been trying to leave some comments lately, but it doesn't seem to work. Just trying something else here.

    Thank you for this post, Jeanne. I've been struggling with the idea of teaching Plutarch in 1.5 years. I can't imagine it ever being easy, but that's what I said of Pilgrim's Progress as well, and it's now our favorite.

  2. Yay, it worked, Helena! What did you do differently?

  3. Fantastic post Jeanne. Thank you for sharing your experience and insights into Plutarch. We have only covered Poplicola, and I don't think we finished the last two reads. Joshua is one to narrate at the end of every read, where as Grace likes to narrate a few times through the read. I understand about the muscle building now, and it's so true.

  4. We are doing Y4 together with a 7,8, and 9 year old and are new to AO, so decided to do the optional Stories from the History of Rome. So far that book is a favorite with my children (and me) and I'm thrilled with the selection ... we wouldn't have wanted to miss it. I'm looking forward to doing proper Plutarch, though. Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. Jeanne, this is a fantastic post! THANK YOU! I'm on the cusp of Plutarch and just what I needed. Your advice also translates into other things that have been "difficult" for me/us -Parables of Nature, Age of Fables, A Book of Golden Deeds, etc...just keep on and then we start to appreciate them more. It's funny, I remembered being SO frightened of Just So Stories! :) Now, we love them.

  6. I am copying this and adding it to my list of teacher resources for the future! Thank you!

  7. Exactly. And we started with Crassus, and are about to finish our second, Timoleon, and it's already one of the favorite reads. It is not that easy yet, but, the conversations and that which it gives, outdo the long sentences and difficulties... and now Anne has guides based on North Plutarch... it does not matter, Dryden or North, the more lives one studies, the more we do Plutarch, the more we love Plutarch. We precisely enjoy the character and conduct examples and questions that arise, etc. It's UNIQUE. I guess CM thought of it important because no other author affords what he does. Reading Chesterton, we realized how Chesterton sees history the way he does, based on invaluable information on character and what makes us go to war, for example, that corresponds with that we read in Timoleon. Plus the places, oh the places... and the battles, oh the battles. :)

  8. Thanks for the link to CM's review article, Jeanne. I never would have thought that of all things introducing the study of Plutarch would turn out to be one of the best decisions I made in our homeschool. Going through each of the lives opened up so many interesting conversations -not to mention all the fun we had with words like garboyle, Mummius & hugger-mugger.

  9. We are on our forth life and it is a favorite around here too. I am looking forward to reading that article by Miss Mason, thanks for pointing it out!

  10. Thank you for this. We have so far not left out anything in the readings and at times one or the other child has had trouble grasping the general thread and we really do have to go one sentence at a time sometimes. But before long, the thread is grasped firmly in the hand and we can go along at a swifter pace. If we had given up on the language at the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth bit of difficulty we would have given up on the heart of Y1 through Y3. I'm looking forward to Plutarch, a bit nervous, but I know because of the steps that have gone before, we will be able to one day enjoy Plutarch as well. And thank you for taking the time to give us Charlotte's words on the subject.

  11. It seems easy now. SO true! I remember our first life - not knowing any better, we chose Artaxerxes and in the North translation. Oh, mercy sakes alive that was not a good choice! So much unsavoriness! Afterwards I read more carefully the advice on incorporating Plutarch, and he's a much beloved part of our study, too.

  12. I just love your blog! Thank you again for the encouragement! We will be starting Plutarch next year! I will remember your advice!

  13. Awesome encouragement and advice, which can be applied to many other books as well. Haven't gotten to Plutarch yet, but hopefully he'll make it somewhere along the line. I have some of his work somewhere - just thinking I should try and find him and see what we have. Thanks for the reminder. :o)

  14. I still remember soldiering thru Plutarch the first time. My daughter looked at me and said, "All of that to say he was stuck-up." Yes, she got it. Nailed it. One of my proudest Mom moments! Don't be afraid to try it. Those guides really DO help.

  15. Yes! This is written for me too! So thank you sooo much for the input and tips. We are in the first life and thank God if we don't get it in English, we try in Spanish (our second language) and between them both we keep it afloat! Hehe

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