One Smart Mama’s Core Teaching


One Smart Mama’s Core Teaching

Sep 10, 2010 3 min read

Former Senior Visiting Fellow

Jennifer A. Marshall was a senior visiting fellow for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

These days women get more bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees than men do. And yet many women don’t feel up to the task of educating their own children.

Never mind that we live in a country where women are brain surgeons, rocket scientists, CEOs and presidential candidates. Schooling is best left to professional educators, moms have been told for decades, so pack the kids onto the school bus and leave the rest to the real experts.

Contrast that with the “go-girl” themes that have saturated American culture since at least the early 1970s: Set your sights high. Be anything you want to be.

And that includes being your child’s teacher, educational entrepreneur Leigh Bortins says.

She was one of those girls challenged to “be the CEO, not the secretary.” As a teenager, Leigh had her eye on the Naval Academy when she learned she needed glasses. At the time, it disqualified her from piloting, and taking the second seat as navigator didn’t interest her. Instead, she went on to study aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.

She married and had four boys. She and her husband, Robert, decided to home-school their sons. Math and science went fine, but literary classics such as Aristotle and Shakespeare were a little tougher.

That’s when the Bortinses found out about the classical approach to education, which makes the great works accessible through the learning tools of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Talk about a breakthrough.

“We discovered that we could participate in the conversations of mankind’s greatest thinkers,” Bortins writes. “Their words allowed us to more confidently confront the problems of daily living.”

When son Robert was in high school, she launched a learning community called Classical Conversations. It included 10 of his peers. This fall, Robert is 26 and Classical Conversations enrolls more than 25,000 students.

Once the dominant model, classical education has been sidelined in favor of a paradigm that’s supposed to equip students more effectively for modern economic and social life. The public school system has been built around a factory model: one-size-fits-all mass production.

It’s the wrong direction, Bortins warns. Renewal, she says, will require shifting from “factory techniques” back to “the ideal that education prepares mankind for freedom.”

In her new book, “The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, the North Carolina resident challenges all parents—no matter how their children are educated—to aspire to this ideal.

“I believe every parent can participate in the restoration of our culture to one that appreciates classical learning, but only if they will believe it about themselves,” writes Bortins, who also has a radio show and a blog (

The classical standard is high, to be sure. For example, Bortins recommends that by the time students reach high school, they should be able to discuss the Bible, award-winning children’s literature and articles from newspapers or specialty magazines such as Popular Mechanics.

Another “core” is in the news, though: The Common Core Standards Initiative is the project pushed by the Obama administration to impose national standards on local schools.

But this core will empower bureaucrats, not parents. The emphasis is on uniform measurement and comparable data—in other words, tools of efficiency for national policymakers, not tools of learning for parents and children. That kind of standardization perpetuates the factory model, taking us further from the ideals of classical learning.

Conformity to the government’s norm tends to limit educational formats to three: public, private and—the model that breaks the mold—home schooling. Yet countless options and combinations exist for configuring a child’s learning, Bortins says. Online learning in particular provides vast possibilities.

More and more parents are taking advantage of these options to customize an approach that suits their children’s needs and gifts. They’re operating as educational managers to make the most of opportunities for their kids to reach their full potential.

Parents’ circumstances don’t have to be a hindrance. For instance, Bortins suggests single mothers pool resources to share the teaching load or hire a tutor.

There’s no limit to creative solutions when we encourage and empower parents to pursue them.

Too many voices out there are telling mothers, “You can’t.” Here’s one assuring, “You can.”

Originally moved on McClatchy-Tribune wire.