I had the privilege of speaking today at the North Carolina Social Studies Conference on a primary source book I have been editing as part of my work at Thales Academy. Here is a copy of my conference talk, plus a few links to the book, Thales Key Texts. The work is a primary source reader intended for use in a Classical curriculum, and covers almost everything from the ancient world to the modern day.
YouTube Intro Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3At2raCKS0
YouTube Intro Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWotY-VbZug
YouTube Intro Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6B0AFbJsUbg
YouTube Intro Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cPIOIbc_1s&feature=youtu.be
Begin Conference Paper:
Hello and good morning to everyone. Thank you all for attending my talk, as I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak today on Thales Key Texts: A primary source book for cultivating cultural inquiry and civic learning. In short, Thales Key Texts is a primary source reader that covers almost the whole of the Western tradition from ancient Sumer to World War II. It is available for free in Apple’s iBookstore in three volumes, entitled, The Ancient World, The Medieval World, and The Modern World, with a supplementary edition entitled Western Art.
I’d like to tell you a little about my background, in hopes that this may provide some context for the rest of my talk and Thales Key Texts. I teach History, Literature, Logic, and Latin at Thales Academy in Apex, North Carolina, and I serve as a curriculum adviser helping to compile and format resources like these for our teachers to use.
Thales is a low-cost private school with a Classical Curriculum that emphasizes the Humanities and the liberal arts in addition to math and science and STEM-related extracurricular activities. Students take Latin from 6th grade to 8th grade, and our High School Literature curriculum starts with ancient Sumer and ends with the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Our motto, or at least my motto, is that at Thales Academy we aim to take students through the great books, so our students can take on the whole world.
What is a Classical Curriculum?
Is anyone here familiar with a Classical education?
If you are not familiar with a Classical education, a Classical curriculum emphasizes the role of certain “great books” in the Western tradition. By reading, discussing, and seeking to understand these seminal books, students can develop the intellect and character needed to take on the challenges of the modern world. This would include the works of Classical Antiquity, such as Socrates and Homer, religious writings such as the Bible, and works of the medieval and modern period that either expand on the ideas first formulated by the Greeks or even the later, modern philosophers who reject them. Even authors who reject the Classical tradition and seek to move beyond its parameters have their place in and alongside the great books.
In short, a Classical education places a high view on human beings and man’s abilities, and a realistic acceptance of the selfishness man can indulge in. In promoting a Classical education we do not seek to exalt the Western tradition over any other tradition or at any point excuse the Western tradition for her failings. Indeed, I personally love the authors of the Western tradition that are most critical of their own societies, for their critiques are especially relevant to the challenges we face as a country today and what we face each day as educators.
Rather, we wish to use the texts of the Western tradition as a means to promote what is good and right and true. For the more we read of the figures who have shaped Western culture, from Plato and Thucydides to Maimonides and Montesquieu, the better equipped we will be to identify the strengths and weakness of our own culture and promote the value of other cultures, especially those we may look at as “different.” In fact, we would see that the United States we live in today is a diverse, multifaceted landscape in part because the Western tradition itself, which the United States inherited, is comprised of a wide variety of voices, opinions, and worldviews.
The Discovery of Great Ideas
My passion for a Classical curriculum goes back to my junior year of high school. I remember touring William and Mary, the college I’d end up going to, and sitting in the car while my mom went on the tour. I was reading The Iliad, and I was mesmerized by Homer’s descriptions of the epic battles between the Trojans and the Greeks.
This love of the Classics only deepened when I went to college. I had the unique privilege of studying aboard in Siracusa, Sicily. Sicily is the football being kicked by the toe of the Italian peninsula, and the island had been conquered by nearly every major power of the Mediterranean world from the Carthaginians to the mafia. I took a class on the philosophy of Plato, and struggled immensely to understand even a little bit of what Socrates was talking about. I sat in coffee shops and pounded espressos, pouring over every tiny, minute detail of Plato’s dialogues until I finally got it. Which was a long time.
If you haven’t read one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates begins with a commonly-accepted definition of a topic like justice or piety, and through question and answer, Socrates hopes to gain greater understanding of that topic. Normally, he moves from one point to another, tearing down some arguments and positing new ones and generally leaving his interlocutors feeling frustrated and exhausted.
Well, it gets exhausting reading Socrates, too, but I remember pouring over one dialogue entitled the Gorgias. In that dialogue, Socrates is trying to explain how sophistry works. Sophistry is a series of tricks that very persuasive people use that can make a lie seem more attractive than the truth. He compares it to the difference between medicine and a cookie: medicine often tastes horrible, and yet it is very good for us; a cookie is very bad for us, and yet it often tastes delicious. It is the same with the truth: oftentimes, the truth does not sound attractive, and yet accepting it will be much better for us.
Some things in life have the ability to trick and mislead our senses, but if we are aware of the possible deception, we can be on guard for it and protect ourselves from being led astray. Well, when I finally figured this out, I was stunned. I remember sitting there, near the Bay of Siracusa where thousands of Athenian sailors lost their lives trying to conquer the island of Sicily, and discovering an idea that was immediately relevant to my life.
I had been struggling with depression and life seemed very hard, and in college there are many things that seem very good, but are actually quite destructive to the human person. Socrates’ insight about cookies could be applied to a great many in life that seem good and have all the appearance of goodness, but are actually quite bad for you. To me, this experience illustrates the power of reading and discussing really, good texts in a classroom in hopes of cultivating not only critical thinking skills, but also just good, well-rounded kids.
At Thales Academy, my administrator, Dr. Timothy Hall, the Director of Academics for Thales Academy, had the idea of identifying the key documents in Western history and making them available to our teachers in such a way that they could easily access them for their classrooms. I have tried to pour this experience of reading Plato in a Sicilian coffee shop into the hundreds of pages of primary source documents that I have collected, edited, and formatted into this three volume set, Thales Key Texts, and the supplementary edition Western Art.
What is Thales Key Texts?
Thales Key Texts is a primary source reader available in three volumes on Apple’s iBookStore. If you are not familiar with Apple’s iBook authoring software, I highly recommend it. You can create high-quality, interactive educational materials for use in your classrooms. At Thales, we have one-to-one iPad integration with our high schoolers, so Apple’s iBook Authoring platform makes it relatively easy to create iBooks and then distribute to students. Moreover, you can imbed all different kinds of content into your iBook, including videos, audios, comprehension questions, KeyNote presentations, YouTube videos, and HTML games.
In terms of accessing these lesson plans, you can download either one of these three iBooks. If your school has iPad integration, your students could use them as well. You can also cut and paste text from an iBook and manipulate it in a Microsoft Word document. For our Thales Academy faculty, I have created a Google Classroom for this resource and made Google Docs documents out of each and every entry, and there may be a possibility of making those accessible to teachers through Thales’ website.
The Ancient World
This iBook has over 1800 hundred pages of primary source documents, each of which are arranged first by historical epoch, and then by historical period or author. They are meant to line with possible units that teachers would cover in their classrooms: “The Greeks,” “The Romans,” “The Franks,” The French Revolution,” etc.
The texts range from Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”; texts tied to a historical event like Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War to Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne and biographical sketches of Enlightened despots like Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great; to a survey of scientific and mathematical primary sources, such as Pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales of Miletus, whom no one knows, and the atomist Democritus; Muhammad ben Musa, the 9th century Persian mathematician who invented algebra; and Watson and Crick and their discovery of double helix model for the structure of DNA, and many suitable texts in between.
Like other primary source readers, Thales Key Texts contains texts that illuminate a historical period, encapsulate a significant idea or argument, and demonstrate the discovery of important phenomena so that students can participate in the discovery of great ideas. I have tried to find interesting, meaningful texts not otherwise included in primary source books to add to the toolbox of great teachers.
The Medieval World
A helpful analogy may be the Harvard Classics series, one of the most valuable things in my classroom. Is anyone familiar with the Harvard Classics Series? The Harvard Classics series is a massive 51-volume set organized by Harvard President Charles William Eliot, as a kind of “portable university.” While a liberal arts education is typically very expensive, Eliot proposed that a 5-foot shelf of the right books could be “a good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.”
Editors later took Eliot up on his 5-foot shelf idea and asked him to begin selecting works to fill that shelf. The titles Eliot included were works from Classical Antiquity, like the Greek biographer Plutarch and Virgil’s Aeneid; a survey of Western philosophy from Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke; and works of science from William Harvey, Louis Pasteur, and Charles Darwin.
Today, you can find the Harvard Classics online on eBay; my dad reportedly found my set at a yard sale for $40, or less than $1 per book. A bargain, considering the treasure trove of information contained within these volumes. Why so little?
Eliot succeeded in creating a portable university, but the ideas contained in these books are only accessible if you read them.
In Thales Key Texts, I tried to provide a wide array of texts, authors, and perspectives, and then find the very best idea that these authors contributed to the slipstream known as the Western canon. Eliot chose whole dialogues of Plato, but I chose selections from Plato’s dialogues where Socrates said something imminently quotable and then put that quote in context for students. I tried to find and preserve the idea in a short, relatively-ready-to-use lesson plan for teachers to access and read so that they could interact with the texts in a meaningful way.
The Modern World
Each entry offers an opening question designed to spark the student’s interest in the topic, a paragraph explaining the background of the author and the context of the work itself, and suggested questions for classroom discussion or written composition. The texts themselves vary from 1 to 6 pages in length, so that they may provide adequate material for homework assignments, classroom discussions, and formal Socratic Seminars. Students will have the opportunity to analyze each text to understand the individual words, phrases, and claims made by its author, and then provide textual evidence to support their interpretations of the text and of its significance via open dialogue, classroom discussions, and written compositions.
One especially unique aspect of Thales Key Texts is its approach to the study of art and art history, which is crucial to any world history class and especially a Western history class.
Take Question from the Audience: How would you generally teach a lesson on art history?
I have created special sections in each edition of Thales Key Texts devoted to the artwork of the western world. Apple’s iBook Author software has unique features that allow users to create interactive images. One can take a picture and embed buttons upon the image itself.
When these tapped, these buttons zoom in on the art work and explain the significance of an important detail about the work, while focusing in on the relevant portion of the work itself.
It may have a relevant vocabulary word, a quote from a prominent art critic, a good question for students to analyze as they study the work, or insights into the artistic choices made by the painters or sculptors.
For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” contains text boxes imbedded into the image itself that, when tapped, explain relevant vocabulary words and important details about the painting. Those buttons explain how Leonardo spent hours staring at a wall, not painting anything, because he was imagining the scene; other buttons explain the kind of material it was made out of (tempera); or the use of perspective and how every line converges right behind the head of Jesus Christ.
Some text boxes raise questions for students to ponder about the work, so that students can jump into the mind of the artist and think about the effect that artist intended to have on their viewers. Each time students click on the appropriate text box, the image zooms in to explain that feature to students in a manner that literally opens up all the immense possibilities of a Classical education.
The texts selected and the questions provided in each entry were done with the ELA/Literacy Standards of Common Core in mind. As a broad, general overview, Common Core utilizes a wide variety of scientific, informational, and literary texts, and ELA/Literacy Standards emphasize the close reading of individual words and phrases in their immediate and overarching context. As a roadmap for successfully teaching reading comprehension, Common Core stipulates that students should be able to identify the main ideas of a text, explain why those ideas matter in respectful dialogue or in written composition, and present text-based evidence to support their reasoning.
These are indeed vital skills students must cultivate in order to become empowered, self-directed learners ready for college, the workforce, and the demands of the world we live in, that C3 Framework I’ve been hearing so much about today. Thales Key Texts asks students to analyze a text in light of its overall themes, identify the thesis of the author, and analyze words in their immediate and overarching context in a manner similar to ELA/Literacy Standards of Common Core State initiatives do. This work provides a invaluable resource of primary source material to supplement the recommended text list for Common Core for those who would wish to use it in their classrooms.
I hope that my talk here today may demonstrate the benefit of using texts from the Classical tradition to teach these skills. In the same manner that Common Core utilizes a broad array of say, “informational” texts, the Classical tradition focuses on developing certain intellectual virtues and non-cognitive skills, such as self-control and tolerance. Let’s look at a few of those examples and how Thales Key Texts seeks to facilitate the “discovery of great ideas” for students.
Civic Learning & Thales Key Texts
So, one of the themes of today’s conference was civic learning, which I was thankful for. A primary source book like this is all about civic learning. We would all agree that an important component of civic learning would involve reading the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Students should read the founding documents of the United States and understand the founding principles of our country: that all people regardless of ethnicity or gender are created equal and as a result should enjoy equal protection under the law.
Thales Key Texts makes these founding documents accessible, but I have also gone after the other works that influenced the Founding Fathers. What was the intellectual background like at the time? What presuppositions and assumptions were percolating in the back of the minds of the Founding Fathers that led them to make the decisions that they did? What did they miss that we must now try and improve on?
So, consider the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That idea does not come to Thomas Jefferson’s mind one hot afternoon in Philadelphia. It comes from John Locke, a British philosopher who listed our natural rights, given to us by God, as life, liberty, and property. Texts from John Locke are included to demonstrate this influence on the mind of Thomas Jefferson.
The Inherent Flaws of a Democracy & Civic Learning
Other texts have been included to showcase the potential weaknesses of any political system, but especially our own form of government: a democracy. A democracy may be the weakest, and most tenuous form of government. This is not because tyrants arise who want to take our rights, but because the people, and it is the people who rule in a democracy, have to exhibit a certain amount of self control in order to sustain a vibrant democratic life. The idea of self-control provides an important component of civic learning.
A democracy has to be protected from its own excesses, or it will not long survive. The people need to exercise enough self-control that they do not collectively make decisions that bring ruin upon the state as a whole. For a democracy to work, its citizens have to cultivate a willingness to subordinate their immediate interests for the greater good when the occasion demands it. Such an idea students can discover for themselves in the reading of significant texts, the likes of which I have compiled into Thales Key Texts.
One can go back as far as Genesis 3 to have a text that explains who man is. Maybe you don’t want to talk about where man comes from, but this text talks about who man is. In Genesis, man is a unique being created in God’s image with rationality, creativity, and a moral sense, and this allows both men and women to participate in civic life. This is the ground of the confidence that the Founding Fathers have in a democracy, that all people have reason and thereby can participate in a democratic state.
But, man is fallen, having rejected God’s authority—or the authority of anyone else for that matter, in place of his own self-directed authority. Hence, Madison’s writings in Federalist #51—“if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But man is not an angel, and so man needs a political framework that can help protect him from the tyranny of other men and even at times, the tyranny of himself.
Consider the selections I have from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and his writings on soft despotism: in a democracy, citizens have a tendency to vote for candidates who promise to make their lives easier and easier from one election to another. In the end, those citizens become increasingly weak and dependent on their government to take care of them, and elected leaders know they can take advantage of this fact.
Cicero’s The Republic
Or, for instance, consider that the particular form of government we have is a republic. There is immense democratic participation from our citizens, but the United States is a republican government in form. It is a mixed constitution, wherein power is divided between the bodies of government so that power would not be concentrated in the hands of one man.
In a monarchy, you may have one very good king, but there is no guarantee that whoever succeeds him will be as virtuous or noble. Much better to hedge your bets and divide power between many individuals, as we have done in the United States, so as to protect yourself against the possibility of having a power-hungry and self-serving king.
The idea of a republic dates back to the days of ancient Rome and the Roman Republic. Rather than telling your students we have a republic and what that is, why not give them the primary source from Cicero’s The Republic where he explains how a republican government ought to operate? What a republic government looks like? How does our republic compare to the Roman Republic? That way, students can discover for themselves the significance of this idea.
Francis Bacon’s The Novum Organon
I have tried to find as many of these key texts that illuminate an idea worth discovering, and did this for every subject area. I know that our science teachers begin every year with a PowerPoint lecture on the Scientific Method, which is great, but I know where the Scientific Method comes from. It comes from Francis Bacon, a 17th c. English bureaucrat and philosopher who laid out the basic principles of the scientific method in The Novum Organon.
Novum Organum is Latin for, “New Instrument,” and is a reference back to Aristotle’s old logic textbook the organon. Aristotelian logic makes heavy of deduction and reasoning from premises, which is great, but this has its limits in terms of new knowledge you can find. In The Novum Organon, Bacon advocates the use of experimentation and study and observation and recording your results, so as to create a body of practical knowledge that can immensely benefit mankind. This is the Scientific Method, and it is this insight that has in part led to the amazing advancements we have had ever since then.
Character Education & Thales Key Texts
Lastly, I have tried to find texts that would help encourage our students in the habits that would help them become successful. To that end, Thales Key Texts contains entries where authors focused on human flourishing, human happiness, and the activities one should engage in order to live a prosperous and meaningful life.
In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle spends several chapters on the activities one should engage in order to be happy. Happiness is not an emotion or even pleasure, nor is it the pursuit of wealth, because people generally pursue riches in order to become happy. Happiness is but an activity of excellence in accordance with reason. It may often look like the life of a philosopher, or in our language, a self-directed learner, but it may also look like someone who really enjoys what they do and sees how it can benefit those around them. Immanuel Kant expands on this and ties it to the moral obligations we have to one another, as well as the necessity of genuine friendship.
In order to promote the genuine flourishing of the individual, Thales Key Texts includes such texts. The Western tradition is not simply a collection of abstract ideas about political theory or the movements of planets, although I have those texts, too, from Galileo and Copernicus, but is itself a record of humanity’s attempt to find meaning in the world around us.
As teachers and parents, we want our students to be happy and successful in a manner that conforms to values that we hold dear, and whenever an author of any tradition speaks on such values, we should pay attention. As a Classical education aims to form the entirety of the human person, Thales Key Texts includes such texts that help develop important, non-cognitive skills in hopes that students and teachers may learn from the wisdom of the ancients and profit from their instruction.
As with all forms of education, a Classical education strives to teach students how to think, rather than what to think. A primary source book designed for a Classical curriculum would strive to cultivate the intellect and character of the whole student. A primary source reader of this kind would demonstrate to students, through the best possible texts of the Western tradition, the fullest extent of human wisdom, happiness, and flourishing possible.
Such a primary source book would be inter-disciplinary including works from history, literature, philosophy, math, science, and art and speak to the whole of life. Such a source book should allow students to trace the consequences of ideas through time and connections between these ideas across disciplines. As Isaac Newtown said that great men stand on the shoulders of giants, Thales Key Texts aims to preserve the giants of the Western canon, so that students may stand upon their shoulders and survey with confidence the world in which they live. As a free, educational resource, Thales Key Texts aims to help students cultivate critical thinking skills, develop a genuine love of learning, promote the values needed to be a responsible and empathetic citizen.
In this way, Thales Key Texts aims to provide a Classical education in itself. By reading these texts and interacting with the arguments presented in them, students can develop the critical thinking skills they’ll need to meet the challenges of a 21st-century global landscape and thrive amidst such challenges. It is the hope of the present speaker that by taking students through the great works of the Western tradition, we may impart the confidence and skills they need to take on the whole world.