The revered medieval teacher's path to learning shows us that education isn't one-size-fits all.
As a homeschooled child, my education took strange paths. This was back in the 80s when homeschoolers were still fringe — not like today when a significant percentage of children are learning at home. There were fewer co-ops and group activities back then. Even so, my brothers and I managed to join a homeschool band, play on organized sports teams, take part in plays, and participate in various social events.
As far as the actual education, we had a core curriculum but there was plenty of flexibility. And that’s where things got strange. After eating my extremely healthy breakfast consisting of a s’more Pop Tart and watching a re-run of Matlock, I was ready to get down to business. Math and science were first. I wanted to get them done and out of the way because I hated them both and struggled mightily with understanding them. After that, I was free to focus on my real passions, which were reading long, depressing Russian novels, drafting architectural plans for fictional homes, playing with castle-themed LEGO, and researching medieval society. This is how I occupied my time until my friends got home from school.
The flexibility of my schooling allowed me to develop my passions.
For the most part, my parents didn’t have to pressure me to learn. I simply did what I liked to do and it turned out okay. In the meantime, my older brother was teaching himself computer programming and designing board games. That was what he liked to do. This approach to education probably seems odd. We were all over the map. But in historical terms, this was how most children were educated. I think of Abe Lincoln as a child reading books in the loft of a log cabin by candlelight, or Alexander Hamilton at the age of 12 teaching himself the art of writing and rhetoric in order to win entrance into Harvard.
Even earlier, in the medieval world, the vast majority of children learned directly at home from their parents. Their education wasn’t uniform, but it got the job done. The medieval age produced the most beautiful architecture and music in the world. It also created a strong philosophical tradition and laid down the foundations of the scientific method.
One of the most impressive masters of the medieval academic tradition is St. Albert the Great, who was born right around the year 1200. As his fame grew, Albert came to be known as a polymath. A polymath is a person whose mastery of knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, an intellectual jack-of-all-trades. He went on to tutor other famous intellects such as St. Thomas Aquinas.
What isn’t well-known about Albert is that, as a youth, he was considered a slow learner (strangely enough, Aquinas had the same reputation). His interests as a boy weren’t what might be expected from a world-renowned intellect. According to Kevin Vost’s book on Albert, as a young man he took a great interest in falconry. He was interested in all sorts of bird behaviors and knew a lot about fish. Sounds like a typical homeschool kid.
Albert did receive some formal education, either at home from a tutor or at a cathedral school. He learned Latin and how to chant the Mass. He would have read Aesop’s fables, the Bible, and Roman philosophy. He probably would have memorized poetry and great political speeches from men like Cicero. The medieval system had certain foundational educational commitments, but remained flexible and encouraged students to seek the truth wherever it might be found. This approach served Albert well.
It wasn’t a straight path, though, from a slow-learning, hawk-obsessed youth to intellectual superstar. Albert, it turns out, particularly struggled with science. Vost writes, “Whatever he learned in the evening seemed to vanish from his mind by the time he arose in the morning.” Eventually, his academic difficulties were solved in an unusual way. The Blessed Virgin Mary came to him and he begged her to assist him in gaining wisdom. She agreed but told him that by the end of his life, his intellect would disappear and he would return to being as simple as a child.
I wish I’d had divine intervention in my math lessons. I really needed it.
The lesson from the life of St. Albert – leaving aside the supernatural element of it – is that education isn’t one-size-fits all. Some of us are good at some things and others are good at other things. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing personal interests and focusing on particular aspects of education, particularly if such an approach kindles a life-long love for learning.
It’s important to keep working at a good, overall education – I wasn’t allowed to give up on math or science – but at the same time it’s okay to give extra time to what we really enjoy. For me, it was literature and art. For St. Albert, it was nature. For you, it could be anything at all.
We all learn in our own ways, at our own pace, and have different learning styles. That’s okay. In fact, that diversity is a strength because it allows us to learn in ways that we love and helps education to become integrated into our lives moving forward.
To this day, I love reading for pleasure, love art, and I love writing. My children are still learning what they love, and by giving them that freedom to explore, learning will become a way of life. I’m excited to see where these strange paths will lead them.