What a Teenager Can Do

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What to expect from a teenager
Teenager. The word can bring fear to any parent of younger children as they imagine their kids entering so-called "adolescence". Expectations seem universally low for modern teenagers. What can you as a parent and teacher reasonably expect from a 14 year old? Some look around and see culture in shambles and just hope to keep their kids off drugs, not pregnant, and educated enough to get into an American college for 4 to 6 more years of education. Homeschoolers look around and hope to do better than this. But it's useful to look at other eras beside our own to get a sense of what is possible from a teenager.

I encountered a study of the Puritans several years ago which really opened my eyes. This perspective of the past has encouraged me greatly as to what is really possible from my kids in their teen years. In the introduction to chapter 8 of The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, renowned historian Perry Miller (not a Christian, incidentally) explains the 17th century New England educational system. The following excerpts are quoted from the book:

The child was first introduced to his studies by way of the "reading-schools"… Here boys and girls together as a group were taught spelling, reading, writing, and ciphering. At this stage also – that is, while they were not over five years old – girls were started in needlework. If the child were moderately apt, he was advanced to the "writing-schools," kept by a man, where he was prepared for the grammar schools at the age of seven or eight. Such advancement depended, however, upon his capacity to wrestle with Latin and Greek, the only subjects taught in the secondary schools; if he lacked the ability, his formal education was over.

To enter [grammar school], a student must be at least seven years of age and be able to read. The requirements satisfied, the student faced a seven years' curriculum which, like that of the Elizabethan grammar schools, was exclusively devoted to a study of the classics, with no place for modern language, history, or science. The purpose was humanistic: to achieve a mastery of the classics and a wide knowledge of the best authors in those tongues. Thus the student was provided with a general education and incidentally fitted for college, though probably less than half of any one graduating class went further with his education.

…the Boston Latin School, [may] perhaps serve as typical [of grammar schools]. The entering students were taught their Latin accidence and grammar. When their vocabulary was sufficient and the rudiments mastered, they passed on to Aesop's Fables. By their fourth year they were reading Erasmus's Colloquies and undertaking Greek. At the same time they were supposed to be ready for Ovid's de Tristibus and Metamorphosis, and Cicero's Letters. By the end of the sixth year, they would have completed Cicero's de Officiis, and the Aeneid. In their seventh and final year, with the language difficulties fairly mastered, they could approach classic literature with some ease: more Cicero, and Vergil, then Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Isocrates, Hesiod, and the New Testament. They composed Latin verse, and studied rhetoric and Roman history and antiquities. It is possible that some especially capable may have begun a study of Hebrew.

Harvard College… founded in 1636, and the purpose expressed in the Charter of 1650 was [education] in "polite letters" and the seven arts and the three philosophies of the Middle Ages: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy; Metaphysics, Ethics, and Natural Science. It was actually a course in the medieval trivium and quadrivium with music omitted, geometry slighted, the philosophies stressed, with the Renaissance subjects, history, Greek, and Hebrew added.

Students entered as freshmen and remained four years… For admission to the freshman class the student must be interviewed by the President or by a tutor under the President's eye. If the interview, conducted in Latin, terminated satisfactorily, the boy was then assigned a subject for a them; if the composition won presidential approval, the boy was entered as a member of the freshman class.

The curriculum at some points was a continuation of the work undertaken in grammar school, although broadened and deepened. Hesiod was read, as well as Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, and Theocritus. The boy was expected to dispute syllogistically at stated intervals, and at the end of his senior year he must demonstrate his ability to defend a thesis; some philosophical problem which would bring to bear all the arts of persuasion, logic, and rhetoric which he had studied. This final exercise took place at Commencement, and like all other elements of college life – recitations, reports, and even informal conversation – must be delivered in Latin.

Let's unpack this a bit to see more clearly the typical Puritan education in 17th century New England America:

Reading school – age 5 or 6
Writing school – ages 6 to 7

Grammar school (7 year study) – age 7 to age 13
Year 1 (age 7) Latin
Year 2 (age 8) Aesop's fables (in Latin)
Year 4-5 (age 10-11) Erasmus's Colloquies; learning Greek language; Ovid's de Tristibus, Metamorphosis, Cicero's Letters (all in Latin)
Year 6 (age 12) Cicero's de Officiis, and the Aeneid (in original Latin of course)
Year 7 (age 13) Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Isocrates, Hesiod, and the New Testament.
Composing Latin verse; studied rhetoric and Roman history and antiquities. Begin learning Hebrew

Age 13-14: Entrance interview for Harvard (in Latin),
Harvard College (4 year study) – age 14 to age 18
Broader deeper exposure to Greek and Latin classics; logic, rhetoric; philosophy

So what can we expect from a 14 year old? A 14 year old from Puritan New England would run circles around almost any PhD graduate from today's universities. An 11 year old Puritan had completed an education well beyond that acheived by most holders of Bachelor's degrees from modern American colleges.

I am not advocating a rigorous education in Latin and Greek classics. But I think this proves we typically set the bar way too low for our children. They can do far more than we expect. Your child may not be reciting Cicero at age 12, but surely he is capable of todays typical "high school" level material. I am certain any time-travelling Puritan that stumbled across a high school curriculum today would assume this was material for a 9 year old from old New England.

So challenge your kids – set the bar high. Can they do college level work at age 14? Just ask a dusty old Puritan.

Speaking of old Puritans, to read further check out this original source document that details life in 17th century New England. It is Magnalia Christi Americana by Cotton Mather. The title is Latin but the text is English. The title's translation is "The Mighty Acts of Christ in America". Here's the section on Harvard College.