Will a Living Education Prepare My Child, Technically? by Don Rhymer

I met Nicole at CMI’s 2017 Eastern National Education Conference while participating in her science immersion. She asked me if I’d give a perspective about a Charlotte Mason educated high schooler and whether I thought they would “succeed” at the college level, especially a nationally-known technical college. Before I do, it’s important I do 3 things first, so bear with me. I need to tell you who I am, tell you my knowledge & experience with CM; and finally, tell you a little about my institution.

I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, active duty now for 22 years. I am an Assistant Professor and Senior Military Faculty (essentially, tenured military) at the Air Force Academy, having taught Mechanical Engineering for 10 years of my career. My bachelor of science is in Engineering Mechanics from the Academy (’95) and I hold an MS and PhD in Mechanical Engineering, both from Georgia Tech. My subarea of interest is mechanics of materials (what things are made of and how they fail), but I have taught everything from core engineering fundamentals, to fatigue, to experimental mechanics. 

My family is 3 years into implementing a full CM-based education for our 5 kids (ages 6 up to 14). In those 3 years, we have also participated in a CM co-op. Now, that may cause you to think, “Ok, so you’re a husband of a CM mom/teacher…what’s your involvement level? How much do you really know about the CM child and what he or she can do?” So, I’d say there are 4 levels of CM dads’ interest/involvement. A Level-1 Dad (L1D, need some military acronymns) is the “I can’t believe you’re homeschooling…let’s just send our kids to a  Conservative Charter Classical School so we know they’re getting the right stuff”-dad. An L2D is the “I’m good with homeschooling, but you’re exhausted, I want my wife back, and are we sure this isn’t a cult?”-dad. The L3D is the “Ok, I’m in…do you want me to build another bookshelf?”-guy. Finally, L4D means you’re probably a speaker at a CM conference. I’d say I’m between L3 and 4, probably 3.75.

When my wife and I took a diagnostic on homeschool curricula several years ago, we both independently pegged the meter in the survey for a Charlotte Mason educational model. Counting this year’s CMI, I’ve now been to 2 CM conferences, the last being the 2nd Colorado regional conference my wife has helped run. I have helped the kids narrate an assignment or two and have been working on getting a paper published on how elements of narration can be used at the college level in an engineering class. Finally, I’m almost a year into one of Art Middlekauff’s “Idyll Challenge” groups, where we read through all 6 of CM’s volumes in 2 years. I’ve not only drunken the Kool-aid, I also constantly find myself seeing CM’s principles resonate with truth in so many facets of humanity, leadership, and any form of education. Now, I also feel I can step back, look at the glass of CM that I’m on board to imbibe, yet remain critical in say a reflective skepticism sort of way. There are a few biblical passages I feel she applies beyond what the Holy Spirit does and when I narrate sections of scripture to my family at night, I may in fact read it (gasp)…a second time! My point is, I get Miss Mason, I feel her methods and principles are the most biblical, whole-person developing curricula that we know of, and I can see the impact it is having on actually ministering to my family (not just kids). But I’m able to take it for what it is, she didn’t write scripture, and the kids down the street doing Classical Conversations aren’t heretical and with their believing, loving parents can have a great and beneficial upbringing as well.

My school is, of course, a military academy. All graduates are commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants with an accredited Bachelor of Science in their given discipline and have a 5-year commitment to serve in the Air Force, with about half becoming pilots. The mission, in short, is to produce “Leaders of Character” for the nation. I’ll spend more time on the character piece in a bit, but like all academies, there’s a strict Honor Code and the Core Values are: “Integrity First, Service before Self, and Excellence in All We Do”, so there’s a character-laced aim in all the Academy, by the glossy brochures, attempts to do. Getting to the point, a Charlotte Mason-educated cadet would thrive at the Air Force Academy and not struggle with anything that can’t be quickly worked through once they are there, especially in the technical disciplines. What’s more, a CM educated officer will be recognized as a critical thinker and leader amongst other leaders and likely very quickly. Let me explain a little.

The Academy pulls from everywhere in the nation with relatively high admissions standards. But even those high admissions standards, you might say, can give a false impression of the level of entry of all cadets…especially technically. The core curriculum requires cadets to pass 3 Math classes (2 calculus and 1 statistics), Chemistry, Physics, and 4 Engineering classes—that’s core, whether you decide to major in History or Electrical Engineering. As such, the Academy certainly looks for and “gives points” in admissions for high school AP classes like physics, chemistry, and calculus. But these are not required. A significant percentage of cadets have taken and scored well in those high school or even college preparatory classes. But they admit MANY who have not. What’s more, many of those cadets who did get good marks in AP Physics still find themselves struggling in the Academy’s math courses. They may have been admitted with high leadership, community involvement, language and verbal skills, with barely enough math. So what does this mean? It means the program of study must be set up so that a cadet who gets in (say as a recruited athlete) may need help to get through the technical core of the Academy. And there are plenty of cadets who struggle with them that succeed and do well.

From a science perspective, as long as a student understands the fundamentals of how the world works, how animals and plants survive, how to investigate them, how forces on earth and in the universe govern basic motion and lack of motion, they will do fine. From their mathematical abilities, they should know algebra and trigonometry. If they don’t have calculus, they’ll be able to learn it. If they don’t have a computer programming class, they will figure it out with the other cadets in the same boat. Is it best that they see as much as they can? Maybe, but only to the level they really learn it. As Nicole mentioned in the immersion, if a student dives deep into a few good science subjects during high school and sees the beauty in it, the wonder in it, the “Wow, our Great Creator’s ways are truly higher than ours,” then they can do without the extra topics they would get in a textbook-based class.”

Let me get back to my premise though. You may ask, “But you said a CM student would thrive? It sounds like they will just be barely getting by?” Yes, they will thrive. A CM student that has had a rich, relational education, where they have had to narrate, both verbally and in written form, will thrive. All classes involve 53 minute periods of oral lectures. They will be ahead of most of their peers in being able to attentively discern the important points of a lesson. They will also retain it. They will go back and go over their notes and be able to store it away. And in those areas where they didn’t understand all of the material, because perhaps they didn’t have as much Isaac Newton in their CM-doused living room, they will know how to go ask for help. They will find the instructor and regurgitate the exact framework in their mind they have and where that scaffold ends and do so in an articulate, respectful, and thoughtful way. What instructor doesn’t love responding to a thoughtful question? The Academy has a very low student-faculty ratio and essentially office hours all week for help when the instructor isn’t teaching. The Academy Professor longs for the question of a student like this; and what’s more, the CM student will be more apt to ask the questions soon after the lesson in which they were confused as opposed to right before the exam.

Now if you’re asking, “What if my student doesn’t want to go to the Academy?” If they want to go to another technical university, say like a Georgia Tech, then they will likely have a strong aptitude for math and science. If they have that aptitude and propensity, they probably will enjoy those subjects more and do better in their high school years, to where they will want to prepare themselves more. Simply put, if your CM-taught teen knows they want to be technical, they will prepare as they (and their parents) are led. If they know they have an interest in being an engineer, it’s likely their dad will email someone he knows (like one did me this past year) and ask, “Hey, you teach engineering in college…if my son has done all the math and physics in high school and really wants a good engineering based intro subject, what should he take?” To which I’ll respond, “Statics! See if he can do some statics!”

What’s more, I know Charlotte Mason would highly question our pushing the “just turned 18-year old” out the door and say, “Biologically, you’re an adult so you must be ready for college right now; figure out what you want to do and go study it!” I believe the most viewed TED Talk is Sir Ken Robinson’s on education, where he questions the sending of kids into batches through our system solely based on their age. So you send them to a community college or even a vocational school. You may just keep them at home an extra year in that rich, relational, living education with all the other buzzwords that really shouldn’t be considered shibboleth because they need redeemed for what they are. It’s a REAL education that you don’t want to miss a minute of if God allows you to continue it. The world will wait and they will still be salt and light if the home is everything the Spirit can be as their co-educator.

I want to go back to the Academy one last time. I want to stress the “Leaders of Character” mission again because it encompasses everything a service academy wants in a graduate. Character is what the senior leaders of the Air Force want in every young officer. They want their Lieutenants to understand the democracy, to embrace that the military is an instrument of power that must be wielded at last resort but with courage, resolve, and commitment. And they must know they have to carry the vision for what that entails for a mission to their subordinates and inspire them to do much in the face of adversity. While many (like myself) may never see a battle, they must have the character to act and lead if, by God’s hand, they are led into it.

When I talk with my son, who’s had 3 years now of reflecting on Poetry, on Plutarch, on planets, I see in his eyes what I didn’t even dream to know. He’s acted out Shakespeare, he’s observed the Roufus-sided Towhees feeding off of our deck, and he’s carried back elk bones from a Spring Break trip to Durango. He’s thought deeply about life and doesn’t miss much. The week before we came to CMI, he served as a counselor at a horse camp for kids. Before we watched the culmination of the week, where most kids show they can do various stunts or poses on a ridden steed, we asked him if he was doing any tricks himself. He said no. Later, my wife told me, “All he’s concerned about is making sure he’s there to help the younger boys he’s counseling in safely getting on and off their horse.” I don’t know yet if my son will want to go to the Academy. But if he does, I know I’d want him leading my other kids. And if he was in the Air Force, you can better believe I’d be willing to serve with, if not under him. And finally, if he never touches a uniform his whole life, there’s nothing wrong with that “Leader of Character” entering into society and serving our country and world in whatever profession the Lord leads him.

4 thoughts on “Will a Living Education Prepare My Child, Technically? by Don Rhymer

  1. Claudia

    Thank you, Nicole, for asking Don to write in this space! So many perspectives from one pen. So encouraging for a mom of high school young men. Also very timely for a family like ours, contemplating and praying over home education vs private school after 11 years of home education. I am forwarding this post to my husband, as I know he will appreciate Don’s perspective.

    1. Nicole Post author

      Claudia, I’m so glad you found Don’s blog helpful. It was a pleasure to have him in my class at CMI this year, but the next day, when we were able to converse equally, rather than just me droning on for hours, I quickly realized that he had some things to share that were important for parents to hear. I feel that his roles of father of CM educated children and professor at a highly esteemed technical school gives him FAR more credibility than me! Maybe we should hear from him wife at some point as well, as she has similar qualifications. Thank you for your comment, and I pray you and your husband will clearly hear the Spirit’s direction for your family.

  2. Angie Cole

    Thank you, Don, for your expertise and advice in this area; and thanks to Nicole for allowing him to guest post! We are entering our 6th year of homeschooling our four kids (ages 3-10), but this will be our first year fully implementing CM methods. I know we were lead to this method by the Holy Spirit, but it has completely changed the plans I thought we would follow for our kids all through high school. Sometimes I get a bit apprehensive because I don’t have a solid ‘plan’ anymore (still learning how to implement it all) but hearing from this wise father and educator has given me peace that we can do this, with God’s help. Thank you!! God bless, Angie


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