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Living Well with the Great Books: An Interview with Fritz Hinrichs

December 19–23, 2016   |   Vol. 129, Week 5

What comes to mind when you think of the “great books”? An out-of-touch professor, or maybe a stuffy academic? Think again! Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, hear online tutor Fritz Hinrichs offer a fresh perspective on the great books.

“[The great books] engage the big questions of human life. Questions of justice. What does it mean to live nobly? How can we live life well?”—Fritz Hinrichs

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What comes to mind when you think of the “great books”? An out-of-touch professor, or maybe a stuffy academic? Well, think again. Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, hear online tutor Fritz Hinrichs offer a fresh perspective on the great books.

Mike Farris: My guest today is my longtime friend Fritz Hinrichs. Fritz is an online tutor and the founder of Escondido Tutorial Service in California. He serves students both locally and across the country. Fritz and his wife homeschool their five kids. Fritz, welcome to the program!

Fritz Hinrichs: Thank you very much, Mike. It’s always nice to talk to you and a pleasure to be on your program again.

Living well [0:39]

Mike: Fritz, your tutorial program is based on the ideas of classical education. Can you briefly summarize what classical education is and why it should matter to us today?

Fritz: Sure. Classical education guides a student to engage the history of ideas. Now the tools of learning—Greek, Latin, ancient history, the rules of logic—are all very important to that. But why is it important? It’s because classical education is about living well. And this is not just as citizens, but also [about] living in the quiet solitude of our own personal lives.

Mike: What are some of the benefits of a classical education?

Fritz: There are many benefits to classical education, and certainly better performance on academics is one of the big ones, the ability to engage our culture and the ideas that have shaped it. But for me, as I’ve been teaching for the last 23 years, I come more and more to see that the real benefit of classical education is being able to engage the great world of wisdom.

A fresh perspective [1:39]

Mike: Fritz, a big part of classical education is what we call “the great books.” What are the books, and why are they important?

Fritz: In classical education, we oftentimes focus on the tools of learning. However, sometimes we forget learning itself. Now, as Christians, we are to be lovers of God’s word. We are to live in relationship to that book. However, that does not mean that we see the other books as any less important. As a matter of fact, because we love God’s word, we want all the more to live well and to be able to fill our lives with the wisdom that comes from learning.

As you look at Western history, you see that there is a flow of ideas. There have been major ideas that have influenced our culture’s history, and in that history there have been books that have been important to shaping that cultural path.

Well, the great books are those books that have been able to shape our culture and give it definition through time. They’re also the books that tend to engage the big questions of human life. Questions of justice. What does it mean to live nobly? How can we live life well? They’re the books that have shaped our culture and been able to give guidance as to what a well-lived life looks like.

Mike: Some students (and probably some parents) might find the books that you’ve just described a bit daunting at first. Is there a way that parents can help their students prepare for studying great books?

Fritz: Certainly. Now, what we call the tools of learning—Greek, Latin, ancient history—these are all very important. However, it is very important to remember that the great books are a human, not a professional, exercise. We don’t read the great books so that we can read the great books. We read the great books so that we can live well.

So it’s important in reading the great books not to have an overly academic vision of life. We want to read the great books in the context of the fullness of life. And so this means family life, church life, travel, sports, service to our community. These are all activities that make our reading of the great books have a meaningful context.

A GPS for your life [3:46]

Mike: Fritz, why is it so crucial for students (especially Christian students) to pursue mental and intellectual excellence, in addition to things like practical skills?

Fritz: It’s important to understand that practical skills are very important. We need to become skillful people that are adept and able to do things so that we can accomplish things in life. However, those practical skills are what help us to attain our goals. What is it that allows us to choose good goals? And this is primarily where we look at the reading of the great books. The great books are so oftentimes helping us to develop the mental ability to choose our goals well.

Mike: How can parents help their children hone their intellectual abilities and unlock these tools of learning?

Fritz: I would say you begin with the tools of learning. However, I would really focus on having a home that’s full of a lot of reading out loud. Now, the great books use the language of ideas, and in order to have a child that grows up to be able to read the great books so that he engages with those ideas, it’s important to have a household where ideas and book-reading are important. A child can learn to engage the world of the language of ideas.

Mike: That’s a really great point, Fritz. I couldn’t agree more. I particularly loved reading my kids the Chronicles of Narnia over and over again.

Quiet contemplation is a good thing [5:08]

Mike: Fritz, how is homeschooling uniquely suited to blend with the classical education model?

Fritz: I think homeschooling’s greatest benefit is primarily what we get criticized for: lack of socialization. I think one of the things that’s so beautiful about homeschooling is the possibility of the blessing of solitude. One of the main motivations to the philosopher Socrates was the oracle of Delphi’s injunction to “know yourself.” Oftentimes, in community we have all these activities that go. And yet, it is the solitude of quiet contemplation that allows us often to be able to focus on ideas and allow them to become real.

Also, even though Christian schools are a wonderful movement, when you have a large classroom of students, you are often pressed into standardized rating and objective outcomes. When you’re trying to lead students to the vision of goodness, beauty, and truth, and you get to the end of the semester, how do you put that on a report card? When you have a standard, conventional educational model, oftentimes you’re pressed into looking for more standardized grading and objective outcomes, rather than being able to simply focus on the quiet contemplation and the growth of wisdom.

The common language of life [6:25]

Mike: Let’s say a parent decides to give classical education a try. What’s their next step? What kind of resources and opportunities are available to parents who want to incorporate classical education into their homeschooling program?

Fritz: Well certainly for students who are in the junior high and high school level, if parents are interested in classical education, I’d certainly recommend my own organization, Escondido Tutorial Service—[it] has online tutorials in great books, classical Greek, Shakespeare, history of math and science, and Euclid’s Elements. I also have ClassicalHomeschooling.org, which is a website that provides online videos that give background to the reading of the great books. However, if you’re interested in more of a K–12 perspective, there are many organizations that are helping homeschoolers do classical education today. Certainly, organizations like the Circe Institute, the curriculum of Susan Wise Bauer, Memoria Press, Veritas Press—all of these organizations have tremendous resources available to you.

However, I’d always want to come back just to the simplest perspective of having a home where ideas are central, where reading out loud is a common activity, and you allow children to grow up in an atmosphere where ideas are the common language of life.

Mike: Fritz, thanks so much for joining us this week to talk about classical education. You were the person who introduced me to these ideas more than 20 years ago. I really appreciate your continued insights, and I know our listeners will find them helpful as well. I’m Mike Farris.

Fritz HinrichsPhoto of Fritz Hinrichs

After Graduating from St. John’s College and Westminster Seminary, Fritz Hinrichs began Escondido Tutorial Service in 1993. Since then he has taught nearly 1,000 homeschooled students in the Great Books—both locally in Escondido and online.

Fritz currently resides in Escondido with his wife Christy and children Ben, Christian, Dante, Eloise, and Fiona.

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