“We believe that children deserve to be introduced to the best – most profound, exciting, thought-provoking, character-building, eloquent, and adventuresome – creations of Western literature.”
There exists a vast body of exquisite literary texts which have been written by master-writers specifically for children and which were loved by generations of British and American youngsters but which, in the last half century, have been all but forgotten by mainstream American education. While American students may know their Disney renditions, the original versions of such English classics as The Jungle Book, Hiawatha, Tom Sawyer, or Winnie the Pooh are seldom read in modern elementary schools. At MLCA, we work to ensure that our students encounter classic texts such as these not as an intimidating challenge but as an exciting adventure.
Beginning with kindergarten, students are exposed to a variety of fairy tales, myths, legends, fables, classic short stories, and biographies of famous historical characters from America, Europe, and Classical Antiquity. Our reading list includes Aesop, Brothers Grimm, Andersen, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, the D’Aulaires, and Jack London; and, in older grades, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Melville.
Woven into these readings are stories of famous historical and Biblical characters and events, which introduce children, in the form of short and simple yet inspiring stories, to such momentous and colorful characters as Samson, King David, Julius Caesar, Richard the Lion Hearted, and Joan of Arc, to name a few. Such encounters help develop young imaginations by opening wide vistas of far-away times and places and of strong and courageous men and women.
Prose readings in literature and history go side-by-side with, and often interconnect with, English poetry. From kindergarten onward, children read, discuss, copy by hand, memorize, and recite progressively longer and more sophisticated selections from Blake, Wordsworth, Rosetti, Cowper, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Longfellow, Whittier, Dickinson, Stevenson, and Frost. These poets remain at the students’ side from year to year, with the selections growing in complexity and length.
Our students are introduced to the “toolbox” of poets and writers, learning about different meter and rhyme schemes and their aesthetic effects, as well as about such concepts as alliteration, allegory, foreshadowing, simile and metaphor.
Twice a year, at our festive Poetry Nights, students have the opportunity to share their poetry memorization and recitation skills with family and friends. Hand-in-hand with our focus on literature and poetry goes our rigorous study of language arts: phonics, spelling, grammar, penmanship, composition, and oratory.
From kindergarten onward, students engage with the basics of English grammar and syntax, making connections with analogous concepts in their study of French (e.g., noun, verb, adjective, singular, plural). Then, as Latin is introduced in fourth grade, it becomes among other things also a powerful tool for a better understanding and appreciation of the grammatical and syntactical structures of both English and French. Students parse words and diagram sentences in all three languages and discover how Latin, a highly inflected language, achieves its rhetorical and poetic power through case declension, verb conjugation, and meter. At the same time, students acquire a unique perspective on English, which, as a language practically devoid of inflection, achieves elegance and expressivity by altogether different syntactical means. The study of Latin likewise enables students to discern the origins the reasons for the spelling of many English words, thereby strengthening spelling and vocabulary skills.
In older grades, students undertake the study of oratory, committing to memory passages of literary prose and excerpts from the rhetorical works of historical figures. The study is rooted in the students’ active engagement with literary and poetic texts, but its effects go well beyond academic analysis and have a direct positive impact on the character, leadership skills, and the overall self-confidence of our students.
Structure: The MLCA Upper School humanities curriculum comprises English, French, Latin, and History. Each of the four subjects is organized as a series of eighteen interconnected seminars. Each seminar is approximately three months long (September-December; January-March; April-June). The progression of the seminars is roughly chronological (from 8th century BC to 20th century AD), but several of the seminars are organized diachronically, as juxtapositions of ancient and modern ideas. The program is predicated on the students’ ability to read extensive swaths of text. If the reading list seems unusually ambitious, it is because it is meant to be.
Scope: Our humanities curriculum covers numerous epochs, movements, and genres of Western culture with a strong emphasis on literature and poetry. We take pains to emphasize Anglophone (primarily British and American) literature, but we also believe it is crucial for young minds to receive a thorough education in Ancient Greek, Latin, German, French, and Russian literature in order to be able to listen to and appreciate the polyphony of different epochs and languages conversing with one another across centuries and geographical boundaries. In parallel with prose and drama, our students engage in in-depth study of English verse, from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Wherever possible, we synchronize English readings with readings in French and Latin. For example, if our students are studying the coming-of-age novel, we want to make sure that they are exposed not only to the English and American but also to the German (in translation) and the French (in the original) Bildungsroman.
Vision: Underlying the MLCA high school English curriculum is our definition of culture as man’s search for himself. As our students journey through epochs and across continents, they ask the same question that was posed alike by Biblical Job and by Diogenes the Cynic—What is Man? Humans are historical beings, more at home in history than in nature (indeed, human engagement with nature is itself historically determined). Accordingly, our examination of literature proceeds on two levels: first, we examine every literary creation as the authentic manifestation of its Zeitgeist—of the spirit of its own time and place; second, we examine the dialogue in which this creation engaged and continues to engage thinkers, poets, and writers, traversing barriers of time, language, and religion. Ultimately, we want our students to be able to see Western culture as an organic whole that is deeply aware of its identity—of the fact that it is continually returning to and rethinking its own roots in the Graeco-Roman world; that, even as it progresses epoch-by-epoch and explores its neighboring cultures, continues to return fruitfully on its course in conversation with itself. Thus, for example, the hero of Greek tragedy is unique to the 5th century BC polis culture of Ancient Athens; yet he is the ancestor of, and a vital inspiration for, the tragic man of Elizabethan drama. So too the dark colossi of Shakespearean tragedy are, on the one hand, rooted in the mores and worldview of the Renaissance; and on the other are the forefathers of Dostoyevsky’s man as equal parts pathetic and titanic. Similarly (to take another example), one of our seminars explores the novel as it existed from the times of ancient Rome to Renaissance Europe as a genre dedicated to tracing the hero’s spiritual journey. In a subsequent seminar we study the Bildungsroman as a special kind of novel sub-genre—one concerned with a particular kind of search for man, namely the hero’s coming of age as a reckoning with his own identity and the identity of the world that surrounds him. Finally, the third seminar in this series explores how this earnest, healthy search is put on its head by 19th century Romantic writers, in whose works the hero’s identity splits and the sinister double takes center stage; and how this Romantic identity split harbingers the very real historical tragedies of the twentieth century.
Our students discover the thrill of journeying to distant times and places and encountering fascinating characters—heroes and villains, kings and saints, warriors and thinkers, artists and inventors. Throughout, we work closely with primary source materials and highlight the connection between these encounters and parallel studies in literature, languages, and science: thus, for example, knowledge of Latin adds a critical dimension to the students’ understanding and appreciation of the historical Julius Caesar.
The emphasis of our history program is fourfold: (a) contrast between ancient Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures; (b) the ongoing synthesis of these two traditions throughout Western history; (c) the central role of both traditions in the founding and development of American democracy; (d) the implications that this twin legacy has for the role of America in the present-day world community.
Main Line Classical Academy’s History Sequence Grades K-6:
Kindergarten and First Grade: Early American (which begins with a description of some of the native tribes, then Lief Erikson, after which it moves on to Columbus proceeding all the way through to the Framing of the Constitution).
Second Grade: A survey course of the ancient world: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Phoenicians, Greece, and Rome (with some Biblical history).
Third Grade: Ancient Greece from its origins to the death of Alexander the Great
Fourth Grade: Ancient Rome from Romulus to Nero
Fifth Grade: Middle Ages from the origins of the Celts and Franks through Constantine, usually proceeding on as far as the Magna Carta (1215).
Sixth Grade: Renaissance/Reformation Era: final crusades, Hundred Years’ War, Fall of Constantinople, Wars of the Roses, Renaissance Italy and Spain, Martin Luther, Age of Exploration, ending in Henry VIII (mid 16th century).
Seventh Grade: Students explore 16-18th century European history, dividing the year between English history, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic era.
Eighth Grade: In 8th grade, students turn to U.S. history, studying from the pilgrims up until the Civil War and Reconstruction.