Interview with Tom Cox of grammaticus.co

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background with Charlotte Mason education?

My wife and I started homeschooling our oldest two years ago, and my wife began reading for a couple years before that to prepare. We stumbled on AmblesideOnline and  Mater Amabilis and were gratefully surprised by the thriving and helpful communities we found there. We followed Cindy Rollins on the Mason Jar for a while, and through her were introduced to many more concepts related to Charlotte Mason-style education. I just recently started listening to Modern Miss Mason and, in addition to her awesome accent, I’m learning a lot about Charlotte Mason from her as well. My wife has since read Vols. 1 and 2 and we’ll be working through Vol. 6 this coming year.

In preparation for this school year, as I was looking for alternatives to quizzes asking specific questions about the reading, I read Know and Tell by Karen Glass and am going to start narration in my classroom this year. While I can’t bring it into our whole school, I’m excited to see what I learn from applying the common-sense principles from Charlotte Mason. My wife and I often talk about “Children are born persons” or “Education is the science of relations” because their pith gives them a great deal to unpack and apply in our own educations and those of our children.

While I’m a neophyte in Charlotte Mason education, I noticed that as my wife would read snippets of the Volumes out loud I would continually find parallels from the Latin and Greek sources I’d studied and taught: Seneca, St. Augustine, but particularly Plato and one of his biggest fans, Plutarch. This resonance struck me as important to pass on to my children. I love the ancients and medievals, in part, because they still have power in the present. I want my children to join a tradition and bring it to bear on their own lives, families, and communities. This jives well not only with what education has always been, but particularly with what Miss Mason was emphasizing again at the end of the Victorian Era. While responding to particular problems of her day, she brought her students and teachers back to the perennial tools for working through them: an education for freedom, virtue, and happiness.

How did you first discover Plutarch?

I first picked up Plutarch’s Lives in college. Probably about 10 lives were required reading for Greek and Roman history courses. I found the lives interesting and engaging even then, a bite-sized way to enter into a larger conversation about what it meant to be Athenian, Spartan, or Roman. Much of Solon, Caesar, and Themistocles stayed with me. I first saw the wiliness of Themistocles and placed him in the same circle as Odysseus in my head.

When I began to teach, I would offer a Life of Plutarch as extra credit to any of my Greek students. This helped me come back to the Lives year after year and really enjoy their depth as I watched a student discover Plutarch for the first time. The longer I taught and the more life experience I gained, the more I saw the practical wisdom offered in these biographies. Plutarch was as much a philosopher as a historian and he vividly illustrates for us the relationship between virtue and happiness, without conflating happiness with money or power.

Later as I took on an Ancient History course for 8th-graders, I knew they weren’t ready for Plato and Aristotle yet. Plutarch seemed like a perfect primer for philosophy while bringing history to life with biography, emphasizing our lives as a quest for wisdom, virtue, and happiness. Sure, my students couldn’t read the Republic yet, but Plutarch would prepare them so well to face the question “How should I live?” and even give them a few tools for beginning to answer it. More than that, he would show my Christian students that there are universal human problems that exist in all times and all places. Plutarch, though he doesn’t know the Gospel writers, gives us a privileged perspective of life in the first century after Christ throughout the Roman Empire. His writing contains so much that is historical and so much that is timeless, that I really enjoy helping my students tease those two things out. 

…My students couldn’t read the Republic yet, but Plutarch would prepare them so well to face the question “How should I live?” and even give them a few tools for beginning to answer it.

Where can we find your website?

I blog and podcast at grammaticus.co or, more memorably, plutarch.life. The latter address links directly to the podcast, whereas the former lands on my homepage.

What led you to build a website?

I needed public accountability! In teaching the Ancient History course I mentioned above, I grew frustrated with how unnecessarily difficult the language of Plutarch had become because his Greek was translated into English idioms one hundred or more years old. Some of this is mitigated by reading aloud in class, but I also need my 8th-graders to do some of the readings themselves. So, as I was going through and editing Plutarch’s Lives into bite-sized chunks for my students, I also found myself re-translating sections of it.

This made me realize that I could be sharing this ramp to Plutarch and the website forces me to publish only my best work. As a teacher, so many of my notes remain in my head or in some rough outline stored in the cloud. When I publish on the web, I know I have to be organized enough and engaging enough for others to follow.

Those in the Charlotte Mason community know the value of written and oral narrations. Essentially, the podcast is a polished narration and I’m glad to get the practice (I’m also glad I get to edit out my coughs and pauses). I’m already humbled that people who don’t even know me want to listen! That feedback encourages me by proving that I’m helping moms, teachers, and students with what I’m producing.

Tell us about your site:

A grammaticus originally taught the classics of Greek and Roman literature in the Ancient World to young students. I essentially want to do the same, but I also want to make sure that parents don’t waste their time pursuing something for the wrong reasons. I want to help home educators and school educators clarify their why and keep those ends in mind for an education that is a life. One question asked a lot about studying the Classics is “How will this help me in tests or college?” The question not asked enough is “How will my knowledge of Latin and Greek still reap fruit when I’m 25, 45, and 65?”

I use the blog as a sounding board and a platform for exploring all aspects of a Liberal Arts education, though the focus will remain in the subjects I teach in the classroom: Latin, Greek, History, and English. The podcast weaves those threads together in one particular study: Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Ultimately, I’d like to use the website to teach anyone who’d want to learn Latin or Greek from me. I may even teach History or Literature someday but plan to start with Latin and Greek in the summer of 2021.

What goals do you have for its future use?

I ultimately want to provide a resource that helps anyone either get started with Plutarch or get more out of his writings (particularly his Parallel Lives, but I may do a few podcast episodes on some of the essays in the Moralia).

If that also leads to a love of the Classics and wanting to read Homer in the original Greek or St. Augustine in the original Latin, then I want the website to provide a means for that too.

Tell us what it contains.

The podcast is particular to Plutarch, and the blog has a smattering of thoughts on classroom teaching in the Classical tradition.

The most helpful place for most people is probably under the Learn tab. As of the publication of this interview, it offers three sections: Plutarch, Greek, and Latin. I’m trying to make it easier for parents to answer confidently the questions “When” “Why” and “How” for their students (particularly *before* they run off and buy a curriculum or out-of-the-box solution). It’s not that those are bad—my wife and I love adding more books to our home—but that we should make these decisions informed and with a clear view of the why.

As crazy as it may sound, this grammaticus doesn’t think everyone absolutely positively should study Latin and Greek. My website wants to help people clarify whether the elementary and teenage years are most effectively used in studying those languages. Once they do commit, I want to give them plenty of free options to help them as well. The Learning tab is the place to start.

What future things should we know about?

I’ll be offering classes and reading groups in Latin and Greek next summer. The classes teach basic Latin and Greek grammar, syntax, reading, and translation skills to anyone from about 7th grade on up. People should sign up for the email list to be informed about those.

The reading groups will be offered to help students (again, of almost any age after middle school) who want to work through a particular work in Latin or Greek. I want to experiment in small groups with a method C.S. Lewis used to master Greek. Once he had learned the grammar, he lived with a couple, the husband of whom was overseeing his Greek education. He would come in, read 50 lines of Homer out loud (in Greek), immediately translate them on sight, leave and come back the next day to have Jack do the same thing. I’m not sure how this would work online, but I do think we often tackle the older works too slowly, so I want to be able to offer a pace of reading for every level: slow and savory, middle-of-the-road, and as fast (or almost as fast) as you would in English. 

Which life is your favorite?

The usual answer to this is the one I’ve finished most recently, though coming back to each one for the podcast deepens my appreciation even for the ones I don’t like as much (Romulus, Cicero, and Lycurgus, if anyone’s wondering).

I can’t pick one single favorite, so I’m going to cheat on this question and give a top five (in no particular order), with my reasons:

  • Alcibiades – He’s bold and grows only more audacious until his last breath!
  • Marcus Brutus – of all of Shakespeare’s sources for Julius Caesar (and he borrows heavily from at least three lives: Caesar, Cato the Younger, and Brutus), this is the masterpiece. 
  • Antony – Shakespeare brought this one to life brilliantly, but he also came so close to being the heir to Julius Caesar in every sense. He gained and lost so much!
  • Camillus – a noble, if now forgotten, Roman
  • Dion – Plato had a huge influence on Plutarch, and this biography is the closest Plato comes to getting his own. In some ways, this biography answers the question some may have as to why Plutarch was not considered one of the great Greeks and Romans. 

What is something that you have discovered in your work with Plutarch that surprised you?

I often feel like we’re tempted to read from a position of authority nowadays. We must know so much more now than they did then. What I love about Plutarch is that his philosophical insights and humanist lens continue to surprise me: I’m never quite sure I’m ready for one of his explanations. Sometimes they’ll sit with me quite well and I’ll nod along; other times, they seem so off the wall I wonder how he could have convinced himself of that. I sometimes even laugh, not in dismissive scorn but in genuine surprise!

I feel that Plutarch wrote so much that we, his readers, are given a glimpse into his intellectual life, almost invited as guests into his house (which is what he said he felt like as he wrote a biography) and as we chat we uncover surprising ways of looking at the world that challenge our own.

If you could give a word of encouragement to homeschooling parents in regards to teaching Plutarch, what would it be?

Read out loud and in small bites. Plutarch’s essays aren’t long,  but the Charlotte Mason method does well to approach them slowly and let the entire life unfold over the course or several weeks.

Ask questions! Plutarch wrote for a totally different audience and never had us in mind, so this is why reading slowly and asking questions will help us get more out of each biography. We force ourselves out of our comfortable assumptions and have to stare in the face some uncomfortable and discomforting truths. Even if you can’t immediately find the answer by perusing Wikipedia or Google, the question incites the pursuit. I want to do Q & A episodes once I’ve gleaned enough questions from my audience, so please feel free to send the questions my way.

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