A few weeks ago, Cultivating Classical Parents offered a webinar discussing ideas for tailoring the Challenge Guide. The first portion of that webinar discussed what “tailoring” is and how to apply it as a metaphor to the topic of education.
Tailoring a Garment
In brief, when a garment is sent to a tailor, it is for the purpose of adjusting an article of clothing by taking it in or letting it out in order to fit a particular person. The garment, such as a wedding dress, is already beautiful as displayed on the hanger or on the mannequin, but how many people are shaped exactly like a mannequin? Not too many—hence the fact that tailoring a wedding dress is as common as purchasing one.
Because no two human bodies are the same, a tailor must be present to measure the client and later to fit the garment to ensure that the finished product is appropriate for that particular person. A bride does not send her sister to get fitted for her own wedding dress; she must be there in person so the dress ends up fitting her instead of someone else.
Tailoring an Education
On the webinar, we related this metaphor to education so that we could discuss how a formal education can be adjusted to fit a particular child. Like individual bodies have unique characteristics, individual minds and souls have distinctive characteristics. As surely as a beautiful dress is not made any less beautiful by taking it in or letting it out, a beautiful syllabus is not made ugly, or worse, of no effect by tailoring it to meet the needs of a particular student.
Does this mean that there is therefore no use for a syllabus? Of course not. When considering a dress, it is generally designed to fit a human being. For example, even a non-tailored wedding gown is designed to fit a woman—not a tree, or a chair, or a chimpanzee. They all have a bust, a waist, hips, and a skirt. In the same way, a good curriculum is designed to fit a human person—not an animal or a machine. The curriculum and the syllabus are general patterns for the human student as much as a bridal gown’s pattern is for a human woman. And like a dress, the course requirements from a particular syllabus must be taken in or let out accordingly.
What Tailoring Is Not
Recognizing that the Challenge Guide does not fit—whether quantitatively or qualitatively— every need of your particular student is not the same thing as conforming an education to the whims and desires of your child. A classical and Christian education is founded on the principle that a proper, human education should conform its students to a standard outside of themselves. Both teacher and student are under an ideal greater than themselves. As C. S. Lewis put it in The Abolition of Man, teachers in older systems “handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly.” The ultimate goals of wisdom, virtue, goodness, truth, and beauty are non-negotiable.
If, for example, your Challenge A student routinely spends two to three hours per day on his Latin studies, and this concerns or frustrates you, there is a world of difference between the decision to tailor the number of exercises he performs per day and the decision to cut Latin out of his routine altogether. In this instance the tailoring is a quantitative tailoring—a little less, or more, to balance the hours in a day. The idea that a parent should remove Latin studies from the curriculum altogether because the student doesn’t like it is not tailoring; it is butchering.
Even in performing a quantitative tailoring, we, as parent-teachers, must be attentive to the quality of the time the student spends in performing the exercises or readings. Is it the complexity of the lessons leading to three hours of Latin per day, or is it the attitude or work ethic of the student? If a student’s lousy attitude results in fewer requirements, the student will learn very quickly how to do less Latin per day.
What Tailoring Is
Tailoring is always keeping your student, as an individual person, before your eyes. Tailoring is remembering that no author, curriculum provider, tutor, teacher, administrator, senator, or president knows or loves your child like you do. They are not supposed to. They have their own children to love more than anyone else’s.
Tailoring is paying attention, not only to the attitudes that bubble to the surface, but also to the circumstances under which those bubbles pop. In what ways are we contributing to our child’s frustrations? Have we set clear expectations? Are those expectations reasonable as well as clear? Are we helping them think through their frustrations? Their doubts? Their fears?
Tailoring is recognizing when the gap between what your child knows and what they need to learn has become the size of the Grand Canyon—when they can no longer step across. They need goals they can accomplish, gaps they can step across. And they need a long series of these gaps from birth to graduation to the adult years beyond. We cannot force ourselves or our kids to leap across the Grand Canyon of knowledge. The step must be one that a human being can make.
Tailoring is not giving up on excellence. Tailoring is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Tailoring is not giving up on your child. Quite to the contrary, tailoring is loving your child as you love yourself.
C.S. Lewis. The Abolition of Man. New York, Harper One, 1944.