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Keys to the Classics: A Biblical Analysis of the Great Books of Western Civilization, Volume I (Text and Teacher's Guide) Review by Deborah Burt

Dennis Oliver Woods
King's Way Classical Academy (formerly Classical Free Virtual Academy)
PO Box 497
Clackamas, OR 97015

Keys to the Classics: A Biblical Analysis of the Great Books of Western Civilization, Volume I provides an analysis of 50 classical authors, arranged chronologically from Homer (850 B.C.) to Van Til (1895-1987). This text provides your middle or high school student a rich overview of philosophy, literature, and history through the lens of a Biblical worldview.

Although Keys to the Classics is the primary text for several online courses offered at King's Way Classical Academy, author Dennis Oliver Woods explains that the text can also be used by individuals on their own or in "brick and mortar" classrooms without the aid of the online academy.

The book is broken into 50 sketches, one for each author. Mr. Woods recommends completing the first introductory section of each of sketch for 16-18 authors each semester, and completing the second portion of the sketches for half that amount of authors each semester.

The first section of each sketch covers a short biography of that particular author, the historical context of his writings, a summary of his teachings, implications of the writings for subsequent history, a biblical analysis of the writings, and a corrective or prescriptive response. The first portion of each author's sketch also includes a brief fill-in-the blank summary paragraph, true and false questions, and multiple choice questions to test your student's understanding of what he just read.

The second section of each sketch contains a reading assignment of 35 to 50 pages from a famous work of that classical author. These excerpts are not included in the book. About half of the suggested readings can be found in a resource recommended by Mr. Woods: Readings in Political Philosophy by Francis William Coker. Mr. Woods recommends finding the other readings on the Web or at your local library. He mentions that the audio format of these readings is often available and may be more enjoyable for some students than simply reading the texts. Also included are 10 detailed discussion questions for each reading selection. These questions are open-ended and are designed to help the student not just learn the facts about each particular author but begin to truly understand the author, his worldview, and his importance in history. The questions are to be discussed within families or within the virtual classrooms of King's Way Classical Academy.

Besides doing the first section on 16-18 authors in a semester, and completing the second portion of 8 or 9 of these authors' sketches, Mr. Woods suggests that each student write a 2000 word essay on one of the authors covered in the course. "Thus," Mr. Woods explains, "students will get broad exposure to all of the classical authors through the Introductory essays, general familiarity with half of them through the readings, and in-depth exposure to the one they select for their term paper."

In the back of Keys to the Classics, you will find a World History and Philosophy Timeline, listing the 50 authors from the text along with the title of their best-known book, the date, and a philosophical and historical event from that time period. King's Way Classical Academy also sells flash cards to go along with Keys to the Classics. Each card includes a brief summary of a particular author, a visual symbol to help with memory, and a corresponding Bible verse.

The Teacher's Guide is a real gem. It includes objectives, a sample weekly schedule, and Mr. Woods' own answers to the nearly 500 discussion questions posed in Keys to the Classics. King's Way Classical Academy mentions that this guide has been described as "Philosophy for Dummies." I particularly enjoyed settling down to read through the Teacher's Guide for my own illumination. It provides a bird's eye view of the last 3000 years of history, alongside Mr. Woods's Biblical analysis.

Keys to the Classics (student text) seems to be a hard-copy version of what you would find if you enrolled in one of the Great Books online courses offered by King's Way Classical Academy. The printed versions of the Text and Teacher's Edition cost $29 each.

The online classes offered through King's Way Classical Academy go through the text over 3 trimesters in middle school (1 trimester a year for each of 7th, 8th, and 9th grades). King's Way divides the text into 3 introductory classes and 3 advanced classes. Students are usually enrolled concurrently in an introductory and an advanced class covering the same time period.

Each of the 3 Great Books Introduction online courses is $25 for tuition and is self-taught. The course material is word-for-word what you will find in each of the first sections of the authors' sketches and can be found online once you are registered. The quizzes can be answered online and are then scored by the computer for instant feedback, and the student may ask questions of educational counselors in the online forums. All introductory classes can be upgraded to the $99 intermediate level, where the student would have the same course material but would have access to a King's Way instructor via a forum board.

Each of the 3 Great Books Colloquium courses costs $219 per student and includes all of the material from the hard-copy text, both the first and second segments of each author's sketch. These courses are instructor-led. The instructor determines which of the authors will be studied in depth. The student will turn in all his or her work to the tutor for grading and meets online with the tutor or class for discussion of ideas at least once, usually twice, a week. The term paper will also be turned in to and graded by the assigned tutor. One particularly nice thing about the Great Books Colloquium courses is that most of the assigned readings have clickable links to free text on the web, saving you a lot of time locating the reading material.

I have not experienced the online Great Books courses and cannot go into great deal about them. I only want you to know that they are an alternative to using this course material on your own. From what I have discovered, I don't think a student would need to complete the online course AND have a hard copy of the text. It would be better to have your student (or your pocketbook!) choose to complete the work individually at home with the printed text OR enroll in the online class. If your student is completing the course without the benefit of the online tutor, you as the parent will most likely need the Teacher's Guide (unless you have had a thorough education in the classics yourself). The Teacher's Guide is an interesting read and would no doubt enhance your personal education. Reading through Mr. Woods' opinions on each open-ended discussion question would help you lead your student in more fruitful discussions.

The reading assignments given in this text require the ability to grasp complex ideas. Although the King's Way Classical Academy offers their online Keys to the Classics classes to middle schoolers, I think middle school is a bit too young for the full text, unless the student is already quite used to a rigorous classical education. Keys to the Classics could be utilized in your homeschool anytime between 7th and 12th grades, depending upon the abilities and interests of your particular student. Frankly, I think the book should be described as 7th grade to adult, as I gained very much from reading it!

Keys to the Classics was created based on theories of classical education; because of this, classically-educating homeschoolers will be the ones who are most familiar and comfortable with this approach. But they are not the only ones who will benefit from this text. It can be integrated into any curriculum to provide a general understanding of world history and a solid grasp of the philosophies of the ages. Anyone interested in an in-depth, but not overwhelming, literature-approach to history or philosophy would enjoy Keys to the Classics.

Keys to the Classics can be as simple or as comprehensive as you need it to be. If your students have little interest in the classics or are not avid readers, they would still benefit from going through the introductory level of this course (completing only the first portion of each author sketch). I personally believe the Church will be healthier and better able to tackle the problems of today when more of us have a basic grasp of philosophy throughout history. Those who desire a classical education may opt to do the advanced level of this course, using it as a summary course to prepare themselves for more in-depth reading of the classics.

"Worldview" has been a hot topic in homeschooling circles the past several years. Homeschooling families interested in worldview would learn a lot from Keys to the Classics. These words from Mr. Woods in the preface were particularly convicting to me about providing my children with worldview training:

[T]he engines of pop culture disperse the musings of the philosophers to every nook and cranny of society. Thus, even the most unschooled become the most avid devotees of the philosophers. This without ever having heard their names or leafed the pages of a philosophy text or any of the Classics. The average person catches philosophy 'from the air', like a case of measles or the common cold. It infects every part of his being, colors his vision and clouds his mind. There is no excuse for this among God's people

In part, at least, this is what the Bible means when it exhorts us to, "Be not conformed to the world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2) It takes a conscious effort to break out of this mold. It requires a unique ability and effort to "tune out" the shrill voices of pop culture. We must listen to the 'still, small voice' that speaks from another dimension--the realm of the Spirit.

You should be aware that Mr. Woods writes from a decidedly Reformed and Post-Millennial theological perspective. His theology is most apparent in the preface to the student text and in his answers to the discussion questions given in the Teacher's Guide. I found it refreshing that Mr. Woods "practices what he preaches" by obviously applying his worldview to everything he does. Because he really applies what he believes to the subject at hand, his theological leanings become evident through his writing.

If you ascribe to Reformed theology and/or are Post-Millennial, you will greatly enjoy reading about history from Mr. Woods's angle. If you don't know what these theologies are, reading Mr. Woods's ideas will challenge you to think through history in a new way and formulate Biblical theologies from your own perspective. If you are strongly opposed to these theologies, Keys to the Classics may still be a worthwhile text for you because the discussion questions and term paper are meant to be open-ended. In regard to the term papers, Mr. Woods says that the student should not be penalized for taking a position different from that of his or her tutor or from that of Mr. Woods himself. It would not be too difficult for a parent who knows theology well to present another side of the issue to his or her student. However, if you simply cannot stand to meet a Reformed viewpoint head-on, you may want to pass on this book and will certainly want to pass on enrolling your students in the online classes.

There are a few changes to this text I would like to see made It would be fabulous if Web addresses to free texts of the required readings were typed right into the book. I found it rather difficult to locate many of the reading assignments (I did not have a copy of the suggested go-along book). It would also be nice to see more thorough explanations of the King's Way online classes included in the book. Finally, I feel that another section could be added to the Teacher's Guide to give more suggestions for implementing this text in a homeschool setting.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Keys to the Classics, especially the Teacher's Guide. I will continue to use it myself to learn more about classical authors and philosophy. I plan to have each of my three boys go through the introductory level of this course and, depending upon the child, go more in-depth with certain authors. Although I appreciate the idea of reading whole books (and used to have the lofty notion of reading hundreds of classics alongside my boys), I am increasingly realizing that I do not have the time to read every classical and modern author that I want to read. This synopsis course breaks down the readings into something manageable. I think Keys to the Classics will give us the overview we need, leaving us time to delve more thoroughly into authors we really want to study with a passion.

Product review by Deborah Burt, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, September 2007