I reviewed the first volume of this ambitious project to create a user-friendly, but high-caliber academic curriculum for a Christian classical education for junior and senior high. The first volume is intended for seventh grade but would seem a fitting starting place for high school students who have little to no background in classical education.
Primary reading material includes titles from the Great Books: Aeschylus I, Codes of Hammurabi & Moses, Gilgamesh, Histories by Herodotus, Odyssey of Homer, Plutarch Vol. 1, Early History of Rome (Livy), Theban Trilogy, Last Days of Socrates, Twelve Caesars (Suetonis), and Sophocles I. These core books should definitely be required reading.
Secondary books and readings are from Scripture as well as more modern fiction and non-fiction. Examples of the secondary titles are Till We Have Faces; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and other Narnia titles); books of the Bible such as Isaiah and Jeremiah; The Unaborted Socrates, The Eagle of the Ninth, and The Holiness of God. These "modern" books are critical to balance and complete ideas raised in the traditional Great Books, although students need not read every one of them.
According to the editors, "The goal or destination of this course is to learn to reason well and communicate winsomely" (p. 3). Further, "this program aims to cultivate and produce students who are culturally literate" (p.4).
To that end, the book provides background and thought-provoking material for students to read before the Great Books reading assignment. Each of these sections is written by an author familiar with the primary reading. For example, Douglas Wilson writes the sections on The Odyssey, Aeneid, and the books from the Chronicles of Narnia, while Peter Leithart covers some of the biblical books, Ben Merkle writes on the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Jared Miller does Julius Caesar. Each of these contributions follows a similar format with information about the author and context, the significance of the work, the main characters, summary and setting, and worldview.
Since students are guided through this study, the worldview of the authors is very important. The editors explain in the preface, "The worldview we hold and from which we write is distinctly protestant and best summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith." They graciously go on to say, "We encourage you to become familiar with the material your students will be covering in this program in order to avoid problems where you might differ with us on these matters" (p. xi).
Following this preliminary material in the text are "sessions" that lead students through both the preliminary reading and the Great Books themselves as they might be covered in a classroom setting. These vary in number and content depending upon the Great Book to be studied. Here's an example of how it works for the Code of Hammurabi.
Session I: Prelude begins with "Questions to Consider" that students are to work through after they have read the preliminary material. These are thought provoking questions such as "Why are laws necessary? How do we know when laws are just?" These questions are followed by some comprehension questions and an optional activity to visit an archaeology museum for a first hand look at Mesopotamian artifacts if possible. After this first session, students begin reading the first section of the Code of Hammurabi.
Session II: Activity puts students to work as jurists. They are given three cases with the assignment to judge them according to the Code of Hammurabi and then according to the Bible. Options are given for classroom groups or students working independently. When this is finished, students continue reading the next section of the Code.
Session III: Recitation has a series of comprehension questions then a "lateral thinking" group of questions for discussion or short essay responses. An optional activity suggests that students draw up their own legal code for their house rules. Students then read the rest of the Code.
Session IV: Discussion presents a number of questions that really are best handled via discussion. Questions such as "What do laws have to do with justice?" and "How is justice understood in our culture?" lead students through a somewhat logical progression of thought as they deal with the key ideas. An essay assignment that draws on responses to these questions follows.
Session V: Activity repeats the assignment of cases, with three new cases for students to judge according to the Code and to the Bible.
Evaluation questions conclude the lessons on the Code. Some questions require one- or two-sentence answers while others require one or two paragraphs.
Parents will need to decide how many of the questions should be answered in writing and how many handled by discussion. It is possible for a student to work independently through most of the material, but the fourth session really would be much better with guided discussion. Also, if students have to write out all their answers, it might be a prohibitive amount of writing for some students.
A timeline at the back of the book helps students keep the various readings in historical context. The Veritas Press Bible Cards and History Cards might also be helpful aids as students work through many of the readings.
The CD that comes packaged in the back of the text contains the complete textbook as PDF files. However, answers to questions and notes for discussions are inserted on the CD versions. In addition, the CD has other extras for the teacher: lesson plans, midterm and final exams for each semester plus answer keys, a map of Narnia (nine pages that you will need to print out and put together yourself), an extra short story, a Narnian game (four pages to print and put together as a game board), plus grading helps described below. The answers provided on the CD will likely be the crucial factor in making this course practical for most parents to teach. Nevertheless, most of the discussions will require some familiarity with the readings themselves.
This is a humanities course, primarily covering history, theology, and literature. A chart at the back of the book shows how much each of the selected readings is weighted toward each of the three disciplines. This helps you keep a balance between the disciplines if you skip some of the readings. If students read all the primary books, they will have the strongest weighting in the area of history. Most of the secondary readings are weighted more toward theology and literature.
On the CD there is a PDF file explaining how to calculate grades for each subject area in relation to each reading and its assignments. It really is quite complex, so the publisher has made it easier by adding an Excel file that will automatically perform the calculations for you for each student. While it isn't absolutely necessary that you use the Excel file, I suspect it will be so helpful that some might purchase Excel simply for that purpose.
Even though Ominibus I is suggested for seventh graders, a ninth grader completing the course (including a significant number of secondary readings) should probably be awarded a unit each in history, theology, and literature. Since there are so many possible writing assignments, including lengthy essays, this course might also meet the composition/grammar requirement depending how those assignments are handled.
Illustrations of classical art, architecture and sculpture throughout the text might prompt you to expand into coverage of art appreciation. The editors suggest two reference books that should be helpful resources through the entire curricula: Western Civilization by Jackson Spielvogel (Wadsworth/Thomson Learning) and History of Art for Young People by H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.). The latter book will provide more than enough material to create an art appreciation course.
The price might seem high at first glance, but this is a beautiful, hardcover, full-color, 605-page textbook with many illustrations from art and architecture. The editors have selected experts to write each of the sections to achieve a high level of scholarship. The course is worked out in such thorough detail that I really believe it will be possible for parents without a classical background to teach it well. While students might get by working independently, it will be far better if parents also read the material and participate in discussions with their teens. Parents who do so will be acquiring an excellent education for themselves in the process.
Five more volumes in the series continue up through twelfth grade, repeating the historical cycle twice:
Omnibus II: Church Fathers through the Reformation
Omnibus III: Reformation to the Present
Omnibus IV: The Ancient World
Omnibus V: The Medieval World
Omnibus VI: The Modern World (available December 2011)