Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review of Roman Roads Media

Roman Roads Media Review
I can unequivocally say that I have not been as excited about any other review as I have about Roman Roads Media's Old Western Culture: The Greeks. Recommended for Grades 8-12, this full year course is comprised of 16 DVDs (or as a digital download) with over 20 hours of instruction in 48 lectures, PDF workbooks, Teacher's Edition, course guide, and 17 texts in PDF. The course costs $224.00 on DVD or $199.00 for online streaming.
Roman Roads Media Review
The Greeks is divided into four units, or quarters:
  1. The Epics covers The Iliad and The Odyssey
  2. Drama and Lyric covers 
    • Aeschylus
    • Aristophanes
    • Sophocles
    • Euripides
    • Sappho
    • Pindar
    • Theocritus
    • Hesiod
    • Quintus of Smyrna
    • Apollonius of Rhodes
  3. The Histories covers Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon
  4. The Philosophers covers Plato and Aristotle

The Greeks is taught by Wes Callihan, quite possibly the most engaging teacher of classical material I have encountered since my days at the University of St. Thomas. It is obvious that he loves what he is teaching, which is the mark of a truly great teacher. When he talks about Achilles and Agamemnon, you know that he feels their conflict and their emotions. You never have any doubt that he is going to lead you safely through the turmoil of Achilles' last days. He teaches with confidence and enthusiasm, and it is infectious.

If you want your child to have a Great Books, classical education - either the kind you had or the kind you wish you had - Wes Callihan is the man to teach her.

So What is Old Western Culture: The Greeks?

When you begin to stream The Epics, which you can actually do by watching the samples on this page, you see your landing page:

You can see at a glance what the course entails.

When you expand it, you can see the specifics for each lesson. You can also see what you have done and what you still have to do.

For a kid like Therese who is very organized and responsible, a feature like this is nice, but not essential. Were Nicky doing this program, this feature would be necessary for a variety of reasons, not the least of which would be so that he would not be able to say, "But I didn't know I was going to have a quiz after the lecture!" The more things are written down in a program, the better -- regardless of the kind of kid you have!

This course evolves much like a college lecture course as taught by someone who both knows and loves his material. The reading is assigned and completed, whereupon the student returns and listens to the teacher expound upon the reading. Mr. Callihan does absolutely everything right in this course. He references the original Greek (which makes me more determined than ever to learn the language), provides the cultural background to make certain scenes and actions meaningful, and fills in details you may have always wondered about (exactly how many ships did Helen's face launch?). More than that, though, his love for his subject matter exudes from his pores. Have you ever talked to or taken class from a classicist? I am convinced that no one loves his discipline more (I can say with absolute authority that political scientists do *not* feel this way about ours). After all, the oeuvre a classicist studies is the bedrock of Western Civilization - it is the story of who we are, where we came from, *why* we are, and who we should emulate (is Achilles worthy of emulation? Now *there* is a question I struggled with as an 18 year old!).

A typical lecture runs about 30 minutes and consists of Mr. Calihan in an easy chair in a library whose books I keep straining to see better. He speaks directly to the student, and his talks are interspersed with "extras" like maps, timelines, and pictures of paintings and sculptures, all of which serve to make the lecture come even more alive.

In my supplementary post that I link below, I talk about the fact I knew Therese was in good hands with Mr. Callihan when I found out that he uses the Lattimore translation. Well, I nearly swooned when he did a close up of his text in the first lecture on The Iliad:

You *want* a teacher's book to look like this. It doesn't hurt that this page showcases the absolute best line (first, last, or otherwise) in all of history. This book has been studied, read, but, most of all, enjoyed! It is how my "Great Books" look. It is how I want my daughter's to look.

Each lecture is followed by a short quiz. The quizzes are very easy. If you were even halfway sentient during the lecture, a high grade is a given. Essentially, they are a check to make sure that you are not just occupying space in front of the computer to pass the required time. There is nothing tricky about them. There are comprehension questions to complete in the student workbook. Each unit is ended with an exam and a paper.

Therese and The Greeks

I have to be honest - Therese did not get as far in this program - YET - as I would have liked. I am cutting her a tiny bit of slack since she did just (3 days ago) turn 13. My expectations are very high, and I push hard -- and she is starting to push back a little. The reading expectation is a little intense (although, I would say, completely doable). It is expected that each of these 4 units take 9 weeks. At the rate Therese is going, the course will take her closer to a year and a half. Since she is only starting 8th grade (officially) and I don't plan to graduate her early, and since we school year round, I can work with that. I also think that she will increase her pace as she matures academically. 

With all of those caveats, I can say unequivocally that Therese really enjoys this program. In her words, "I really like Old Western Culture. I like the way that the professor teaches. I like that it is casual, and I like his speaking style. The popups that appear on the screen from time to time are helpful for note taking. I think some of the things he says in the lectures are very interesting, such as what he said about the cities that existed before Homer's time, but that Homer still wrote about, indicating that the stories were passed on poet to poet. I was fascinated with his reading of The Iliad in Greek. I would enjoy continuing Old Western Culture over the next four years."

The Succeeding Quarters

Although Therese hasn't gotten to the 2-4th quarters of this program yet, there is no way that I was going to wait to check out the lectures! For the 2nd quarter, I couldn't decide between comedy and tragedy (I was debating between the Oresteia and Aristophanes). I have fond memories of "The Frogs" and "The Clouds," though, so chose the latter (can one have fond memories of the Oresteia?). I'm so glad I did! First of all, I loved reading these plays again - they are hilarious. Second, Wes Calliahan clearly enjoys this material as much as he enjoys The Iliad. The only thing that was really hard about watching this lecture is that I wanted to interact with Mr. Callihan. Fortunately, when I am going through this with Therese, I will be able to interact with her! One thing I am looking forward to is Therese seeing a Greek chorus in action. For years, I have referred to my kids as my Greek chorus. When something good happens, they all say, "Yay!" in unison. They respond similarly when something bad happens ("Awww"). They have an intellectual understanding of why I call them my Greek chorus, but they have never actually read a play in which a Greek chorus features. There's one in "The Clouds"!

My decision of what to read/watch for the 3rd quarter was easy. I have read both Herodotus and Thucydides, but have never read Xenophon (I know - a major oversight that I am remedying now). One thing that Mr. Callihan does repeatedly throughout the course is put the parts of the book he is referencing on the screen.

That makes it so easy to find immediately where you are supposed to be in order to find the reference. That is a great feature for students who are just learning how to work with literature in the course of a lecture.

For the 4th quarter, I started with the first lecture on the introduction to Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Essentially, it served as refresher for my Freshman year in Honors at UST. Further, since I have a minor in Philosophy, part of it was like visiting old friends. It definitely whet my appetite for more. I have a running "thing" with a few friends "Platonist" vs. "Aristotelian", so I will definitely enjoy going back to basics with these guys! Again, Mr. Callihan did not disappoint. He knows his material, he conveys it in an easy, but knowledgeable, manner, and he makes you anxious for the next lesson. I can't wait for him to introduce Therese to Plato's forms!

DVD vs. Streaming Options

Roman Roads was gracious enough to send me a DVD of the first quarter of Old Western Culture: The Greeks to check out so that I could see what it was like versus the streaming option that we are reviewing. Honestly, there aren't many differences and I'm happy with the streaming option. Essentially, with the DVD, you receive a hard copy booklet of the beautiful art discussed in the lecture and the PDFs needed for the course. With the streaming option, you don't get the hard copy booklet, and the PDFs are simply available on the website. All other things are pretty much equal. It is essentially a matter of personal preference which option you prefer. If you have a slow Internet connection, the DVD option is a good one to consider. 

Ah, the Worldview Question...

I really don't like dealing with this issue, but in this case I'll address it. Roman Roads is, obviously, not a Catholic company. Unlike some other companies whose products we have used, though, that is absolutely not a problem. I have often been curious about other companies when I see them completely ignore the contributions of the Church Fathers to Western Civilization. It takes some amazing mental gymnastics to accomplish that feat! Naturally, I would argue that a study of classical education finds its fullest expression when studied in conjunction with church history, but non-Catholics don't tend to agree with me on that.

In any case, Roman Roads accords with my worldview, that is a Catholic worldview, more than most other programs I have seen. What do I mean by that? Well, looking ahead, it is obvious that the program acknowledges the contributions of *all* of the great thinkers of Western Civilization (no mental gymnastics here):

It's sort of axiomatic that you can't study the Great Books without studying Thomas Aquinas (after all, his Scholasticism brought Aristotle's teachings back to the fore of study at Medieval universities), but it's amazing how many non-Catholic programs leave him out because he's a. a Dominican friar, b. a Catholic saint, c. for reasons I can't fathom. In any case, when I saw the "coming attractions" part of Old Western Culture, I was once again convicted that this was a program with which I felt quite comfortable on all levels. 

In Summation

I assume it is patently obvious that we love this program. As I said, I plan to continue to use it for all of Therese's future schooling. Given that Mary-Catherine (9) has been sitting in on every lecture (she hasn't read The Iliad, but she has been positively riveted by Mr. Callihan's retellings, summaries, and stories), I certainly envision using it for at least a couple of my other children. If you are interested in assigning transcript credits, you can find that information on the website. Therese already has so many credits on her high school transcript that that is honestly not my objective - imparting the Great Books to her is.

As I began writing this review, I realized that I had more to say than really fit in the confines of this review, so I wrote a supplementary post (mostly explaining a little about how I feel about classical education and the Lattimore translation of The Iliad - and The Odyssey, for what it's worth). If that interests you, you can read it here

Roman Roads has tons of other great products, including the entertaining and erudite Visual Latin, so be sure to click the banner below to read all of the Crew's reviews!

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  1. My 13 year old is doing this too! I am expecting the same time frame :) He says sometimes the readings take him a long time too!

  2. Hi, Laura! Just wondered if you'd done any more in the series, and if, 4+ years on, you still really like them. I'm thinking about beginning them with my son next year. Thanks! ~ Margaret