Recovering What Has Been Lost: Classical Conversations Founder Leigh Bortins Speaks at King’s
Leigh Bortins shared the philosophy behind her educational services business: “No expert help is ever promised, but what is promised is that people who love the Lord, love their children, and love learning will do their best to model that with you, for you, and for your child.”
On March 7, The King’s College hosted Leigh Bortins, founder of Classical Conversations, to discuss the challenges of building an international corporation that disrupts educational bureaucracies while homeschooling four children and prayerfully seeking to know God and make Him known. Bortins is a nationally acclaimed educator, author, and commentator credited with helping to launch the “home-centered learning” education movement.
Bortins opened by stating that although her business has seen considerable success, both in the sales of her books and the international spread of Classical Conversations groups, she acknowledges the Lord every step of the way. “In spite of these successes, I feel like Paul in Philippians 3:8. I consider them all loss compared to the surpassing knowledge of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Bortins also stressed the importance of motherhood, saying, “Even though I’m famous for Classical Conversations, I want you all to know that my greatest joy has come from being a mother, because it’s through motherhood I’ve learned the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.”
Bortins went on to describe the business, calling it “a K-12 educational services company that supports homeschoolers.” A particular challenge of using the classical model in home education, Bortins said, is that it is very hard to accomplish on your own. You need other people as peers and mentors, and you can’t engage in Socratic dialogue on your own. Classical Conversations was designed to “help train you, give you the tools to help folks in your own community and duplicate what we’re doing with you.” Borne out of that need, Bortins developed a system that began in her own basement. With requests from people far beyond her personal reach, her system eventually became the business it is today with 3,000 contractors and 75,000 families enrolled in 2019.
Bortins shared several challenges of her fledgling company. “My first business model totally failed. For an initial fee, I would train you, and then you could go forth.” Many homeschool parents, already operating with tight budgets, were unwilling or unable to pay. So Bortins had to come up with another plan. “We said we would front the costs, and as people gained students who would pay, then they would pass back a percentage to us.” It’s a backwards business practice, especially as a for-profit industry, but as a woman desiring to honor the Lord and to support mothers, Bortins was motivated to make this work for families.
Another challenge lay in convincing parents that they can have this level of responsibility not only for their children’s education, but also in training others. Bortins says, “Homeschool moms are amateurs, not experts. It’s a problem in our culture that people won’t even try because they think only experts can do things. Homeschool moms are willing to try new things, and they embody the early American idea of being a jack-of-all-trades.” Bortins has put together a system in which “no expert help is ever promised, but what is promised is that people who love the Lord, love their children, and love learning will do their best to model that with you, for you, and for your child.” Bortins insists that the business has been successful because “We’ve trusted people enough to let them do a bad job, because the only way to recover what has been lost is to let them try.”
She is often asked about challenges to the business today. Bortins says that “insipid, subtle bureaucratic regulations are the things that can cause trouble.” For example, when Classical Conversations began, most of the employees were homeschooling parents who had flexible work hours, but in recent years, hiring regulations changed so that people could no longer work hours that were convenient for them.
State homeschooling regulations can cause problems as well, especially in cases where homeschoolers may receive vouchers from the state. The accompanying oversight makes it difficult for Christians to educate their children according to their conscience, so Bortins says her company warns parents not to accept the vouchers. Limited resources in other countries can present a challenge for parents who cannot afford to buy textbooks, but Bortins encourages them to “Focus on learning how to read, write, and think with the materials you have.”
Bortins believes the challenge of Christian classical education lies in the imperative to maintain written knowledge from the past. “What is worse, having literacy taken from you, as happened in the Soviet Union, or willingly giving our literacy away, the way we do here?”