New Adventures in Letters
Or, Off to Sail in Aslan’s Country
These are my notes for our school’s convocation last week.
As the end of every school year draws closer, it often (for me it always) feels like a ship in a storm. The final weeks of the fourth quarter pound like wet, wild wind that threatens to break the ship apart unless it reaches the harbor of summer break. Such a violent storm hit the Dawn Treader once upon a time, destroying the mast and almost drowning the vessel. If you know the story, she did make it to land for repairs and rest.
Summer break is natural port for students and teachers. The break is a blessing and allows for a certain amount of renewal and refreshment. But just as ships are built to sail, so students are made to study. Here we are on the first day of another school year to launch our vessels off the dock toward new adventures in letters.
People used to speak about being “lettered.” To be a man of letters meant more (though not less) than knowing one’s alphabet. Phonograms are fantastic, but they are only the beginning. A man of letters was a man who was literate, a reader of letters and books, a learner of knowledge passed through pen and paper. The Respublica literaria enabled men to study across great distances, communicating through correspondence and becoming a community of curiosity and contemplation.
We launch into another voyage on a sea of letters. We launch as a special crew, and I want to call us together (hence, convocation) to remember our glorious calling.
Toward that end I would like to focus on three letters (of the alphabet sort), letters that identify us, letters you will use on a frequent basis, letters that abbreviate the name of our school. The letters are ECS. Let’s work from the end back to the beginning.
This sturdy noun anchors our name. The first two words describe what sort of school it is, but school has a meaning on its own.
Our word comes from the Latin scola referring to a group for learning or instruction. The teacher or teachers are the first learners, the guides for learning, and ideally provoking learning among their pupils. A school is only somewhat her facilities; our school is in its third building and, while we do associate school with a particular place, school has much more to do with the practice of the people.
School is not your family, though enduring camaraderie does develop. You may refer to your classmates as a kind of family, but teachers can only support your dad and mom. In fact, we do not want their job, though we work on their behalf.
School also isn’t your church, or your state government. Worship happens here, but it is not like that of an entire church body. Likewise we discuss politics, but we aren’t making or enforcing laws.
But a school has her own special accountability to God. Her sphere is to study and sharpen one another for the sake of using our God-given minds and exercising our dominion-taking mandate. These are your fellow scholars, and your uniform identifies you as part of this elite learning force.
Many schools exist; many of them started again today. Your family may drive by a dozen other schools on your way to ECS each morning. We do not claim to be better than all the other options in every way, but we are different, purposefully so, than most of our counterparts. We are a classical school.
“Classical” does not mean the same thing to everyone, even those who call their schooling classical. At ECS we think about the nature of classical schooling at a higher level than the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric), though those are tools we use. Maybe the mainsail of the classical ship is that we recognize, with thanks, that we are in a long river of those who have studied and spoken and loved the truth. We are not isolated, we are dependent. We are not better, we are blessed. We are not more capable, we are more accountable for the gifts we’ve inherited from generations before us.
We’ve come to receive definitions, not destroy them or deny them. We take the identity God appointed, and that many of our (dead) teachers knew better than our modern prophets who cry “Truth, truth,” when they have only lies and darkness.
The waters of history are also full of classical snobs (which we do not want you to be), when, in fact, there is no good reason for our pride. Abraham Kuyper observed that:
[T]o study any discipline at all takes such a huge effort that even if you make no higher demand than to be a half-decent participant, there is just no time left to feed the tiniest microbe of self-conceit. (Scholarship: Two Convocation Addresses on University Life)
We have too much to do to be snooty.
This is the most decisive of the letters, and the one we would choose if we could only have one. Evangel is English via Latin from Greek. It means good news, another name for gospel, which is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. This is of first importance.
Most schools in our day take a principled stand against religious exclusivity. They promote their version of tolerance by relegating faith as a private, personal matter. They want to multiply everything by zero, but this always equals zero. We, on the other hand, know that we cannot separate our beliefs about God, about mankind, and about the world. We know that our public work, our classroom work and our homework, whether in History or Science or Algebra or English, is the Lord’s work and He both demands and delights in our recognition of Him.
We study because we are forgiven in Christ, not to work for our forgiveness. We are free to learn, we do not learn in order to make us free. Saved students study, we do not say that students must study in order to be saved. This orients our attitude toward the labor of learning (all is gift) and toward our fellow learners (give with grace).
The center of the evangel is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ. He reigns as the first one resurrected from the dead. He also reigns as the Maker and Sustainer of all things. There is not one thumb’s width in the entire sphere of human existence over which Christ does not cry, “Mine!” So go on and learn His ways and study His stuff and organize the chaos for His name.
I referred to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader earlier. It is my favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia. I especially enjoy Reepicheep’s euphoric rapture as he sails east into Aslan’s Country. We who trust the Lord and serve Him will go there someday ourselves, but isn’t it also the case that all of this is Aslan’s Country? “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). “All things are yours…whether the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).
As the ship sets sail for our seventh year at ECS, may we all take up our stations with eagerness and a sense of belonging and stewardship and laughter. By God’s wisdom and sovereign will, He has elected you to this course of study. Remember: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). Bon voyage and Godspeed.