Brave New Unhappiness
It is hard to believe that this is our tenth Information Night for ECS. I’ve been to all of them, I’ve said some words at all of them, and I can say with certainty that the tenth looks nothing like the first. That night we didn’t have any students, no cute Kindergarteners in sweater-vests, no fun fish sound-offs from Second Graders. We had some ideas, but they were as concrete as a Plato’s view on the afterlife, which is to say, not very substantial.
A lot has happened in a decade, and I have a better idea of what we’re doing, and what we’re trying to do. I also have a better idea of the limits of a “talk” about classical Christian education and what we want that to look like at ECS. But all that leads me to the point I want to share tonight: I am more unhappy than ever. And what’s more, if you choose to send your students to ECS, we will do everything we can so that they, and you, experience the same thing.
This kind of unhappy begs for a bit of context, some explanation, and I’ve got two sources in my mind for what I mean.
The first source is Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World. Have you read it? Orwell took a different route with his 1984 (published 1949), let alone Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (1945) (and Lewis is the best of the three). Huxley imagines the World State where science and data and reproductive technology and entertainment have enabled the government to eliminate all the inconveniences and pains of life. Big Brother isn’t so much a threat to make you disappear as in 1894, but rather to medicate you so that your worries disappear. It’s like a Johnson & Johnson baby-shampoo regime: no more tears tyranny.
Near the end of the book there are two chapters (chapters 16 and 17) of 151-proof ideology presented in a Socratic-ish dialogue in the office of the head of the World State, known as the “Controller,” a man named Mustapha Mond, and another man named John, simply called the “Savage,” who is one of the few natural-born men in the story. The Controller calmly reasons that the Old and New Testaments are unnecessary, as is Shakespeare, that salvation comes in a pill called soma, that the government can provide every comfort necessary. Then the Savage replies:
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.” “In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
The more you know, the more you’ve tasted, less you can be manipulated or conditioned, and the more unhappy you set yourself up to be.
My second source is from the Old Testament, by a man who called himself a Preacher, or perhaps he could be better called a pundit, or a sage.
“In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18)
The sage was Solomon, gifted by God with great human wisdom, wisdom which he applied to learn even more. His proverbial conclusion is that wisdom is a grief-giver, wisdom harasses the mind with a clearer picture of what’s wrong. The second line is about sorrow; it is a coordinate action, the more gold you put in the bag the heavier it is to carry.
So I am unhappy like the savage, and I get the lesson of the sage. In our day it is harder to tell them apart.
ECS is a project that claims the right, even more, we claim the responsibility, to be unhappy.
Some of us are unhappy that we didn’t get an education like this. How much different or better might we have done?
We are unhappy with how our government sees us as so easily pacified, satisfied with stimulus checks and streaming video. Perhaps you remember the scene in “The Matrix” when the traitor, Cypher, says he’d rather enjoy the imaginary steak his mind convinces him is real than to be real, and be unhappy: “Ignorance is bliss.” God says, though, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,” (Proverbs 3:13), and He knows best.
Dorothy Sayers warned in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” that we would need better education to ward off all the propaganda. She could not have imagined the success of “15 days to flatten the curve.” The Ministry of Truth has been working double-plus shifts.
We are unhappy that the State celebrates their legislative attempts to turn 220lb boys with pony tails into star women’s soccer players. We are unhappy that we can’t have civil debates about anything, that we can’t ask and expect answers about mandates that violate our constitution. We are unhappy that no one seems to remember the past, let alone learn from it. We could have learned about religious liberty, we could have learned about how fear often spoils freedom. We could have learned that communism has been tried, and found everyone wanting.
Our mission at ECS is as follows:
We commend the works of the Lord to another generation with the tools of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that they will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.
Because we take that seriously, we are unhappy that we have so much ground that needs to be recovered, and now defended, with still so much more ground that needs to be covered.
We use the tools of classical education to help us. Though “classical” can have a number of forms, it certainly includes recognizing that we are not the first humans on the planet to know anything. We receive (and rejoice in) the truths about subjects and verbs, about sorts of fish, about suffrage and Jesus’ suffering for our salvation. In the Trivium, the “three ways,” these truths are part of the grammar, and there is grammar for every subject. Things happened leading up to and in 1776 that have objective reality, and we’re not trying to rewrite it. 2 + 2 = the same thing, every time, and that’s not because of systemic racism; God said, and it was four.
In the Trivium there is also an emphasis on logic or dialectic, where ideas are debated, rules of argumentation are learned, and fallacies exposed. It’s more than just heat, more than just feeling, and more than just throwing bricks through storefront windows in the name of justice. Dialectic is a method for teaching subjects, and is itself a subject especially suited for those junior-high students who are probably already contrarian; why not make it constructive, or at least less annoying?
The Trivium is capped with rhetoric, where the truths have been gathered and sorted and then adorned. Whether in writing or in speeches or in some other form of expression, truth is shown with great allure. Grammar is like learning the names of notes on the staff, logic is like discerning the difference when it’s sharp or flat, and rhetoric is like making it sing.
At ECS, we’re happily addressing our unhappiness. We have teachers who love the Lord, who love their students, who love the Word and all the things that God has made.
So in this respect our school is not a “safe” space, it’s not trouble-free. We have God, and poetry, and inconvenience, and tears, and good, and sin. And the evangel. This is a project for brave new unhappiness, or from the other side of the coin, a brave new happiness, as we remember that laughter is war, and Jesus is Lord of it all.
The above is roughly what I said at our school’s annual Information Night last evening.