The following are my notes from the 2022-23 ECS Convocation assembly.
I read three books this summer. Hopefully you read even more. These are three that I won’t easily forget and that I think, perhaps strangely enough, easily relate to each other.
The first I’ll mention is a book that has been on my to-read list for many years. It’s not a long book, but it is a book about projects that take a long time. It’s written for 10-11 year-olds, and we have a copy in our 4th grade library. Here is my book report and rally to begin another year.
The book is called Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction. It was published the year before I was born (1973), but it’s a story about the citizens of a small town in France who decided to build the biggest and most beautiful cathedral in their country in the year 1252. It’s actually a fictional story about the people of Chutreaux; there is no city with that name, so there are no remains of this particular project. But the imaginary cathedral takes details from in-real-life construction of Gothic cathedrals built in the 12-14th centuries.
The bishop of the city when they started died before they finished. The master builder of the cathedral himself died more than halfway through and had to be replaced. In the non-fiction preface, the author only gives one qualification about what makes his story less real: the workers didn’t take any long breaks in construction. And still, it took 86 years from the first decision to the final detail.
To build something so grand took a lot of money, obviously a lot of time, and it also took a lot of different people doing their work expertly. There were teams of people, those who cut down trees in a nearby forrest and prepared the wood, those who cut out stones from a quarry and moved them to the site, those who dug deep footers and blacksmiths who made nails and hooks and hinges. There were master craftsmen and apprentices and assistants, masons and mortar makers, carpenters and climbers and cooks. No one person could have done it.
In one way your life as a student is like this. Even though your years in school are a jumpstart, your education is a lifetime project. It will take much time, much care, much effort, and a multitude of people. As the Lord adds to your knowledge and understanding and wisdom, as He knits you together with love for truth and goodness and beauty, your life is a cathedral.
In another way, ECS is a great project. For the first time, after ten years of school, now we even have our own building! Thanks be to the Lord. The classrooms are our classrooms, they have our desks and our chairs. Many of the rooms have been painted, they’ve gotten new lights, the things on the walls are decorative and educational and ours. Though they wouldn’t identify as Michelangelos, the teachers, many of the students, and some friends of the school have painted and furnished and adorned and loved this place into a more lovely place.
This facility is probably not ever going to be cathedral-level beautiful, and that’s fine. We’re actually trying to build something much more difficult than walls, something that will outlast us. We are like so many medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to this generational project. Lord willing, the best years of ECS may be seen our grandchildren.
Another book I read this summer is Battle for the American Mind. It was published just this year. It’s about schools and education, about the trajectory of troubles for many government schools over the last century. The problems that are all around us are worse than new math and unscientific science and willful ignorance of history. The root problem is that people don’t have any real vision of the “good life.” They wouldn’t know beauty if it poked them in the eye-balls. They think the state has more power to make things better than the power of self-control. They have no center, no real reference point other than their feelings. They’re not practicing or pursuing virtues.
What we’re building here at ECS is more than just students who get high scores on tests. We’re not just trying to get you to graduate early so that you can get through college quicker so that you can get a high paying job. Those things are fine, but they are like a cathedral constructed of Popsicle sticks.
We want you to be great-souled. The word magnanimous is just that: manga = great and animus = mind or heart or soul. It’s related to those who are animated, full of life. We want a culture of families, students, and teachers who know and love, who know what is lovely and why they should love the lovely and be abounding in love. Previous generations referred to it as ordo amoris, ordered loves. This is where intellectual and moral virtue comes from. We want you to learn the stock responses of God-fearers, to be unimpressed by what the world says is cool, which never lasts long anyway.
This includes the alphabet and phonograms, this includes reading your assignments, but it also means paying more attention to what’s in your heart than how long a classmate has been talking. It means committing to work hard, and then actually working when it is hard. It means listening to those who know better, it means looking to take responsibilities that make the whole thing better.
We are in a battle for minds and our minds are necessary for the battle. We are trying to battle by building a culture, a paideia, that forms what you like and that you’re like and what you pursue as good.
Which leads me to the third book I read, Good to Great (a book published in between the first two, 2001). The definition of good is a little different; good in this case is about commercial success rather than cultural blessings. It’s a business book, but there’s some valuable overlap.
Want to be great? Be fanatically consistent in the right things. Those things aren’t always big things. One of the greatest dangers is thinking that the right things are other things rather than the ones right in front of you. Do what must be done; do it faithfully. That makes great people, and a bunch of people working together makes a great culture.
We care about raggant virtues. Be generous, be a producer, be a learner, be thankful, be joyful. As we work toward being great, let us be staff and students known for: High discipline, low drama.
I read something else good just yesterday, and I’m thinking maybe I should tape it to mirrors around me. It said: stop whining. An alternative, since we’re on the first day of school: don’t start whining.
Your education is like a cathedral, ECS itself is a different sort of generational project, an educational cathedral, and may the Lord bless this next year of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that we will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.