Categories
Bring Them Up

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.

Categories
The End of Many Books

The Seven Laws of Teaching

by John Milton Gregory.

Absolutely fantastic. Makes me feel guilty in all the right ways every time I read it.

As Gregory says, the ideal teacher is “an incarnate assemblage of impossible excellencies.”

5 of 5 stars

Categories
Bring Them Up

The Code of the Coders

Or, A Glitch in the System

There is no neutrality. It’s not if there is a code, but which code will be written, and then followed.

Tracy Chou is an “entrepreneur, software engineer, and diversity advocate.” (I can get excited about at least two out of three of those.) Almost a year ago she wrote about why every tech worker needs a humanities education. The foundational questions she asks are crucial for anyone involved in creating, consuming, and educating others about either of the previous two.

Chou warns:

“As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree.”

She was asking herself questions such as:

“what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.” … “what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users” … “We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad.” … and “the default views we pushed to users.”

So just the things about the nature of human beings and how to steer them. With code. And the order of pictures. (Is it a coincidence that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all mess with the chronological timeline? For whom is it a better experience?)

Here’s Chou’s conclusion (and again, you should read the whole thing):

“I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education….I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.”

This is part of the reason we love our classical, Christian school. Because we don’t assume, let alone seek, neutrality, we’re in a much better position to see biases, including the ones in ourselves, and to seek answers from our Creator who wrote the ultimate Code. Doctors, nurses, code jockeys, rocket scientists, accountants, and bridge builders all need to know the details of their work, but the greater what and why of their work require knowing the what and why of mankind first.

Categories
Every Thumb's Width

How to Spend Your Day Off

A liberal arts education equips a man to know how to spend his day off.

Categories
Bring Them Up

The Nuts and Bolts of Education

These are my notes for a talk I gave last week at our school Information Night.


One of the best things about the daily nuts and bolts at our school is that we have separate bathrooms for boys and girls. I don’t start this way to get a laugh or to cause a shock. Gender specific facilities are important for modesty—though that’s not my primary reason for mentioning it. They are important for morality—though sin doesn’t depend on any given door being closed.

I bring up the distinction between male and female because we cannot have true learning or lasting culture without it.

Of course we couldn’t have following generations without male and female because humanity requires sexes in order to reproduce. Efforts to deny observable biology are efforts that destroy not only individuals, but also the future where any individuals could exist.

But I bring up male and female because God created and identified us that way.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:26–27, ESV)

This means that part of bearing God’s image is being social, a reflection of the “us” and “our” in verse 26. We are made in the likeness of the Triune God. This also means that both males and females are equally image-bearers. They are different, so they receive different names and different responsibilities, but neither man or woman is more like God than the other.

It also assumes that our image-bearing relations and image-bearing responsibilities require us to acknowledge what God has made and what God has said. Boys and girls share some things yet they do not share all things, nor are they interchangeable. To deny or even to confuse this truth is to deny or confuse any possible foundation for learning.

After the poetic, lyrical celebration of male and female in Genesis 1:27 (if our culture succeeds at obliterating the distinction, what kind of songs will we be left with?), God gave a mandate.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28, ESV)

We must must receive the definitions and boundaries created by God. What are animals? What kinds are there? What are we supposed to do with them? What is dominion? What can we subdue? What are we going to eat (see verse 29)? These are necessary questions, but if we won’t accept the created realities of male and female, realities that are self-evident and Spirit-revealed, how can we be trusted with anything?

A classical Christian education begins with basic facts like these. It is called the Grammar stage of the Trivium (which means “three ways”), and it acknowledges that every subject of study has created realities or historical realities or revealed realities. We are not trying to rewrite or redefine. We’re receiving what God has made, what God has done, what God has said.

Birds and fish and bugs, planets, and plants are all different, as are the letters and phonograms of the alphabet. Numbers classify and quantify objects and ideas, narratives show truth in a different way. These are particulars to be acquired.

The school board is reading a book by Gresham Machen, Education Christianity and the State, and he lamented that so many school systems (in 1925!) want kids to be thinkers but the teachers don’t give them anything to think about. “It is impossible to think with an empty mind” (p 7). No facts and no figures because they aren’t fun. There is no est, only non est.

[Such a student can] not succeed in unifying his world for the simple reason that he has no world to unify. He has not acquired a knowledge of a sufficient number of facts in order even to learn the method of putting facts together. (p 4)

New things are collected all the time at every stage, but collection is the special focus of our Grammar School. The youngest students delight to soak in dates and names and conjugations by song and chant and sound-off and reading. They learn about the sun and moon, right and left, right and wrong–in math and morals. They are taught definitions about masculine and feminine, without which they cannot decline any Latin nouns.

The second stage is the Dialectic or Logic stage. The emphasis during these years, roughly corresponding to Junior High, is less on collection and more on categorizing, less on soaking in and more on sorting out. Students are taught formal logic, learning what constitutes an argument, what is valid, what is sound, and what is empty or false.

In her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers tipped her hand:

It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands.

During this time students are systematically exposed to various ideas and worldviews, especially through the classical works of ancient, medieval, and even some modern literature. They’re learning to see what fits and what is false. They are able not only to distinguish between male and female but also to develop convictions about it.

The third stage is known as the Rhetoric stage. While students are always answering or writing or performing, the emphasis of this stage happens in the last few years of high school. Students learn things to think, how to think things through, and then how to express their thoughts in speeches and papers.

This is a time not just to know the truth or to defend the truth but to adorn the truth. Even as male and female, men and women ought to be adorned differently. We not only recognize a difference between genders for sake of bathrooms and uniforms, but even in what we want them to become. Both our young women and our young men should be well educated, both bearing the glory of God’s image, and both expressing things that the other can’t and shouldn’t even try to do.

The classical model values the Trivium as scaffolding for the building. The blueprint itself comes from God’s Word. He has said, He has given, He has created, so we give thanks and receive and study and steward. The Trivium helps teachers cut with the grain as students are generally suited to soak in and sort out and speak up as they mature.

  • Grammar – learn the good; know and enjoy things (res) as they are. Collect and comprehend.
  • Logic – identify and distinguish the good from the bad; account for things, put things together. Consolidate and cultivate convictions.
  • Rhetoric – fight for and persuade others to love the good. Consecrate ourselves, our talents and knowledge for letting our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

Google may be able to marshal facts, but it can’t train a student in logic or rhetoric. Without grammar logic falls and rhetoric is vacant. We’re educating our students with all three.

We start by acknowledging Christ as Lord and Savior, and then acknowledging our identity and created definitions by God. Otherwise learning collapses in a heap of inconsistent relativities and society ceases because no one even knows what male and female are, let alone which bathroom they should use.

Categories
Bring Them Up

The Red-Blooded Trivium

I gave the following talk at the end of February for the Information Night at Evangel Classical School. If you’d prefer to watch the talk instead of read it, I won’t be offended.


How would you describe most modern education? A lot of parents and professionals (and employers) agree that there is a crisis, but there is little agreement on the cause or the cure. So many students graduate from high school with pale interests, foggy thinking, and sickly convictions. If they could stand up, they wouldn’t know where to stand. They have educational anemia.

I recently had the opportunity to learn about anemia, its causes, symptoms, and treatments. Due to a yet-to-be-identified source of internal bleeding, I hemorrhaged too much blood to sit up, let alone stand or walk around. Every time I tried to get vertical my blood pressure dropped and my heart rate doubled trying to compensate for the loss in volume and decrease in red blood cells.

That’s anemia: a deficiency in red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood. The red blood cells carry oxygen to the body parts and, if the body doesn’t get oxygen, it shuts down. My body gave up, including my brain.

As I said, I couldn’t stay upright, I had almost no energy, I processed questions as quick as a cement truck, and, as my oldest daughter described, I was “as white as a new pair of tights.” Peaked, numb, and weak, like the typical college freshman.

To treat anemia, first you need to stop the bleeding. I’d say the biggest cause of educational bleeding is teachers telling, or acting like, none of it really matters. If everything in the universe came from nothing and moves with no personal purpose, then it doesn’t matter. At ECS we believe that Jesus is Lord, that by Him all things were created, that He’s invested and interested in it all. He gave it to us as a gift, to receive with thanks, to study, and to use for good as a reflection of Him. Nothing is neutral, nothing is useless. There’s a bigger reason to be at school than standardized testing.

Once the bleeding stops, though, there’s still more required to return to health. I’ve learned that in order to replenish red blood cells, the body needs iron. But the body doesn’t doesn’t provide it’s own, it must get it from the outside. There is a breathtaking variety of iron sources: beef, chicken, turkey, shellfish, broccoli, sweet peas, tomatoes, lima beans, potatoes, green beans, leafy greens, beets, and cabbage. There’s no reason just to swallow a pill.

To make educational blood cells we need the iron facts. Think of iron like grammar, the building blocks of learning. Grammar is the first stage of the Trivium and takes place during the early grades. Students are taught math facts, English jingles, characters of history, scientific data, Latin chants, and Bible stories. It doesn’t have to be bland or stale. We feed it to them in songs and sound-offs, reenactments, toga days, and coloring pages.

“Boredom is not neutral–it is the fertilizing principal of unloveliness.”

—Robert Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

It takes a lot of work to take in all God has given us to enjoy and use. It’s work, it can be fun, but it certainly isn’t boring. We’re feeding students with the loveliness of God in His world and work.

Around the transition to Junior High comes the transition to the second stage, the Dialectic or Logic stage. We might say this is when the red blood cells are formed and readied to carry the load of oxygen. The Logic stage includes formal logic, how to mind one’s Ps and Qs, how to distinguish donkeys and elephants. (Imagine how helpful this would be to a voting populace.) We encourage them to investigate apparent contradictions and difficulties. We expose them to different opinions and train them to love the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the lovely, and the excellent.

Then the final stage of the Trivium is the Rhetoric stage. They take the facts, fit them together, and present them with persuasion. Though they’ve already been writing by this time, now they are polishing papers as well as unscripted presentations. They are ready to stand, ready to take a stand, ready to run. But unlike the empty bombast of so many cultural talking heads, our students talk with lifeblood.

So we get students to soak up truth, sort out arguments, and speak with heart, stamina, and backbone. They stand upright in a bent culture. It takes a lot of work to treat educational anemia. They are not just ready for more learning, they are ready to bear God’s image in their generation. They’re not just surviving on Doritos and Mountain Dew, they have a life.