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
Every Thumb's Width

The Enthusiasm Industry

I was listening to a podcast episode recently, I can’t remember which one even though I don’t actually listen to a bunch, and the hosts referred to the “enthusiasm industry.” They were talking about people who write and talk about apps (mobile, desktop, whatever). These aren’t necessarily the developers or even marketing employees of a company, these are people who make their living trying out and reviewing apps and services. They are professional buzz makers, stoking enthusiasm that sustains the creation/consumption cycle.

Some of these enthusiasts are helpful, even trustworthy over time. Many of them, though, are just making noise. How are consumers being prepped to distinguish?

It made me think of Dorothy Sayers’ warning about propaganda.

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? (The Lost Tools of Learning)

The enthusiasm industry, including (especially?) those who promote productivity apps, may keep us distracted from doing work rather than helping us find the right tool for work.

It’s similar to this argument about why so many of us like sports: then we don’t have to think about how awful our lives are.

We are far too easily enthused. And distracted.

Categories
Bring Them Up

Better Than Unbreakable

The following are my notes from our 2018 Information Night


Or, A Man in All Seasons

I recently read a brilliant illustration. Imagine you wanted to send a priceless wine glass to a friend through the mail. You would find a reinforced box and wrap the glass with thick layers of soft padding. You would double-tape the box and, before sending it, you’d write in all-caps with a fat red Sharpie on multiple sides, “FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE.” The glass is valuable but easily breakable.

What is the opposite of that? As the author of the book observes, and I admit that it was what first came into my mind, most people think the opposite of the wine glass is something such as a hard cover book. Wrap it in a tough box or wrap it with tissue paper, it probably won’t matter. Will the post office be careful with the package? Also, it doesn’t matter. A book can survive a lot and isn’t likely to be busted.

Between the two, which type of student would we want most? Our sixth year Omnibus (a History/Lit/Theology combo) class finished Moby Dick a few weeks ago. I audit the class but am behind in my reading, so I more recently came across this exhortation from Ishmael about halfway through the story; it’s about the benefits of being like a whale.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (pp. 334-335)

I like that: an internal temperature of one’s own no matter the season. But, this is not actually the opposite of the wine glass. The book is sturdy, (and, as Melville argues, a whale is self-controlled), and that is good, but sturdy is not the opposite of fragile. The opposite of easily breakable would be some substance or some product that not only survives, it gets better being knocked around. Imagine writing on the outside of the box: “MISHANDLE LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS!” By the time the package arrived, having been thrown against walls and dropped on the floor and kicked out of the truck, the contents have gained value, not lost it. This is more than robust, this is antifragile (which is the name of the book I’m reading).

The principle applies to many domains: economies, governments, science, health, as well as education and individual persons/students. A number of things benefit from some stress, from some tension, from some difficulty. This affects what kind of persons we want to be. It affects what kind of persons we want our students to become.

Our society is doing a great job at making fragile persons, including Generation Snowflake that needs puppy petting therapy rooms in order to recover from hearing a new idea, especially one that challenges long-held but shallow-rooted assumptions. Written on the side of our schools: “Fragile: Don’t touch.”

It doesn’t need to be that way.

My wife regularly says, though she doesn’t claim to have come up with it, that we ought to be preparing our kids for the road and not preparing the road for our kids. Parents want their kids to do well, to succeed, to pass them. But this doesn’t happen by making everything smooth and easy. Our kids will succeed not when we’ve put enough padding around them that they “survive.” Besides, we can actually do better than making them sturdy. What if we trained them in such a way that when the world throws crazy things at them they thrive?

This is our mission at ECS. The school board finalized our mission statement last summer.

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.

This is a battle. It requires wisdom to really see a culture, it requires strength to carry a culture, it requires wisdom and strength and courage and hope to advance a culture.

The world is certainly offering her alternative to a Christ-honoring culture. The chaos and the volatility that come with denying the Lordship of Christ is bad, but, for the right kind of person, such chaos is the perfect opportunity. The culture of unbelief is hostile, but it is also self-defeating. It can’t stand on its own; it has to borrow any truth it depends on. Our students are being equipped not merely to withstand the attack, but to take advantage of every weakness in the system and tip it over.

Such training requires a variety of things, including the “tools of classical education.” This is an old pedagogy, with a Dorothy Sayers twist that emphasizes certain parts of training with certain ages of development. There are three categories of these tools considered under the heading of the Trivium (one of the things that goes into the Classical school difference): Grammar, Dialectic/Logic, and Rhetoric.

Antifragile students know their facts. They know that there are only three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. They live in a world of “he”s and “she”s and “it”s. What an advantage to distinguish male and female and not only when choosing a restroom or hooking up a sound system. They know that two plus two equals four, all the time, because God made it that way. Our youngest students sing about the Bible and about the catechism and about the parts of speech because they love to sing and because they don’t have any doubt about God’s good gifts in creation. This is the Grammar stage.

Antifragile students test their arguments as well as the advertising propaganda shot at them. They know that syllogisms can be valid, but not sound, yet we’re looking for both. They live in a world of good, better, and best, and are learning to distinguish which is which according to created categories and according to the standard of God’s Word. This is the Logic stage.

Antifragile students express their ideas. They’ve assembled truth and assessed what is good and they prepare to adorn their persuasions. They are polishing their prose, poetry, and presentations. “Rhetoric is the class that’s trying to turn [a student] into a leader” (Rebekah Merkle, Classical Me, Classical Thee). This is the Rhetoric stage.

We train students in the grammar stage to be curious, to love to collect and chant (HIC HAEC HOC!). We train students in the logic stage to be (a good sort of) contrarian, to love to correct and question. And we train students in the rhetoric stage to be creative, to love producing and shaping not just consuming and being shaped.

All of these things together work toward making courageous, Christ-loving, Christ-honoring students. We need young men and women who can choose well and advance at crosswords we as parents and teachers can’t currently see. We’re working to equip students who get stronger by figuring things out, with a deadline, with others depending on them.

I love C. S. Lewis’ quote about how favorable conditions never come. “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.” We want students who want unfavorable conditions anyway. It’s not inconsequential that it was Bard (a synonym for poet) the Bowman who shot down the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, and it’s not just coincidence that the only time Smaug’s weak spot showed is when he was flying and attacking.

At ECS we are laboring, with laughter, to produce a certain kind of antifragile person who is “impossible to sneak up on” (Merkle), who is part of a community of those who not only are not easily broken, but who relish the opportunities to build in a broken world.

Categories
A Shot of Encouragement

It’s Already Hitting the Fan

When the laws regulating human society are so formed as to come into collision with the nature of things, and in particular with the fundamental realities of human nature, they will end by producing an impossible situation which, unless the laws are altered, will issue in such catastrophes as war, pestilence and famine. Catastrophes thus caused are the execution of universal law upon arbitrary enactments which contravene the facts; they are thus properly called by theologians, judgments of God.

—Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Kindle Locations 303-306
Categories
Bring Them Up

Every Lesson Is a Gift

What is missing most in most education? For me, my public schooling was more like a week-old donut hole: bite-size, dry, and missing much of the context. I missed many great books, in part because I didn’t read what I was assigned and in part because significant others weren’t assigned. I missed a definition of revolution and how our war against the British wasn’t properly one. I missed logic–formal and in blue jeans. These are just samples. But what I missed most was teaching to thankfulness.

We learned things but we didn’t have anyone to thank. To be consistent with the materialistic, evolutionary worldview that drove what we did, learning shouldn’t have been fun, it was merely in order to survive and advance. But if God created all things and sustains them by His Word, then every page of every lesson and every fact on earth is a gift. That’s how to get kids excited. Unwrap the present that is parts of speech and scientific classification and counting by tens and A Tale of Two Cities and see the tag “From: God.”

This is the advantage of Christian education. The Christian God gives. More than blindfolding students from unrighteousness in the world, teachers at a Christian school work to open eyes to see God’s glory in the world. We give thanks for Christ and through Christ and to Christ. Not anything that was made was not made by Him. It’s all His. He rules it. He cares about it. He gives it to us to enjoy and use.

So Christian education is not only learning the Bible but also learning how to see all the things we have to be thankful for. (And perhaps learning how to not end sentences with prepositions. Or split infinitives.)

How do we get all of it in? We can’t. We’re finite. But what kid rejects a gift because it is too big for his hands? We try to get a hold of as much as we can, and the process we use at our school is the Trivium. Here is the advantage of classical education as it follows the “three ways.”

The Grammar stage is nonstop collecting, ubiquitous capture, building mental shelves and loading them. During the elementary years we teach the ABCs and 1+1s and Genesis one and Romans one and details about wars and who won. The students drink up as much as possible from the ocean of knowable things. But it tastes sweet because it’s gift for which we can be grateful. The 10 Commandments, Egyptian history, Latin declensions, math investigations, Narnia, these are all notes and lyrics and parts for our songs.

At this age, one readily…rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. (Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”)

For example, this year our grammar students in Bible class are learning a ten minute song from Genesis to Joshua that includes events and dates and Bible chapter for the six days of creation, the call of Abraham, Joseph as a slave in Egypt, the plagues, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments. Our kindergarten students are learning a rhyming rap about counting by tens. Our second year Latin students are translating Green Eggs and Ham (or Virent Ova! Viret Perna!). This is a lot of work, but it is not burdensome because we receive it as good from God.

Next comes the Logic stage, a phase that trains for attentive assessment. We do not often think of a junior higher as distinguished, but we can help him to be a distinguisher. Students learn formal logic, a thing to be thankful for itself, as a way to spot lies in what the world says to be thankful for (i.e., personal autonomy) and what the world says not to be thankful for (i.e., God’s laws). Students take the store of information they’ve collected and dissect it, debate over it, and come to some conclusions about thankfulness.

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. (Sayers)

The Rhetoric stage is persuasive presentation, not learning to dress up like an insincere salesmen but rather learning to adorn the truth and win others to thankfulness for it. Not only can students avoid being manipulated by advertisers and media propaganda, they can articulate the truth better.

The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
(Proverbs 16:23)

This year our older students have read works such as Pilgrim’s Progress, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and others to see what rhetoric looks like driving down the road. We recently read The Communist Manifesto and observed how it argued for a worldview of envy, not thankfulness.

Is this classical approach to education (the Trivium) particularly Christian? It is when it runs on the energy of gratitude and to the goal of gratitude. That said, we acknowledge that unbelievers can and do learn and teach many things. We even know how that’s possible.

Common grace is what happens when God allows non-believers to participate in and enjoy that which could not be true if their view of the universe were true. Common grace is the blessing that results when God allows non-believers to be inconsistent. (Doug Wilson, Why Christian Kids Need a Christian Education)

Non-Christians can give thanks, but they can’t give thanks consistently. And Christians can only give thanks consistently because of the evangel (a great name for a school). The gospel frees us from discontent and opens our eyes to see God. We are thankful for open eyes, and we are thankful for all the things our now open eyes see that God has given.

Thankfulness keeps us sharp, always receiving (from God who doesn’t stop giving), always discerning (from the world who doesn’t stop lying, or from our own sin that keeps whining), and always declaring. Following the Trivium we learn how to keep learning, in particular, how to keep growing in our appreciation for truth, goodness, and beauty.

Classical Christian education isn’t a bore or a chore. It keeps kids interested because it’s all for them and shapes their loyalties to the Father of lights who gives every perfect gift. For that we can be thankful.

Categories
Every Thumb's Width

Why Work?

I highly recommend this article by Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?” She wrote it in 1942 in the middle of WWII. She touches on war, economics, advertising, vocation, contentment, dualism, and the church. Though I think she misses the disciple-making opportunities and obligations of every Christian worker, she punches much of our selfish and shoddy labor in the throat. She also puts worship at the head of every production line.  

The end of our work will be decided by our religious outlook: as we are so we make

I especially appreciate Sayers’ questions that blame the Church’s moral-gnostic message for much of the confusion and careless work among Christians.

How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry?

If you have half an hour and if you’re interested in further developing the full-orbed, Kuyperian-Calvinist, image-bearing worldview (for yourself or for your kids and grandkids), then these pages will be well worth your reading work.