Categories
Bring Them Up

The Souls of the School

I enjoy the opportunity to talk about things I love in different ways. It’s a good challenge to take up a known thing and try to see it from a different angle. This is our 11th ECS Information Night, and in all the fundamentals the information is still the same as it was at the first. 

I’m adding to my challenge tonight, though, because I want to remind us about two valuable things, though one is more valuable than the other and must be prioritized as such. It is easier to pit two things against each other (even if they really shouldn’t be). It’s easier to cheer for one side and hammer, or at least nitpick, the other than it is to hold a careful tension.

Mr. Sarr regularly reminds us, parents and teachers, that ECS is not a church (here’s one example). The best school day can’t replace corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. The longer the school operates, the more obvious are the school’s limits and the more obvious the benefits a family gets from their membership in a church body.

One can’t replace the other, though there is a resemblance between both church and school. Both are institutions, organizations founded for a common purpose. And even more than similarity, in key ways a school such as ECS supports a part of the church’s mission (and I don’t just mean TEC). A church glorifies God in worship and in making disciples—that is, learners, students—who love Christ and obey His commandments and care about what He cares about. Since Christ created all things, we teach our students to love algebra, volcanoes, poems, letters and languages, and more because Christ loves those things.

As institutions, a church and a school compare because what matters most is the soul, every soul, all souls. When we rightly say that the church is not a building but the people, we can also say that a school is more than a place, it is a living community of souls.

There is a fantastic book you probably don’t need to read if you meditate on the title, The Trellis and the Vine. This analogy frames our priority.

A gardener who spends his time researching trellis, always repositioning or repainting trellis, to the neglect of the vine is a bad gardener. He may be so bad that he becomes a carpenter or a painter after the vine shrivels up from lack of attention. The point of the trellis is to serve and support the living plant, to give it space and direction to grow and climb, and, depending on what kind of plant, to enable it to produce more fruit. The living thing is the point, the priority, the purpose of the gardener’s work.

This isn’t because trellis is bad. A tomato plant not staked will fall all over itself. It won’t get the sun or water as it needs, and so the fruit may be small and spoiled as soon as it sprouts. In a school there are stakes, the right books and age-appropriate desks and Ticonderoga #2s, as well as different rules and procedures intended to give the plant a place to bloom.

But it is easy for trellis maintenance to get more attention, and it’s easier to give attention to the trellis. Things that don’t squirm, fuss, or fail take less work, and the work still looks like there’s real progress. But the soul of a school are its souls. What makes ECS special are the souls of the Board, the Headmaster, the full-time team, the part-time teachers, the volunteer helpers, the parents, and the students. 

We are in an “exciting” time, in WA and at ECS. We are out of step with the State and we keep running out of space. We’ve been looking for a few years for a place we could really plant ourselves, a place where we could spread out the trellis, to have more rooms and more room to play than on pavement. At the same time, the most pressing concern is always the souls. 

Souls over Sycamore (though what an amazing app of common grace that allows communication about homework between teachers and parents directly), souls over standardized tests, souls over seating arrangements, souls over musical scales, souls over swing-sets and soccer balls. Grades may help to reveal what’s happening in a given class, yes, but most of the time our teachers spend at the end of a Quarter is concerned with identifying character. Maybe we could call them “Soul cards.”

One of my favorite gifs of all time is from an Old El Paso taco commercial. The family is struggling to decide whether to have hard shell or soft shell tacos for dinner. A young girl shrugs and says, “Why not both?” and then they lift her up onto their shoulders in celebration.

Going back to the previous metaphor, good trellis makes for healthy vines. It’s both, and we pray for both. Yet we always need to keep in mind that as we commend the works of the Lord to the next generation, it’s because that generation will live forever. They are, along with us, eternal souls. This reality provides us with reason to provide them with the best we can in the here and now, while also holding somewhat loosely the seen things because they are fading away (2 Corinthians 4:18).

So as you process all the information, as you think about the future of the school as well as your investment, remember that there is no profit for a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (Matthew 16:26).

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
Bring Them Up

Good Fences Make Good Students

I used these notes for my most recent Information Night address at ECS.

Maybe Robert Frost’s most popularly known poem is “The Road Less Taken,” but the title of my talk plays off a line from the poem, “Mending Wall.” A stone wall separating two farms in New England needs mending, and while they work one of the farmers questions if the work is really necessary. Twice the neighbor farmer says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Among other layers of meaning, we’re reminded that boundaries are a blessing. I know where myself and where my stuff belong, and so do you. A good wall, rather than create tension, enables neighborly trust, and trust enables fellowship.

When it comes to so much that poses as education today, the primary passion seems to be to break down every wall, to tear down all the fences, to demolish every boundary line, especially if it looks like someone is hiding their privilege. Modern education is a bulldozer in Prius clothing, driven by suspicion and doubt and envy.

Just last week WA State Democrats introduced House Bill 2184 to provide “comprehensive sexual health education” starting in 2022, which includes compulsory sex education for Kindergartners. A Comprehensive Sexual Health Education work group (CSHE) argues for starting so soon because the “social emotional needs of our youngest students must be addressed for prevention of future challenges.” On one hand there have always been sex assumptions for Kindergartners; Bill was a boy and Jill was a girl. Bill had the pocketknife, Jill had the butcher knife. No one had to teach students that there were two sexes, and it certainly wasn’t controversial. That was education with good fences, with the God-given (and naturally observed) distinctions: male and female. This is a truth, one of many truths in God’s creation, that are a blessing to those who leave the fence alone, or at least have two separate bathrooms.

The denials of male and female by many modern “educators” causes the opposite of education. That kind of curriculum isn’t transferring a body of knowledge, it questions knowledge about the body. It causes confusion, it raises doubts, and it grows fruitlessness. It is built on tearing down walls. The unwillingness to distinguish and celebrate and train toward strengths of the differences between male and female is just one example, but it is the sort that has other faces. How many politicians have recently said that “Abortion equals healthcare.” That is like saying “War is peace,” which George Orwell wrote in 1984. It’s how the Ministry of Truth trashed truth and rewrote history.

The only way for there to be liberty and justice is by acknowledging the fences of objective and fixed truth. For Christians, we have these walls because God made the world, and He made it knowable (not exhaustively but dependably), and He blesses those who receive His gifts, including the boundaries. What God has joined together let no man separate, and what God has separated (light from dark, day from night, male from female) let no man muddle up.

At ECS we see His gifts and we utilize the tools of classical education to help our students appreciate the fences and enjoy the gifts.

In the earlier stages, K-elementary school, we teach the facts about the alphabet and phonograms, about how letters make words (with proper spelling), about how words make sentences (with proper syntax). We still teach that 2 + 2 = 4, that triangles have three sides, that addition and multiplication share the associative property, that long division can be checked because it is not a guessing game. In classical education jargon this part of the Trivium is referred to as the Grammar stage, with grammar referring to the ABCs of each subject. Each piece of truth is like a brick in the wall. Gravity only works one way on earth, and that’s helpful to know and changes what you expect when you walk out the front door.

We aren’t creating robots, though there is a lot of repetition and reminders through songs and chants and catechisms and sound-offs. They may sound like parrots, but it’s fun, and it’s not filling their minds with the false.

As students mature, as they begin to see even more things for themselves than what their parents and teachers put in front of them, they start asking questions about how? things work together, or don’t. They start asking a lot of why? things are the way they are or aren’t, should or shouldn’t be. Our emphasis around the time of Junior High is in Logic, the second part of the Trivium, which includes training in formal logic and validity of argumentation. It also includes putting questions of worldview to Homer and Plato, to Beowulf and The Divine Comedy, and many other great books.

There are two problems with teaching students logic. One is that they can get critical of those who are sloppy or those who cheat when they argue; ideally, though, they are learning to sort out their own faulty thinking first. The biggest actual problem is that so many people today, including the talking heads on television and YouTube and Instagram, only care about how something makes them feel. Our students should be able to say that’s the Snowflake Fallacy. Or, narcissism.

Already at the Logic stage, but encouraged even more as they near the latter years of High School, we emphasize Rhetoric, presentation, beauty in art and artful writing and speaking and singing. It is possible to adorn a pig, but the truth can be adorned, too. Persuading others is not pummeling them, nor is it propaganda. It is the art of showing that the walls we live by are attractive.

We want to help make Marysville great again (#MMGA). We want to play a part in making Marysville a destination for Christians to worship and work and raise the next generation to carry and advance Christ honoring culture. That means that we need walls, and teachers, working beside parents, who maintain those walls. Good fences make good students.

I love this illustration by G. K. Chesterton near the end of his book, Orthodoxy:

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (p. 143)

It’s no wonder that so many students are having no fun; they have no safe place to play.

We live in a wild world, but not an imaginary one, and the walls of truth enable us to laugh and to learn; if you visit on a school day, you will hear how loud it is; our song has not ceased. Ironically, in our context, living with such walls makes our school offensive, not just as an annoyance but on the assault. Because we believe that Jesus is Lord over it all, we are outrageous. More than outrageous, we want you to consider ECS as a place that helps your students become outcourageous.

Categories
Bring Them Up

“Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”

Or, (Students + The Trivium) × Teachers

The following notes are for a talk I gave at our school’s Information Night.

Our school board recently finished reading through and discussing the Chronicles of Narnia together. I’m also part of another group of adults, many of whom are parents of current school students, working through the Chronicles as secondary reading for something we call Omnibus Tenebras. Then we have our annual Fiction Festival coming in March and the theme is going to be all things Narnian and Lewisian. So I reentered Aslan’s orbit seven months ago and have been spinning since.

Reading through the series again I noticed a question asked by Professor Kirke near the start of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which he asks in a similar form two more times in The Lion) and which he asks again near the end of The Last Battle. Sort of aloof, as he is, and exasperated, he wonders out loud, “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” The first time he was lamenting Peter and Susan’s lack of logic. The last time, when his beard was golden, he was wondering why they hadn’t read Plato. Well, in our school, we teach Logic, and Plato. And we teach the Chronicles of Narnia!

One of Lewis’ literary contemporaries and friends was Dorothy Sayers. You may have heard her name before associated with classical education due to a paper she read at Oxford in 1947, that she then published as a journal article, titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Along with Lewis, she was concerned about what was and what wasn’t being taught to students. If Sayers or Lewis or both of them could see what’s happening in our government education system some seventy years later, I can’t imagine what narrative tirade might have been unleashed (though That Hideous Strength would cover a lot). Although Edmond didn’t want to recognize that the White Witch was no good, at least he could recognize that the White Witch was a girl. The fight between good and evil didn’t get all the way down to gender pronouns. “Bless ze, what do they teach at these schools?”

Not ze best teacher

It was Sayers who reintroduced the Trivium, the three ways of education, which are 1) Grammar, 2) Logic (or Dialectic), and 3) Rhetoric. These are the first three of the seven liberal arts, liberal in reference to men who are free, and she in particular had the insight to connect each method of learning to each phase of a student’s development.

The youngest students are like parrots. Play them a catchy song and they will sing it until parents quickly pass from the stage of thinking it’s cute to the stage of being amazed at what their student is capable of memorizing and into the stage of being annoyed that their student doesn’t get tired of it. There is a grammar to every subject, facts that are ripe for harvest in very field of study. Nouns and verbs are language grammar, addition and subtraction are math grammar, colors are for art and notes are for music grammar, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 is history grammar.

As students mature toward junior high they hit a stage that is harder to call cute, and it’s also hard to call mature. They’re in the process of figuring out where all the things go. They are building mental shelves to sort and categorize all the grammar they’ve collected. They start start asking more questions and seeing more connections. They also start their arguing engines, and, as Sayers acknowledged their extremely high “nuisance value,” why not at least show them how to argue logically?

The third stage is not just gravy on the cake or icing on the meat. There is really cake and meat; icing on cotton balls offers no nutrition, and gravy on cardboard might trick you for a moment, but there’s no satisfaction. So truth cake and good meat are necessary underneath and then rhetoric tops them off. Rhetoric skills enable a young man or woman in mid to late high school to take substance and polish it. The polish might come via poem or prose, painting or presentation, but it’s taking what’s already valuable and making it shine.

ECS teaches all the subjects, be it Bible/theology, Music, Math, Science, English, Logic, Latin, Literature, Writing, Rhetoric, and History with the Trivium methods in mind, and we do it in Jesus’ name because He holds all the ends together.

I’ve been struck in recent months by what makes the Trivium so fruitful. I’ve been reading about and trying to share a vision of the Trivium since before we had a school, since my wife informed me that my participation in homeschooling our 2nd grader at the time was not optional. I’ve believed that students plus the Trivium adds up to great things for over a decade now. But it is multiplied by teachers.

If you want to know why you should register your kids for ECS before you leave the building tonight, what you really need to do is get to know the teachers. They are the multiplying function. We’re not making them present their resumes as part of the program, but that wouldn’t do any of them justice anyway.

Jesus said: every disciple, that is, every learner, every student, will be just like his teacher.

When my wife and I were trying to homeschool, we realized that we wanted our daughter and her younger siblings to be more than us. This wasn’t a cop out, as if we could merely sit back and trust our kids’ enculturation to others. It meant we had even more to do, which included trying to convince some other parents to join us in this crazy hard, crazy great, crazy blessed work.

The Trivium is not better than I thought; the Trivium is fantastic. But when the Trivium methods are practiced by those who care, the outcomes are way better than I thought. This is a mathematical operation, a factor function. Take a number, add another number, get a higher total. But take a number and put a multiplier between it and another number, and watch out.

ECS is more than the sum of its parts. I was reminded of it again while reading the following in a book titled, Anitfragile:

Collaboration has explosive upside, what is mathematically called a superadditive function, i.e., one plus one equals more than two, and one plus one plus one equals much, much more than three….since you cannot forecast collaborations and cannot direct them, you cannot see where the world is going. All you can do is create an environment that facilitates these collaborations, and lay the foundation for prosperity.

John Milton Gregory wrote in The Seven Laws of a Teacher that the ideal teacher is “an incarnate assemblage of impossible excellencies.” We have an excellent assemblage for collaboration.

We have teachers who have lived in tents while remodeling their houses, who muck horse stalls before sunrise, who knit hats and dolls and sew scaled down ECS uniforms for American Girl Dolls, who scrounge through the woods for sticks to make bows and read multi-volume bower bibles about how to do it. Our teachers exercise, slow cook and crock pot, read for pleasure, write for pleasure, and most importantly, they worship faithfully on the Lord’s Day. They invest in more than the students in their classes, and that’s why they have something for their students. They aren’t finished, but they are learning to learn, and that’s exactly what we want for our students.

Christian and classical education has some great ideas behind it and before it, but the ideas themselves could not make ECS great. The Trivium plus students multiple by teachers make it great in ways that couldn’t be scripted.

Our school mission starts by saying that “We commend the works of the Lord to another generation….” And I am commending the works of the Lord to you now. At ECS we are looking at and learning the grammar of His works, and the logic of how His works fit together, and how to adorn His works at image bearers through rhetoric. And I am also blessed to say, ECS is is itself a work of the Lord, and our teachers are a multiplying factor in making Marysville great again. #mmga

We want to bless you, both by what we teach at this school, and by those who teach at it.

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
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.

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.