A History of the Essay

The word has changed over time. Here’s an article that sweeps the centuries for ideas about essay writing that will provoke responses in teachers of writing. A good read, and one worth discussing.

Prince Caspian is coming!

There’s even a poster to prove it!

 Unfortunately, they might not be able to watch it in our prisons because CS Lewis is among the banned authors listed by the federal Bureau of Prisons.

I can’t help but wonder if the Enlightenment isn’t hitting its two limits: one, the realization that it’s foundations never existed, and two, the realization that it is a classical Christian heresy that simply won’t play in the wider world.

Christian classical manners made the Enlightenment possible. Then the Enlightenment kicked out his mother. He has shown he can’t manage the world without her wisdom.

Grammar Ain’t Easy

No matter how many programs come out that describe fun ways to teach grammar and tell kids and parents how easy it is, the fact is, grammar ain’t easy.

You can’t make it easy. Grammar is analytical and it is abstract. That makes it hard.

It also makes it a subject (really an “art” or “skill” more than a subject) that requires practice, which isn’t always fun no matter how you try to make it so.

Young children need to learn early that learning is a challenge and that it will require effort from them. Why should they be surprised later, when they are less willing to be challenged?

So how to teach grammar? Gradually, one idea at a time. Through types, one idea at a time, embodied in examples. Interactively. Present the types, then ask the students to compare them. Gradually they’ll come to understand the idea.

If their grammar studies are restricted to crutches (jingles and chants and teacher directed statements), then the child will never learn to walk, no matter how skilled he gets with the crutch. He needs to get the ideas.

What grammar program are you using? We’re involved in a research project right now, trying to find the best grammar programs for Christian classical schools. Please give us your suggestions and let us know why you like them.

A good solution

A while ago I posted on an article from Wendell Berry in which he presented a model of thinking that seems to me to be essential to understanding and living with reality. It’s an ancient way of thinking, rooted in accepting our limits and loving wisdom; and it’s a way of thinking that seems to have been set aside by neglect. We simply don’t apply this common sense to our thoughts any more.

The basic idea is that we can’t understand what we are studying or thinking about if we don’t see it in its relations to the realities around it. He was applying his thoughts to farming and agriculture. I would like to apply them to education.

I found a post from my earlier and lost blog on Hirsch and Gardner that I resurrected and inserted below. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences can illustrate my point. The IQ test was developed in early 20th century to measure people’s intelligence in relation to other people. What benefits they legitimately hoped to derive from this effort we can wonder. Certainly it created a number of problems, not least of which was the rather truncated view of intelligence it encouraged people to hold.

Practically speaking, IQ holds up a certain kind of intelligence as the summa of intelligence and treats the rest as if it doesn’t exist (which approximates a fine definition of the literal meaning of the word “despise”). It took about 60 years for somebody to develop a theory that could displace the limitations of the theory of IQ, and that was Howard Gardner with his notion of multiple intelligences.

In my view, both theories are too analytical and will be harmful in the hands of the superficial thinkers who make most of our educational decisions. Wise men and women will be able to benefit from both.

The immediate point I am trying to make is that IQ treated a certain kind of analytical intelligence as the whole of intelligence, disregarded what stood outside of its measuring system, and therefore harmed people measured by it. In other words, it created a structure of thought and action that was incapable of fulfilling the thinkers responsibility to the realities that remained outside the system.

That serves as a pretty good summary of what bothers me most about modernist thought. If its tools don’t detect something, it concludes that the thing doesn’t exist. Concluding that it doesn’t exist, it ignores that thing. But that thing might well be the well spring of life for what is being studied. The modernist can never find this out, because the faculties of perception have been shuttered.

As Berry put it: “A bad solution is bad, then, because it acts destructively upon the larger patters in which it is contained. It acts destructively upon those patterns, most likely, because it is formed in ignorance or disregard of them…. A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns.”

Here’s the point: we Christian classical educators make much of our desire to teach children how to think. The patterns of our thought are every bit as vital as the content. We must think in patterns that reflect reality. What Berry is describing is just such a pattern, and it is one that was practiced until well into the Enlightenment. Therefore, our schools must be structured to teach children to think in patterns like this.

We move in this direction when we integrate our curricula, but we err when we mistake overlapping for integration. Integration never challenges the integrity of the subject, the teacher, or the student.

In Berry’s essay he proposes 14 principles that we must follow to find a “good solution.” I hope to blog on them as they relate to school over the next few weeks.

Records or wins

Brett Favre tied the all time record for career touchdown passes yesterday and said he didn’t care. He wanted to win.

 He must have been a terrible student in school, where all anybody cares about is records.

More importantly, he demonstrates one of life’s great principles: Care about what matters most and things that matter less follow in their wake. Seek first the kingdom of God and the rest will be added to you.

what about the witchcraft in Harry Potter

This is the basic dilemma Christians have with the series. Both classical mythology and the Bible provide plenty of reasons to be concerned. The great witch of classical mythology is Medea, and it would be hard to find a less desirable character in life or myth. She devotes her life to avenging herself on Jason for abandoning her for another woman, which he did partly because she didn’t fit his plans and partly because she was, well, she was a witch, and not only literally.

What makes Medea such a fearful character is first that she is willing to go to the dark forces of Greek mythology to gain power and that she uses her enormous powers for her own ends. The latter leads, of course, to the former. You can read her disturbing story in the various accounts of Jason and the Argonauts, of which I recommend Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece as a fine starting point. The link above is an E-text. You can also purchase it on Amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble.

The Bible is also rather explicit about witches. The LORD had no room for them in ancient Israel at all. When Saul went to the witch of Endor the reader knows that the King has crossed the boundary to the forbidden realm; that he has lost his mind.

The Christian classical tradition has always seen witches as dark forces. The Renaissance witch craze, in which both the fascination with and the fear of witchcraft slipped out of control, remains a permanent blight on European history. It was a double over-reaction.

Prior to the Renaissance and after it, witchcraft and its kin are used consistently to represent what we might now call the “dark side of the force.” Classical mythology had a category of powers they referred to as chthonic. These were the powers that the people worshipped before the arrival of the worshippers of the Olympian deities. They are the cloaked powers, the underground deities, the gods of trees and fountains and wells. On the brighter side, they are the “nature gods” as opposed to the Olympians, who came later and were worshipped as the supernatural gods.

After the arrival of the Olympian gods, the chthonic deities are thought to have gone even further underground. They are the gods of the mystery religions and the odd rituals that permeate even the Olympian mythology.

They are not regarded as uniformly evil, but the Greeks were cautious and fearful about their relationships with them. They appeased them, but so far as I can tell, they were not encouraged to call on them.

With the coming of Christianity, these chthonic deities seem to have come to be regarded as symbolic of evil, even of demons.

Christians and Olympian worshippers both felt that access to these powers was dangerous and Christians forbade it outright. Witches came to be seen as people who were willing to access these powers. Eventually, the powers and those who accessed them came to be regarded as inherently evil.

Western fairy tales then used witches as metaphors for the evil that permeates the world. There could not be a good witch, because the powers of witches came to be seen as derived necessarily from Satan and his demons. Witches were a warning to people that there were limits to the kinds of power we ought to seek.

With the Renaissance that warning came to be increasingly ignored until, in the Newtonian Olympian age (the Enlightenment) people refused to acknowledge any limitation on their knowledge or powers. They probed rationally into the recesses of nature and the human soul, and their fascination grew.

Inevitably, the metaphor that called us to limit our quest for power had itself to be overthrown.

So far as I can tell, it was The Wizard of Oz that first introduced the notion of a good witch into children’s literature. Of course, people now laugh at the notion that people were distraught about children reading this book when it first came out. Look at those book burners and banners, those censors who dare challenge the right of a child to read a charming children’s book. After all, what harm could a children’s fairy tale possibly cause?


The Wizard of Oz fails on a number of levels, one of which is its sheer lack of nobility and chivalry (see how the lion takes back the wood at the end for the “locus classicus” of this point). But what seems to have stirred up the most hostility, again, so far as I can tell, is the notion of a good witch.

In the Christian classical worldview, there can be no good witch. To allow children to experience a good witch in a fairy tale is parallel to allowing a child to read about a good demon. Of course people brought up on that tradition would react when a semi-educated insurance salesman who didn’t know what he was doing inverted one of the symbols that children had used to understand evil for hundreds of years.

In other words, the great problem with a good witch is that witches had been symbols of evil for a long time. I hope I explained why above.

Then people went to horrible extremes until, during the infamous Salem witch trials (which was insignificant numerically compared to the European witch hunts, but which was deplorable under the circumstances because the European witch craze had ended a generation earlier), people used witchcraft as a way to destroy people they didn’t like and the superstitious minds of the age had no defense against it.

That excess produced a guilt and a shame in the western consciousness that may has driven us to carelessness.

In a modern fairy tale a witch is interchangeable with a fairy godmother. In real life, people engage in wicca and others sit on the sideline bemused.

The world has changed.

I am no expert on wicca and I certainly do not believe that everybody involved in wicca is evil, any more than I believe that Christians are generally good. Wicca, so far as I can tell, is regarded by its practioners as a return to ancient pagan practices. If so, it seems to me that it is a return to the chthonic forms of that ancient practice.

Olympian paganism has become an amusing and profoundly insightful set of stories. Chthonic paganism draws its practioners into a world of mystery that we ought not to play with. I can easily understand why people would want to enter that world. I would simply urge you not to. There is a deeper magic from before the dawn of time and it meets a deeper need in your soul.

But, what about Harry Potter?

I’m out of time so I’ll have to pick this up later. But I’ll say this much: while I think Rowling erred using witchcraft as she does, I don’t think it has the same signficance it did when Baum did it some 75 years ago. The road in is also the road out. The historical circumstances in which she wrote influence the propriety of what she wrote.

Hirsch and Gardner: Leading American Ed Leaders

Perhaps the two leading debaters in the education world these days are ED Hirsch of Cultural Literacy fame and Howard Gardner, best known for his theory of multiple intelligences.

I have been turning back to one book by each of them lately (The Disciplined Mind, by Howard Gardner and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, by E.D. Hirsch), and will be posting responses in the coming days.

I do want to recommend both books as two of the most thoughtful representations of the two leading views on conventional education.

Gardner considers Hirsch an empiricist and Hirsch, so far as I know, doesn’t dispute the charge. Gardner considers himself a constructivist, and Hirsch considers constructivism a psychological truism that has made unfounded claims about pedagogy.

I consider both of them invaluable sources for stimulation and thought. I don’t agree with the ultimate foundations of either of them, but both of them are so careful in their thinking and so clear in their presentation that the act of reading them sharpens my own thoughts about eduacation. Both offer much I do agree with.

In his work The Disciplined Mind, Gardner uses common sense to point out that “A sensible way to think about education is to “plan backward: to determine the kind of person one would like to see emerge at the end of an educatonal regime…. The challenge then becomes to sculpt an educational approach that is most likely to achieve that vision.”

It’s funny how little of this common sense is applied in American education, but it is tragic too, because the main reason it isn’t is because American education has no sound theory about what a child is. Is he the divine image or a blob of protoplasm headed for the dung heap? Is he chemical processes or infinite soul? Is he entirely physical or is he also spiritual?

As a result, when anybody suggests an end, cries of tyranny (usually justly) arise. Until we know what a human being is, we should not concern ourselves with his formation.

Gardner continues: “It is easy to see why so many educational systems have foundered. Designers survey knowledge and skills that seem important and decide to cover them all.”

And where do these designers gain the wisdom to make such decisions for a national community?

Look for more on Gardner and Hirsch (both rejoicing in our agreements and picking bones) in future posts.

The Power of Harry Potter and the Necessity for Romance

I just finished The Deathly Hallows again, this time taking the time to read more closely than during my first rush through it. Some initial reflections:

Harry Potter continues a tradition that goes back to ancient mythology through medieval legends and early modern fairy tales and 20th century fantasy that will last as long as humans sit around campfires or university campuses and tell stories to each other. The tradition includes ghost stories, but goes far beyond that. It contains magical stories, stories about beings with supernatural powers, heroes who lay down their lives to save others from evil, creatures who bridge the space between the human soul and nature. Perhaps the best title for it is the romance.

Humans cannot be understood without this tradition because it speaks of and sings for the deepest longings in the human soul: honor, meaning, civility, purpose, the hope that something matters and is worth living and dying for.

To prevent children from participating in this tradition is to undercut the healthy development of their souls. That is one reason Tolkien and Lewis were so shockingly successful in the hyper-rational modernist landscape.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about why I’ve always cherished this sort of writing and why lately I’ve come to see it as morally indispensable. Why is it so important?

Simply, because it arouses within us a desire for what matters a great deal more than any materialist worldview can offer us.

Some Christians fear Harry Potter and I understand that fear. The Bible is not obscure about witchcraft and some feel that Rowling celebrates witchcraft in this series. I think she was probably naive at a certain level, but it matters a great deal less today than it did when, say, Baum suggested the possibility of a good witch in the Wizard of Oz. Baum was semi-educated and didn’t know what he was doing, but the age absorbed it. I don’t believe a witch should be treated as a metaphor of something positive and on this count I think Rowling erred. That merits more attention elsewhere.

But this series is of enormous literary, which is to say psychological, social, philosophical, historical importance. Harold Bloom seems to despise it, but I don’t know if he’s read the last three volumes. Even so, any literary critic who scoffs at this set needs to get beyond the cliches and occasional empty adverbs. The critic needs to ask why this series has sold so well without hiding behind the solution that it was so well marketed.

It was, that’s why The Sorcerer’s Stone is the ninth best selling book in the history of the human race. But it’s only one reason. After all, it’d be hard to argue that Stephen King, Dan Brown, or Danielle Steele are poorly marketed. You can market hamburgers to death, but without service at the counter and something more than edible cardboard, fast food burgers would not have taken over the nation’s arteries.

Why has it succeeded so magnificently. Again, I believe the primary reason is that it arouses desires in our souls that our “culture” simply leaves desperately unsatisfied. Information about life after death is one of the more obvious, but Rowling takes it a step further. She never gives the jejeune cliche answer to these questions. She makes you think. She drops hints. She takes you further in. She doesn’t just suggest what might happen when we die, she makes us want to die well.

By arousing these “primal”, which is to say, deeply human, desires, she arouses the questions that flow from them. She drives her reader to Pascal (though arrival might occur 15 years later), she points you to Aristotle’s Categories, she makes you want to know how to be virtuous and courageous. She makes you want to know how to be human by presenting portraits of people who struggle with their desires every moment of their lives and yet do something that matters.

It’s not  a new charm. That’s why it works.

That’s also why, when you read a book like Harry Potter or a Fairy Tale to children, you shouldn’t engage in analysis. Let the child’s soul interact with the images in the book. Living ideas in living books make living children.

Opportunities over the next week

I’ve got a couple events coming up that I hope you can attend. This weekend I’ll be presenting a Lost Tools of Writing Workshop at a Christian Writers’ Conference here in Charlotte, at Southern Evangelical Seminary. Other presenters include Marvin Olaskey, Don Brown, Brian Godowa, and Catherine Claire. Click here for information.

On Tuesday, I’ll be interviewed by Maurice Velazquez on the Pluto and Plato radio show, which is actually a telephone conference call. Click here for information.

Smiling before Christmas?! Are you kidding me?

“In our other classes we get in trouble when we want to talk about what we’re learning.”

That from an article in Teacher Magazine about how to maintain classroom discipline and still smile. Short but insightful. Click here to read it (you might need to log in but it’s free).