Do you love your dream enough to pay for it?

When I was a boy I fancied myself a fair baseball player. I was the only 5th grader to make the first summer softball team at Lowell P. Goodrich Elementary School in Milwaukee where I played shortstop and scratched my ankle up sliding into second base on an asphalt baseball diamond. But, while I played every chance I got at school and home (and I made sure there were lots of chances), I never played little league because I went to camp every summer (where I played every chance I got). I was a pretty good player, but I was never coached. So when I arrived in a high school with 3000 students and thought about playing for our team, I was too inexperienced to avoid being intimidated. And I wasn’t willing to face the possible humbling experience of not making the team. So I didn’t try out.

In retrospect, I probably could have made the team and become pretty good with some coached practice. To this day, holding a baseball in my hand ranks among the most magical feelings I can have. But I wasn’t willing to pay the price for my dream.

Not many people are, I’ve found. Some people abandon them as childish and become what they call realistic and practical. Others cling to them as fantasies. Both are betrayals.

Michael Jordan had a dream. He paid for it. He realized it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. He paid for it. We are striving to realize it.

T.S. Eliot, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, all these had dreams, paid for them, and saw them, in varying degrees realized. But none of them saw them fully. And that’s part of the price of a real dream. You can’t have it. But that doesn’t matter. Like Paul, who knew he couldn’t attain but set aside practical considerations and said “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish… if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead,” the real dreamer gives up everything for the dream that he can never have in all its glory. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t a rational commitment; it’s love that draws us.

Only dreamers who love their dreams enough to pay for them matter.

There are two kinds of idealists, those who set their ideals against reality and resent reality, and those who embrace reality and realize that only in reality can an ideal be realized. The latter loves his ideals enough to pay for them.

Christian classical education is an idealist’s education and to many that means impractical and dreamy. In fact, Christian classical education is the education for people whose dreams are so precious and noble that they cannot abandon them, no matter the cost. Christian classical education is the education for people who dream of children who grow up to love wisdom and virtue (dreams themselves), who cherish truth, goodness, and beauty, and who glorify God by being like Him and so enjoy Him in the depths of their souls. And since children never do grow up to love and cherish and glorify as much as we want them to (just like us), the temptation to abandon this dream is relentless and usually, like every tempation, succumbed to.

But some are willing to pay the price.

What is the price that must be paid? Everybody will have to pay their own. But the price includes the battles that must be fought, within our souls, within our communities, and with the wider society.

The wider society first. It is very interested in classical education. Charter schools are using its language. Public schools are influenced by it. But is the dream marketable? Time will tell, but only if the dreamer’s won’t compromise the dream for market share.

And that means that the dreamers need to refine the dream and determine what is Christian classical education and worth dying for and what is personal preference. That won’t be easy.

The resources aren’t available yet either. We underestimate the difficulty of enlightenment at our peril. While we firmly believe that The Lost Tools of Writing will be embraced and will lift the thinking of the entire Christian classical “movement,” we realize that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done rebuilding a curriculum that moves us toward the dream.

And where will our teachers come from? While things are improving, teacher’s colleges still, for the most part, produce certified experts in the latest teaching techniques rather than liberally educated men and women who know how to think, who love learning because it is a good gift from God and a heavy responsibility, and who master both their subjects and prepare to master the ART of teaching. Here again, we believe the CiRCE apprenticeship will also be embraced and that it will result in deep and lasting fruit in Christian classical schools and homes. But we are dreamers who know that dreams are slow to ferment (to mix a metaphor only a little). The CiRCE apprenticeship will transform American education over 100 years. But in the next few years it will only transform a few classrooms in a few schools.

The American public mind is pragmatic, secular, and progressive. The American private mind is sentimental, spiritualistic, and timid. Only success will attract them to what we are doing. And why not? It is “by their fruits you shall know them.”

So what does it take to realize a dream?

First, a resolute acceptance of the way things are as the way things are.
Second, a penetrating formation of the dream within oneself.
Third, a firm commitment to pay any price needed to realize the dream.

The first and second needs prevent us from drifting into sentimentality and provide the invigorating steps we need to/can take to bring the dream to life.

Do you love your dream well enough to pay for it?

NB This is a recovered post from our old blog. As I am able to locate these, I bring them forward. Pardon me if it is redundant.

Static vs. Dynamic assessment

There are two common reasons for testing. First, the static fashion of determining roughly (and often rather arbitrarily) what students have learned and can repeat from the curriculum. Second, the dynamic fashion of assessing what has been learned so the teacher can adjust to the realities of the students’ experience. A third reason is, of course, to assess students for college admissions or their status as compared to other students, but this standardized mode of testing is so pedagogically problematic and even vulgar that I find it hard to mention it.

The first is by far the most common. It is driven by the need to produce data for administrative supervisors and has minimal value as an aid to student learning.

The second is less common in one sense, but on the other hand, every good teacher is doing it continually. So it is less formally common, but informally, I hope, much more common. It is certainly more necessary.

If teaching involves a relationship, one would hope that the teacher is in a continual interaction with the student so as to adjust her teaching according to teh circumstances and reality of the actual student in her presence instead of a theoretical student who fits somewhere on a bell curve.

I refer the reader to this article at Edweek on how some schools are even formalizing what I shall call “dynamic assessment”: Testing to Teach: Using Assessment to Shape Instruction

Here at CiRCE, we apply dynamic assessment in the way we teach The Lost Tools of Writing.

Grammar and tyranny

Here is a grammar teacher, let us call her Mrs. Malaprop.

And here is a grammar student, let us call him Billy Blood.

Mrs. Malaprop has been trained in the conventions of the contemporary University and has come to believe that correct grammar is determined entirely by the usage of the community and has no authority or necessity outside the community that determines the correctness. She leaves all the implied questions unasked, and out of deference to her I will do the same.

Billy Blood has been compelled by the wider community, of which he does not consider himself a member, to attend schools that train him in the conventions of the wider community of which he does not consider himself a part. His immediate community is a gang in some big city. 

Mrs. Malaprop has been assigned the task of teaching grammar to Billy Blood. It is her job, so she feels some compulsion to teach Billy grammar since she is paid to do so. But she knows perfectly well Billy has no desire to learn the conventions of the wider community of which he does not consider himself a member, but which considers him a member to the point that it considers itself responsible to train him in the conventions of the wider community. Based on that sense of responsibility, it feels justified in coercing Billy to attend training sessions in the conventions of the wider community.

I have framed this issue very deliberately because I want you to think about something. Is it possible for Mrs. Malaprop to teach Billy the conventions of grammar in the wider community (which, by the way, Mrs. Malaprop feels no personal loyalty to, but she knows she can’t flourish without attending to its rules – i.e. conventions) without violating his dignity and rights? Can she teach him without serving as the agent of a tyrannical government?

This is, in my view, an incredibly serious issue, so if you have any thoughts please help me through this.

Teaching students how to think

The great need that Dorothy Sayers and classical educators have always claimed to meet is teaching students how to think. I’m still amazed, however, at how little of what schools do with their students actually trains them to do so. So much time is spent getting through materials and learning what they are supposed to think that no time is left to learn sound habits of thinking.

Schools, to my astonishment, don’t teach higher level reading skills after around 5th grade. I’m afraid that most teachers might not know what those higher order skills are. Writing usually follows formulas that should have been mastered in middle school. Math is taught in such a way that students can apply processes to controlled situations, but are unable to adapt the ideas to other contexts.

If this describes your classroom or school, you don’t need to despair. The trouble with thinking is not that it’s so difficult, though it isn’t easy. It’s that it takes time and practice. And when my generation was growing up, we didn’t learn to take the time to think. We had work to do, things to get done. No time to think.

But think about it: The assumption behind thinking is “I need to figure something out,” or “I don’t know what I need to know.” In short, I am ignorant.

This may be the ultimate fear of the unknown – the fear that I will have to admit that I don’t know what I need to know and I don’t even know what I need to know I need to know.

So how do we move from ignorance to knowledge?

By asking questions.

Therefore, when we say we want to teach our students how to think, what we mean is, we want to teach them how to ask questions.

But we’re afraid to do that, often, because we fear that they might come up with different answers than we have or that they’ll find out something we don’t know. And they will too. They’ll grow beyond us. They might even liberate themselves from some of our fears.

That would be a good thing.

Teaching children the seven great questions as outlined in classical rhetoric (e.g. in The Lost Tools of Writing) will enable them to think at a level beyond what their peers can reach – and beyond what we have reached too. If we are afraid of this, we should stop teaching and, if necessary, admit that we are not teaching anyway.