Playing with Dirt: Productive Seeds for Teachers

Continuing my fall garden prep, I was out this morning on one of those Sweater Wearing Days that remind you of childwood walks in the woods and play in the dirt. I felt that energy of childhood surge in me – you know, that desire to be covered from head to toe in dirt!

You don’t get to do that much at school. In fact, you aren’t allowed to do that at school. In fact, most teachers regard dirt as an evil thing. That’s because schools are a feminist plot to destroy boyhood. Boys love dirt, and its not just because they’re disgusting animals. It’s because they have grown up to work in the dirt for many thousands of years. Genesis 1 tells us we were made to till the garden.

If indeed boys are supposed to get dirty and if indeed schools give them a bad attitude toward dirt, this is no light matter.

I’m a luddite, so I dug up the garden with a spade (what we rather loosely called a shovel where I grew up). Since the whole thing was covered in grass, it became burdensome enough to divide it over three weeks. Today I finished off the third of three 4X4 squares.

Last spring I wasn’t yet a Luddite, so I turned the soil with a gas rototiller. What a difference experience! Last year I had to get the machine working after lifting it into my van and driving it home. It took, if my memory serves, about an hour to thoroughly rototill the whole 10X4 rectangle. At first it was a pain because of all the brick houses that have melted into the soil around here, but then it rolled that soil like a bulldozer laying asphalt. When I was done I came to an appreciation of the power of that little machine.

This time I used the spade. It took a total of about 8 hours, including all the time spent whacking the clods against the deck and spade to free the grass roots and toss them in the will-be mulch heap (a question on that below) and tossing the sticks and telling Winky (our boxer, lab, chow) to fetch them. A blister has begun to form on my hands. I was quite pleased and a little smug about how nice the soil was this time compared to last spring (2006). When I was done I came to an appreciation of the soil.

I think I prefer the latter appreciation. If I were to start over in a new location, I would almost certainly rent a tiller for the first big plough. But after that, I would also use a spade. By using a spade and my hands, I gained a direct knowledge of the soil. I began to note how it behaves, where the best portions are and where are the sections that need more sand or loam, at least a few of the effects of water flow, etc. etc. All things that I would have had no need to know if I had used the rototiller, but all things that will help me be a better gardener in my little lot.

We love our technology. We love our efficiency. But we don’t always realize what it is costing us in the way of valuable knowledge. My goal was not to turn the soil as fast as possible. It was to prepare it and myself for a spring garden. It was to gain a living respect for the place of my garden, to better know and appreciate the actual specific facts that make up the life of my garden.

If I had overpowered it with the efficiency of the rototiller, all that would have been lost.

My question: are you supposed to keep grass out of your compost? Please advise.  

The role of the lit teacher

Neither Shakespeare nor Homer has an importance bestowed by literature professors and their universities. The true bestowal flows entirely in the other direction. What professors of literature can rightly bestow is honor, because meaningful praise has to come from those who know the excellence of things.

Why Literature Matters, Glenn Arbery

Change professors to teachers and you understand the fundamental and primary role of the teacher of literature in the secondary school.

Good Solution #3

Continuing this theme and wishing I had more time to go into it, here is the third of Berry’s “Good Solutions”:

“A good solution improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern–it is a qualitative solution–rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.”

This might be the core idea of all the good solutions. Because we are anti-structure and anti-form in our artistic habits and because in our business habits we apply the patterns to limited domains (only including what we can measure), we are unable to think about “balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern.” We dismiss these as vestiges of an outdated, pre-Darwinian world, if we think about them in context, or we simply regard them as impactical and too hard to think about.

Here’s an intellectual exercise: list three or four problems with American education. Now read three articles on each (or just choose one). Analyze the solutions proposed in each, looking for the following: non-quantitative solutions, recognition of the wider patterns within which the specific problem being discussed is contained (how far out do those patterns go?), use of words like harmony, balance, and symmetry.

You’ll probably read about “balance” because it is the easiest to see and the most external of the principles of order. You can balance something within itself without any regard at all for the wider patterns within which the thing subsists. Balance doesn’t ensure the health of an organism, though it is necessary.

I hope I can write more on this principle. I also hope others will comment, especially school leaders. I truly believe that Berry has put his finger on the fatal flaw in the implicit organizational theory of our society.

Here are the first two solutions:

Solution 1

Solution 2

Training the Inward Eye

Bryan Smith presented some ideas on the importance of memory at the conference last summer. His talk was called Training the Inward Eye, and in it he showed how important memorizing good literature and rich texts is. Dr. Smith is one of those people with a deep learning that he politely veils for us so as not to create a barrier, but that shines out from time to time.

In this talk he discusses the need to counteract egotism (and how to do it), the limits of Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, and Cardinal Newman’s insight into the problem’s of “child-centered” teaching. He paraphrases Newman: “You have these students who will be very proud of doing what they like to do. And that’s not education.”  Later he discusses the power and use of biography in our children’s curriculum.

While discussing the first of these (the need to counteract egotism), he discusses the myth of Narcissus. He says,

Here is a paradox… This is the great lesson to get children to see: if you sit like Narcissus and stare at yourself in the pool you will get not only a very narrow understanding of yourself and other people, you will get an incorrect understanding of yourself and other people. It is actually by turning away from yourself and looking at other peopel and their actions their opinions their experiences you will discover something. and its not going to be an incomprenedhisbe disconnedcted seris of things. you’re going to see patterns…. You will discover human nature, and when you discover human nature, and what you discover then is something about yourself – because you share that nature… one of the main aspects of education should be, “know thyself,” and you dont’ find it in the pool. That’s why CS Lewis said “To read literature is to know that you are not alone.

Modern thought seems to downplay the importance of getting children outside themselves. But our Lord tells us that we need to die to ourselves if we want to follow Him. Until we can do that, we can never know ourselves. We can’t know our powers, our limits, our inclinations, or our characteristic vices. Nor can we learn how to deal with sadness and grief without seeing how others do it. We can’t know ourselves until we leave the mirror.

Later he says, “We need to tell them that there is a human nature and that everyone shares it.” Indeed. We have more in common than the killer than we like to acknowledge.

Later again he talks about how to use good representational paintings to cultivate the “inward eye” to actually see, thus teaching them how to contemplate.

I highly recommend any of Bryan’s talks for their insights and practical, hands-on guidance. To specifically learn about this powerful idea of “training the inward eye,” get your hands on this CD by clicking here.

The streets of the broken city
bring in the vogue of the revolutionary
–another kind of politician, another
slogan-sayer, ready to level the world
with a little truth. Those who wait
to change until a crowd agrees
with their opinions will never change.

Farming: A Handbook. Poems by Wendell Berry

Training for heads of school

“Given that 48 states require principals to be certified in educational administration, the disappointing state of principal preparation is disturbing news.”

The Accidental Principal, Hess and Kelly

This article, from Education Next, underscores the insolubility of the problem with American education. States pass laws that they cannot possibly oversee. Schools line up to advertise how effectively they meet the laws.

At the highest levels it’s a sham and a shell game. It can’t be otherwise. The scale of education demands that oversight be local and that parents be vigorous in overseeing their own children’s education. When Dewey turned the American school into a vast social engineering project, he made general education impossible and set American schools into a wartime stance with the American family.

90 years in the roses aren’t blooming.

Going to College

Thomas Sowell comments on college admissions:

“one of the tragic misconceptions of many students and their parents is that you have to go to a prestigious, big-name academic institution to really get ahead and reach the top…..Stop and think: What is an academic institution’s prestige based on? Academic prestige is based mostly on the research achievements of the faculty.”

He points out that these prestigious universities also play games with young people’s emotions to maintain their status as prestigious schools. They urge students to apply to their schools, convincing young people that they belong at Harvard or Yale, only to reject them upon application. Why? Because their status as prestigious universities in the eyes of the reviewers depends on the number of students they reject. Yet another perversity in the scam that is American schooling.

Don’t try to get into the best college. Instead, find a calling to which you can give your life and give your life to it. Find the mission God has called you to, then choose a college that will help you fulfill it.