The First Topic of Invention

My son David at Beside the Queue directs us to Jeffrey Overstreet who points us to Youtube to get us asking the great question:

This is hysterical.


The Lost Tools of Writing and Al Gore’s Speechwriter

If you are hired to write speeches by the Vice President of these United States, you can write speeches. You can imagine, therefore, why my attention was aroused when I discovered an interview of Daniel Pink (speechwriter to Al Gore) by Tim Ferriss (author of The Four Hour Work Week).

Of course, I wanted to see if he was right (i.e. agreed with everything in The Lost Tools of Writing) and had anything to add. I’ll let you decide by following this link.

One of the things The Lost Tools of Writing tries to teach students is the need for an orderly presentation that repeats the main point frequently. At first, it drives some students, especially the more “creative” (which often is a euphemism for “disorderly of mind and practice”) ones, crazy to have to write like that.

The reason we require the repetition is because LTW prepares students for public speaking just as much as it prepares them for writing. When you speak in public, you need to repeat yourself frequently for two reasons: one, the audience does not know what you are talking about and two, they have no visual clues as to where they are in the speech.

So in LTW Level I, students are required to repeat the thesis five times in all: once in the thesis statement itself, once for each of the three main points (the first reason students must repeat themselves is that… The second reason students must repeat themselves is that… The third reason students must repeat themselves is that…) and once in the conclusion (Students must repeat themselves because…)

Of course, in reading, you don’t need all those repetitions.

But in listening you do, if for no other reason than that you want some indication of when the speech will end. Listening requires pacing every bit as much as running does. The audience needs the speaker to provide this pacing or it won’t know how to listen. Regrettably, these little things provide many of us with our petty-power-opps, on a level with not letting a car pass you on the highway.

Remember, when the speaker forgets what it is like to sit in the seat, his audience will stew in the pew.

Speaking can be an amazingly egotistical act. If there is one overarching key to success, I would argue that it is humility and its correlary: respect. Humility respects the audience, remembers the subject, recalls the purpose, and reinvigorates the souls of speaker and audience. In fact, when we enter the domain of humility we have placed ourselves into the sphere of usefulness in the hands of God.

So we need to respect the audience enough to let them know what page we’re on (metaphorically).

Dan Pink would, I think, be pleased. He indicates that

It’s not about you. That’s doubly true for speeches. It’s not about you. It’s about the audience. Think of it from their perspective. Again, at the risk of being too critical of all those who stride the stage or command the podium, too many speechmakers – either through nervousness or ego – seem to forget that what really matters is the audience’s experience, not their own.

Later, he reminds us that a speech is not a right, but a privilige.

When you deliver a speech, you’ve got 10 or 100 or 10,000 people who have decided that the most important thing they can be doing at that moment isn’t taking care of something at the office or being with their families – but sitting there listening to you. That’s an extraordinary — and humbling — gift.

So that’s why in LTW we try to get the student’s attention off himself and onto, first, the craft of writing and speechmaking, second, the message, and third, the audience.

I hope it is clear that when I say “First,” I mean chronologically, not first in importance. The craft of writing derives its value from the value of the audience and the meaning of the message.

Self-absorption undercuts attention to both.

Lest I seem to have created confusion, let me clarify what I’m trying to say here, which is, first, that humility is the foundation of success in writing or speechmaking and consequently that repetition provides one concrete instance of the writer/speaker humbling himself before his audience, message, and craft. Therefore, when we teach The Lost Tools of Writing or give speeches, we should not be afraid of repetition. 

I don’t think I would be presumptuous to presume that Daniel Pink agrees. He also adds two more elements. Tim Ferriss asks him:

“What are the necessary ingredients of a good speech?”

Pink replies:

I’ve said many times that the three essential ingredients in any good speech are brevity, levity, and repetition. (That bears repeating: brevity, levity, and repetition.)

On that note, I’d better let you go.





the framework of the science curriculum

This is part two of this post.

In that post, I argued that the reason we aren’t producing the scientists we need is fundamentally because we are teaching science incorrectly: we are teaching the class without the tools, which are the seven liberal arts.

Well, it’s time for me to fulfill my duty and offer some suggestions about what we can do, so here I go (and please note that these are meant to be thought about and challenged – the unexamined thought is not worth thinking).

The basic idea: teach the seven liberal arts.

The contemporary application: Pull out a sheet of paper and create a chart like this:

  • create three columns, labeled “facts/content,” “Concepts” and “Skills”
  • Above the title of the first column, create a box and write in it “isolated facts”.
  • Above the second, do the same but write “general ideas”
  • Above the third, write “Basic logic”
  • Under the first column’s title, write: rudimentary and below that write Sophisticated
  • Under the second, write: basic and then Advanced
  • Under the third, write: lower order and then higher order
  • Below Sophisticated, add a box like the one at the top of this column. In it, write “Integrated facts”
  • At the bottom of the second column, write “highly specialized ideas”
  • At the bottom of the third column, write “Scientific logic”
  • From the box at the top of each column, draw an arrow down to the box at the bottom of each column.

If you have created this table, the rest of your work is rightly judging what should be taught when in each column. Think of it like this:

The Natural Sciences are domains of knowledge that are ordered around a unifying principle or logos. In biology, that logos is bios or life. In physics it is forces; in chemistry, matter. The other sciences integrate these three.

The unifying principle of each science is a concept or an idea and within each science is an army of sub-ideas, many of which transfer from science to science. Some of these ideas are very powerful at organizing vast amounts of knowledge (e.g. life), while some are able to order a smaller domain (e.g. vertebrae).

The child has to grow from basic ideas to advanced ideas in order to become a good scientist. The basic ideas are highly generalized (they contain a lot of sub-categories and applications) and include things like forces, matter, order, life, etc.)

But the child also has to grow from lower order scientific skills to those of a higher order. He has to learn to use his powers of perception with great skill, then introduce powers of basic reasoning. Then he must climb the ladder to the higher order scientific logic skills of advanced math, extreme patience, refined inductive reasoning, etc.

And he also needs to gather a significant amount of scientific content or facts for him to have a future in science. He has to know a great number of the names that have been given to things, the categories into which they have been divided (e.g. kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), and other basic facts of science.

At first, these facts will be rather isolated. This rock is pink, that one is grey. The frog begins as a tadpole. Without a wide-ranging experience of these isolated facts (using the lower order science skills of, for example, perceiving and grouping) when the student is older he will have to spend a lot of otherwise profitable time in remediation when he should be developing higher order scientific skills.  

In time, the facts will become integrated and the child will grow in his ability to use higher order scientific skills in order to understand highly specialized scientific concepts from which he will be able to make highly sophisticated scientic applications.

But only if all three columns (content, concepts, skills) develop in a coordinated manner from the earliest years.

It begins with poetic knowledge – the personal knowledge of particular things.

It ends with scientific applications: the ability to apply what has been learned.

But there is an irony to all this: the more you push scientific skills into the lower grades, the more you undercut the prerequisites for scientific skills.

What should a child study in K-2 to become a good scientist? Things that will train her faculties of perception and cultivate her faculties of reasoning.

Most of all, a classical language, either Greek or Latin. She should learn how to produce representational art so she can learn how to see. She should listen to fine, sophisticated music, so she can learn how to hear. She should learn grammar and math, strictly and according to the rules, so she can begin to refine her logical skills.

She should tend a garden, learn the constellations, play with water and sand, memorize some lists and tables, smell soil and (safe) chemicals, taste foods and liquids very consciously and comparing them with each other, take care of a pet, etc.

That’s the foundation of a science program that attends to the future scientist as well as to the science taught.

The scientist is one who has mastered the higher order scientific logic skills so thoroughly that he is able to explore the ideas of the given science on his own authority. That takes steady, wise, consistent training from the earliest years.

What materials have you found that fit this vision of a science program?

Why Our Schools Aren’t Giving us Enough Scientists

Nearly every day I receive another notice or article about the struggles to build a science curriculum that meets the need of the day to produce scientists to keep the economy moving, to cure diseases, and to stay ahead of the enemy technologically.

And no wonder: the power of science to solve physical problems has proven to be something on the order of unbelievable. Sometimes a religious disposition to revere God can lead to a relaxed appreciation for what people do, but this lacks wisdom. As we love God by loving our neighbor, so we revere God by respecting His image.

So we ought to appreciate the achievements of the great scientists and we ought to learn about their discoveries.

Furthermore, we ought to study science because it offers us a knowledge of the cosmos – of the physical world around us, over which we are stewards. We cannot wisely steward what we don’t know.

Many Christians are nervous about science, however. They fear that science offers only worldly wisdom and that worldly wisdom is in direct conflict with the revelation of Holy Scripture, especially, of course, on matters like the creation, fall, and flood of Genesis.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive, because I understand the concern. But as a matter of practical reality, it doesn’t matter. We must study science if for no other reason than that the sciences have risen from the Christian classical world-idea. But, truly, the natural sciences hold unspeakable potential for good, and if Christians believe they have good ideas about how to use the sciences then they need to be involved in the sciences to even have a voice in the discussion.

Reactionary, fear-driven avoidance only makes a Christian irrelevent.

I’ve written quite a few little blogs about how we should teach science in a Christian classical school, but I came to a realization today that I wanted to share with you so I could get some feed back on it. It has to do with how and when science should be taught.

I’ve made the case for some time that science follows on the seven liberal arts of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These arts train the intellect to perceive and to reason and they are part of a world-idea that supports inquiry into the physical universe.

A not unusual development has taken place historically. Consider this: science as I am referring to it (pure science, as opposed to applied science) arose among the ancient Greeks and, frankly, among no other people. Plenty of other peoples had technology and made great leaps in applied science. But none of them ever developed a pure science in which the cosmos was studied purely for the sake of gaining knowledge about it.

That “pure science” approach led to earth shaking discoveries with wide applications. It did so because the ancient Greeks loved every kind of knowledge so much that they developed the arts of knowing to a degree no other people in the ancient world ever had. If you are going to perform pure science, you have to master the seven liberal arts.

For various reasons, the sciences went into remission after the decline of the Roman empire, though many discoveries were made in Baghdad, Constantinople, and other centers of eastern influence. But with the early years of the scientific revolution, a vast new vision of life on earth came into being. Such a scientific progress as the world could never have dreamed about followed in the wake of Albertus Magnus and Aquinas, Bacon and Descartes, Galileo and Newton.

All of whom were profoundly educated in the seven liberal arts.

What brought about the scientific revolution? Astronomy! Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo – all astronomers. Why? Many reasons, not the least of which is that astronomy is the bridge from the arts to the sciences, for it is, remember, one of the seven liberal arts!

Since then, the sciences have uncovered long-hidden secrets about the world in and on and through which we live. They’ve grown beyond Bacon’s wildest dreams when he composed his Instauration and his Novum Organon (designed to replace Aristotle’s Oldum Organon). They hold out promises that Socrates would have laughed at.

Yet, we can’t produce enough scientists in our schools? How can this be?

I believe the problem is quite simple and, as I indicated above, not at all unusual. My friend Steve Manz expressed it with great simplicity: “Now that we have the sciences, we are losing the tools that gave them to us.”

Exactly. We want science, science, science, but we don’t want thinking, disciplined students. We don’t want to train them in the seven liberal arts, preferring instead to weigh them down with electives they can’t possibly understand. As a result, everybody has to work a hundred times harder for one tenth the potential results.

We need, as the cliche goes, to sharpen the saw. To get better scientists, the great need is not to teach more science classes. The great need is to teach children how to think.

More in my next post on how to frame the curriculum.

In and Out of Humor

Sometimes we don’t realize what is most practical in a given situation. For example, the CiRCE conference theme this summer is humor. I don’t know how many people have done research on the necessity of humor in the life of a school, but I suspect scarcity defines the number.

And yet… And yet. How many headmasters have have survived without a sense of humor? How many 2nd grade teachers can get from one day to the next without taking the time out to laugh? How many middle school teachers – do I even need to complete this thought?

Furthermore, can you build a relationship without laughter? Should you?

Can you teach literature without wit? Can you teach history without drollery? Can you teach science without attic salt? Can you wake the drowsy wag without persiflage?

Can you write the preceding paragraph without a thesaurus?

Well I can’t.

And besides, what is humor and, perhaps more important, what is its importance? What is its use?

Ben Johnson wrote a pair of plays in 1598 and 1599, one called Every Man in His Humor and another called Every Man Out of His Humor. He claimed that his plays were an attempt to cure people of their humor.

But he didn’t mean that he was trying to take away what we call a sense of humor. Johnson was referring back to the original use of “humor.” In the ancient and Renaissance worlds, people believed that our personalities were governed by four dispositions, each of which depends on the liquids in our bodies: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. If any of these are out of wack, a person has a disposition out of balance and needs the balance restored.

Johnson proposed to restore the balance, or at least to help restore the balance, by creating extreme and eccentric characters that the viewer would laugh at. Excess blood makes a person sanguine. Let us laugh at such a person. Excess phlegm makes him congested, but in the old days it made him phlegmatic. Excess yellow bile made him choleric and excess black bile makes him melancholy.

So to be humorous is to lack a sense of humor, which lack causes one to suffer from a humor and thus to be the object of the humor of others.

And indeed, how many excessive lovers of books have been cured by Don Quixote or how many excessively self-impressed scholars have been corrected by A Confederacy of Dunces.

I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but I can tell you that both books have terrified me through my laughter and brought greater self-awareness and balance to my soul. And that, Johnson (and Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Elyot, Thomas Linacre, and Thomas Wright in their books – which probably should have dealt with an excess of Thomas) argued, is the point of comedy.

Here at CiRCE we believe that education is about bringing human faculties to life. The faculty for humor, it turns out, may be the most practical of all. It helps us teach, it nourishes self-awareness, it promotes rest, and it balances the soul.

I hope you’ll be at this summer’s conference and laugh yourself into heaven.

Can you think of an occasion where humor has helped you?

The growth of an ideal

By the time a child turns 15 or so he has formed a very strong sense of his ideals. In fact, the foundation of those ideals was laid 15 years earlier.

Some children become so confused over their early ideals (by experience, hypocricy, etc.) that they have become cynical by the teen years. Regrettably, that happens a lot in our age and part of the reason for that is the sentimental, painless lies that our children are fed through Barney, Veggie Tales and other manipulative forms of pre-K child-care.

But the most cynical of people cannot avoid forming ideals. They still have a sense of the kind of person they want to be and of what kind of world they want to live in. They may well lose the courage of those ideals, or they may form ideals that are so washed out all they can dream about is power. But they still have ideals.

And that is why what children read and play matters so much. As Horace Scudder wrote in his 1888 essay, “Literature,”

What that destiny [of the nation] is to be may be read in the ideals which the young are forming; and those ideals… it is the business of the old to guide. They cannot form them; the young must form them for themselves; but whether these ideals shall be large or petty, honorable or mean, will depend upon the sustenance on which they are fed.

On what sustenance are your students and children feeding? Do you attend to their souls as carefully as you attend to their bodies? How are you feeding them the true, the good, and the beautiful?

Perhaps we can share some ideas, because the souls of our young people need us to do so.

The problem of objectivity

The motto of the Fox News Channel is “We Report.  You Decide.”  The idea behind the statement is that they are attempting to report the news without bias or prior interpretation.  They are claiming objectivity, in the sense of being “without bias or prejudice; detached.”  Of course, claims to objectivity are numerous, extending to nearly every side of every debate, whether political, theological, etc. 


It is interesting to me that so many people claim to do the impossible.  Real objectivity is, generally speaking, beyond our reach.  We interpret facts, events, and statements by our preconceived ideas, presuppositions, experiences, and beliefs.  Because of that, none of us humans are actually objective.  Would ground be gained in the exchange of ideas if we were at least honest about the fact that we held a few coming into it?


My unbiased opinion is yes.