Selecting Books

As many of you know, the annual CiRCE conference was last week and was quite a success.  All in attendance enjoyed informative and challenging speakers, delicious food, and gracious hosting by all of the sponsors.  All in attendance also experienced a taste of what I would call “book glut.”

You know exactly what I mean.  At any good conference there are book tables from publishers and vendors, all offering an enormous selection of resources and literature that we, being conscientious educators, immediately want to read. 

The event takes place in essentially the same way each time.  A table is set up and hundreds or thousands of books are displayed upon its surface.  We are drawn to it, as Jupiter to any woman who is not his wife, unable to divert our feet away from the path to the table.  It reminds me of a cartoon character being picked up and carried to a pie cooling on a windowsill by its mere aroma.

We look.  We peruse.  We flip through page after page of book after book and we enjoy it.  Then a strange thing happens.  We step back and look at the sheer number of books that we have not read and the feeling of wonder subsides a bit and gives way to anxiety. 

“How can I read all of this?”  The most direct answer is that we can’t.  There are too many things worth reading and too many things that we want our students/children to read.  We simply can’t squeeze it all in without doing more harm than good.  

So…now what?  We could simply walk away from the table and go watch TV.  We could spend more time reading articles about how much there is to read.  Or we could ask the right questions that will hopefully help us narrow it down a bit.


  1. In selecting works to read personally, some helpful questions might be:
    • What have I read lately?  Perhaps its time for variety.
    • Do I have a reading plan?  Do I need one?  C.S. Lewis recommended shifting between classics and modern works with far more emphasis on the classics (I believe it was three classics to one modern). 
    • Do I have any shameful areas of weakness or gaps in knowledge?  It’s not that we can or will ever know about everything, but it may help to a bit of self-examination here.  
  2. In selecting works for our students/children to read, some of these may help: 
    • What do I want them to learn?  Books can work as tools to teach greater virtues and truths (pardon the sterile analogy).  Not every tool is needed for every job.  If you want to teach them the beauty of chivalry and romance, you know they need to read The Story of King Arthur and His Knights and Pride and Prejudice.  If you think in terms of themes, it can help you narrow down your choices.  Don’t simply open a catalog and start searching in time periods (that’s asking for another bad case of book glut).   
    • Why do I want them to read this?  When you have your students read a book, is it because you (as a ______-year-old teacher) enjoy the work or because the students really need to read it?  Did you assign it because everyone else teaches it or because you clearly see it place in nurturing the souls of your students?
  3. Here are some other painfully helpful hints:
    • Ask other teachers that you respect.  What would they do if they were in your shoes, with your schedule and classes?
    • Realize that the bottom line is this: you cannot read it all.  It is better to select a few great works than skim dozens, doing none of them justice. 



From Christian Love to Progressive Law

The reason for the growth of bureaucracy in American life is a loss of confidence in the spirit of God, al loss of confidence in human dignity, a turning to law from grace. This is a rather obvious historical development that can’t be discussed because we are now a secular nation.  

When grace and spirit are excluded, the solution for broken relationships is always law.  


Love and freedom are replaced with law and regulations. Here is the cause of the rather random impulse toward Romanticism, New age experiments, and other man centered attempts to find what Edmund Burke called the unbought grace of life. 


But perfect love casts out fear. Only Christians who live by grace can restore grace to the world. And that will always begin in the church, the home, and the community. It will never be a global revolution. It will be achieved by the quiet martyrdom of death to self.  


Maybe this is the fundamental social miracle of the gospel. We don’t need to use the law to bring about our hopes for the future. We don’t need to coerce people into the kingdom of heaven. We believe that the grace of God will achieve it’s purposes. In fact, we believe that when we step in and try to achieve God’s ends through law or any other effort of the flesh, we create catastrophe. The story of Abraham and Hagar has reminded us of that from our beginnings. 


But we Christians are a lot like the younger Abraham, the one before he had learned to laugh. We don’t trust in God’s grace to achieve His ends, so we try to enforce them by our cleverness.


It’s time to lighten up!

1901 – The Cat Escapes the Bag

From Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (essential reading for anybody who wants to understand American education – and that must include teachers! Doesn’t it?):

In 1901, sociologist Edward A. Ross… explained that free public schooling was “an engine of soical control.” It was the job of schools, he wrote, “to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading-board…. And so it happens that the role of the schoolmaster in the social economy is just beginning.” Ward had imagined that the purpose of schooling was to redistribute knowledge, believing as he did that “the lower classes of society are the intellectual equals of the upper classes.”

Ross labored under no such illusions.  He saw the schools as “an economical system of police.” He knew that to acknowledge as much “shocks the public and chills teachers. But now and then the cat is let out of the bag.” Ross predicted that the disestablishment of religion would be followed by the establishment of the school as the guarantor of social order….

The rise of educational sociology and the success of the industrial education movement radically changed public discussion of educational goals… Within only a few years, dicussions among educators about how to teach all children teh great ideas and art of the ages faded away, seeming slightly antique, and were replaced by discussions of social efficiency. 

Ravitch, 80,81

In preparation for my opening talk at the conference next week, I’ve been reviewing the slime that is American educational history at the turn of the previous century. One sees tremendous idealism and even well-meaning attempts at reform. But at its core, its very foundation, is contempt for the local community, contempt for tradition, contempt for religion, radical materialism expressing itself in its blind and unthinking, uncritical acceptance of every Darwinian fad the Herbert Spencers and G. Stanley Halls can come up with as well as the listless, heartless sell-out to the commerical interests of the time.

I do hope you can attend the conference and hear either a really bad joke or a terrible, terrible horror story.

Decline and Fall?

The decline of American education is directly correlated to the rise, expansion, and application of scientific management theory in education and the ever expanding controls placed on education by the “experts.”

Scientific management theory arises in the context of an economic utopianism that finds its clearest expression in education in progressive theories. This economic utopianism raises the question of whether education and democratic nationalism are compatible.

It would seem to me that they are only if the local community maintains the governing mandate of the schools. But the “experts,” by which we mean people who are not personally involved in the instruction of the children and who use statistical data to determine what is best for the local school and its children, continually draw authority away from the local community and undercut the very nature of education.

And they do so because it is so easy to find fault with local governance, which is real people, and so easy to hide behind numbers when you are the “expert.”

Scientific management wants efficiency and standardization, so it might be worth taking the time to trace the rise of standardization in American education, looking for both events and social forces that enable it.

Here is what I’ve been able to identify so far:

  • After the civil war, the American colleges are taken over or begun by business tycoons instead of the clergy who had governed them previously.
  • In the 1890’s, college admissions start calling for a uniform high school curriculum so their decisions can be more standardized and require less judgment.
  • From 1900-1920 Frederick Taylor and others introduce the madness of scientific management into the schools, leading to such bizarre outbreaks as The Gary Plan and the New York riots that resisted its implementation in the New York public schools. It’s hard to believe, but the Gary Plan suggested that school would be more efficient and learning more effective if students were treated like products on a conveyor belt. They would move from station to station at the ringing of a bell. In each station, a specialist in a given technique and set of information would work on the raw material, and when the process was completed a child will have been effectively taught. Needless to say, such a system was utterly rejected by American society out of common sense and affection for children and was never heard from again. 
  • By the 1930’s so many people have gained bureaucratic positions in American education that it has become a self-perpetuating machine. The Depression encourages this development of the school as a make work project. 
  • In 1951 20 billion babies arrive at school and the schools are not equipped to handle them. This leads to the explosion of the text book industry, which undergoes an ingenious transition from providing support materials for teachers who know what they are teaching to converting the teacher into an administrator of information. Consolidation in the text book industry over the next 50 years leads to the continued centralization of decision making and the negation of the role of the teacher as teacher. 
  • During the 1950’s and 1960’s the stupid folly of racism provides the pretext for the bureacracies to expand their authority over the schools. For many African Americans, local control becomes synonymous with racial oppression. As an aside that is at the heart of the matter, I cannot conceive how the cancer of slavery and its consequences will ever be overcome.
  • Sputnick establishes the grip of industry and military over education. The purpose of school has now come to include not only lowering people’s independence so they can fit into the giant economy of bureacratic agencies, either corporations or government agencies (but excluding the helpless local economy and household that governments are by nature established to defend), now the school must be specifically directed by government agencies to provide technicians for the military. The sciences become a central organizing function of the schools – though of course in a confusing context of bureaucracies in conflict.
  • Throughout this timeline, but perhaps more after Sputnik than ever, cries arise for clarity, which means the unifying of all the disparate agencies. When these cries are finally heard and these agencies are unified, the power of centralized bureacracies over American education will be complete and complete chaos with ensue. 
  • During the 1980’s unease with American education leads to federal intervention on a grand scale, culminating, so far, in Bush’s utopian No Child Left Behind plans. Most discussions about American schooling are now about divisions of power and every now and then the student appears as the person we are supposed to educate – so our economy and military will continue to grow. 

Ironically, the more schooling screws up the more people call for increased centralization and the control of experts. I call this The Law of the Catastrophic Continuum. When authority is removed from the hands of those responsible for the outcomes of their decisions, things go wrong in more ways than can be enumerated here.

When that happens, the community, feeling small and insecure, calls for experts of some sort or another. These experts are not responsible for the outcomes of their decisions, so they create a series of ramifications that create still more problems. Each of those problems needs resolution, so the impersonal agency that has now been put in place is called upon, or more likely by now offers itself, as the solution to the problems. Now, of course, the problems are much too large for the local community to be able to handle, so they have no choice but to submit to the ministrations of the distant agencies that have already anticipated and solved these problems. Only by now, the problem became three and the three became 21 and the 21 became 147 and the 147 became 1029 and there is no end to the ramifications. Eventually, as with the Soviet Union, the system will implode. 

Why does this happen? Because human beings don’t love freedom. We are much too ready to let other people make decisions for us as long as they tell us we have freedom of choice. But when they are the one’s who determine the parameters of those choices, as in modern medicine or schooling, we are not free.

in the Christian classical tradition, freedom means that I take responsibility for my decisions, not that I can do whatever I want. It means that I do not hand my decision making over to someone who doesn’t care about me. We call that slavery.

So let me summarize because I know this blog has been hard to follow. It’s hard to think about too. First, standardization is the enemy of education. It seems to have begun when the so called traditional curriculum was displaced because educators no longer recognized a central principle or Logos that held learning together. That led to a vacuum that was filled by functional materialists (giant corporations) and nihilists (bureaucrats).

The folly of racism, the worship of the so-called economy, the needs of industry and the military, all led to decline in education for one simple irreducible reason: judgment was taken out of the hands of the people responsible for the outcomes and placed in the hands of “experts” who implemented scientific management theory in the American schools, turning education into one vast abstract, standardized, sociological experiment and destroying local communities wherever it is implemented.         

We have barely begun to plumb the depths of this crisis.

How to prepare for a conference

The annual CiRCE Conference is coming up in just a couple of weeks (July 24-26) and every year many teachers, administrators, and homeschooling parents go to conferences, not just ours, in hopes of becoming better – better teachers, better mentors, better parents, better people.  But those kinds of lofty goals are not accomplished by attending some workshops and taking feverish notes over the course of three days.  O, to God, that it were that simple!  If only sanctification could be accomplished in a workshop!

Now that my disclaimer has been given, let me offer a few suggestions on how to get the most from a conference, particularly the upcoming CiRCE Conference in Houston, TX on July 24-26 during which we will contemplate humor and its important role in the life of education (how was that for slipping in a commercial?).  If a conference is going to truly affect you, consider doing the following:

1) Take notes, but not in a way that distracts from your listening.  Nothing will kill your ability to process ideas more than trying to write down every word someone says.  Listen…you hear better that way.  If you miss something, talk with other attendees after the session or ask the speaker himself (no offense to you gender-neutral language users out there).

2) Go to a session that is outside of your “comfort zone.”  It’s human nature to flock to that which we already know and love, but that may also limit growth.  If something is of great interest to you as a teacher, it is likely already one of your greatest strengths.  Are there areas in which you really need to improve?  Shouldn’t you work on those?  Be wise about this.  Don’t play only to your strengths, but don’t visit that which would be irrelevant (i.e., homeschooling parents should not attend 7 workshops on dealing with a new school board).

3) Enjoy yourself.  Conferences always fly by and most people look back at them and wonder if they “got enough out of it.”  For a conference to be profitable, you need to take time to talk about ideas, get to know other people, eat and drink well, take time for play, and renew your energy through the company other educators. 

4) Oh, and here’s the really practical one – get directions to the conference, pack enough clothing, be sure you actually have plane tickets and a hotel room, and bring a toothbrush (forgetting that will make #3 tough to follow).

See you in Houston!

Why conferences matter

I recently met a young man who has been involved in Christian classical education for a few years. One year his school decided not to attend a summer conference because it would not be cost effective. What happened, though, was that the teachers and leaders felt isolated.


He told me that summer without a conference took away his energy and vision. He felt like he had to attempt the impossible alone.


In effect, from that point on he was putting in time. He left Christian classical education for a while and the school that undercut morale by cutting costs found itself enduring the much greater expense of being without a key staff member.


I hope your school or home is able to support the morale and development of your faculty. If not, I don’t know how a school can succeed. Send them to a conference – local, regional, or national. Get them the training they need and that makes them feel valuable. Let them network with other like minded teachers.


Bless them.

That’s why conferences matter so much. We’re fighting a tough battle and those who are working the hardest need to know they aren’t alone. They need to know that others are asking the same basic questions: what is this thing we call classical education? How do we do it? How do we get people to sent their children to our schools?


And that’s why we have our annual CiRCE Institute conference.

On Fear

My biggest fear is not failure but successful irrelevance.

Secular Saviors

David Wells, in his 1998 book Losing Our Virtue, suggested that

There now seems little doubt that our new healers are offering salvation on strictly secular terms, terms that may bypass moral issues entirely.

Here is a great deal to reflect on in a small space. Consider: if we approach our salvation “on strictly secular terms,” what is included in that salvation? What is not being considered.

If by secular Wells means “not religious” then one thing that must be excluded is anything immaterial, or, if you like, spiritual. So we need our healers to heal us but they are not allowed to believe in the soul, much less to try to find a cure for its ailments. No wonder people become New Age – if the rational approach to the soul provided by Christian revelation is set aside, the only alternative to the person with a touch of spiritual perception is turn to the irrational.

Is despair too strong a word?

And yet this despair has been forced on us through our regulating bodies, almost all of which are enforced by the secular state that governs us. Thus education in America has become the vehicle of despair, and the ACLU will make sure of it. Thus psychotherapy and psychiatry try desparately to be secularly spiritual so as to maintain the approval of the regulators but still do some good for their patients.

We know so very little, but the secular state will only fund what we know and that through empirical data.

Something like faith continues to assert itself, as it always has. But it isn’t part of the public dialogue except during elections.

Blessedness, Learning, and Purity of Heart

The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore, take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, the whole body will be full of light, as when the bright shining of a lamp gives you light.

Luke 11:34-36

As humans we seek enlightenment and illumination. But what prevents it? Ignorance?

Yes and no. We are ignornat, but we need to ask, “Why are we ignorant?”

According to our Lord in Luke 11, the problem is with the organ of perception. As Porphyrios said, “The mysteries of god are revealed to the person who possesses a healthy soul.”

I want you to invite you to stop thinking about sin as an abstract theological concept that you need to understand through reading the right books. I want to invite you to think about sin instead as a personal problem that you can come to understand only by personally wrestling with it.

Schools yearn to have a Christ-centered curriculum. They even advertise themselves as having a Christ centered curriculum.

But these are words that must be handled reverently. It is not easy to have a Christ centered curriculum. It doesn’t happen by purchasing the right publications. It requires a continual return to repentence. It requires a healing of the organ of perception. It requires purity of heart.

When the heart is pure and the affections of the soul are rightly ordered, the mind follows.

But here’s the question: Are you teaching your students as though they are enlightened and healed by the accumulation of knowledge or by the purification of the soul?

9/11 and Education

i read this today in the Wall Street Journal:

Ground Zero is a perfect storm of contemporary American politics. The report cites “19 different governmental entities from every level of government each laying claim to some component of the overall project.” And, “Each entity makes daily decisions about their individual projects, but no streamlined process or authority is in place to . . . ensure that each decision is in the best interest of the overall project.” This sounds eerily like the 9/11 Commission’s assessment of our dis-coordinated national security agencies.

Besides the public players, the report notes “dozens” of family groups representing the victims, plus various community groups. Bowing to another toxic value, the agency promises to still be “inclusive,” then complains no one has the authority to decide anything.

That is because productive decision making has fallen as a public value below “being heard.” Even being heard is no longer enough. The “stakeholders” have to prevail, somehow assuming that the process – or a complex project like this – will endure endless blows. Meanwhile, construction of the wholly private, 52-story 7 World Trade Center building was done in 2006.

That’s a lot to think about. I couldn’t help but think of all the parallels to public education – a system driven by the highest ideals at the bottom end but with a million stakeholders all of whom demand to be heard and rampant survivalism and cynicism at the top end.

No wonder the private schools do so much better.

This points also to the fundamental flaw in the specialization of our society. Nobody can see the whole, so at the top of the hierarchy there can be no accountability. Until we restore the integrity of local communities there can be no solutions.