An example of the seemingly trivial sort of thing about which one might compose an essay and still find his time suitably used without the slightest trace of idleness

In my post on 9/17/09 I suggested that you need not fall into the pit of anxiety when seeking out a suitable question to set your students for their essay. Let me illustrate that with an example from American history.

When our great and devout ancestors the Puritans were settling the Massachusetts Bay colony, their environment prohibited the veriest trace of idleness, threatening them with doom, invasion, or starvation if they so much as slept in beyond the needs of restoration.

So great was this fear of idleness that many a time the legislatures and the courts enacted and enforced laws “in detestation of idleness.”

When it came to time management, the Puritans believed in two things: on the one hand, the practical benefits of industry, and on the other, the spiritual evil of frivolity.

In 1639, however, the utilitarian and the spiritual drives fell into a surprising conflict. The midweek church meeting had become so popular that they knew not what to do about it.

John Winthrop wrote, “There were so many lectures now in the country and many oor persons would usually resort to two or three in the week, to the great neglect of their affairs, and the damage of the public.”

What were they to do? Here the poor had become so spiritually hungry that they simply wanted to attend church services without interruption. They were going to church so much that they were neglecting their affairs and damaging the public!

The rulers of the colony passed through a series of legal maneuvers to resolve this crisis. First they ruled that lectures were not to begin before one o’clock. When the crisis persisted, they urged ministers to hold fewer midweek meetings. In the end, they legislated that meetings were to end early enough that people who lived a mile or more away could return home before sunset.

All very interesting, but what has that to do with selecting topics for an essay.

I am going to presume that you would agree with me that these laws are not generally regarded as vital elements of the history we need to know about the Puritan years in Massachusetts. One might even consider these laws historically trivial or marginal.

Yet, I would boldly propose that from these episodes a whole series of issues could be raised that would readily bring a student closer into the heart of Puritan Massachusetts than any text book history could ever take them and will at least allow for the possibility of pleasure in so arriving. Let me propose two. Then you see if you can come up with some more. Add one to the comments.

Here are my two:

  • Should the rulers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony have been so strict about what the residents were allowed to play?
  • Should the poor people of 17th century New England have gone to so many midweek church meetings?

Let’s see what you can come up with (and please don’t waste your time worrying about whether your question is smart enough!).

How to Read, Write, and Think

The Lost Tools of Writing teaches the Deep Logic of every subject.

You can see this if you watch how it teaches students to reason through an essay.

I have always tried to emphasize how the essay question should come from the student and that it doesn’t really have to be all that brilliant a question. The topics themselves will drive the students into the heart of the text or event, especially when they start making comparisons or looking at circumstances.

So let’s say you are reading Julius Caesar and you need some essay topics. Pick ANY character in the play and ANY action that character did and ask: Should he have done that?

Examples from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (which I refer to because you can get it online for nothing, it’s Shakespeare’s shortest play, and it is sitting beside me):

                Act I, Scene 1, line 1: Should Flavius have told the common people to go home?

                II, 2, 2: Should Caesar have paid any attention to Calpurnia’s dream?

                III, 3, 3: Should Cinna have “wandered forth of doors”?

                IV, 3, 4 (no scene 4 in Act 4): Should Lepidus have consented to his brother’s death?

                V, 5, 5 Should Clitus have heeded Brutus?

You can see that I have arbitrarily chosen to ask questions about whoever was acting in a given scene. But I guarantee you, if you use the topics of invention to think about each question, you will

  1. Teach your student to read better
  2. Teach your student to write better
  3. Teach your student to think better
  4. Guide your student into the heart of any text you are reading.


LTW liberates teachers from the oppressions of the curriculum. It provides tools that you can learn how to use on your own. But you must not worry about coming up with “good enough” questions.

The depth of insight arises naturally out of a mind that is activated and trained. Be careful not to ask your student to do something he doesn’t have the training or experience to do. Under those circumstances you run the risk of producing a student that simply wants to please the teacher instead of learning how to think independently.

In short, don’t worry too much about the issue question or the “so what.” Those will arise from the thought your student practices using the invention topics.

Today is the 222nd “Constitution Day”

On September 17, 1787 the United States approved our constitution. Do you know the Preamble?

If not, please memorize it TODAY and hold yourself and your government to it for the rest of your days:

We the people of the United States, in order to

  • form a more perfect union
  • establish justice
  • insure domestic tranquility
  • provide for the common defense
  • promote the general welfare*
  • and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity

Do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.

You are probably aware that this constitution was fiercely resisted by the anti-federalists, Patrick Henry the most famous among them. It would have gone down to defeat had they not added the Bill of Rights, a list (bill) of rights that the constition leaves entirely to the people.

Perhaps the most relevant of those ten today is the tenth, though every government from the beginning of time has always found it in their best interest to take away all ten (thus our bill). Here’s the tenth:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

When our government does anything that the constitution has not explicitly granted them the authority to do, they are acting in defiance of the principles of that constitution and of the rights of the people.

One thing the constitution makes clear is that the government works for the people and not the other way around. Therefore, we have the right to fire our “rulers” through elections, which is another way of saying that we rule our rulers. What an extraordinary and wonderful idea!

The constitution, in other words, amounts to a job description for our government. We fail in our role as citizen-rulers when we allow people to stay in office who defy that job description, no matter how many benefits they secure for us by defying our authority.

More than anything, therefore, we must, on this constitution day, swear and live by the same oath that our president, congress, and justices swear. Here’s the president’s oath:

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

On April 30, 1789, George Washington stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City and said those words. Here’s Jeffrey St. John’s description, from Forge of Union; Anvil of Liberty:

George Washington took the oath of office today… as the United States’ first President under the new constitution. It was immediately ratified by the largest and wildest crowd in New York City’s history. The spectators packed the narrow cobblestone streets and cheered themselves hoarse while city bells and artillery offered ear-splitting salutes…. The 57 year old hero of the American War of Independence stood at the portico of the Senate Chamber at Federal Hall and repeatedly bowed and nodded.

With one hand tightly grasping his steel-hilted sword and with his other on his heart, the General was clearly overcome by the waves of wild approval cascading upward from Broad and Wall Streets in the lower part of the island port city on the Hudson River.

A hush fell over the throng when a little before one o-clock today, a day that began gray but gave way to golden sunshine, the solemn six-foot one-inch Virginian turned and took a few graceful steps inside the Senate Chamber toward a dais raised a yard above the floor.

Members of the newly elected Congress, State and city officials, and foreign diplomatic ministers rose from a semicircle of chairs. The General bowed to both sides and was escorted to the center of three chairs under the dais canopy by Vice President John Adams. They exchanged bows; Mr. Adams took a chair o the General’s right and Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg on his left. …

According to one observer, there was a moment of absolute silence, Vice President Adams then rose and for the first time in his political career, for the longest moment of his life, was struck speechless.

“Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States,” the Vice President finally said in a rush of words wrapped in his nasal New England accent, “are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution. It will be administered by the Chancellor of the State of New York.”

“I am ready to proceed,” General Washington replied simply in a soft Virginian accent. Both then walked to the half-enclosed portico overlooking the street, where there was a small table draped in red cloth. On this had been placed a crimson cushion which held a large leather-covered Bible…. Since those standing at teh portico could be seen from teh street, adn from rooftops adn windows across the street, Washington’s reappearance turned the silent sea of expectant faces into renewedd waves of wild cheering, which he returned with a bow, again and again, with his hand over his heart.

A sudden silence fell as Chancellor Robert R. Livingston faced George Washington – two tall men separated by a small, short Samuel Otis, Secretary of the Senate, holding the Bible on its crimson cushion. The General put his right hand on teh book and repeated after Livingston the thirty-four-word oath of office in reverential tones, as if were reading a prayer. After adding the words, “So help me God” to the oath, the President then bent down to kiss the Bible, relieving the short Otis of the embarrassing struggle to hold the book as high as his height would allow.

Chancellor Livingston, a member of the Continental Congress when George Washington became military Commander-in-Chief fourteen years before, said quietly, “It is done.”

… Like rolling thunder, thousands of human voices hailed President Washington with an explosion of emotion.


Did you do anything in your school or home to recognize this, perhaps, greatest political document in the history of the human race? Here are some resources I recommend for further reading:

  • Jeffrey St. John: Constitutional Journal; A Child of Fortune; and Forge of Union; Anvil of Liberty, three books that present the events of the constitutional era in short journalistic clips. Very good reading, published by Jameson Books.
  • Posters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, available here
  • The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. Simply incredible, a line by line guide to the Constitution. HERE.
  • The constitution itself. This is one of the five most important documents you must read as an American and a Christian. Spend five minutes a week on it and you will find your political views clarified and your understanding of government energized.

Do not consider graduating a student who has not become familiar with this document. We carry the duties of citizens of the United States and we cannot fulfill those duties if we are irresponsible in the matter of our federal government. Nor can we remain free people.