Looking For Something Better

The apprentices have gone home and I am preparing a hot bath to slow my mind down and absorb the experience we’ve just shared.

At the end of his moral classic, After Virtue, in which he describes the failure of the modern moral (and therefore political) project, Alisdair MacIntyre writes:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history [the gradual end of the western Roman Empire] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead… was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

I sense that something parallel is occurring even now in our American imperium, though the parallel must not be forced. MacIntyre continues:

If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the dark ages which are already upon us.

I’m not stretching too far when I say that the apprenticeship is a feeble attempt to at least empower people to contribute to such communities. It can’t be such a community because it is not local. But perhaps it can help others to build them.

And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another –doubtless very different — St. Benedict.

Turn your heart to your family and your church. Turn your heart away from this free-falling world and its honors. Something better beckons you.

Advertisements

A Review? More of an Homage.

The new year begins for our Apprenticeship on Monday and because of a late cancellation we have one difficult to fill seat remaining. While I would invite you to pray that the seat fills, that is not the real purpose of this post, which is to comment on David Hicks book Norms and Nobility.

I would like to say I discovered this book, but the truth is that it was forced upon me. When, in 1994, I began to research in earnest the meaning of classical education, I entered the term into the computer of the Concordia University library.

The title Norms and Nobility came up, but the description seemed so unpromising and my interests were so directed to what was done in the ancient world as opposed to what we ought to do now that I ignored it.

I tried another phrase, perhaps classical learning. One book: Norms and Nobility.

Yet another. One book.

No matter how I tried to phrase my search, even “classical education in the ancient world,” or “classical learning among the Greeks,” or “classical education as understood by Plato in 385 BC and not including anything David Hicks has to say about it,” every time I hit that enter key, one book came up.

It was as if the computer was possessed.

Finally, I let out a sigh, sagged my shoulders a little, and wrote the code.

I walked over to the shelf where the computer insisted this book was waiting for me and there it sat, all by itself, in a coarse blue hardback cover.

Norms and Nobility.

I sluggishly pulled it forward, so sluggishly that it dropped to the floor, where I started kicking it out of the aisle toward a nearby table. Arriving at the table, I grudgingly, perhaps even bitterly, bent over to pick it up, grabbing a corner in complete disregarding indifference to the well-being of the spine.

At this point, my appetites were much more interested in food than in Nobility and Norms or whatever, so I yawned a bit, stretched a bit more, and left the library to seek the life found hidden in a Snickers bar.

Feeling a bit better, I strolled back up the three flights of stairs and returned to my table.

The book was gone.

I didn’t care much about the Noble Norms or whatever, but I was pretty irritated about the inconvenience its disappearance caused me. I had a paper to write, dang it, and this was the only book the stoopid modernized library computer could find for me.

So I went back a little peavishly to the shelf from which I had pulled it earlier.

It wasn’t there either.

My peave was no longer little. Now I was downright upset. What a waste of my precious sacred time this book was proving to be.

So I went to the libariarians desk, which I could scarcely approach without thinking of that terrifying scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Jimmy Stewart is looking for Donna Reed only to learn from Clarence that, God have mercy, “She’s in the LIBRARY!” and I cautiously approached this poor forlorn creature and demanded of her where my book had gone.

She said it was back on the shelf, “Were you still needing it?”

No, I put it on my table because I’m such a Noble Norm. I didn’t say it, and therefore it is not in quotes, but I wanted to.

What I did say was, “No, it’s not, I just looked there, it’s not there.”

“Yes, it is, I just put it there,” she said. 

I was already married, so I couldn’t continue to flirt with her.  “I just checked,” I said, one last time, in my most savagely polite voice.

She huffed a bit and lifted her delicate frame resolutely from her librarian’s chair behind her librarian’s desk and puffed her way past me like a wisp of smoke and walked over to the wrong aisle.

“That’s the wrong aisle,” I tossed before her tread.

“No it’s not,” she repudiated.

She stepped down the aisle and pulled out the very same book I had dropped on the floor earlier and let it drop on the floor and walked back to her desk without another word.

“Dang,” I thought. She was right. So I kicked the book back toward the table, picked it up by its scruffy ears, and tossed it back on the table.

This time I opened it and began reading. At the beginning, which is terribly unusual for me.

“Ten years ago I wrote the book you are about to read,” said the Preface to the 1990 edition, and I thought, “What is this, some kind of David Copperfield plup? And what makes him so sure I’m going to read this book anyway?”

I forced myself onward, but I can’t say I really became interested until I got to the fourth paragraph where he wrote:

This is not a book about ancient education. it is about an ancient ideal expressed as “classical education” against which the modern school is weighed and found wanting.”

Now, I had grown up in this modern school and we had had a very uneasy relationship. I liked most of my teachers, enjoyed going to school for the most part, and learned a bit here and there. But I knew from around 7th grade on that it was a fraud for two reasons.

One, because on occasion they would herd the hundreds of us into the cafeteria where we would be given standardized surveys that asked us about things that were none of their business and we couldn’t help but laugh at the patheticness of their open manipulation of our minds.

Two, because twice between grades 7 and 9 the teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools went on strike. This put me in an interesting bind. I had been told repeatedly how important education was. I had always been told repeatedly how important I (you know, the future and all that) was. Occasionally, teachers and principles even tried to tell us they cared about us.

Well, I was a kid, I couldn’t work these things out. To me, the message was: either school doesn’t matteror we don’t care about you.

I concluded both, though I always had individual teachers with whom I enjoyed conversing.

But I got Hicks point. The modern school is wanting.

One thing I have always loved is learning. That is why I’ve never respected systems schooling. It’s too hard to learn in such a setting.

So when I read

The tacher, not the curriculum, needs to be the focus of reform. The greatest value of the curriculum proposed in this book, I now believe, is that it sustains and nurtures teachers as practioners of the art of learning while discouraging non-learners from entering the profession.

I thought maybe this Hicks guy might have something to say after all.

By 1994 I was just about old enough to figure out that the really important questions don’t have easy answers and that the answers they have have to be adapted to circumstances. So I was touched when Hicks spoke of The Rector of Justin as a novel that raises “the sort of questions that possess a wisdom apart from answers.”

I was beginning to sense that this Mr. Hicks was almost as insightful as I was.

Then he started talking knowingly about Polybius and Livy, Montaigne and St. Augustine. He was able to critique in a sentence the flaws in the thinking of men like Hegel, Comte, Marx, Darwin, and Freud (some of whom I had heard of!).

Every now and then he’d throw out a wise metaphor, like

Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago, drawing from springs too deep for taint the strength to turn our cultural retreat into advance.

and I’d have to admit Mr. Hicks was worth listening to.

I couldn’t put the book down, but everything he said demanded so much reflection.

Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language adn of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry. The inqiry dictates the form of instruction and establishes the moral framework for thought adn action.

Before long I realized that I had hardly smelled, much less tasted the inner life and soul, the living truth and penetrating beauty, the soul-transforming goodness of what classical education could be.

Soon my spirit was soaring into worlds of virtue and truth, straining to see the tyrannizing image of the ideal man and how a child can be equpped to see or blinded to the vision of this ideal, meditating on the place of the sciences and what can be learned through the senses, rearranging my mind and the ideas that furnished it to attempt to grasp a way of thinking that had room for both truth and Socratic instruction, dwelling on the possibility that a Mozart is born in every neighborhood, and seeing that in fact, only the Christian tradition can fulfil the potential of education (which is to produce a human being).

It wasn’t long before this vision of Nobility in education had brought me to the point of metanoia, of repentence and turning around, and I realized that the computer had pushed me in the direction of a book that itself belonged in the great conversation.

This morning, I picked up Mr. Hicks book again, reading for the apprenticeship, where we use it as a text book. I felt like a child again. Or maybe a patient just having been through surgery, when the bandages are taken off the eyes. It is still too bright for me. I still can’t see it all.

But how beautiful it is; how true; how good.

I have made it my mission to ensure that every possible human being reads this book. At CiRCE we have sold hundreds of copies at a steep discount to the market price because it needs to be read. It needs to be digested. It needs to absorbed.

It needs to be done.

Norms and Nobility is the best and most important book written on education since CS Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943.

A Bloody Mess

Christian classical education is, to our age, a new wine being poured into old wine skins.

Christian classical education is a different kind of thing than conventional, especially progressive, education. When Christian classical schools imitate the industrial model in their classrooms, pedagogy, curriculum, and governance, they undercut their potential.

Two examples come readily to mind. First, industrial education (i.e. the conventional school) has replaced an apprenticeship mindset with certification. In other words, education by its nature is personal, involves the handing on of a tradition, and focuses on mastery of an art.

However, conventional education functions like a factory or a laboratory. The work of the teacher is so impersonal that she could be fired for touching a student. The teacher is trained in “theories” that begin with the denial of human nature and is taught not to look backward to the vast expanse of real human action but to look forward into the vast emptiness of the educator’s fantasy.

The teacher’s college is torn between its desire to create a new world of denatured graduates who enact their social theories and its obligation to produce students who can score well on a standardized test.

The goal is a certificate for the teacher so the school can be accredited so the student can get a diploma.

In short, conventional education is the realm of illusion. And no wonder, since the philosophers who gave us conventional education don’t believe reality can be known any way.

Thus the truly anti-human ideas of the early 20th century educators have assumed extensive influence over the souls of our entire culture and they have been able to do so because they created wineskins intended to hold their wine. They restructured education, or, as they still say, they “reformed” it.

The one room school house, for example, was replaced with the centralized mega-school. The age-integrated school was so thoroughly replaced with the age-segregated school that few people now can imagine how a teacher could succeed in the one-room school house.

Teaching methods replaced teaching and teachers became obsessed with the latest “research based” techniques, all of which have been developed and justified on the assumption that industrial management approaches are suited to the school – above all, perhaps, the assumption that “what gets measured gets done.”

The school has become an assembly line in which specialists use the most efficient techniques to construct a student, piece by piece, 50 minutes at a time in the upper school, with bells telling the product when to move to the next station.

It is, in short, the form of modern education that destroys the child’s soul – even more than the content, little of which they remember anyway.

Any truly penetrating and lasting education reform must, therefore, reject the old wineskins that are the form of this disaster called American education.

We must not any longer sell our students souls to the factory model of assembly and management in which there is no room for the human spirit, much less for the Holy Spirit.

We must return to something approaching an apprenticeship model,

  • in which the Wise mentor and equip the young,
  • in which teaching is an art, not a set of specialized techniques and methodologies,
  • in which the mature hand on the tradition in which the wisdom of the ages is found (but only by those who soak their souls in it),
  • in which the goal is to cultivate wisdom instead of merely to produce experts,
  • in which each class is taught according to its nature (known according to the degree of precision with which it can be known) instead of with a text book that honors neither the nature of the science/art nor the nature of the student, nor the nature of the teacher,
  • in which the beginning, end, and sustaining energy of teaching is love,
  • in which the modes of assessment sustain the soul rather than distracting it with vanity or bitterness,
  • in which our Lord is honored in the way we treat His children,
  • and in which He is discovered to be truly the One in whom all things consist, the One in whom the Father really does “make all things one” (including the curriculum), the One in whom students really could find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

I believe with all my aching heart that the American Christian school has sold its heritage, its very soul, out of fear. The result is three generations of increasing numbers of graduates of the Christian school who go to college to become unbelieving fornicators because they may have learned the content of the faith, but they never learned the form of godliness, not to speak of the power thereof.

We have an eternally new wine, but we continue to put it in old wineskins. Do we not notice the bloody mess?

Nowhere Near the Honor Due

Perhaps you have noticed by now that level II of The Lost Tools of Writing will be released to the Cosmos on April 19. If I were to start publicly thanking everybody who had a role to play in the development of this work, I’d be posting for a long time. If I proceeded to enumerate all the reasons they deserve thanks, I’d never stop writing.

My invention knows no limits, not because of any genius on my part, but because of the reach of the work done.

I can begin with the topic of definition, asking the question, “Who is it?” And that leads to a list of names that fills a phone book. For example, the two superstars of LTW II are Leah Lutz and Camille Goldston.

First they studied both classical instruction and classical rhetoric for three and four years as CiRCE Apprentices. No, that wasn’t first. Both had already been teaching for years before they joined the Apprenticeship, and what a lot they had to add when they joined.

This year I can think of many things each of them did, but would shame myself and undercut them if I tried to enumerate them all. Let me, instead, present some types and reveal some kinds.

Leah pretty much oversaw the development of the worksheets and module guides for the past two years. Perhaps you know the old bromide about not wanting to see how a sausage or a law is made. That may be, but if you had watched how LTW was made, you’d have a very different feeling. Leah has an amazing mind for ordering disparate and confusing things.

She kept us all on track without once losing her temper. She gave her time sacrificially to collect and review drafts and either revise them or make suggestions for revision by the writers (of whom more later). When difficult issues needed clarification, her input and questions were always insightful, appropriate, and productive. She wrote plenty of the materials herself, first as an apprentice and then as a developer.

If you remember the first edition of The Lost Tools of Writing, Level One, (which you probably don’t since it was so much less perfect than I had credited it with being!), you will appreciate the leaps, the bounds, the works of supererogation that have been accomplished when you see Level Two. And Leah was the ordering mind behind much of the improvement.

Leah, allow me here to publicly express my gratitude for your amazing work. The world will receive your work with great joy, beginning on April 19.

Because of you, LTW II will be clearer, full of better examples, easier to use, more thorough, more effective, and easier to understand than any other writing program available – even, for now, than LTW I. In fact, because of you, LTW I has been and will continue to be improved in many ways.

As you put it in an E-mail, “The end is in sight!! And it looks like a pretty great end.”

Friends, make no mistake, for the last 125 years our approach to teaching children has undercut their ability to think and to communicate. We are living in the early years of a dark age. Unless a light can be shined on how to think and communicate.

While the classically educated in time past would not think a whole lot of what we are doing now, they would appreciate that we are doing something. A genuine renewal is possible, but only if each teacher devotes herself to teaching the child in front of her instead of trying to save the world all at once.

The Lost Tools of Writing fancies itself a tool box for such a teacher: one who wants to learn how to think herself, and who wants to teach her students how to think, how to communicate, and how to grow in wisdom and virtue even in an age that, in its darkness, reflexively scoffs at such a fanciful dream.

Leah is one of those teachers, and we are all blessed by her commitment to the Christian classical vision.

Come back soon, because I have to tell you about Camille as well. And a lot of others. This could take a while!

When you see the product of their workmanship, you’ll undersatnd why I’m so grateful.

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.

Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

Mending Bad Soles

Nothing is more refreshing to my soul than an insightful discussion of a great idea.

On September 10 the 2009/10 apprenticeship met for our first conference call and when I left it I felt as if I had enjoyed a spring shower after a long, miserable March. One of the apprentices spoke of the freedom and the joy of teaching children according to their nature. That makes my life worth living.

In addition, we entered a discussion about Julius Caesar and Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric (in which he was clearly very well trained). The question that propels our reading is “who is the best rhetorician in Julius Caesar?”

I asked, “Who tries to persuade anybody else in Act one and how does he do it?”

We saw that Cassius tries to persuade Brutus, largely through flattery.

We saw that the soothsayer tries to persuade Caesar through an imperative riddle: “Beware the ides of March.”

And we saw that Flavius and Marullus, two senators, try to persuade the common people through a series of questions, followed by an appeal to their emotions.

Persuasion, according to Aristotle, appeals to one or more of three things:

1. Logos, or the message itself, sometimes defined as reason.

2. Pathos, or the emotions, sometimes legitimately, when it is contained within the message by necessity, other times illegitimately, when it is simple manipulation.

3. Ethos, or the character of the speaker.

Pathos is valid when it arises naturally from the logos and ethos is fitting when it matches the logos.

Each persuader will emphasize one of these, but rarely to the exclusion of the others. Cassius, for example, wants Brutus on his side because of his reputation as an honorable man. His ethos will appeal to those who listen to him. But Cassius also wants Brutus to proclaim a message.

In general, the senators regard themselves as above pathos; they believe themselves to be about honor and truth. They think the common people are driven by emotions and they look down on that.

I’ll be watching as we proceed to see how Shakespeare develops that assumption.

In the course of our discussion a lot of ideas came out in really a rather short time. The one that took my breath away was when one of the apprentices juxtapositioned Caesar’s words after the soothsayer issued his warning (“What man is that?”) with the actions and words of the senators as the opening of the first scene. In particular, he showed that they determined to “disrobe the images.”

In other words, as the people were parading through the streets they were putting robes on the statues to celebrate Caesar’s triumph (which was over other Romans, by the way). Flavius and Marullus wanted the robes removed.

I think Shakespeare’s purpose in Julius Caesar is to disrobe the images so the real man can be known. Who was Caesar, apart from his ceremonies? Who was Brutus? What, after all, is a man?

I still make the high school mistake of reading some sections of Shakespeare quickly, even inattentively, as though some lines matter less than others. The apprentices showed me that I had done that yet again in the opening scene, when the senators encounter a cobbler. It seems to me that this encounter may well encapsulate Shakespeare’s self-perception as a craftsman, which is much more than a mere rhetorician who tries to persuade for the sake of persuasion.

The cobbler (which can mean a bumbler or what we mean by cobbler) describes himself to them as “a mender of bad soles.”

Indeed.