Man the Arts

Among the unique and extroardinary abilities of humankind, surely his ability to create ranks first or nearly first. I have concluded that a Mozart or a Rembrandt inhabits every neighborhood, just waiting to be cultivated and directed in the direction of their gifts.

Think of how many people you know with beautiful voices that go unheard, with a natural capacity to see that never makes it to canvas, with a grace of movement that never sees the dance floor. 

When you consider how many people do make it to the big time on the wings of parental or pedagogical vanity, imagine what we would experience if our wings were grace and devotion to the God who is glorified when Freddy Mercury sings or Picasso paints or, yes, Christina Aguilera dances.

And there’s the trouble. Our creativity is an expression of the Image of God within us; it is among our highest joys because it is in our creativity that we are most like God in His creativity. It is what we are made for.

But the creative genius continously finds himself drawn to himself, since this talent is within him and mysterious. Rather than honor His creator, his temptation is to feature himself and to honor himself first.

As a result gifts are misdirected, their value diminished, and the staying power of their products disabled. One hundred years from now, it is not likely that many of the current superstars will be remembered – though some will, because they are so extraordinarily creative that the impulse to watch their performance is satisfying in itself.

I think, for example, of Karen Carpenter, whose music style rarely does much for me, but whose voice is unmatched in popular recorded music.

Last night I was re-visiting the Susan Boyle phenomenon on YouTube, where I discovered that they did a show about her life in Britain. I was not aware that Simon Cowell had produced a CD of her singing and that it sold 4.5 million disks in the first two weeks of distribution.

Susan Boyle has a marvelous voice and she is able to express deep emotion and beauty through it. People like to say she is no Ruthie Henshall, which is so utterly beside the point that it shows that they don’t understand what is happening when Susan Boyle sings. Amanda: “It was  a complete privilege listening to that.”

The same thing happened with Paul Potts. Listen to his version of Nessun Dorma. If you compare it to Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Mario Lanza, or even Aretha Franklin, you might complain that they are all better. Well, except for the last two. But it doesn’t matter.

Susan Boyle and Paul Potts are great singers who are now learning to sing even better. It may well be that Paul Potts is now equal to Domingo if not Pavarotti. I don’t know. I have great respect for the years of training that goes into the creation of any great artist. So I can see why some people might even be offended by the very (naive, I am sure) suggestion that it is possible that Potts has attained so great a stature. I wish we valued the arts enough to train more artists more thoroughly, but when the Image of God goes, the arts go.

But Paul Potts is in Germany right now, astounding people with his gift.

There is something magical about a sincere and modest soul being discovered in front of everybody’s eyes. It vindicates some deep hope we all hold onto, that the human spirit really does have something incomprehensibly great about it.

Have you seen Andrew Johnston?

When we enter into glory, we won’t be directing all our attention, as we do here, to making sure we have another meal tonight. In glory, we’ll be consumed by the arts: singing our hearts out in a music so pure Bach would be jealous, beautifying, decorating, revealing, unifying, harmonizing, communicating – all in ways that transcend the power of the words we use here to express them.

Here, the arts give us a foretaste of that glory and joy. But just a foretaste.

These considerations lead us to two challenges:

First, we need to cultivate our children’s artistic abilities, of any stripe, with eagerness and joy and devotion.

Second, we need to learn how to think wisely about all of the arts, knowing that they move our souls and direct our cultures and sustain our communities.

In short, man the artist needs to man the arts with wisdom and virtue.  Our well-being depends on it.

Saddles, Novels, and Coleridge

Approximately 200 years ago Coleridge argued,

The common modern novel, in which there is no imagination, but a miserable struggle to excite and gratify mere curiosity, ought, in my judgment, to be wholly forbidden to children. Novel-reading of this sort is especially injurious to the growth of the imagination, the judgment, and the morals, especially to the latter, because it excites mere feelings without at the same time ministering an impulse to action. 

This needs to be understood in the larger context of Coleridge’s essay on education.  He states at the start of this essay that the aim of education is to exhibit “the ends of a moral being.” Coleridge argued the point that education works from the inside out.  The soul must first be rightly formed so that one may rightly govern the other faculties.  The novel works in the opposite direction moving first from the senses with little or no attention for the soul.

A saddletree works much the same way. The heart, or core of any saddle is called a tree. Originally, the tree of a saddle was made out of wood, but today saddletrees are often made from fiberglass or plastic.  The tree is the fundamental form of every saddle. As it is covered with leather, rawhide, sheep wool, and conchos it takes on a physical appearance that is, or can be, only as good as the tree that is covered.  All the integrity and virtue of a saddle rests with the tree.  Old leather skirtings can be replaced.  But if the tree is cracked, the saddle is worth-less.

The integrity and virtue of the soul forms the man.  Education must begin first with soul, and work its way out from there.  We must educate from the inside out.

Individual Freedom

Isaiah Berlin argued in his Inaugural Lecture on liberty in 1958 that human freedom takes two particular forms when the individual moves toward the self: self-abnegation, and self-realization.

Self-abnegation has historically taken the form of the monastic, the ascetic.  Many interpret asceticism as a form of escapism from the corruptions of the world, or rather, from the “desires of the flesh.”  Berlin points out that rather than escaping “from,” the ascetic seeks to gain control “over” laws manageable by the self.

I am free only to the degree to which my person is ‘fettered’ by nothing that obeys forces over which I have no control;

Self-abnegation seeks freedom by means of gaining control over external forces, or laws, and internal forces such as desires.  The self aims for autonomy—that is, self-governance.

For if the essence of men is that they are autonomous beings – authors of values, of ends in themselves, the ultimate authority of which consists precisely in the fact that they are willed freely – then nothing is worse than to treat them as if they were not autonomous, but natural objects, played on by causal influences, creatures at the mercy of external stimuli, whose choices can be manipulated by their rulers, whether by threats of force or offers of rewards.  To treat men in this way is to treat them as if they were not self-determined.

Berlin proceeds to the concluding point that

if, as Kant held, all values are made so by the free acts of men, and called values only so far as they are this, there is no value higher than the individual.

Now, how does this correlate to the classroom, or rather, to classroom management?  How ought teachers to cultivate virtue in their students if they endorse the idea that “there is no value higher than the individual”?  What does that classroom look like?

The Best Read Ever

Would you like to see how reading a great story humanizes and edifies and unites us? If you do, read this and if you don’t read it anyway.

Being Mechanical

Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home:

Is this a holiday? What! know you not,

Being mechanical, you ought not walk

Upon a labouring day without the sign

Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?  –Julius Caesar

 Sometimes I tell my middle school students they must learn how to tell time.  I draw this advice from Qohelet’s poem on time in Ecclesiastes 3 because it weds the appropriateness of an event to a particular time.  You do not laugh when it is the time to mourn. 

 I tell my students this because I want them to pause and recognize who they are and where they are, and then determine what they ought to do – the three basic ingredients of any event. 

Telling the time” rightly marks a discerning step that can draw the appropriate act from a situation.  Who I am and where I am inform what I should do.

 For instance, if I am a student in a classroom, then my actions must properly mirror my situation.  Jumping over chairs and groaning “Ooh” suits an animal in the jungle, but not a child in Latin class.  Believe it or not, I have indeed witnessed this scenario teaching middle school students, and remain perplexed as to why they would endorse and entertain such behavior. 

 These three ingredients (character, setting, and action) must fuse if we are going to judge the rightness of any event.  I must know my nature (being mechanical) and my setting (labouring day). Then I can discern the act that suits the situation (to be idle or work?). 

To disturb any one of these three elements is to create a disharmony that will eventually lead to chaos and disorder.

 The Tribunes in Julius Caesar have a right to fear, because Caesar’s actions have led men to fall out harmony, and such imbalance may cause everything to dissemble.

 Yet, the beauty of Shakespeare comes from the cobbler’s reply that he is “a mender of bad soles.”  Or did he mean “souls”? 

Has Rome grown to such a sickened state?  Is Caesar seeking only to restore health, to free the captives? For men ought not be mechanical, but idle and free to govern themselves, right?

The Round Pen

Yesterday morning I exchanged replies with a parent who was concerned that my assignment translated into a form of punishment.  The assignment required the students to correct a wrong answer by rewriting it 10 times.  In the next week or so I will ask the questions again to repeat the assessment.  Is this appropriate, and is it classical – which is really the same question?

Some may ask,

  1. did the students fully understand what they were asked to do on the original assessment?
  2. why use repetition, and why 10 times?

How many times will a good writer review and edit a document before submission?  How many times will a good speaker work over and re-read a speech before delivering it?  How many times will a musician play a song before a performance?  How many times will a ball player work through batting practice?

An intimate knowledge of something and a mastered skill never come in single servings.  Repetition labors towards the potential moments of discovery.  It draws the eyes and ears to detail, and allows the mind to rest upon the securities of form, constancy, and being.  Repetition does not constrict the possible; it forms the ground out of which the possible may break.  Chesterton referred once to God saying to the sun, “Do it again!” at the dawn of each new day.

The danger in any classroom and with any subject amounts to “priming the pump.”  Dumping the information in that you expect the students to pour back out.

I try to teach and work from the round pen.  The round pen is the initial and primary training ground for every fundamental skill a horse will ever use.  If the horse demonstrates he is not yet ready, it is back to the round pen.

In a similar way, if students demonstrate they are not yet ready to exercise fundamental concepts we have previously worked on, then we stop and go back to the round pen, and review.  It is senseless to attempt moving forward.

I am increasingly dissatisfied with the common, practically routine classroom practice of delivering a lesson, test, score, and move on regardless of how well the student grasped the material.  I think the main reason for this type of teaching boils down to time and number.  What can a teacher do with this many students in this amount of time?  Breaking this debilitating cycle will cause frustration for the students and work for the teacher.

For the teacher, it will simply require more work because not every student will move at the same pace.  For students, it will force them to paddle upstream.  It will demand them to slow down, to focus on one thing long enough to discover its beauty and not dispense of it because it does not immediately gratify the senses.  This will be difficult in a culture dictated by sound bites.

Grammar: An Ode (sort of)

The only feeling I get from this article is concern. 

And of course, my concern is for the children. But not as children, please understand. Children as children have people to care for them. But when those children grow up and haven’t learned how to function, the fear and the loneliness and the despair that they will feel will make the worst insult a child has ever heard feel like a feather under the chin.

Like everything else in life, the matter is complicated. But like everything else in education, the irreducible bloating of the structures have made solutions impossible. I get the impression from this article that Otis Mathis is truly a good man, honorable, and even worth following. I praise Otis Mathis for his diligence and persistance in attaining such a high position.

That moral excellence, however, doesn’t qualify him to be the head of the Detroit Public Schools. If, when he was a child, he had not been educated on the false assumptions of Progressive theory, he could probably have become a great school leader, a model of academic excellence.

I have to be careful. I don’t want to say more than the evidence warrants. I don’t want to be a bull seeing red. Here is my simple contention (and no more than this):

The failure to teach the current DPS president correct English grammar when he was a child has undercut his ability to lead the Detroit Public Schools as an adult.

Contained in that contention are subordinate beliefs, such as the importance of grammar, the ability of almost every child to learn it when properly taught, the need to teach young children formal grammar (though not necessarily to teach it formally – the difference is significant), and the value of every language skill in the minds of those who lead.

When he was in third and fourth grade, I have no doubt that teachers were asking, “How is grammar relevent to his life?”

Now, perhaps, they know.

But I am not going to draw any conclusions. I wish Mr (Dr?) Mathes well and I hope he is able to reform the Detroit schools in such a way that teachers are 1. set free to teach, 2. equipped to teach, 3. required to teach, and that students are 1. required to learn, 2. equipped to learn, and 3. set free to learn.

God bless you Otis Mathes. You have overcome much. Please see that Detroit’s students have less to overcome, at least when it comes to writing.