Teaching Bible in A Christian Classical School

When you engage in a battle, the enemy is constantly trying to direct your energies toward things other than your objective. Unfortunately, those distractions can’t be ignored.

That’s where we stand on curriculum in our day. We are so deeply immersed in a Darwinian mode of thinking (of course, it is called Progressivism) that going back to a Christian curriculum is extraordinarily challenging.

I’ve spend a lot of time trying to figure this out and have some ideas, but let me start with this suggestion (and forgive me if I’m redundant, but as I like to tell my students, I’m a teacher, I get paid to repeat myself):

Start with the ideas you want your students to understand. Make a list of 12 of them at a rather high level of generalization. For example, you want them to understand grace, justice, purity, etc.

Then add some that are more specific to the Christian tradition/doctrine: The two natures of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the church, etc.

Once those are identified, you can start working out the content and skills, and here you need to be agonizingly obvious and “unspecialized.” For example, under skills, you are going to want your students to learn how to read closely.

For content, you are going to want to choose specific stories that you’ll focus on as a school. These should be stories that 1. Embody the ideas you have listed above, and two, serve to order the stories you won’t be touching on in school.

Examples of the former would be The Good Samaritan as a type of grace, David and Goliath as a type of Faith, and so on.

Examples of the latter would be Moses leading the children across the Red Sea, which contains the whole Old and New Testaments in that one act.

The good news is that a lot of Bible stories have that quality to them. Be careful, therefore, not to try to get a one to one correspondence between idea and story. Each story will contain many ideas and each idea will be contained in many stories. That’s why your teachers should be free to teach a lot of stories and let the stories tell themselves.  

Another ordering story would be Abraham offering up Isaac.

You’ll also want to provide a structure for the narrative so the kids know where to place the stories. For that, begin by having them memorize the books of the Bible.

Then help them learn the different kinds of book (Pentateuch, history, wisdom, prophecy).

Then give them some sort of chant for the main events, something like the Walk-thru-The-Bible people do.

Creation-fall-flood-Babel-Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Egypt-Exodus-Wanderings-Judges-Kings and Prophets-Israel to Assyria-Judah to Babylon-Return under Persia-Greek Kingdoms-Roman Empire-Christ-Apostles-Church-Return.

Something like that, put to a nice rhythmic chant that the whole school can do from time to time.

Of course, there is more than just story in the Bible.

Under content, therefore, I would urge you to teach the tabernacle and the Levitical sacrifices. The entire New Testament is laid out in those sacrifices and in the priesthood.

This is the place for hands on projects. Have them make a tabernacle somewhere on the school grounds. But don’t have one class make a permanent one. Each class should do it at some point (probably around 5th or 6th grade).

What you want to avoid in Bible class is replacing the Bible with a Bible curriculum where some childhood psychologist expert has determined a better way to deliver the stories than God could come up with. They will be totally content-driven 99 out of 100 times.

We want our children contemplating the Bible, not merely remembering it with their heads.

Grammar Lesson 2: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (with a little historical introduction)

What a funny term – parts of speech. Aren’t there other parts of speech besides the written words? Like gestures.

Well, not strictly speaking. Speaking is, strictly speaking, using words.

Do you know where the parts of speech come from?

Trick question. The come from language.

Do you know who discovered them?

Isn’t that an interesting question? Did you know that Aristotle would not have been able to name the eight parts of speech? I would like to develop this further in another post, but for now let me answer the question I started this paragraph with.

In fact, David Mulroy provides the answer in his The War Against Grammar:

“The individual responsible for dividing words into eight groups is known to posterity as Dionsius Thrax (“the Thracian”)…. He studied under Aristarchus, the head of the library of Alexandria and the greatest of literary scholars in the second century B.C. Later he taught grammar and literature on the island of Rhodes [ed. Note, does that make him a Rhodes Scholar or just a Rhode Islander?], another center of Greek intellectual life. There he did the usual thing for a professional scholar, publishing a number of treatises on language and literature. Of these, only a very brief one survives, Techne Grammatike (“The Grammatical Art”). Despite its brevity, it is reasonable to list Dionysius’ Techne among the most influential books ever written, for it was the work that introduced the eight parts of speech to the world.”

No small achievement!

As an aside, next time a fundamentalist Christian type asks you why you are wasting your time on “pagans” give them a one word answer: “grammar.” All the other answers are contained in that one.

Mulroy continues so we can see the context and magnitude of this accomplishment:

“Before Dionysius’ time, the classification of most words was up in the air. Aristotle and his successor spoke of nouns, verbs, and everything else; various more detailed systems of classification were proposed without catching on. Dionysius’ swept away the competition. His book became a standard textbook for centuries. His system was adopted by Syrian, Armenian, and Roman grammarians. Via the last, especially Donatus and Priscian, his influence pervades the grammars of modern European languages.”

Do you agree that there are eight? Do you agree that an article is an adjective?

Let me turn to the immediately practical: children need to learn the parts of speech as early as possible. Adults find it much more difficult to find the time and mental flexibility to learn them in their dotage (i.e. their twenties).

Notice that, from Aristotle to Dionysius, subject and verbs were clearly understood. It is worth pointing out that the parts all relate to subjects and predicates. Maybe he saw that.

A subject is going to be a noun, even if it is some other part of speech converted into a noun. Only a noun can have something predicated of it.

A predicate will usually be a verb. Can you think of any exceptions?

As soon as I have a noun, I’ll notice (often) that saying the noun is not enough to rightly express my subject. I could say, “X does this” but that would not tell me very much, unless the context tells me the rest.

So I’ll look at that noun and I’ll want to change it, to modify it. The most obvious change to make is to add an adjective.

Adjective comes from the Latin and it means literally “thrown near or next to”. This is, of course, a very concrete definition and doesn’t describe its verbal function, especially not in English. But if we think metaphorically, we can see the point.

An adjective is “thrown next to” the noun because the noun itself needed help or it needed to be modified. So we threw a word at it.

Logically or formally speaking, the attention goes to the noun, and that’s an important point.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the writer wants the attention to go to the adjective. Yet an adjective cannot exist without a noun to contain it, so even if you highlight the adjective, you’ll unavoidably highlight the noun it was thrown near, towards, or next to.

That point is important for some who want to argue that traditional grammar is all wet because some things are so hard to define.

Sometimes they claim that an adjective is a subset of the verb if we extend the meaning of a verb to include what the noun is or is doing.

Verbs and adjectives are remarkably similar. But the difference seems to be that an adjective can exist only “in” a noun, while a verb has an external relationship to the noun.

The other difference was pointed out by Aristotle. His explanation of a verb is probably more reliable than that in most contemporary grammar texts. A verb is difference because it has tense (past, present, future, etc.). Adjectives don’t.

As a speaker you might have another question you need to answer about a noun: are you talking about a particular noun or just any old noun of that kind.

In other words, are you talking about fish generally or the particular fish you want people to look at? Or maybe you are talking about a single fish, but not the specific one that somebody else might have talked about.

If you are talking about a specific fish, you will often use the definite article.

Talk about any old fish: no article.

One fish, but not a particular one: the indefinite article.

So in English we have two kinds of articles.

You could, of course, get sick of the noun you are talking about (I mean, of course, the sound-symbol, not the thing itself) or there might be so many of them that you can’t refer to them all particularly. In those cases, you’d use a pronoun, like “those” or “they.”

You remember “They” don’t you? They’re the ones who always know what to say and everybody knows what They say. I call them, “the Immortal They” and recognize that They rule the world.

There are different kinds of pronoun as well, but we’ll hold that off for another day.

There you have it: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (not, please note, subject side).

Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns.

Eacho f these helps us to better grasp the subject of our thought in most sentences. Therefore, they enable us to better understand the nouns included in our thoughts and, often, about which we are thinking.

If we know the parts, we can start thinking about the forms they take. That will come later.

Thoughts on knowing and the end of education

The english word epistemology seems like a technical word because it doesn’t come from the Anglo-Saxon or French and because it has taken on a rather precise meaning.

As a result, the word can intimidate the reader.

It doesn’t need to. It just means “what is knowable” or maybe “a set of beliefs or theories about knowledge.”

You can imagine that what you believe about knowledge would matter when you teach or build a curriculum.

What can we know? How do we come to know it? What does it mean to know? How is what we can know in one area related to what we can know in another area?

Your answers to these questions are your curriculum, so those answers matter.

So let’s take a moment and start to think about them.If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves teaching materials and in ways that we don’t understand and may not even agree with.

I would like to propose up front that we can find three broad theories of knowledge more or less commonly followed today and pursued through history.

For convenience, I will call them

  1. The Christian and classical view of knowledge
  2. The traditional view of knowledge
  3. The Pragmatic view of knowledge

The pragmatic view is the one people follow most closely in our day when they are consciously following a theory. It’s greatest champions have been men like Francis Bacon (knowledge is power), William James, John Dewey, and Machiavelli.

In the pragmatic view, knowledge is the ability to do something, especially to adapt to and exercise power over the environment. Dewey and James are the most explicit theorists, and Dewey’s pragmatic theories dominate contemporary education, even in Christian schools.

Pragmatists are skills focused and they want children to construct their own realities. They tend to undercut traditions other than their own, seeing them as constraining and even oppressive.

In the old fashioned sense of the word, knowledge is impossible because there is nothing to known in that old fashioned sense and there is nothing that can know it anyway.

In other words, the world and everything in it is constantly changing, so there is no permanent “idea” or essence of a thing that you can know. You can just “know” what it is like now and adapt accordingly. This ability to adapt is knowledge.

In the traditionalist view, knowledge is the retention and reproduction of symbols. That sounds a little silly at first, so let me explain what I mean. Every tradition contains practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (written or spoken) that embody that tradition.

When a member of a tradition wants to pass on that tradition (tradition literally means “to hand on,” from the Latin traduo), he teaches his students the practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (which is what I mean by symbols) of that tradition.

Sports are relentlessly traditional because you become great, not by developing radically new techniques, but by imitating and then transcending those who were great before you. The very few exceptions (e.g. the Fosbury flop) only prove the rule.

The best reason for handing on a tradition is that a tradition embodies the wisdom of its members, especially those who came before.

When handled properly, the traditional symbols lead the recipient to the wisdom contained in or, better yet, pointed to by, the symbols.

When a school requires students to memorize poetry, repeat gestures, sing songs, learn the forms of grammar and literature, read old books, and otherwise remember and recite facts and information, it is acting traditionally.

A community embodies its soul in its traditions, so no community that is opposed to tradition can survive.

The great traditional educator of the contemporary world is ED Hirsch, with his Core Knowledge sequence.

You have succeeded as a student in a traditional school when you have demonstrated mastery of the content and symbols of the tradition.

The trouble with tradition arises from two possible sources. It may be that the ideas embodied in the symbols are false. In that case, the tradition may hold a community together, but it may do so by leading the whole community into error.

Or it may be that the members of the community look to the symbols and their preservation rather than the ideas and realities embodied in the symbols of the tradition.

Only a master of the symbols can transcend them. The clearest example of this fact seems to be our Lord and his response to the Pharisees. He recognized that they were, in varying degrees, living off the traditions instead of living by them.

As a result, they began to contort the traditions handed to them to their own advantage and became wolves among sheep.

In our Phariseeism, we can forget how very easily we become pharisees.

But long before the Pharisees began to contort the traditions, they had come to see the traditions either as ends in themselves, or, worse, as means to other ends than what they pointed to.

The Sabbath, for example, was a tradition handed to the Jewish people through their covenant with God. It was meant to be a Holy Day of rest. As such, it pointed the covenant people to something beyond a one day/week religious experience.

Symbols, in other words, don’t refer to themselves. This is easiest to see when we look at words. The word “lamp” is a sound symbol. It does not refer to itself, but to an invention with which we are all familiar that can enlighten a room.

There is a reality beyond the symbols.

In the Christian classical view of knowledge, the goal of learning is to perceive that reality.

We hand on and love and honor our traditions, not so people will know them, but so they will know what they refer to.

Of course, you usually can’t know what they refer to without knowing them because the reason you need symbols is precisely because it takes great wisdom to come to know the realities in the first place.

Here’s one way it could happen. A wise person comes to understand something about life. He wants his children to understand it to. They can’t, because they are young. So he makes up a fable. That fable becomes part of the tradition.

If the child actually contemplates the fable, he can move more rapidly to the insight of his wise father than his father was able to himself.

To the Christian and/or classical educator, it has always been necessary, but it has never been enough, to know the greatest symbols (in the sense I used the word above) of the tradition.

The goal is always to see what the symbols point to.

Knowledge, therefore, to the Christian classical educator is perception of reality.

The pragmatic educator is not content to “know” in this sense, because he does not believe such knowledge exists. He focuses on skills of adaptation.

The traditional educator at his best strives for this kind of knowledge, but he encounters so many temptations (especially honor from men who don’t see the reality beyond the tradition) that he rarely transcends the tradition.

And if he does, he’ll say something a little off kilter and offend the traditionalists around him, who will scapegoat or crucify him one way or another.

The Christian classical educator loves practical applications of his knowledge. But not as much as he loves the knowledge itself. Truth is the delight of his soul, the queen of his mind.

He does not demand of her that she step down and serve him.

The Christian classical educator loves the traditions on which he was raised. But not as much as he loves the truth and beauty embodied by that tradition.

The Christian classical educator takes the knowledge of the traditional educator and the skills of the Pragmatic educator and, guided by the good, weaves them into a beautiful tapestry of truth that nourishes the soul until the disciple has attained wisdom and virtue himself.

But only because he has come to see that knowledge is not mere power, nor is it mere recall of symbols and facts, but it is the perception and apprehension of reality itself.

Two Andrews On Writing and Teaching Writing

I just finished a four city tour with Andrew Pudewa of Institute for Excellence in Writing and what a trip it was!

We divided up six talks between us as follows:

  1. Andrew P talked about the four arts of language: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. This laid the foundation for the day.
  2. Then I talked about the five paths to writing greatness:
    1. The linguistic
    2. The literary
    3. The critical
    4. The theoretical
    5. The practical
  3. Then I discussed the three canons of classical composition and, briefly, how classical compostion went out with the rejection of the Christian classical tradition at the end of the 19th century.
  4. Andrew P talked about the four stages to lead a student from report writing to essay writing (Developing the essayist: A natural approach)
    1. Reports (facts) about animals, states, and countries
    2. Reports about people, things, and events, selecting topics based on your opionions
    3. Thesis on literature, using topics selected to support the thesis
    4. Strategic persuasive essay about an issue that matters
  5. Andrew and I discussed assessment. This talk was the one in which I learned the most over our four days and by the time we got to Dallas (echoes of Glenn Campbell?) we had combined and permutated our ideas into something really useful.
  6. Panel discussion, different in each location and always fascinating.

Keep your eyes open because the Dallas presentation was videotaped by the IEW folks and I anticipate it being available in the not too distant future.

I can’t say enough how grateful I am to Andrew Pudewa for mentoring me and bringing me into his orbit. What a fine and good man.

Thank you Andrew.

    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.

    Modern and Classical Writing Compared

    Thought begins with perception and continues through comparison.

    Angelina in Louisiana is a college writing teacher who has been comparing modern writing with classical and has had some very interesting things to say. She lives in the trenches, having to work with people who have had their common sense removed from their minds because of loyalty to ideology.

    Check out her thoughts here.

    On education and the hatred of children

    So a little girl is sitting in a third grade classroom and the teacher begins to show the students how to create a key word outline so they can imitate a fairy tale.

    “You’ll probably want to pick the subject and the verb in most sentences,” the teacher says, when the little girl raises her hand and asks, “Mrs. Teacher, is this grammar class?”

    Good one, eh?

    No, it’s not funny. I know that. It’s not funny at so many levels it makes me want to slam my desk.

    She’s a third grade girl and she has already learned, by the structure of the curriculum, that one class does not have a relation to another.

    What leads to this madness?


    That’s correct. Subjects. Where does this idea of subjects come from?

    It’s hard to say, excactly, but it seems to have been sealed by the progressives of the early 20th century. I think the traditionalists also thought in terms of subjects, but they seem to have been more open to the fact of types of knowledge.

    Let me explain what I mean. In the classical curriculum, there were not “subjects.” There were arts and sciences.

    I know, I’m being semantic. But as my friend Joe used to say, you don’t want to be anti-semantic. After all, what does semantics mean? (It means meaning, for those who care).

    Subjects became the dominant way of describing what children studied in school when the powers that be decided that all knowledge was equal in value and that skills were not transferable from one “subject” to another. It takes experts to come to conclusions like that, I know.

    Actually, it takes ideologues. The egalitarians decided that if some knowledge was more useful than others than people who had it would be superior to others. In their bitterness, they castrated the whole human race rather than risk the possibility that somebody would know something they couldn’t know.

    If you are an ideological egalitarian, which all our school leadership seems to be, then you pay no heed to reality. You simply cannot tolerate the possibility of anybody excelling. Life is a zero sum game. If one person gets ahead, the rest fall behind.

    So, to switch the metaphor (and yes, I know I’m angry – there’s a time for it), they performed a lobotomy on any child whose parents were willing to subject them to their operations.

    In the classical tradition, it has always been understood that not all knowledge is equal, that some knowledge informs other knowledge and enables us to fulfill our duties as particular humans in particular places more effectively, and that all knowledge was woven together with the ability to reason and perceive.

    It was also understood that people who can’t reason or perceive make horrible leaders and that if we don’t equip our leaders with the ability to reason and perceive we are going to be as lost as lostness itself.

    Therefore, the classical curriculum did not teach subjects. It taught the arts of thought, which required content and focused on ideas. By structuring learning on the development of the mind on the one hand, and on the natural relationships among the things known on the other, it presented a curriculum that accomplished astonishing feats in the minds of those who learned it.

    The modern seems to fear the classical curriculum because it will promote western bigotry. They are shooting themselves in the face to spite their nose. The classical tradition arises from a love and reverence for human nature.

    As the little girl above shows, the contemporary school hates human nature, which wants to see the harmony of knowledge. The structure of the curriculum arises from the formal rejection of the human mind.

    Think about that.

    As a result, human nature goes uncultivated and the economy, for which the modern school pretends to be preparing children, drifts further and further into the doldrums, as it has for the last 30 or 40 years.

    Now let me qualify. I don’t mean that contemporary school experts actively dislike children, though I am quite certain many of them do. I simply mean that they are not about to be distracted by the reality of the child’s nature when they build their programs and methodologies.

    They will not sacrifice their quantitative controls no matter how unquantitative a child is. They will not allow the teacher to exercise her own judgment no matter how much the teacher in the classroom understands both content and child.

    Any teacher in America can probably tell horror stories about the breakdown between the planners and the child’s soul. I hear them all the time.

    So they take children out of their natural environments, put them in cinder block buildings with mobs of pre-civilized (I’m being optimistic) children, and then exercise autocratic control over every movement (including bowel) the child makes through the day.

    I call that hating children. The sentimentalized demagoguery they use to perpetuate their cruelty only reinforces this contempt. That they are obtuse to the damage they cause is no excuse.

    What is Literature Anyway?

    When we teach literature, if we must, our students should not encounter a general, bewildering sampling of all the types of writing, their philosophical roots, their representative masters, and their characteristic obstacles.

    Such an approach teaches literary relativism. (I suppose the act of having a literature class probably already assumes a literary relativism, or at least that literature has a relative place in the curriculum.)

    Instead, students should learn the nature of literature from a given philosophy or theory of literature. Even if that theory is wrong it will be better than this mythical neutrality and expertise that the textbook pretends to.

    Let me press this just a little further. Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

    In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

    Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

    So that would seem to be a direct contradiction of what I said earlier.

    It seems that way because our minds are so fragmented, especially in the matter of languages.

    Grammar was the close examination of literary texts.

    There was the practical school of the Alexandrians, who developed what we think of as grammar precisely because people were unable to read Homer and they wanted to ensure that children could make the adaptations.

    Then there was the more philosophical school of, for example, the Stoics, who believed that language was rooted in nature and therefore there was an ideal form that language should take.

    They seemed to believe that Homer and possibly Plato had approached that form quite closely.

    In both cases, when they approached grammar or literature (both mean “letters”), their purpose was to give the student a profound encounter with a great text.

    They didn’t study very many texts. For example, one of my favorite educators, Vittorino de Feltre, took years to teach his students only a few books, such as Homer, Virgil, and a couple others. But they didn’t need to study very many texts for their purposes.

    Their goal was to become “men of letters,” by which they did not mean that they had read lots and lots of “letters” by other people but that they were masters of their use. Such a goal requires a close analysis of a few texts, not a shallow introduction to a multitude of texts.

    They placed a much higher value on intellectual skills (liberal ARTS) and the deep experiences that arise from close, sustained consideration of an idea than on a superficial acquaintance with a vast array of content.

    They would have been puzzled by the compulsion to “get through the material.”

     But they were in a tradition, and I think this might be the critical point. They recognized that some texts were out of this world, came from another world, were works of heartbreaking genius and merited everybody’s attention and reverence.

    As a result, they could feed on those texts for their whole lives without missing anything that mattered. Indeed, some of them could go on to produce their own works of immeasurable genius.

    Since then, the tradition has been broken. Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls? Are there any schools filled with teachers who simply teach their students to contemplate beautiful and good things?

    The worst of it is that once a tradition is lost, much of it can never be regained.

    What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.

    They do not demean literature by reading a bunch of novels because Shakespeare is too hard. And they recognize the full wealth of grammatikos, litera, letters, grammar.

    This is what the president of Yale refered to in the 19th century when he said that the goal of eduation is to read Homer in the original.

    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!).

    Even More on Nature and Practicality

    The term worldview, the usefulness of which I acknowledge, has enabled Christians to escape the secularist religion of a fundamentalism that sees the Bible as the only book we read for fear we will have to live in the world around us.

    When people speak of the Christian worldview, surely at some point they must confront the issue of nature and the school. Nothing is more harmful to a child’s faith tahn to live in a structure that embodies Naturalism without anyone explaining that a compromise has taken place.

    Constructivism is the denial of knowable truth, and it is rooted in anti-Christian philosophies. If we embody it in our schools (and I’m not sure we can be accredited without doing so), then we need to be open about it with our students.

    We need to say something like, “We don’t pattern our curriculum on the way you learn or on the structure of reality. Instead we pattern it on the requirements the state imposes on us. We have to submit to Caesar and we have judged that we have to go as far as we have in order to do what we can to be faithful. But please don’t think for a minute that reality really looks like this.”

    To the extent possible, we need to resist the utilitarian Naturalism that permeates our own minds, especially in the structure and content of the curriculum, the modes of instruction, the tools of assessment, and the means of governance.

    This isn’t easy, but at least it makes a Christian classical education possible.