Blanket Statements

A brilliant aphorism is a dangerous thing. It is always a lie and never the truth.

T. W. Baldwin

Apply this saying to itself and it becomes rather amusing.

Between Two Stools

It is impossible to talk about how a person should be educated until you can say what a person is. All education is an attempt to demonstrate to someone, usually young, how he ought to exist in the world. Much can be made of that “ought.” A modern philosopher might define a human being as homo sapiens, that is, “thinking man.” The development of thought, then, becomes the focus of education because modern philosophy believes that man ought to exist by thought. (This view is rapidly falling out of favor, actually, and is being replaced by a new form of tribalism, in which thought isn’t as necessary as following the habits of whatever group you happen to be in. Modern education has fallen between two stools. On the one hand, modern schools teach that thought is the key to existence. On the other, they teach that persons are inextricably bound to their history, family, and culture. In one view, thought is the basis of reality. In the other, thought is optional. No wonder modern education is a mess.)

~from the proposal for an imaginary classical school

Munro’s Law

An English* scholar of the late 19th century, David Munro, compared [the Iliad and the Odyssey] and discovered an interesting phenomenon (now known as Munro’s law), which is that there is no overlap in their contents: neither poem recounts any events that are told in the other. This discovery lends itself to several conclusions… but the most likely is that they were designed to complement one another. The Odyssey seems, in fact, to go out of its way to fill in the rest of the story of the Iliad. Not only does it give a comprehensive account of the “Returns” [nostoi] of the Greeks, but it finishes the story of the war itself, recounting events that are implicit but still untold at the end of the Iliad: the death and burial of Achilles and the taking of Troy.

Sheila Murnaghan in the introduction to Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Odyssey

*Munro was born in Scotland, but spent his career at Oxford.

Give Them More to Say

A friend read the introductory paragraph of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Christian Future at Men’s Group this weekend. Here it is:

ERH goes on to say that this “speechless future,” as he calls it, is the dilemma of our age and was the theme of his life for several decades.

I found myself unexpectedly moved by this anecdote, in particular the line, “When a lover has nothing more to say”—nothing, that is, except “to Hell.” When not even love can move a man to care about beautiful speech, what hope is there for speech at all?

I’m not old enough to call this dilemma the theme of my life, but it has certainly been a preoccupation. I spend the bulk of my time making art and teaching others to make art for themselves. Almost everything I do, whether teaching literature, organizing a music colloquium, or publishing a magazine, is part of this project: to make the best art I can and teach others to make it, too.

The artist’s main challenge (apart from just doing the work) is getting other people to care. In fact, that may be the best way to measure the success of any given artwork. Does it compel people to care? The theater producer in the story gives up his dreams because he thinks that his cause is hopeless. Granted, a public that has no response other than to say “to Hell” makes a tough crowd, but I hold out hope that it can be won over. Eventually, that apathy will break under its own weight and people will begin looking for things to care about.

And once they care, they will need words to say. One day, a young Romeo spending an evening with his Juliet may realize that he does want to woo her with beautiful speech, and he will search high and low until he finds something. So this is my encouragement to artists and teachers everywhere: Keep making and loving beautiful things. One day, the world will want them again.

Work Within Reach

Many of my posts here are generated by things that Alan Jacobs has posted about. One reason for this is that he posts a lot (despite having resolved, many times, to quit) and another is that his blog doesn’t have a Comments section, so if I want to respond, I have to do so here.

There’s also something about the way Jacobs writes that prompts reflection. I think his great strength as a writer (and probably as a teacher) is his ability to pull together ideas from many different sources and put them side by side. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t require a photographic memory. He’s just a very careful reader. Here’s what a page looks like after he’s read it:

I always come away from a Jacobs post or book itching to read the authors he writes about. He truly does have a gift for presenting their ideas clearly.

In one recent post, Jacobs described his “great project”/”glorious endeavor” (somewhat tongue in cheek): a college Where the New Liberal Arts Meets the Old. One of his foundational courses would be the Care of Plants and Animals, an idea he cheerfully stole from Auden’s “daydream College for Bards.” Here’s Auden’s full description:

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:

(1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.

(2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.

(3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.

(4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.

(5) every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.

A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words. At one time, children training to become rabbis were also taught some skilled manual trade, and if only they knew their child was going to become a poet, the best thing parents could do would be to get him at an early age into some Craft Trades Union. Unfortunately, they cannot know this in advance, and, except in very rare cases, by the time he is twenty-one, the only nonliterary job for which a poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.

From Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, an excellent book. I found this passage online here.

Number 5, which I put in bold, would also be a feature of Jacobs’ Cassiodorus College. I’m struck by this emphasis on gardening as a fundamental part of a good education, especially when paired with Wendell Berry’s essay on the dead-end worldview that is Global-Thinking. The only way to “make ecological good sense,” as he puts it, is to focus on what’s in front of you:

The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working in, and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love.

“Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” originally published in the Atlantic

Besides the connection to Good Work (a new zine that you should subscribe to), I think this passage is important because Berry and Auden both emphasize working with one’s hands on things that are literally within reach. What benefit does gardening have to education and building a culture? I could rope in Matthew Crawford and Robert Farrar Capon here, but I’m worried this post is getting too dense as it is, so I’ll summarize two ways that manual labor can educate a person:

  1. Using your hands makes you aware of your own limits, both physically and in terms of your ability. A bell pepper exists independently from you. It’s easy to forget that kind of thing when you spend all day in a classroom.
  2. Gardening and caring for animals makes you aware, in a palpable sense, of time. You can’t grow a tomato in an instant. If you did, it wouldn’t be a tomato. A yearling calf is a year old (roughly). Again, it’s easy to forget, when you sit around a table with other brainiacs, that good work can’t be accomplished in an instant.

Gibbs on How to Save Classical Christian Ed

First, get tougher admissions standards. Start asking prospective parents: How do you discipline your children? Do your daughters have smartphones and social media accounts? Do your sons play video games? Do you go to church every Sunday? Do you eat dinner as a family most nights of the week? Do you want your children to change the world? Are your children special? Do a survey of your best teachers and ask them what common cultural attributes are shared by the worst students they have. Use a little common sense. Don’t let more families into your school which have a lot in common with the most vexing, worldly families already there.

Second, work on your faculty culture. If you can’t offer teachers a compelling salary, you have to offer them a compelling faculty culture. Hire substitutes, give your language department a couple bottles of good scotch, and tell them to just spend the day chatting. Culture revolves around food and drink and singing and dancing. If your faculty doesn’t do these things together regularly, you don’t actually have a faculty culture.

Third, make a concerted effort to not let board member’s kids, teacher’s kids, or rich kids get away with murder. You know which students ought to have been kicked out years ago. Kick them out. A classical Christian school is a bit of a ministry and a bit of a business, but bad administrators have a tendency of dicing up the ministry and business aspects of a school so that teachers always get the short end of the stick. Faculty salaries? It’s a ministry. Badly behaved board member’s kids? It’s a ministry. Massive sports program? It’s a business. No matter which way they turn, the business/ministry dichotomy leaves teachers with less: less money, less time, less freedom, less peace, less respect. If you don’t want a Great Tradition school to open in town and soak up all your best teachers, start asking yourself how’d you treat faculty differently if there was a Great Tradition school in town that could beat your salary offering by 5%.

Fourth, take a survey of where your families go to church, then take a survey of where your faculty go to church. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means Sponge.TV Faith Café and 10 means St. Prude’s Catholic, if your average family is a 3 and your average teacher is a 7, mission drift is a huge problem at your school and the only way to fix it is to completely overhaul your admission’s process.

Finally, every teacher needs a hero, but every school needs a hero, as well. Every school ought to have a school in mind that it is striving to be like. At the moment, classical Christian schools too often compare themselves with the non-classical Christian schools in town and generally come away feeling quite pleased at their accomplishments. Quit comparing your school with schools that aren’t even trying to do the same thing. Find classical Christian schools (and colleges) that are better than yours and start making the painful changes necessary to become like them.