This is one of the funniest academic books I’ve read.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me whether Christian kids really need to study pagan literature. “Isn’t the Bible more important than immoral books written by Romans and Greeks?” he asked. My reply: “Absolutely.” The Bible is more important. An old woman living alone in the middle of Nebraska who reads her Bible every day is wiser than a classroom full of godless Ivy League Classics professors. But pious spinster and overeducated atheist aren’t the only two options. Many Christian kids today have the opportunity to study both the Bible and the works of Homer, Plato, Ovid, and Virgil. The question is, given that opportunity, should they take it?
Let me say at the outset that “classical education” and “Christian education” are not the same thing. You can have one without the other, and the latter is infinitely more important than the former. “Classical education” originally meant studying the classics: the language and literature of the Greeks and the Romans. Without those pre-Christian works, an education isn’t classical, but it can still be Christian.
I suspect that most Christian parents send their children to classical Christian schools not because they love the classics but because they see these schools as stalwartly conservative and less likely to cave in to cultural trends. It’s probably true that classical schools are less likely to cave, since anyone who commits to studying old things necessarily has less time to pay attention to passing fashions. That doesn’t mean other schools will cave, however. I’m sure there are faithful schools out there that are not classical. If a Christian family is uncomfortable reading pagan literature, they can choose another school and maintain a clear conscience.
That said, I believe that there are good reasons for Christians to study classical literature. First, there’s the concept of what might be called “free grace” or “natural revelation.” Even the most savage human beings retain a hazy memory of a time when man walked with God in the Garden. This means that pagans can figure out some true things about the world, even about God Himself, and we shouldn’t be afraid of digging around in their books for that buried treasure. After all, we do the same in books written by nominal Christians like Melville, Emerson, and Twain. Is a pious pagan any worse than these? And if we do start removing “objectionable books” from the curriculum, where do we stop? Should we examine an author’s Christian pedigree before reading what he wrote? Worldview should not be the determining factor when deciding the value of a book. Once we start examining an author’s ideology to determine the value of his poetry, we may as well give up studying literature altogether.
Second, we should study classical literature as a broad cultural application of the fifth commandment. Just as we honor the man and woman who brought us into the world, we honor the men and women who brought them into the world and the country that produced them and the history that produced that country. For centuries, those who read and wrote and taught in the Western world drew on the literature of the Greeks and Romans. In practical terms, knowing classical languages and literature is a passport to vast areas of our culture, to the point of effectively doubling a person’s access to knowledge. Hundreds of thousands of words across dozens of languages can be traced back to Rome, not to mention the overabundance of classical allusions at every level of our society (Amazon, anyone?). There is a sense in which the very thoughts in our heads are built out of materials shaped by the minds of Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest. We may wish this were not the case, just as we may wish we had been born in a different time, in a different place, or a to a different family. But here we are, stuck with this heritage.
Finally, we should study classical literature because it’s what Christians have always done. The apostle Paul, whose life was completely transformed by Jesus, was familiar enough with the Greek poets to quote them on at least two occasions (Acts 17, Titus 1). In the fourth century, Emperor Julian, who renounced the faith, passed a law to stop Christians from teaching Greek and Roman literature. This tells us two things: 1) Christians taught that stuff and 2) they taught it in such a way as to enrage a pagan emperor. (I’m grateful to Wes Callihan for this particular insight.) Clearly, pagan literature can be put to good use. Remember that it was the descendants of Cain who invented musical instruments.
One could argue that Paul and the rest drew on pagan literature because they had nothing else. Perhaps we should sweep that culture from the earth and replace with our own based on the Bible. This is an excellent suggestion, so excellent in fact that Christians began the process almost two thousand years ago. In his biography of Saint Francis, Chesterton describes the so-called Dark Ages as a purgation, the time when the spiritual diseases of paganism were expelled from the system. Christians in these times worked and prayed and cleaned and scrubbed until the Gospel was pushed into all corners of the globe, and still they decided that pagan literature must be taught. It was medieval monks, soaked in Scripture, who decided the Aeneid must be preserved.
I suspect that a culture that tossed out everything but the Gospel would soon discover that they had somehow managed to bring everything else along with them. It’s the nature of good news to spread. Christians have been told to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth, which certainly includes the works of Homer, Plato, and all the rest.
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book Extreme Ownership unpacks leadership principles they learned as Navy SEAL commanders, both in training and in battle. Both of these men now work as private advisors for business executives, so their book applies most directly to the business world. The principles are useful for leaders in any field, however. In this post, I’d like to explore how they apply to teachers and to school staff in general.
The main principle is stated in the title: Extreme Ownership. Essentially, this means that leaders must take responsibility for the success or failure of their team, regardless of whether or not they caused the mistake. “The only meaningful measure for a leader,” the authors say, “is whether the team succeeds or fails” (8). For a teacher, this means that if your class fails to achieve the goals you’ve set for them, you have not led them. Effective leadership is defined by success.
This brings up an obvious question: what is your goal as a teacher? Since teachers are themselves part of a team that operates under a leader, their overarching goal is defined for them by the school mission statement. All of the tasks a teacher does every day must work towards accomplishing the overall goal of the school. This goes for lesson plans as well as for class discipline. A good leader takes ownership of the overarching mission and leads his team to accomplish smaller tasks that help accomplish that mission.
Taking ownership does not simply mean admitting that it’s your fault when a student fails to accomplish a goal you’ve set, although it does include that. Taking ownership means finding out why that student has failed and giving them the resources (time, attention, incentive, additional materials) they need to succeed. Leaders can’t throw up their hands and blame the student for not applying himself. As long as that student is part of your team, you must make them succeed. If one member of the team fails, the whole team fails.
Taking ownership also means that a teacher cannot blame external factors for causing the team to fail. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response. It’s not your fault that a student is absent for days on end, but it is your responsibility to bring them up to speed when they return. If they don’t catch up, you have failed as a leader.
Making True Believers
The most crucial part of taking ownership is making absolutely sure your team (your class) understands why they are being asked to do something. You must explain every goal to them until they become true believers in the mission. The most effective teams, the teams that accomplish what they set out to do, are those that understand the importance of their mission. A team that believes will try harder and work more intelligently than a team that is simply following directions. A true believer will take ownership of the mission himself.
Of course, a leader can’t take ownership of a mission unless he also believes in the mission. This is why the best teachers are the ones who love their subject. The students pick up on that love and begin to love the subject, too. Good leadership is contagious. If you as a teacher constantly take ownership of your students and help them succeed, they will begin to take ownership of their own work and will be motivated to succeed.
The other aspect of belief is that a leader must “align his thoughts and vision to that of the mission” (77). If the leader doesn’t understand why a particular goal needs to be accomplished, he needs to ask questions until he not only understands but believes in the absolute necessity of that goal. Senior leaders must explain the mission to those below them, and junior leaders must ask questions until they understand the why and can make others believe. Willink and Babin put it this way:
If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions until you understand how and why those decisions are being made. Not knowing the why prohibits you from believing in the mission. When you are in a leadership position, that is a recipe for failure, and it is unacceptable. As a leader, you must believe. (84)
Taking ownership in this situation means communicating to your superiors that they haven’t communicated to you. If you don’t understand the instructions, if you don’t truly believe in the goal to the extent that you can convince others of its importance, you can’t throw up your hands and say, “I’m sure it doesn’t matter anyway.” Take ownership. Get your leaders to clarify until you understand the instructions and believe in them. Only then can you communicate it to your team. To summarize: Ask up, explain down. Ask your superiors for clarification, then explain the mission to your team.
For example, take a school dress code. At my school, the dress code is clearly explained in the student handbook. Why don’t our students follow it? The responsibility rests on the teachers. We have not led effectively. We have not adequately communicated the why to the students. If we had, they would follow it. Most likely, the reason that we haven’t succeeded in our mission is that we don’t understand the why either. A leader who doesn’t believe cannot make others believe. It is our responsibility as teachers to take ownership of the school policy, to ask questions until we understand its importance, and to communicate it to the students. As the authors say, “One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss” (237). If you, as a teacher, complain about the rules and procedures you have been given, your students will, too. You must take the time to understand them so that you can enforce them as though they are your own.
Clarify the Mission
The authors develop several other principles of good leadership, but the principle most closely tied to extreme ownership is clarifying the mission. There can be no leadership where there is no team, and there can be no team where there is no mission. The mission must be simple, flexible, and measurable. If it’s complicated, rigid, or vague, it can’t be communicated down the chain of command, which will prevent anyone from owning it. A leader can’t lead his team unless he is leading them somewhere.
Teachers are classroom leaders and, as such, are responsible for the success of their students. In order for teachers to thrive as classroom leaders, they must take ownership of their classrooms, which means they must ask up and explain down. They must take responsibility for understanding the mission of the school and for communicating that mission to the students. Whether the daily lesson involves analyzing a poem, diagramming a sentence, or solving a complex equation, the class can only succeed if their teacher takes ownership of his or her class and teaches the students to take ownership themselves.
- The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare – Feels like Shakespeare fan-fiction. A lot of his other stories woven into one, convoluted plot.
- The Tempest, William Shakespeare – One of Will’s last plays. The self-assessment is on full display and surprisingly honest.
- Antigone, Sophocles (trans. ?)
- The Burial at Thebes, Sophocles (trans. Seamus Heaney)
- High School Musical,
- Pride and Prejudice, Helen Jerome
- Pride and Prejudice, Janet Munsil
Children’s Fiction (15)
- Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis
- Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson – I told myself I wouldn’t cry. By now you know what a softie I am.
- Dangerous Journey, László Hámori – One of my favorite books from childhood. It’s basically an Eastern European Hardy Boys story.
- The Green Ember, S. D. Smith
- Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Gary D. Schmidt – Disappointing.
- A Month of Sundays, Ruth White – I enjoyed Belle Prater’s Boy, but this one was unremarkable.
- Anna Hibiscus, Atinuke – Simple, delightful.
- Circus Mirandus, Cassie Beasley – I loved the whole idea of the circus and the Man Who Bends Light is a great character.
- Boys of Blur, N. D. Wilson – Liked it even more this time around.
- Wise Words, Peter J. Leithart – C. S. Lewis described a myth as a story that is so solid and real that it doesn’t matter what form it takes. The story of Daedalus and Icarus, for example, can be told as a poem, a play, a movie, or a novel without losing its power. Several of the stories in Wise Words have that mythic status, I think — The Three Princes, The Magical Walnut. Besides that, I’ve been surprised, this time through the book, at the stories that really affect me — The Bleeding Tree, A Reluctant Rescue. The best stories, it seems, grow with us.
- They Were Strong and Good, Robert Lawson
- Frindle, Andrew Clements
Theology and the Christian Life (7)
- The Crook in the Lot, Thomas Boston – Full of wisdom.
- Christianity and the Constitution, John Eidsmoe – Very useful.
- Good & Angry, David Powlison – Read for men’s group at church. Powlison makes his most valuable point a few pages in: not all anger is sinful.
- Future Men, Douglas Wilson – Useful.
- Worldly Saints, Leland Ryken – This book would probably be filed under history in a library, but it contains so many great Puritan quotes that reading it is almost like reading a devotional.
- Vindicae Contra Tyrannos, Stephen Junius Brutus – Intensely practical in this day and age, which may not be a good thing.
- Reforming Marriage, Douglas Wilson – Some useful advice. Many of the applications seem outdated—for example, in the last twenty-five years, and especially since COVID, men and women have both started to spend more time at home with their kids.
- Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford – I wrote a couple of newsletters about this book.
- Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert T. Kiyosaki – As is the case with all “get rich!” books, you have to pick and choose what to follow and what to ignore.
- Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America, Crawford Gribben – My main thought reading this book was, “So I’m not unique.” Growing up in Moscow, it was tempting to see our community as the last hope of Christian culture. Not only was that wrong-headed, it was also, apparently, a mindset that was shared by many other people in Idaho, most of whom were not connected with Christ Church at all. Weird. This book also showed me just how much my worldview has been shaped by R. J. Rushdoony, for better or for worse. That’s a topic worth exploring in another post.
- The Read-Aloud Family, Sarah MacKenzie – Some good tips on reading together. The main one I’ll take away is be consistent. The kids should assume every family does this. Lots of book recommendations, too, though I don’t agree with all (Wonder, for example, is a terrible book).
- The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat – Douthat starts an intriguing conversation, muddles his way through the middle of it, and ends with a call to repentance and… space travel? He’s simultaneously provoking his readers and playing it safe, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a newspaper columnist.
- King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Robert L. Moore and Douglas Gillette
- Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas
- An Autobiography, Bill Peet – Continuing my Disney kick. Peet designed many of Disney’s most memorable characters. It really is a shame that so many great animators are completely unknown. They’re the real movie stars.
- House, Tracy Kidder – A journalistic novel about building a house.
- The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl R. Trueman – A worthwhile read, but also useful as a reference book in case you need a quick summary of modern literary figures. It would be interesting to explore how CS Lewis fits into all this. To say so may be heresy in my circles, but is it possible that Lewis’s emphasis on the purity of Nature falls into the same problem that Trueman describes in the section on the Romantics?
- Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin – Some very good advice on leadership based on the authors’ experience as Navy SEALs. Though it’s written for business, the principles can just as easily be applied to parenting and education.
Adult Fiction (19)
- Cannery Row, John Steinbeck – Very good in a Steinbeck-y way: sumptuous description, tenderness toward society’s outcasts, amusement at the oddities of life. He has a wonderful eye.
- Starbridge: Absolute Truths, Mystical Paths, Susan Howatch – Recommended by my wife. From my newsletter: “These books are cheesy. If they had a soundtrack, it would be a cross between a 1940s Hollywood romance and the radio drama Suspense! They are scandalous. Sex is a major theme, especially the recurring question of how on earth an unmarried clergyman is supposed to remain celibate. They are also, at times, surprisingly insightful. I saw reflections of myself in more than one character, and I don’t just mean a passing characteristic. I mean the kind of characteristic that you’d need a bone-saw to remove. Oh, did I mention the books are theologically literate, at least in the Anglican tradition? Every chapter opens with a quote from a C of E luminary like Rowan Williams or Austin Farrer.”
- The Siege of Troy, Theodor Kallifatides – Reviewed for Forma. Subscribe here to read it.
- Evangellyfish, Douglas Wilson – A good start that meandered and finished too quickly. Mega-church satire is so familiar to me not many of the jokes were new.
- Behind Closed Doors, B. A. Paris – A forgettable thriller about a woman who unwittingly marries a psychopath. One of the few books I’ve read in which a main character has Down’s Syndrome.
- The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts – Alan Jacobs speaks highly of the book here. I jotted down some thoughts in my newsletter.
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Maria Semple – Recommended by my wife.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke – An impressive book. After listening, I bought myself a copy so I can re-read it at my leisure.
- We Run the Tides, Vendela Vida – Josh Gibbs mentioned this in passing. Not my favorite.
- I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith – If I had gone in knowing this was not a children’s book, I would have enjoyed it more.
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh – Another one I got from Gibbs. I wasn’t impressed at first, but it’s grown on me since.
- The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis – Fiction, I know, but Lewis perceives so much about human nature, it’s easy to imagine this is a realistic picture of what awaits our souls after death.
- The Children of Men, P. D. James – Really good.
- Favorite Father Brown Stories, G. K. Chesterton – Not my favorite Father Brown stories, but still good.
- Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout – Interwoven tales about a tiny town in Maine. Perhaps the most impressive thing is how Olive, who is a pretty unpleasant person, becomes a lifeline for the reader amidst the turmoil of other people’s lives.
- Very Good, Jeeves! P. G. Wodehouse – Great. Reading Wodehouse is kind of like watching good TV: you know exactly what you’re going to get and it’s always satisfying.
- Leave it to Psmith, P. G. Wodehouse – Great.
- Ride, Sally, Ride, Douglas Wilson – All over the place.
- Teacher in America, Jacques Barzun – Once in a while, you pick up a random book that turns out to be a gem.
- The Amazing Dr. Ransom’s Bestiary of Adorable Fallacies, Douglas Wilson and N. D. Wilson – More fun as a read-through than a textbook.
- The Golden Fleece, Padraic Colum – A bunch of Ovidian myths woven into the story of Jason and the Argonauts. It’s a good way to introduce the kids to a bunch of stories all at once, and Colum captures the tone of the ancient stories.
- Gilgamesh the Hero, Geraldine McCaughrean – If you’re looking for a children’s version of the Gilgamesh story, this is a good choice.
- The Odyssey, translated by Stanley Lombardo – Not my favorite translation, but accessible to seventh-graders.
- Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney – Wonderful.
- Adam, David Langstone Bolt – Thoughts here.
- The Life of Merlin, Geoffrey of Monmouth (trans. by Basil Clarke) – Mysterious.
- Piers Plowman, William Langland – Tough sledding.
Essay Collections (1)
- Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace
Graphic Novels (14)
- Amulet (1-8), Kazu Kibuishi
- Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
- The Odyssey, Tim Mucci, Ben Caldwell, Rick Lacy
- Cardboard, Doug TenNapel
- Nnewts (1-3), Doug TenNapel
Books I read a significant part of, but did not finish:
- The Well at the World’s End, William Morris
- Duet, Kitty Burns Florey
- Birds of America, Lorrie Moore
- The History of the Ancient World, Susan Wise Bauer
- Eothen, A. W. Kinglake
- Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, Lardner Gibbon and William S. Herndon
- The Eternal Pity, Richard John Neuhaus
- Codependent No More, Melody Beattie
- Birthing from Within, Pam England
- The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe
- Letters of C. S. Lewis
My favorite of Doug Wilson’s books is free on Kindle right now.
Some books are to be treated courteously, others graciously, and some few to be embraced and surrendered to.
A few years ago I was cataloguing the library of an eminent theologian, and I started to take pictures of the most interesting book covers. Here you are.
It wasn’t so much the cover of this one as the note inside.
Messing around with book titles.
No one can teach you to read like a writer. It can happen, of course. Once you’ve slaved over thousands and thousands of sentences, trying to get words to click, you develop an eye for quality, the same way a cinematographer recognizes good filmmaking and a contractor good craftsmanship. Ask a writer how to write a good sentence and the odds are he’ll rattle off a half-dozen that amaze him. (Francine Prose turned this into an entire book called Reading Like a Writer. You’ll notice it’s not called “How To Read Like a Writer.”)
I’m starting a new non-sequential series of newsletter issues called “What I Learned From…” I’m cross-posting them here so I can file them more easily. These will not be book reviews. I rarely put down a book these days ready to pass judgment on it (unless I’ve been asked to, of course). I usually jot a few notes to myself, mark the book as read, and move on. But every so often, I notice something a writer did well, something I want to remember. That’s what these issues are for.
Susan Howatch wrote a series of novels about the Church of England in the 20th century. My wife put the first one (Glittering Images) in my hands and promised me that the last one (Book 6) was more than worth reading all four thousand pages of the series. My wife’s taste in books is excellent, as you may know, so I read them all. She was right. The tangled threads of six books ultimately weave together into a satisfying final picture. (That was a very Howatchian sentence, by the way.)
Before you treat this as a recommendation, please note the following. These books are cheesy. If they had a soundtrack, it would be a cross between a 1940s Hollywood romance and the radio drama Suspense! They are scandalous. Sex is a major theme, especially the recurring question of how on earth an unmarried clergyman is supposed to remain celibate. They are also, at times, surprisingly insightful. I saw reflections of myself in more than one character, and I don’t just mean a passing characteristic. I mean the kind of characteristic that you’d need a bone-saw to remove. Oh, did I mention the books are theologically literate, at least in the Anglican tradition? Every chapter opens with a quote from a C of E luminary like Rowan Williams or Austin Farrer.
Alright, on to the writing. Howatch isn’t a great writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her. From Howatch, I learned that sometimes it’s more accurate to tell rather than show, especially when writing in the first person. This sounds bizarre to those of us who are used to hearing the opposite. I’ve always thought “show, don’t tell” meant that you should describe physical sensations and movements instead of thoughts and emotions. A scene written like that might go something like this:
“Where you were last night?” my mother asked without looking up from her knitting.
My fingers tightened around my car keys. “Out with some friends,” I said.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked and clicked.
“Yep, we did.” The keys dug into my palm. “Good night, Mom.”
If Susan Howatch were to tackle this scene, it would look something like this:
“Where were you last night?” my mother asked innocently, never looking up from her knitting. I recognized the half-finished project in her lap. It was the same pattern as the blanket she had knitted for me when I was a child. This blanket was for my new niece, of course, but the significance of her choosing to work on this particular project at this particular time was not lost on me.
My fingers tightened around my car keys as I said carefully, “Out with some friends.” With any luck, she would believe the lie and ask no further questions. My heart sank as I saw that my words had merely confirmed her suspicions.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked reproachfully. They continued to click, like a miniature clock urging me to confess, confess! before it was too late. I longed to tell her everything, to absolve myself of the awful guilt which followed me everywhere and even now hung like a black cloud over the house. But something held me back. Grasping in my mind, I discovered it was the constant and unceasing danger that the truth presented to Cecilia. I could never tell. Never.
It was in that moment I knew I loved her.
I realized I hadn’t replied to my mother’s comment. I adopted my most casual tone and consciously relaxed my grip around the keys. “Yep, we did. Good night, Mom.”
Does the second attempt add anything to the scene that’s missing from the first attempt? Of course. We know that the mother has chosen her knitting carefully. We know that the narrator believes telling the truth would be dangerous. We meet someone named Cecilia. And we are much, much closer to the protagonist’s point of view. Attempt #2 may be overwritten (so many adverbs!), but it’s not unrealistic. We actually do observe, evaluate, and make choices when we’re in the middle of having a conversation with someone. We just do it instantaneously. Teasing out all of those thoughts and judgments can take pages and pages, but it can be very effective if done well. Attempt #1, on the other hand, tries to mimic real time, but that doesn’t make Attempt #2 less real.
So, the lesson: it’s sometimes good to tell, not show, especially if you’re writing in the first person, and commentary can slow scenes down to help you focus on the protagonist’s interior life.