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.

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.


Odyssey XIV

The part of Book XIV that always gives students pause is the poet’s sudden direct address: “And, you, Eumaeus, my noble swineherd,” etc. Peter Jones says that the figure of speech, apostrophe, is reserved for characters whom, for whatever reason, the poet has particular affection for. In the Iliad, it is used for Patroclus and Menelaus, while in the Odyssey, only Eumaeus is addressed that way.

Odysseus is, of course, the great hero of the Odyssey, and Telemachus and Penelope match his qualities in their own ways. But if you’re looking for a character who is truly good, Eumaeus is your man. He is courageous, hospitable, intelligent, and, most of all, loyal. I can imagine him being used allegorical as an example of a Christian: faithfully tending his Lord’s flocks until the day of return.

Odyssey XIII

I’ve decided to start sharing my notes and reading questions on the Odyssey. For context, I teach a 7th grade Ancient Humanities class, so I tried to write questions that can be answered at a middle school level and also function as springboards into more complex discussions.

(Btw, we are using Stanley Lombardo’s translation, even though it’s not my favorite. Someday I’ll take a leaf from this guy’s book and write a comparison between it, Fitzgerald, and Lattimore.)

What blessing does Odysseus give Arete right before he leaves?

Odysseus wishes that the Queen would be well “all of your days, until age / And death come to you, as they come to all” (XIII.61-62) He wishes her enjoyment of her house and family (ie, a good life). Ironically, Odysseus is the reason Poseidon turns one of the Phaeacian ships to stone (see below).

How does Poseidon punish the Phaeacians for helping Odysseus? How do they react to the punishment?

The Phaeacians take Odysseus home in one of their ships, and on their return, Poseidon turns the ship into stone in the middle of the harbor. Alcinous immediately recognizes this as the fulfillment of a prophecy* and resolves to never provide safe passage to any traveler ever again. Odysseus’s visit causes the Phaeacians to repudiate the law of hospitality. The last we see of them, they are huddled around Poseidon’s altar, begging him not to surround their city with a mountain, as the prophecy foretold.

Apparently, it’s unclear whether Poseidon actually fulfills this part of the prophecy. Lattimore translates Zeus’s response as, “But do not hide their city under a mountain,” which Lombardo has, “And then hem their city in with a mountain.” Obviously, it can’t be both. Peter Jones remarks that the first reading is based on the ancient commentator Aristophanes of Byzantium, while the second relies on the testimony of another ancient commentator, Aristarchos of Samothrace, both of whom wrote around the same time. So… we don’t know. Seventh graders love that kind of answer.

*This isn’t the first prophecy mentioned after its fulfillment. See Polyphemus’s lament in IX.505-519 (Lombardo).

Why does Athena prevent Odysseus from recognizing Ithaca?

My best guess is that she wanted to do the big reveal herself (XIII.197) and maybe mess with him a little. The two have that kind of relationship. As Athena says,

Here we are
The two shrewdest minds in the universe,
You far and away the best man on earth
In plotting strategies, and I famed among gods
For my clever schemes. (XIII.306-310)

Yep, two peas in a pod.

Jones also suggests that the whole scene is designed to maximize pathos by delaying Odysseus’s reunion with his home. We definitely see the same technique writ large throughout Books XIV-XXII.

Summarize Odysseus’s lie to Athena. Why does he make up a backstory?

See XIII.265ff. Odysseus claims to have killed a man who wanted to steal the gold he plundered from Troy. He mixes fact (he was at Troy, he knows Idomeneus, he came to Ithaca by ship and was left on the beach) and fiction (he is Cretan, he killed Idomeneus’s son, he traveled on a Phoenician ship). He lies to give himself an advantage, buying time and examining the stranger before revealing anything. He continues to hone this strategy as his encounters grow more and more dangerous, preparing himself for the final challenge of facing the suitors.

How does Athena disguise Odysseus? Be specific.

See XIII.447: “She shriveled the flesh on his gnarled limbs, / And withered his tawny hair. She wrinkled the skin / All over his body so he looked like an old man, / And she made his beautiful eyes bleary and dim. / Then she turned his clothes into tattered rags, / Dirty and smoke-grimed, and cast about him / A great deerskin cloak with the fur worn off. / And she gave him a staff and a ratty pouch / All full of holes, slung by a twisted cord.”

What reason does Athena give for not telling Telemachus that his father is still alive?

See XIII.437: “I wanted him / To make a name for himself by traveling there.” It’s interesting to consider what kind of reputation she expected him to earn. He still hasn’t done anything particularly heroic. Yet he has gained the respect of Nestor and Menelaus, if only for his politeness.

Lewis on English Majors

[English Literature as an academic discipline] directs to the study of literature a great many talented, ingenious, and diligent people whose real interests are not specifically literary at all. Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about? Hence literature becomes for them a religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, a psychotherapy, a sociology—anything rather than a collection of works of art.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Last fall I gave a talk on literary theory and in my research I discovered (or rather, I confirmed) that English Departments are an utter and complete sham. When I was in school, some of my professors and fellow graduate students loved stories and poetry—and at least one of my professors tried to bring that love into the classroom—but when it came to “serious” literary discussion (the kind that gets published in respectable journals), the conversation turned from the stories themselves to the religion, philosophy, sociology, history, or sex embedded within the story. I met a PhD student whose dissertation was not about literature but about the history of a particular book—the physical object, not the content. Nothing wrong with that, but doesn’t it seem like a task more suited to a budding historian than a lover of literature?

English majors pick projects like that because literature does not lend itself to the kind of scientific analysis required in the modern university. At some level, English departments are aware of this and it keeps the chair of the department up at night. Will his budget be assured come the morn? In his book on literary theory, Terry Eagleton describes the shaky identity of English departments when they first came into being in the 1920s:

The definition of an academic subject was what could be examined, and since English was no more than idle gossip about literary taste it was difficult to know how to make it unpleasant enough to qualify as a proper academic pursuit.

Eagleton goes on to say that English departments survived thanks to the rise of nationalism in the 1930s. When your nation goes toe-to-toe with another, you’re much less likely to dismiss even the least significant aspect of your culture. English people suddenly became much more loyal to their own literature than they were before and its place in the university was assured.

Still, the problem of how to make reading for fun an “unpleasant” academic subject persisted. Lewis says it was solved by literary criticism.

Everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a university has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacle of other books. On every play, poem, or novel, they produce the view of some eminent critic. An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakespearian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Less and less do we meet the individual response. The all important conjunction (Reader Meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously. Here, plainly, are young people drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled by criticism to a point at which primary literary experience is no longer possible. This state of affairs seems to me a far greater threat to our culture than any of those from which the Vigilants would protect us.

Academics love it when an eminent professor writes a new book about Shakespeare because it gives them something new to focus on and they can debate the accuracy of his judgment. It’s much easier to analyze someone’s claims about a book than to analyze the book itself. None of this nonsense about the “literary experience.” No more reading for “enjoyment” or “beauty,” whatever that is. Swaddled in criticism, the English major is free from such messy topics.

Lewis’s solution to this sorry state of affairs:

I suggest that a ten or twenty years’ abstinence both from the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good.

I wholeheartedly agree.

What To Memorize

There is nothing that it is better to commit to memory than those kinds of words and phrases whose meaning we do not know, so that where we happen to meet either with a more learned man of whom we can inquire, or with a passage that shows, either by the preceding or succeeding context, or by both, the force and significance of the phrase we are ignorant of, we can easily by the help of our memory turn our attention to the matter and learn all about it.

St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching

A Different Way of Seeing

One day, on impulse, I asked the students to copy a Picasso drawing upside down. That small experiment, more than anything else I had tried, showed that something very different is going on during the act of drawing. To my surprise, and to the students’ surprise, the finished drawings were so extremely well done that I asked the class, “How come you can draw upside down when you can’t draw right-side up?” The students responded, “Upside down, we didn’t know what we were drawing.” This was the greatest puzzlement of all and left me simply baffled.

Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

Extreme Ownership in the Classroom

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.

Extreme Ownership

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 Lifelong Learner

In the last several years, it has become common to hear about the importance of being a “lifelong learner.” While the first time I ever heard the phrase was in the context of classical education, I have since learned it derives from the world of TED talks and corporate virtue signaling. If one considers the term for a moment, it becomes suspect. A lifelong learner of what? In and of itself, learning has no moral value. Learning can be good or bad. Eve learned quite a lot when she ate of the fruit. In the dark corners of the internet, one may learn all sorts of wretched and destructive things. But in the pages of Scripture, we can learn of Christ and be saved. In the pages of old books, we can learn wisdom.

Learning is not virtuous unless one is learning virtue. 

What is more, acting as if it is an accomplishment to be a “lifelong learner” sets the bar ridiculously low. The modern man lives in a deluge of information where he is constantly hearing trivial facts, lurid stories, and inconsequential data. We browse the internet every day, we read the news every day, we watch banal documentaries on Netflix all the time, and then we forget most what we learned because it wasn’t important or because it asked nothing of us. Simply put, we’re already lifelong learners. Lifelong learners need nobler, higher, and more definite ambitions.

Josh Gibbs

Story Recipe

One of the last assignments I gave my eighth grade composition class was writing a short story. I only had two class periods to work with, so I handed them O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” along with a sheet of questions, and we created a outline based on that story. The students then wrote their own stories, following the outline as closely as possible.

Here’s roughly what I said:

First, you need a character, which is “a person with a goal.” The goal can be as small as scratching an itch or as enormous as getting married.

Person + goal = character

Next, you to describe the world this character lives in—not necessarily a physical world, just the circumstances that surround the character (a busy city, a big family, a dead-end job, a spaceship).

Once you have a person with a goal living in a world, you need to describe something that prevents the character from achieving his goal. The character’s attempt to overcome his obstacle is called “conflict.”

Character + obstacle = conflict

If the character’s goal is scratching an itch, the obstacle might be that the itch is hard to reach. If he wants to get married, his girlfriend doesn’t.

In his attempt to overcome the obstacle, your character should meet a new obstacle, which creates new conflict. (Again, we’re following O. Henry here.) The itchy character runs all over the city looking for a back-scratcher, but all the stores are sold out. The would-be groom plans a romantic dinner, but his girlfriend gets food poisoning.

We limited ourselves to two conflicts, but a story can have many more than that. The key is that each conflict should either sprout directly from one of the character’s main goal(s) or flow from his attempts to overcome the previous obstacle.

At some point, it should appear that the character has failed at both of his goals. He’s at the end of his rope and nothing is solved. The last mayor bans back-scratchers and the itch just gets worse. The girlfriend is so sick she gets sent to the hospital and vows never to see him again.

Finally, to his surprise, the character meets one or both of his goals. (This is called resolution.) The more unexpected the success is, the better. Enraged, the itchy character grabs a “sold out” sign to smash it, only to realize its the perfect length to scratch his back. The romantic meets a cute paramedic who’s smitten with him.

Note that the most important conflict to resolve is the original one. It’s not necessary for the character to buy a back-scratcher. He just needs to get rid of his itch. It’s not necessary for the date to go well, only for the main character to find love.

The full recipe looks like this:

  • Who is the main character (person + goal)?
  • What world does he live in?
  • What is stopping him from achieving his goal (conflict #1)?
  • How does the character try to solve conflict #1? (This is goal #2)
  • What is stopping him from achieving goal #2? (This is conflict #2)
  • How does the character seem to fail at both goals?
  • How does the character achieve one or both goals in the end?

The students that followed this structure closely ended up writing stories that, while not great, were compelling. We wanted to know what was going to happen next and we were satisfied by the ending. That’s more than we can say about most stories.

The funniest thing about this is that I tried to map this structure onto one of my own stories and realized I hadn’t given my main character a primary goal. As I’ve said before, teaching something is one of the best ways to learn.