Long ago there lived a people who believed the world was made of music. Above them the skies sang, and within them melody knit their marrow to their souls. So, hearing harmony in the both the world without and the world within, they created their own music to echo it. Through the art of composition, they transposed intangible universal laws into realities grasped by human senses. These people were the medievals, and they believed in the harmony of the spheres—a cosmology that, for them, had the same explanatory power that the solar system does for us moderns.
I used to think of teaching as a kind of seed-sowing: you toss the little specks into the ground, lose sight of them, and pray they’ll sprout and flourish and bear fruit. But as I have been preparing my garden for this spring, I have changed my mind. Teaching is a lot more like cultivating dirt.
In literature, as in life, ending well is the great, hard achievement. No mere conclusion, an ending completes and shapes the meaning of the whole story, the whole life. Last week my students and I reached the ending to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which surprises the reader as much as it does the characters. The steady degeneration of the boys’ miniature society into bloodthirsty, animistic savagery climaxes in the hunting of a boy who’s destined to be impaled and offered as an appeasement to the fantastic, unknown Beast of the island.
When I’m thirty pages and fifty comma splices into my weekend’s worth of grading, that fifty-first comma splice often gives me pause. Is it worth writing in this correction again, I wonder? Does the repetition actually help? Or will the students just mindlessly transcribe my edits into their computer documents, reprint the assignment, and turn in a clean paper that signifies no learning?
Throughout this strange December—strung with news of bombings and shootings; campaign bickerings; and quiet, solemn tragedies closer to home—hope burns on in the bright-edged realism of the Christmas carols.
Ours is a word-formed world. God spoke, and it came to be; echoing Him, we speak, and our words also form “worlds.” Not ex nihilo, but as sub-creators, our words shape the raw facts we encounter into meaningful entities among which we can dwell. There is a tree: the pagan calls it a deity; the Puritan calls it a cipher of God’s attributes; the scientist, a specimen; the lumberjack, a commodity; the child, a fortress. Repeated a million times over, this naming shapes the whole meaning we make and response we owe to the world.
Last night I watched The Dead Poets Society, and I thought about how every teacher longs to have his John Keating moments. These abound in this story of an unorthodox English teacher’s misadventures at a stodgy 1959 boys’ school: whistling his way around (or on top of) desks and administrators, physically spinning metaphors out of the quietest students, igniting in grade-obsessed high-schoolers a love for poetry that sends them out of their beds at night, and lining them up to whack at a ball while yawping grand dictums to Beethoven’s swelling brass.
We humans are story-shaped and story-making creatures. From stories we receive the gifts of meaning, hope, purpose, revelation—even, in that great Story, salvation. A life without story is no human life.
Few vocations offer as much closure with as little completion as does schooling. Teachers, students, and administrators are forever bumping up against conclusions: the end of the lesson, the week, the unit, the quarter, the semester, the academic year, high school, the bachelor’s degree, then the master’s or doctorate—all observed with due ceremony, ranging from the ritual recitation of “Have a good weekend!”, to the gathering of an all-school assembly, to the donning of academic regalia for a university convocation.
It is, probably, the most barbed of the criticisms leveled against the whole array of classical, Christian, and homeschooling endeavors. Yet it shoots forth from the secular media, the mainstream Christians, and our own self-doubts—the declaration that our homes and schools are too heavenly minded to accomplish any earthly good; that we have absconded from the essential work of evangelizing or redeeming culture; that our communities are merely “Christian ghettos,” as morally irresponsible as the monasteries of the Middle Ages.