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.
Philosophers from Augustine to Einstein have sought to define time; but, judging from our language, we have settled it in more no-nonsense fashion.We speak of saving time, spending time, wasting time, investing time, losing time, buying time—the metaphor buried beneath such phrases is hard to miss: time is a commodity. Like gold, wheat, and cattle, it comes in limited quantities, has relative worth, and is subject to demand, supply, and chance.
Necessity is the mother of invention, quipped Ben Franklin, and, in quintessential American fashion, he seemed content to let the buck stop with necessity. For a nation whose only original philosophical contribution has been pragmatism, need seems self-evident, self-justified, self-authenticating. If I am a student who needs special provisions made for my religious practices, or an employee who needs insurance coverage for my sexual experimentation—who is to deny me? At times, in the course of human events, things just become necessary.
The most effective way to shape our students’ epistemologies is to take them to used bookstores.
An overstatement, surely—but worth considering. Epistemological formation, or instruction in how we know what we know, must be a central pursuit of Christian education, for Pilate’s question has echoed down through two millennia and the reverberations of the three words “What is truth?” are now louder than Poe’s tintinnabulating bells. The whole history of philosophy anno Domini could be cast as a sustained attempt to answer them.
If life were a movie, then at about this time in the year the first faint rumblings of satisfying bass and the earliest echoes of a soon-to-be-soaring melody would waft into the background of our days at school, cueing the year’s approaching end. Week by week, they would crescendo majestically, till the last day of school would arrive and our final sage words in the classroom bring the orchestral swells to a resounding tonic chord resolution. Roll credits, please.
This past week, an older friend of mine phoned for grammar help: an exegetical debate hinging on verb tense had arisen in the Bible study he leads for younger men. And, while my friend had prepared thoroughly in his usual way— by extensive reading in the theological library he’d amassed over around fifty years, now lining one wall of his den—a younger member of the study was pressing an objection with pages of articles printed from a Google search.
The year 381 witnessed the writing of a most high and hearty poem. Squeezing cosmic scope into twenty-seven lines, it spoke of an almighty Father, of things visible and invisible, of an unending kingdom, of people awaiting the resurrection of the dead. The poets were theologians; the occasion was the Second Church Council; the poem was the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.