In the past few months, I have seen young friends, after anticipating their high school graduations for four years, resign themselves to virtually “walking” on Zoom. I have seen engaged couples, dreaming of their weddings for several decades, reluctantly decide to live-stream their services from an almost-empty church. I have seen a lawyer, having reached an ambition of his whole career—the opportunity to try a case before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals—disappointedly agree to a settlement by phone call.
Over the last half-dozen years, classical educators’ recovery of a more holistic practice of memory has permeated my own understanding of learning, pedagogy, and virtue. I have come to believe that what a student has learned is revealed in what she remembers, rather than what work she has done or what experiences she has collected over a school year. Accordingly, when I plan instruction, I strive for pedagogical practices that engage students in labor that forms their memories, rather than that which aims only to bring them to intellectual understanding.
My one-year-old has lately begun to “color.” A supply of pencils, crayons, and paper sits ever-ready at his small table in the corner of the kitchen, and when he first wakes up, or whenever he finds a free moment in his little day, he hastens there to draw, with all seriousness, beautiful inscrutable lines and swirls and loops. So intent is he that I sometimes have a hard time tempting him away for the day’s other tasks; he ignores offers even of snacks or outside play; I have to lift him, wailing and wriggling, to carry on with things I deem more needful: mealtime, bath-time, bedtime.
The modern approach to discipline, as to most things, seeks an efficient, fail-proof, and above all, universally-adaptable approach.
There come times when a thing you’ve known time out of memory suddenly opens before you, blossoms into beauty where you’d never known to seek it. These are times of transfiguration, and in their witness to both the humble hiddenness of beauty and the deep meaningfulness of reality, they refresh our faith in a world where “being indoors each one dwells” and in a Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” as Hopkins exulted.
The other day I read a passage that opened one of these times for me. It had to do with, of all things, parts of speech. Here it is:
I read yesterday a brief review of a recently-published history of earth architecture, and it beckoned my thoughts down a number of less-traveled paths. The term “earth architecture” describes buildings made of dirt, in various forms or mixtures: adobe from Southwestern clay, for instance, or cob from mixed mud and straw in Britain, or even the “soddies” of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an international panic, it was a personal crisis, it was a freak of nature, it was a governmental conspiracy, it was the death-blow to globalism, it was the death-blow to localism, it was an extended vacation, it was an interminable grounding, we we were in it together, we could kill each other coughing, we had unbroken family time, we had cordoned corners for everyone’s Zoom meetings, we were riding bikes and planting gardens and doing home projects, we were hoarding beans and hand sanitizer and toilet paper, we were all going to
Among the greatest gifts of words is their power to transfigure our experience, to lift the veil upon the beams of glory that pulse within our tawdry-seeming tasks. When our eyes are swathed in weariness, in hopelessness, in the sheer blankness borne of repetition, a word fitly spoken can cut through all this and set our gaze again upon the blaze in the burning bush of the day-to-day.
In a recent blog post, Joshua Gibbs suggests that “What the Coronavirus Means for Classical Schools” is nothing less than a test of their true worth. That test lies in schools' potential temporary transition to remote learning. If students can receive remotely everything which their teachers would have sought to give them in class, then, Mr. Gibbs suggests, the school may not be offering the education it ought to.
It is a mark of education to abhor the cliché. The educated person, the cultured person, feels repulsed by the outworn attempts at expression that pervade kitschy art, radio hits, social exchanges, and campaign-trail patriotism. These all bear witness to George Orwell’s claim in “Politics and the English Language” that “Modern writing at its worst . . .