I ran across a quote recently that has been widely—and falsely—attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” The quote was actually referenced by Roosevelt in his autobiography, but the person he quotes is one Squire Bill Widener, a community servant who lived a rather obscure, but nonetheless valuable, life. This quote has been precisely what I needed to hear as school has begun.
Is teaching an art or a science? Such a question seeks to determine if there is a repeatable method to be followed in teaching—a formula to be applied—or if teaching is a matter of intuition, judgment, and inspiration. If a science governed by rigid rules, then anyone could be a teacher so long as he could learn and apply the technique. If an art, then every teacher must dedicate himself to his subject, audience, and craft in order to cultivate mastery. Teaching is a challenging profession requiring long study and practice.
In his work Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis reminds us that we are untrue beings veiled even from our own sight by all manner of things. The reason Orual is incapable of hearing from the gods is because she is not speaking truthfully; the reason she cannot see the gods is because she does not yet have a true face. Orual realizes this and lets her audience in on this revelation: “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?
As a classical educator, I frequently observe the necessity of logic in the life of the student. Despite this truth, my students still bemoan both its practice and study, especially in the early days of the school year. Yet, nothing is more essential than “studying the tools” of classical education. To put it another way, there is nothing so needed in our classroom, than “learning to breathe, classically.”
“I have been given a pile of bricks,” I jotted down this summer as I was reviewing the new state standards to which the curriculum needs to be aligned, “and instructed to cover up a window.” I sighed, and then wrote next to it: “I will have to turn the bricks onto their sides and make an arch out of them, so there is some hope of light coming through.”
“Say the truth no matter what,” advises Jordan Peterson in a podcast with Joe Rogan. That advice sounded patronizing to me, a teacher, a person whose vocation is to tell the truth. Had I ever stood in front of my students and refused to tell the truth? Had I ever deliberately tried to deceive them? I assumed Peterson was speaking to those shady political groups or prosperity preachers who spread fake news and false promises.
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then first discover how much you really trusted it?” - C. S. Lewis
What is Latin? This probably seems like a useless question as most people of a certain language have heard of “Latin.” That said, when you tell people that you teach Latin you get all kinds of perplexed looks and then an assortment of odd questions which follow: “do you speak it?”; “are you fluent?”; “are you Catholic?”; and in some cases, “isn’t that a dead language?” Sometimes people might have a little more familiarity with the language and then they assume that you teach the language so that students can get a higher SAT score or be prepared for law school or medical school.
There’s a dark irony within our current educational institutions. It appears as if the very time in which we began to place a heavy emphasis on test scores and practical skills is exactly when our schools and students started heading downhill. Don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to imply that there was once a “glory day” for schooling, as if everything was once perfect and has only recently begun to break down. Nor do I wish to claim that an emphasis on testing and practicality is somehow the only factor contributing to poor education.
At the end of summer, our family escaped to the Shawnee Hills of southern Illinois, where we have a small house. In fact, the house is so small that the ten of us find it more comfortable to spend most of our time in the yard.
Traffic on the gravel road was moderate that night, with neighbors slowing their Gators to take a gander at us. Then one of them pulled into the yard. It was Larry, so we knew we were in for some tall tales. But his first question was, “Is that a mandolin?” MANdolin, dactylic.
“Yes,” I said, “but I don’t really know what I’m doing with it.”