Every parent I know is intimately familiar with the barrage of questions we receive from our children. This past summer our family spent a week at a beautiful lake in the mountains of North Carolina. My wife, a high school literature teacher, and I, a religious studies teacher, planned to use our peaceful vacation as an opportunity to read and prepare for the school year ahead. We have three beautiful children, a nine, seven, and five-year-old.
The butterfly effect proposes that small actions can cause large effects. It suggests that a butterfly launching off a mountain peak in Asia determines if a hurricane will strike Texas. Thus, one of the lightest, most insignificant creatures unleashes a terrifying, destructive power. The principle can be observed by throwing a stone into a pond and watching the waves ripple outward growing larger. History records monumental turning points hinging on small details. How would the Persian War have ended if Xerxes didn’t accept Themistocles’s invitation to Salamis Bay?
Mythology and philosophy were the two pillars that established early society. Without them, the world would have remained an infinite wilderness of cracks and crags with darkness all around; mythology and philosophy brought light to an otherwise abysmal landscape, and it was good. Early humanity gathered round the fire to dispense their didactic tales about the stars and trees, antelopes and the sea, legendary men and women from unknown lands, fantastical gods and goddesses who warred in the sky and breached the threshold of the heavens to bestow gifts and punishments to mankind.
Many parents have offered rewards to their child in order to form a habit. If the child makes his bed every day for a month, he gets ice cream. The goal is that he will continue to make his bed even after devouring the prize. But how often does the child take the reward and then fall back into the same undisciplined lifestyle? He had no interest in forming a habit; he just wanted ice cream and would jump through any hoops to get it. Because the child only valued ice cream, the reward short-circuited genuine habit formation.
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.