Ecclesiastes 3: A Catechism in Phronesis

Feb 20, 2019

It has become my custom to begin every class period with the reading of a Psalm, and usually the same Psalm for each day of the week throughout a given quarter. Mondays, however, are different. We begin instead by reading from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, which is a potent reminder for all of us that the time for rest (Sunday) is over and that the time for study and labor has come again.

I hope that the passage is at least moderately successful in providing my students with such a reminder. I know that my own need to hear it again is likely just as great. Monday-morning-Mr. Williams remains as unenthused about the tedium of writing unit plans and grading grammar worksheets as he is thrilled to hear a recitation of Hopkins or field his students’ questions about hobbits and elves. Of course, it is impossible to experience the joys of the latter without undergoing the sanctification of the former. Both must be done. After all, there is a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time for editing middle school essays and a time for marveling at illustrations of Achilles’ shield. And, apparently, there is a time for banging one’s head against both proverbial and actual walls in pursuit of that elusive moment when your words connect straight with your students’ hearts.

Middle schoolers, I am learning, always stumble awkwardly into this season when more responsible autonomy is being demanded of them. They are waking up to the reality that adulthood is no true liberation from the constraints of childhood; there are no snooze buttons for delaying its onset. Contrary to all that they had previously assumed, this new stage is not a carefree drive down an open highway with their hair on fire; rather, it better resembles inching their way through an endless labyrinth of new and weighty decisions. And if this were not trouble enough, each successive decision is accompanied by an ever-shrinking possibility that they will be bailed out of any adverse consequences. In sum, students’ decisions have begun to matter in ways that will affect both their present and future lives; wisdom is being required of them, and swallowing this new normal is a task for which none of them are ever fully prepared.

How then does a teacher begin to impart such wisdom? What kind of wisdom is needed? For my part, it has been intriguing to consider the Preacher’s descant of polarities against the backdrop of the logic stage’s growing pains. Given that much of the foolishness emerging from these years stems from “wrong time, wrong place” decision-making, his proclamations form what might be deemed a catechism in phronesis, the Greek word for practical wisdom and virtue. Herein might be found the beginnings of a framework through which students begin to untie their knots of executive confusion, for a middle schooler needs to see both sides of the coin.

For example, a time for homework is not a time for play, but neither is a time for play a time for homework. School is no place for a pajama party, but neither is family movie night a place for dress code. Reading Harry Potter is well worth their leisurely exertions, but Beowulf demands their academic attention. Sports must be attempted with a healthy ferocity, but a proper postgame demands no small humility. Perhaps most importantly of all, middle schoolers must realize that times for reverence must not be undertaken with flippancy, but that their respectful kneeling on Sunday morning should be no impediment to embracing the sheer hilarity of a good pillow fight on Saturday. Each endeavor must be given its proper due at the proper time.

In an attempt to sum all of this up for my students, I conclude our Monday readings with verses 12 and 13: “I have perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is good for us to rest, and it is good for us to work. Let us begin.”

Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and teaches humanities at Faith Christian School in Roanoke, VA.

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