Most great human projects will need more than one generation to come to fruition. This means that real progress necessitates that older generations be capable of persuading younger generations that their projects are worth continuing. Otherwise, younger generations will simply tear down what already exists and begin again, their children will do the same, their grandchildren will do the same, and a cathedral which requires a hundred years to build will never move beyond the twenty-five year mark, even though the laborers continue for many centuries.
I have been learning, this month, to make sourdough bread. Perhaps you’ve eaten it. I doubt, though, you know what it takes to bake it; I, at least, did not.
In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis tells the story of Mark Studdock, a servile man who ironically comes to realize his true freedom in the limitation of a jail cell. However unpleasant it may be, we have it on good authority that “being at close quarters with death” can actually be good medicine for the soul, especially for the Christian soul. Like Boethius and greater men before him, Mark Studdock receives a great blessing in his incarceration (as he comes to see later on). But how can jail time confer a blessing?
It is hard to explain classical education swiftly and accurately, though I think it is enough to say one or two true things about it that will intrigue people enough to look deeper. Here are four ways of explaining the gist of classical education, none of which is longer than a hundred words. If you only have a thirty second elevator ride to describe classical education, you need not persuade anyone to do anything other than take a second look at it later with sympathy and intrigue.
I typically expect to be a little depressed in January. It is my least favorite month of the year and misplaced Christmas-season expectations often leave me feeling empty, cranky, and ashamed. It is possible after a cheerful glass of mulled wine I may have jokingly expressed to my family that “Christmas in THIS house would not happen without me. I am Christmas. Just lay me in that manager.” This terrible confession is true.
Despite their omnipresence and omnipotence, I believe that schools and universities are living through the last days of grades. Within a generation, I expect report cards and transcripts, numerical grades and letter grades, dean’s lists and honor rolls will be widely despised, disparaged, and moving hastily toward a summary demise. The abolition of grades will not be an isolated movement within the realm of education alone, but part of a much larger cultural trend which is already at work in the world.
In one of the most well-known passages of City of God, Augustine describes the ordo amoris, or order of loves. In his characteristic style of inserting brilliant theological observation within historical description, Augustine exposes the superstructure of his theology. In the midst of classical culture, he identified the central problem of humanity not in externals as the Manichaeans nor ignorance as the Pelagians, but in the fallen human will. More than the intellect alone, Augustine understood that we are pulled—compelled—by love.
A student opens a copy of Euclid’s Elements and a dark spirit emerges from the pages of the book.
Teacher-Genie: I am the teacher-genie. I will grant you one educational wish.
Student: What? Really?
Student: I can have whatever I want?
Teacher-Genie: That’s the deal.
Student: I want an A in Geometry class.
Teacher-Genie: It is done. You have an A in Geometry class.
Student: Whoa. Awesome. This is fantastic news. Now I’m at the top of my class.
I am reading Homer. Each day, I pick up the book and think of a beautiful thing I share with all people who read Homer: time to read Homer.
Several things are needful for a contemplative life, and all of them plague me with guilt. For a quiet place, a quiet mind, and a worthy subject, all three, I am deeply thankful. Of their fragility I am sorely aware.
Plato, Solomon, Blessed Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Edmund Burke… My favorite intellectuals died hundreds or thousands of years before I was even born. Teachers of classic literature do not often grieve the deaths of their heroes. The centuries have already grieved them for us. A man becomes aware of Plato with a little sadness built into his admiration. For stodgy traditionalists, backward-looking conservatives, and lovers of old books, a dry-eyed sadness eternally permeates our hearts. To put it simply, our heroes do not die, at least not on our watch.