For the time being, it seems there will always be a dozen classical schools on the cusp of opening in this country. The group of people intent on founding a school have innumerable tasks before them. They must find a place for the school to meet, determine the curriculum, draft a mission statement, design a logo—not to mention all the legal concerns, banking concerns, and so forth. All these issues are vital because they ensure the stability of the school. Nonetheless, whether a school can deliver a classical education to students ultimately depends on its teachers.
“Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.” - Plato
For the third time that day, William slowly walked down the long stone hallway, past the statue of Michael the archangel, to the principal’s office. After two bouts of “horseplay” ended with a good talking to and one paddling, he dared to pull Emily’s pigtails. Now, as we all knew, the funeral dirge had begun. His father would be called and William would soon wish for the comparative gentleness of the principal’s paddle. Even Mrs. Walters, our fifth grade teacher, and little Emily seemed to empathize.
An esteemed coworker of mine, whose teaching career has spanned multiple classical schools, recently remarked that no school she had been a part of was able to successfully implement an upper school dress code. This statement is not shocking when you take into account constantly changing fashion trends that often push the boundaries of a dress code, systemizing the reporting of dress code violations, re-evaluating punishments for different violations, and navigating parent complaints about said punishments.
We do not need an innovation to solve the complex problems of modern society. We simply need to, like the Prodigal Son, turn around and head home. In fact, as I have written previously, we need “a return to permanence, a fixedness on objective reality, and the formation of citizens who seek to conform their souls to that objective reality.” The Fall of Man was an innovation. The Fall was a new way, “to be like God, knowing good and evil.” The Fall was a rejection of the old way, an obedience to the hierarchy of essences in objectivity: man as image bearer reflecting God, not being God.
The Dangerous Weapon of Illiteracy
Reading is risky business. Throughout history, oppressors have wielded the weapon of illiteracy against those they sought to silence. Yet, like rays of sun breaking through dark thunderclouds, rogue freedom-seekers found ways to teach themselves to read, a skill that would change not only a few single lives, but the entire course of history.
In his memoir, African American Frederick Douglass recalls the end of his brief childhood lessons in reading:
I lay on my back, staring at the sky with my feet above me on the hill. My bike flew overhead - that much I knew - but where it landed was a mystery. The ditch crept up on me, as tends to happen on unfamiliar roads, while I was trying my best to keep up with my friend Michael. He knew the curve like the back of his hand, but I approached it way too fast and hit the embankment, flipped over my handlebars, and landed with a considerable thud.
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes a stinging critique of the modern mind. The academic elites or, as Lewis calls them, ‘the conditioners,’ produce habits of living and learning derived from seemingly settled philosophical and theological conclusions. Of course, many of the conditioners’ settled conclusions are, in fact, quite unsettled and painfully unsettling upon further scrutiny.
During the six years I taught ninth grade poetry, my students continually reminded me of two specific needs of high schoolers: the hunger to be led and the hunger to be heard. It can be easy to view these two needs as competing goods. After all, shouldn’t students be listening to other, older voices before attempting to “find their own?” Perhaps formal poetry provides an answer. To assign students to write poetry with meter and verse is to give them a glorious little playground. Forms make good fences. Inside these fences, students can be led and heard at the same time.
Student: I was wondering if we could meet at lunch sometime and talk about Jane Eyre.
Gibbs: What did you want to talk about?
Student: I just want to clarify a few things about Jane and Rochester’s relationship.
Gibbs: What did you want to clarify about their relationship?
Student: I would like some clarity on why Jane respects him so much.
Gibbs: That's the subject of the paper you're supposed to be writing.
Student: It is?
While teachers are apt to chide students about writing papers the night before, many teachers also procrastinate when it comes to grading and returning papers. Most schools have reasonable policies about how long teachers have to return student work (a week or two), but these are difficult rules to enforce, and it is not uncommon for teachers to wait until the night before a hard deadline—like when report cards come due—to begin grading a stack of papers.