Writing about a writer is like painting a portrait of person when she’s standing right next to you. While you are deciding what color her shirt should be and whether or not to emphasize the cheekbones, she is there, expressing her thoughts on everything from dinner plans to Shakespeare. You end up thinking to yourself: “Why am I painting a portrait? It’d be better if people just met her.” But a portrait can be more accessible than a person. For a quick and easy acquaintance, it is easier to read an article about a writer than to read her books.
Parents often tell me, “My son is very smart.” They tell me this as though being smart were a great asset, a quality which ought to help them do well in school. However, “My son is very smart” means about as much to a classical teacher as, “My son is very handsome.” I teach virtue. Being smart will probably not be a hindrance to the child who is determined to learn virtue, but neither will it be much of a help.
Often, when a conversation leads me to explain why I love teaching, I find myself saying something about the ways that my education shaped me, about the shaping power I believe education possesses, about the wondrous opportunity the classroom provides for shaping the lives of students. Only recently did a wry comment from my husband prompt me to probe the metaphor I’ve hitherto used so glibly: “Doesn’t say much about what shape they end up in,” he said.
I have at times attempted to define classical education by referring to the liberality of the liberal arts. Maybe I aimed too high, but surely a word that denotes generosity and freedom is favorable. That word liberal, however, is so misused today that it brings confusion not clarity. No, I’m not speaking of the political spectrum. This isn’t about a liberal bent in social issues.
If an elementary school student is a voracious reader, he will often set his eyes on books which are part of school curriculum from forthcoming years. His teachers or parents will say to a 3rd or 4th grader, “Oh, don’t read that book yet. You’ll read it in 5th grade.” But often enough, this is unfortunate advice.
What follows is the final exam I have given my freshman Medieval lit students after we finished reading The Divine Comedy
Part One: The Problem. Imagine, for a moment, that you have a friend at this school whom you have known since second grade. Let us call this friend Mark. In elementary school, you played with toys together. Then you learned to ride bicycles together. You were in boy scouts together. However, during sophomore year, Mark has begun to struggle, while you have not.
Classical Christian schools need a separate statement of faith which deals with classical issues and prejudices.
On his way to betray Jesus to the chief priests, Judas may have said to himself, “I am not betraying Him. Nothing of the kind. If I was handing Him over to be killed, that would be betrayal. If I personally stabbed Him, that would be betrayal. But all I am doing is telling some people who are looking for Him where they can find Him. I am not even breaking any laws. How is it breaking the law to tell one person where another person is? If I told Jesus where the chief priests and temple guards were, would I be betraying the chief priests? Obviously not.
I recently reviewed The Seven Laws of Teaching, an 1886 manual for teachers by professor John Milton Gregory that is still recommended in Classical circles today. Teachers often hold up the Seven Laws as a model worthy of emulation, and evaluate their own performance against it. Here’s a paraphrased list:
In my last article, “Can Mathematics be Parables?” I considered the fantastical realm of “imaginary” numbers. Now, wander with me across a terrain of numbers even more dazzlingly head-spinning . . . and even more hazardous, perhaps, to encounter.