Time to Think

January 18th, 2020

On average, my students today are considerably less patient than those of twenty years ago. They get twitchy if they are asked merely to think about something. They don’t know how. My sense is not that they are lazy: in fact, it’s perhaps just the opposite. Just thinking about something feels to them like idling, and after they have given it a good thirty seconds, they sense that it’s time to move on to something more productive — or at least more objectively measurable. They don’t seem to believe that they are accomplishing anything unless they are moving stepwise through some defined process that they can quantify and log, and that can be managed and validated by their parents or teachers. It doesn’t matter how banal or downright irrelevant that process might be: they are steps that can be completed. A secondary consequence is that if they start to do something and don’t see results in a week or two, they write it off as a bad deal and go chasing the next thing. It is no longer sufficient for a return on investment to be annual or even quarterly: if it’s not tangible, it’s bogus, and if it’s not more or less instantaneous, it’s time wasted.

On average, my students today also have their time booked to a degree that would have been unthinkable in my youth. When I was in junior high and high school, I did my homework, I had music lessons, and I was involved in a handful of other things. I had household chores as well. But I also had free time. I rode my bicycle around our part of town. I went out and climbed trees. I pursued reading that interested me just because I wanted to. I drew pictures — not very good ones, but they engaged me at the time. Most importantly, I was able (often in the midst of these various undirected activities) simply to think about those open-ended questions that underlie one’s view of life. Today I have students involved in multiple kinds of sports, multiple music lessons, debate, and half a dozen other things. There are no blank spaces in their schedules.

I can’t help thinking that these two trends are non-coincidentally related. There are at least two reasons for this, one of them internal, and one external. Both of them need to be resisted.

First of all, in the spiritually vacant materialistic culture surrounding us, free and unstructured time is deprecated because it produces no tangible product — not even a reliable quantum of education. One can’t sell it. Much of the public has been bullied by pundits and advertisers into believing that if you can’t buy or sell something, it must not be worth anything. We may pay lip service to the notion that the most important things in life are free, but we do our best to ignore it in practice. 

As a correlative, we have also become so invested in procedure that we mistake it for achievement. I’ve talked about this recently in relation to “best practices”. The phenomenon is similar in a student’s time management. If something can’t be measured as progress, it’s seen as being less than real. To engage in unstructured activity when one could be pursuing a structured one is seen as a waste.

This is disastrous for a number of reasons. 

I’ve already discussed here the problem of confusing substance and process. The eager adoption of “best practices” in almost every field attests the colossally egotistical notion that we now know the best way to do just about anything, and that by adhering to those implicitly perfected processes, we guarantee outcomes that are, if not perfect, at least optimal. But it doesn’t work that way. It merely guarantees that there will be no growth or experimentation. Such a tyrannical restriction of process almost definitionally kills progress. The rut has defined the route.

Another problem is that this is a fundamentally mercantile and materialist perspective, in which material advantage is presumptively the only good. For a Christian, that this is false should be a no-brainer: you cannot serve both God and mammon. 

I happily admit that there are some situations where it’s great to have reliable processes that really will produce reliable outcomes. It’s useful to have a way to solve a quadratic equation, or hiring practices that, if followed, will keep one out of the courts. But they mustn’t eclipse our ability to look at things for what they are. If someone can come up with better ways of solving quadratic equations or navigating the minefields of human resources, all the better. When restrictive patterns dominate our instructional models to the point of exclusivity, they are deadening.

Parents or teachers who need to scrutinize and validate all their children’s experiences are not helping them: they’re infantilizing them. When they should be growing into a mature judgment, and need to be allowed to make real mistakes with real consequences, they are being told instead not to risk using their own judgment and understanding, but to follow someone else’s judgment unquestioningly. Presumably thereby they will be spared the humiliation of making mistakes, and they will also not be found wanting when the great judgment comes. That judgment takes many forms, but it’s always implicitly there. For some it seems to have a theological component. 

In the worldly arena, it can be college admission, or getting a good job, or any of a thousand other extrinsic hurdles that motivate all good little drones from cradle to grave. College is of the biggie at this stage of the game. There is abroad in today’s panicky world the notion that a student has to be engaged in non-stop curricular and extracurricular activities even to be considered for college. That’s false, but it’s scary, and fear almost always trumps the truth. Fear can be fostered and nurtured with remarkable dexterity, and nothing sells like fear: this has been one of the great (if diabolical) discoveries of advertisers since the middle of the last century. Fear is now the prime motivator of both our markets and our politics. It’s small wonder that people are anxious about both: they’ve been bred and acculturated for a life of anxiety. They’re carefully taught to fear, so that they will buy compulsively and continually. The non-stop consumer is a credulous victim of the merchants of fear. We need, we are told, to circle the wagons, repel boarders, and show a unified face to the world. Above all, we should not question anything. 

Though we seem more often to ignore it or dismiss it with a “Yes, but…”, our faith tells us  that perfect love casts out fear. The simple truth is one that we’ve always known. Fear diminishes us. Love enlarges us. What you’re really good at will be what you love; what you love is what you’ll be good at. Which is the cause and which the effect is harder to determine: they reinforce one another. You can only find out what you love, though, if, without being coerced, you take the time and effort to do something for its own sake, not for any perceived extrinsic reward that’s the next link in Madison Avenue’s cradle-to-grave chain of anxious bliss.

There’s nothing wrong with structured activities. If you love debate, by all means, do debate. If you love music, do music. If you love soccer, play soccer. If you don’t love them, though, find something else that you do love to occupy your time, stretch your mind, and feed your soul. Moreover, even those activities need to be measured out in a way that leaves some actual time that hasn’t been spoken for. There really is such a thing as spreading oneself too thin. Nothing turns out really well; excellence takes a back seat to heaping up more and more of a desperate adequacy. In my experience, the outstanding student is not the one who has every moment of his or her day booked, but the one who has time to think, and to acquire the unique fruits of undirected reflection. They can’t be gathered from any other source. You can’t enroll in a program of undirected contemplation. You can only leave room for it to happen. It will happen on its own time, and it cannot be compelled to appear on demand.

The over-programmed student is joyless in both study and play, and isn’t typically very good at either one. Drudges who do everything they do in pursuit of such a phantom success will never achieve it. The students who have done the best work for me over the years have without exception been the ones who bring their own personal thoughts to the table. For them, education is not just a set of tasks to be mastered or grades to be achieved, but the inner formation of character — a view of life and the world that shapes what their own success will look like. Our secular culture is not going to help you find or define your own success: it’s interested only in keeping you off balance, and on retainer as a consumer. Take charge of your own mind, and determine what winning looks like to you. Otherwise, you will just be playing — and most likely losing — a game you never wanted to play in the first place.

Autonomy of Means Again: “Best Practices”

January 1st, 2020

When our kids were younger and living at home, they also frequently had dishwashing duty. Even today we haven’t gotten around to buying a mechanical dishwasher, but when five people were living (and eating) at home, it was good not to have to do all that by ourselves.

But as anyone who has ever enlisted the services of children for this job will surely remember, the process needs to be refined by practice. Even more importantly, though, no matter how good the process seems to be, it can’t be considered a success if the outcome is not up to par. At different points, when I pointed out a dirty glass or pan in the drain, all three of our kids responded with, “But I washed it,” as if that had fully discharged their responsibility.

The problem is that though they might have washed it, they had not cleaned it. The purpose of the washing (a process, which can be efficacious or not) is to have a clean article of tableware or cookware (the proper product of the task). Product trumps process: the mere performance of a ritual of cleansing may or may not have the desired result. Inadequate results can at any time call the sufficiency of the process into question.

This is paradigmatic of something I see more and more these days in relation to education. The notion that completing a process — any process — is the same as achieving its goal is beguiling but false. Depending on whether we’re talking about a speck of egg on a frying pan or the inadequate adjustment of the brakes on your car, that category mistake can be irksome or it can be deadly.

In education it’s often more than merely irksome, but usually less than deadly. I’ve already talked about the “I translated it but I don’t understand it” phenomenon here: ; the claim has never made sense to me, since if you actually translated it, that means that you actually expressed the sense as you understood it. No other set of processes one can do with a foreign-language text is really translating it.

Accordingly I’m skeptical of educational theorists (including those who put together some of the standards for the accreditation process we are going through now) buzzing about “best practices”. This pernicious little concept, borrowed with less thought than zeal from the business world, misleadingly suggests — and to most people means — practices that are ipso facto sufficient: pursuing them to the letter guarantees a satisfactory outcome. And yet sometimes the dish is dirty, the translation is gibberish, or the brakes fail.

It’s not really even a good idea in the business world. An article in Forbes by Mike Myatt in 2012 trenchantly backs up its title claim, “Best Practices — Aren’t”; in 2014, Liz Ryan followed up the same concept with “The Truth about Best Practices”. Both articles challenge the blinkered orthodoxies of the “best practices” narrative.

The problem with any process-side validation of an activity is that, in the very act of being articulated, it tends to eclipse the purpose for which the task is being done. Doing it the right way takes precedence over doing the right thing. Surely the measure of an education is the learning itself — not the process that has been followed. The process is just a means to the end. In Charles Williams’ words, which I’ve quoted and referred to here before (here  and here), “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly”.

Of course they may not in any given situation cause someone to die — but means divorced from their proper ends inevitably subvert, erode, and deform the goals for which they were originally ordained. This is especially true in education, precisely because there’s no broad consensus on what the product looks like. Accordingly the only really successful educational process is one that’s a dynamic outgrowth of the situation at hand, and it can ultimately be validated only by its results.

Liz Ryan notes, “They’re only Best Practices if they work for you.” There are at least two ways of understanding that phrase, and both of them are right: they’re only Best Practices if they work for you, and they’re only Best Practices if they work for you. Their utility depends on both the person and the outcome. Nor should it be any other way.

Bulletin for Seniors (and Juniors?) Interested in Ethics

July 2nd, 2019

The course on Ethics offered in the autumn is at a college level, so the work will be challenging and interesting. The text originally identified, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, begins with the problem that the variety of moral beliefs, and the difficulty of finding objective reasons to prefer one over the other, invites the conclusion of relativism, that is, what is right and wrong depends on one’s culture and preferences and there is no universal standard. MacIntyre rejects that conclusion. To explore how to evaluate competing moral beliefs, he develops a strand of Western ethical theory that has its origins with Aristotle. One weakness of MacIntyre’s book, for the high school student, is that he assumes considerable knowledge about historical approaches to ethics. The problem he deals with, and the solution he proposes, makes more sense if the historical material is mastered first. I have been looking for a good text to present the historical material and have found it in Robin Lovin’s Introduction to Christian Ethics. That book will be added to the course listing. Now the course is well balanced. Roughly the first half will present the general topic of ethics and survey various approaches taken by Western thinkers since Socrates. The second half will focus on MacIntyre’s book. I hope this course will be worthy of study both for its inherent interest and for the way it provides an introduction to some important philosophers in the Western tradition. It will also be an opportunity to develop college-level writing skills.

Cleaning up

August 10th, 2017

The Scholars Online Database overflowed today, the result of spam user attacks and registrations on the blog. We’ve spent the day upgrading the Word Press release, installing CAPCHA requirements for registration, and reviewing tens of thousands of spam registrations. An unhealthy number of these showed evidence of being database access attempts. Because we take the security of our members very seriously, we did a thorough cleanup of the database and eliminated over a hundred thousand apparently bogus records..

If you had a blog account prior to today, and have ever created a post, or commented on a post, your account is safe. If your blog account had an email that was on our Scholars Online contact list or members list, your independent blog account should still exist.

If you were otherwise quietly registered, you may need to reregister to receive notices about new blog updates. We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but we hope you understand that student safety comes first.

Socrates’ Argumentation — Method, Madness, or Something Else?

July 31st, 2017

The common understanding of basic terms and ideas is often amiss. Sometimes that’s innocuous; sometimes it’s not.

Many in the field of classical education tout what they call the Socratic Method, by which they seem to mean a process that draws the student to the correct conclusion by means of a sequence of leading questions. The end is predetermined; for good or ill, the method is primarily a rhetorical strategy to convince students that the answer was their own idea all along, thus achieving “buy-in”, so to speak. As rhetorical strategies go, it’s not really so bad.

Is it also good pedagogical technique? I am less certain. The short-term advantage of persuading a student that something is his or her own idea is materially compromised by the fact that (on these terms, at least) the method is fundamentally disingenuous. If the questioner feigns ignorance, while all the while knowing precisely where these questions must lead, perceptive students, at least, will eventually realize that they are being played. Some may not resent that; others certainly will, and will seek every opportunity to disengage themselves from a process that they rightly consider a pretense.

Whether it’s valid pedagogically or not, however, we mustn’t claim that it’s Socratic. Socrates did indeed proceed by asking questions. He asked them incessantly. He was annoying, in fact — a kind of perpetual three-year-old, asking “why?” after each answer, challenging every supposition, and never satisfied with the status quo or with any piece of accepted wisdom. It can be wearying to respond to this game; harried parents through the years have learned to shut down such interrogation: “Because I said so!” The Athenians shut Socrates’ questioning down with a cup of hemlock.

But the fact is that the annoying three-year-old is probably the most capable learning agent in the history of the world. The unfettered inquiry into why and how — about anything and everything — is the very stuff of learning. It’s why young children learn sophisticated language at such a rate. “Because I said so,” is arguably the correct answer to “Why must I do what you say?” But as an answer to a question about the truth, rather than as the justification of a command, it’s entirely inadequate, and even a three-year-old knows the difference. If we consider it acceptable, we are surrendering our credentials as learners or as teachers.

The difference between the popular notion of this so-called Socratic method and the method Socrates actually follows in the Platonic dialogues is that Socrates apparently had no fixed goal in view. He was always far more concerned to dismantle specious knowledge than to supply a substitute in its place. He was willing to challenge any conclusions, and the endpoint of most of his early dialogues was not a settled agreement, but merely an admission of humility: “Well, golly, Socrates. I’m stuck. I guess I really have no idea what I was talking about.” Socrates thought that this was a pretty good beginning; indeed, he claimed that his one advantage over other presumed experts was that he at least knew that he didn’t know anything, while they, just as ignorant in fact, believed that they knew something.

Taken on this view, the Socratic method is really a fairly poor way of training someone. If you are teaching people to be technicians of some sort or other, you want them to submit to the program and take instruction. It’s arguably not the best tool for practical engineering, medicine, or the law. (There is now a major push in resistance to using any kind of real Socratic method in law school, for example.)

But training is precisely not education. Education is where the true Socratic process comes into its own. It’s about the confrontation of minds, the clarification of definitions, and the discovery and testing of new ideas. It’s a risky way of teaching. It changes the underlying supposition of the enterprise. It can no longer be seen merely as a one-way download of information from master to pupil. In its place it commends to us a common search for the truth. At this point, the teacher is at most the first among equals.

This makes — and will continue to make — a lot of people uncomfortable. It makes many teachers uncomfortable, because in the process they risk losing control — not necessarily behavioral control of a class, but their identity (often carefully groomed and still more zealously protected) as oracles whose word should not be questioned. It opens their narrative and their identity to questioning, and may put them on the defensive.

It makes students uncomfortable too — especially those who are identified as “good” students — the ones who dot every “i” and cross every “t”, and never seem to step out of line or challenge the teacher’s authority. These are the ones likeliest, in a traditional high school, to be valedictorians and materially successful, according to a few recent studies — but not the ones likeliest to make real breakthrough contributions. (The recent book Barking up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker has some interesting things to say about this: one can read a precis of his contentions here. Barker’s work is based at least in part on Karen Arnold’s Lives of Promise, published in 1995, and discussed here.)

In practical terms, education is a mixed bag.

There is a place for training. We need at least some of the “download” kind of instruction. Basic terms need to be learned before they can be manipulated; every discipline has its grammar. I really do know Latin, for example, better than most of my students, and, at least most of the time, what I say is likelier to be correct. But my saying so neither constitutes nor assures correctness, and if a student corrects me, then, assuming he or she is right, it should be my part to accept that correction graciously, not to insist on a falsehood because I can prevail on the basis of my presumed status. If the correction is wrong, the course of charity is also to assume good intention on the student’s part, and clarify the right answer in my turn. Either way, there is no room for “alternative facts”. There is truth, and there is falsehood. The truth is always the truth, irrespective of who articulates it, and it — not I or my student — deserves the primary respect. We must serve the truth, not the other way around.

At some point in their education, though, students should also be invited to get into the ring with each other and with the teacher, to state their cases with conviction, and back them up with reasoned argument and well-documented facts. If they get knocked down, they need to learn to get back up again and keep on engaging in the process. It hurts a lot less if one realizes that it’s not one’s own personal worth that’s at stake: it’s the truth that is slowly coming to light as we go along. That’s the experience — and the thrill of the chase that it actually entails — that constitutes the deeper part of education. That’s what the true Socratic method was — and still should be — about.

Two modes of learning are prevalent today in colleges, especially — the lecture course and the seminar. In the lecture, the students are, for the most part, passive recipients of information. The agent is the lecturer, who delivers course content in a one-way stream. It’s enshrined in hundreds of years of tradition, and it has its place. But a student who never moves beyond that will emerge more or less free of actual education. The seminar, on the other hand, is about the dialectic — the back-and-forth of the process. It requires the student to become, for a time, the teacher, to challenge authority not because it is authority but because truth has the higher claim. Here disagreement is not toxic: it’s the life blood of the process, and it’s lifegiving for the student.

At Scholars Online, we have chiefly chosen to rely on something like the seminar approach for our live chats. We have, we think, very capable teachers, and there are some things that they need to impart to the students. But to large measure, these can be done by web-page “lectures”, which a student can read on his or her own time. The class discussion, however, is reciprocal, and that reciprocity of passionately-held ideas is what fires a true love of learning. It’s about the exchange — the push and pull, honoring the truth first and foremost. It may come at a cost: in Socrates’s case it certainly did. But it’s about awakening the life of the mind, without which there is no education: schooling without real engagement merely produces drones.

The Divine Gift of Philosophy

July 29th, 2017
CATCHY TITLE NEEDED
We’ve been busy this year, and that’s taken its toll on publishing blog articles.  Besides reviewing our options for accreditation, upgrading the Moodle and its theme, finding and supporting teachers and teaching our own classes, we were faced, as some of you know, with serious medical challenges that absorbed huge amounts of time and emotional energy. It didn’t help that the political scene was also one of chaos and increasing incivility tearing at the fabric of our nation.
In the quiet spaces when there was time, we’ve done a lot of thinking about why Scholars Online exists, and what the point of classical Christian education really is. In its origins, the liberal arts of the quadrivium and trivium were the foundation of the education that was required,  not to make men free, as some have supposed, but to equip free men to meet their primary duty: to act wisely and responsibly as citizens of their communities, whether a small polis or a great empire. To this end, the citizens of Greece and Rome needed to discern carefully to discover the truth, analyze many disparate factors closely to determine the likely outcomes of possible actions, and argue clearly to convince others to adopt their plan of action for the best outcome.
This passion to know the truth was part of the Greek outlook, and part of the Judeo-Christian tradition as well, since knowing what is true is a way of knowing God.  Knowing the truth sets us free, Christ says: we no longer need blindly accept what we are told by those around us, or be swayed by the emotions of the moment, but can choose for ourselves how to serve God. We can be ourselves, and our relationships with others will have a firm foundation.
St. Paul notes that among the gifts of the Sprit are  wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and wonder,  all of them dependent on knowing the truth and being able to act on it wisely.  But the truth is often complex; we need help to discern it and we need skill with words to communicate what we’ve learned clearly, precisely, and persuasively.
The early Christian fathers were quick to recognize the benefits of classical philosophy in searching for the truth, even though the discipline originated in what they considered a pagan people. If divine inspiration was God’s gift to the Israelites, St. Clement argued, then philosophy was God’s gift to the Greeks.  The tools of the Greek philosophers  became essential tools for the Christian, providing ways to discern which doctrines were true, which actions wise.
And such persuasion is convincing, by which those that love learning admit the truth; so that philosophy does not ruin life by being the originator of false practices and base deeds, although some have calumniated it, though it be the clear image of truth, a divine gift to the Greeks; nor does it drag us away from the faith, as if we were bewitched by some delusive art, but rather, so to speak, by the use of an ampler circuit, obtains a common exercise demonstrative of the faith. Further, the juxtaposition of doctrines, by comparison, saves the truth, from which follows knowledge. Philosophy came into existence, not on its own account, but for the advantages reaped by us from knowledge, we receiving a firm persuasion of true perception, through the knowledge of things comprehended by the mind. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book I, Chapter 2).
To comprehension of the truth, the Christian fathers added charity and compassion in action.  One could act from knowledge of the truth but still promote despair, fear, hatred, and chaos.  The fruits of Christian actions can be identified because they promote peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galations 5:22-23).  Combined with tools that let us discern the truth, these criteria help us determine how we should respond to any situation.
So here’s the goal of Scholars Online, not merely to teach students the philosophy of the past, but to help them determine how to act in the present:
To inspire students with charity; to develop their acumen by close interpretation of words, arguments, and ideas; and to cultivate precise expression by sharing our love of the written word—the medium through which the most critical ideas have been conveyed throughout the generations.

We’ve been busy this year, and that’s taken its toll on publishing blog articles.  Besides reviewing our options for accreditation, upgrading the Moodle and its theme, finding and supporting teachers and teaching our own classes, we were faced, as some of you know, with serious medical challenges that absorbed huge amounts of time and emotional energy. It didn’t help that the political scene was also one of chaos and increasing incivility tearing at the fabric of our nation.

In the quiet spaces when there was time, we’ve done a lot of thinking about why Scholars Online exists, and what the point of classical Christian education really is. In its origins, the liberal arts of the quadrivium and trivium were the foundation of the education that was required,  not to make men free, as some have supposed, but to equip free men to meet their primary duty: to act wisely and responsibly as citizens of their communities, whether a small polis or a great empire. To this end, the citizens of Greece and Rome needed to discern carefully to discover the truth, analyze many disparate factors closely to determine the likely outcomes of possible actions, and argue clearly to convince others to adopt their plan of action for the best outcome.

This passion to know the truth was part of the Greek outlook, and part of the Judeo-Christian tradition as well, since knowing what is true is a way of knowing God.  Knowing the truth sets us free, Christ says: we no longer need blindly accept what we are told by those around us, or be swayed by the emotions of the moment, but can choose for ourselves how to serve God. We can be ourselves, and our relationships with others will have a firm foundation.

St. Paul notes that among the gifts of the Sprit are  wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and wonder (1 Corinthians 12: 7-11),  all of them dependent on knowing the truth and being able to act on it wisely.  But the truth is often complex; we need help to discern it and we need skill with words to communicate what we’ve learned clearly, precisely, and persuasively.

The early Christian fathers were quick to recognize the benefits of classical philosophy in searching for the truth, even though the discipline originated in what they considered a pagan people. If divine inspiration was God’s gift to the Israelites, St. Clement argued, then philosophy was God’s gift to the Greeks.  The tools of the Greek philosophers  became essential tools for the Christian, providing ways to discern which doctrines were true, which actions wise.

And such persuasion is convincing, by which those that love learning admit the truth; so that philosophy does not ruin life by being the originator of false practices and base deeds, although some have calumniated it, though it be the clear image of truth, a divine gift to the Greeks; nor does it drag us away from the faith, as if we were bewitched by some delusive art, but rather, so to speak, by the use of an ampler circuit, obtains a common exercise demonstrative of the faith. Further, the juxtaposition of doctrines, by comparison, saves the truth, from which follows knowledge. Philosophy came into existence, not on its own account, but for the advantages reaped by us from knowledge, we receiving a firm persuasion of true perception, through the knowledge of things comprehended by the mind. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book I, Chapter 2).

To comprehension of the truth, the Christian fathers added charity and compassion in action.  One could act from knowledge of the truth but still promote despair, fear, hatred, and chaos.  The fruits of Christian actions can be identified because they promote peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).  Combined with tools that let us discern the truth, these criteria help us determine how we should respond to any situation.

So here’s the goal of Scholars Online, not merely to teach students the philosophy of the past, but to help them determine how to act in the present:

To inspire students with charity; to develop their acumen by close interpretation of words, arguments, and ideas; and to cultivate precise expression by sharing our love of the written word—the medium through which the most critical ideas have been conveyed throughout the generations.

Getting Started Asking the Right Questions

April 13th, 2016

Recently on a homework assignment for my Natural Science course, I asked students to identify which solar system planets it would be possible to explore from Earth-based telescopes, which from space-born but Earth-orbit telescopes (like the Hubble), and which would require space probes sent to the planet. The results were fairly telling about the approaches students take to open-ended questions. Several students left the question blank, because (as they explained in emails and chat), they “couldn’t find the answer” in the assigned reading. Most students explained in very generic terms that while Venus and Mars (closest to Earth) could be viewed from Earth-based or Earth-orbit satellites, more distant objects would require probes. None addressed the question of Earth-based vs. Earth-orbit telescopes implied by listing the two options, and only one considered planetary characteristics other than distance, and identified Venus as a candidate for a probe because its dense atmosphere blocks any attempt to view its surface from Earth-bound telescopes.

Although I had warned the students repeatedly that some of their homework questions would require them to think through the answer and not simply look it up, at least some of my students felt this was unfair: they couldn’t be held responsible for what they couldn’t not look up and quote from the assigned reading. Most of my students were game to tackle the question even without finding the words “we can use telescopes to look at Mars but need probes for Pluto” in their reading, but they still did not study the question carefully enough to realize they needed to think about the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and consider the individual planet itself, as criteria for determining the best method of observation. They immediately seized on finding a single uniform answer, which would let them complete the assignment quickly, without worrying too much about whether the situation was more complicated.

From the perspective of classical education, this is backward, because classical education, and in particular Christian classical education, is not fundamentally about finding right answers to practical questions. Its goal is to develop the skills required by a free citizen who would be responsible for discerning God’s will, then making decisions for himself and for the state. It recognizes that there is no set formula for “getting the right answer” to the questions of real life; the most important first step is to make sure we can even formulate or recognize the important questions. Then we can look at how these questions (or ones like them) have been answered before, in literature and in history. Although Greek philosophy in particular developed rigorous methods of rational analysis, classical education still depends on story to convey the complexity of real decisions in real circumstances. Greek drama and history constantly throw out examples where individuals must decide between personal integrity, duty to the gods, and duty to the state. Latin literature is full of examples of individuals who sacrifice themselves to fulfill their civic duty. The Greeks and Romans of the classical period studied their own history, read their own literature, and produced often conflicting philosophical reflections because they realized that determining the right questions to ask was a citizen’s responsibility, and it was no use seeking answers until one had the right questions.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromata calls rational philosophy God’s divine gift to the Greeks, identifying direct revelation as God’s gift to the Jews. The early Christian Fathers, like Clement, who found inspiration in and supported the study of pagan classical literature recognized the development of reason and logic as an important skill in witnessing to and defending the Christian faith — and for distinguishing important questions that were worth pursuing from questions that were merely divisive and distracting. For nearly twenty centuries, western civilization depended on these stories and philosophies to help students form the values that would let them determine the wisest course in a difficult situation, both for themselves and for those they were expected to govern: personal integrity, loyalty, charity, civic duty, duty to God. The questions it forces us to ask are the most important questions of our lives: who am I? what do I want? what is God calling me to do?

If classical Christian education is about questions, then, how do we get students to learn to formulate or recognize the questions they need to ask? And equally important, how do we get them to develop passion for their studies and the courage to overcome the sense that asking questions is somehow an admission of failure to study correctly?

I believe that we need to make asking questions the most important job a student has to do: not completing the homework, not skimming the reading, but thinking deeply about the ideas they encounter and formulating questions about them. Every student (and teacher) needs to come to class full of questions. We meet in discussion to bring up these questions and to hear each other’s questions. As a teacher, I usually have a stock set of questions for a given chat to get the ball rolling, but these are based on my own experience and my own values and they are essentially “plan B” material for the chat. The most successful discussions occur when the students raise questions about their own understanding, based on their own concerns. When they voice those questions and we explore possible answers, we all find new ways of thinking about the material, and new insight on the questions that pester us.

While ultimately we need to address the important questions of our lives, we have to start somewhere, so here are some of the questions even novice students ought to be asking themselves constantly as they read both factual material and literature. Most important, to put this into practice, students should be writing down notes to bring up in class if they are puzzled or don’t have answers, or want to test their own assumptions:

Do I know what all the words mean? Does a term (even if I know its dictionary definition) seem vague or misapplied to the topic? Do all the parts of this graph or illustration make sense and can I see how they are related?

Can I follow all the steps of an example? Do I know what all the assumptions are, and how they are justified? Can I follow the calculation or reasons given for making a conclusion?

Is the author making an argument for a general conclusion or interpretation? Is the author’s claim valid? Do I understand the evidence used to support it? Does it apply to the cases given? Is it too general? too narrow? Can I think of any contradictory examples?

If several things are described, what characteristics, values, or processes are used to distinguish them? Do I understand how these distinctions are made, and can I use these methods myself to make distinctions among similar things?

If a process is described, can I follow the process? If not, why not — where do I get confused? If I do understand the process, do I accept it as valid, or do I think it skips important steps or considerations?

What does the author think are the most important points to make or take away from his or her presentation? What criteria does he or she use to make this evaluation (and do I agree)?  Can I make an outline of the important points and identify the supporting details? Does the author skip points I think are important? Can I figure out why — what values or assumptions am I making differently from those the author is making?

If I am translating a sentence or a paragraph, does my English translation make sense in English? Does it reflect something an intelligent person would say, or is it gibberish? Do I understand what each word means and how it functions in the sentence?

These questions force us to be honest with ourselves in two ways. One is making sure that we actually engage with the materials, not just pass our eyes over the reading, and that we seriously  attempt to comprehend the knowledge presented. The second is making sure that we are also applying our own developing system of values to what we are learning, that we are not simply agreeing blindly to what is presented, but trying to develop ways to determine for ourselves what is right, pure, lovely, admirable, and worthy of praise.

Failure as a good thing

March 11th, 2016

People tout many different goals in the educational enterprise, but not all goals are created equal. They require a good deal of sifting, and some should be discarded. Many of them seem to be either obvious on the one hand or, on the other, completely wrong-headed (to my way of thinking, at least).

One of the most improbable goals one could posit, however, would be failure. Yet failure — not as an end (and hence not a final goal), but as an essential and salutary means to achieving a real education — is the subject of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure (New York, HarperCollins, 2015). In all fairness, I guess I was predisposed to like what she had to say, since she’s a teacher of both English and Latin, but I genuinely think that it is one of the more trenchant critiques I have read of modern pedagogy and the child-rearing approaches that have helped shape it, sometimes with the complicity of teachers, and sometimes in spite of their best efforts.

Christe first drew my attention to an extract of her book at The Atlantic here. When we conferred after reading it, we discovered that we’d both been sufficiently impressed that we’d each ordered a copy of the book.

Lahey calls into question, first and foremost, the notion that the student (whether younger or older) really needs to feel that he or she is doing well at all stages of the process. Feeling good about your achievement, whether or not it really amounts to anything, is not in fact a particularly useful thing. That seems common-sensical to me, but it has for some time gone against the grain of a good deal of teaching theory. Instead, Lahey argues, failing — and in the process learning to get up again, and throw oneself back into the task at hand — is not only beneficial to a student, but essential to the formation of any kind of adult autonomy. Insofar as education is not merely about achieving a certain number of grades and scores, but about the actual formation of characer, this is (I think) spot-on.

A good deal of her discussion is centered around the sharply diminishing value of any system of extrinsic reward — that is, anything attached secondarily to the process of learning — be it grades on a paper or a report card, a monetary payoff from parents for good grades, or the often illusory goal of getting into a good college. The only real reward for learning something, she insists, is knowing it. She has articulated better than I have a number of things I’ve tried to express before. (On the notion that the reason to learn Latin and Greek was not as a stepping-stone to something else, but really to know Latin and Greek, see here and here. On allowing the student freedom to fail, see here. On grades, see here.) Education should be — and arguably can only be — about learning, not about grades, and about mastery, not about serving time, passing tests so that one can be certified or bumped along to something else. In meticulous detail, Lahey documents the uselessness of extrinsic rewards at almost every level — not merely because they fail to achieve the desired result, but because they drag the student away from engagement in learning, dull the mind and sensitivity, and effectively promote the ongoing infantilization of our adolescents — making sure that they are never directly exposed to the real and natural consequences of either their successes or their failures. Put differently, unless you can fail, you can’t really succeed either.

Rather than merely being content to denounce the inadequacies of modern pedagogy, Ms. Lahey has concrete suggestions for how to turn things around. She honestly reports how she has had to do so herself in her ways of dealing with her own children. The book is graciously honest, and I enthusiastically recommend it to parents and teachers at every level. If I haven’t convinced you this far, though, at least read the excerpt linked above. The kind of learning she’s talking about — engaged learning tied to a real love of learning, coupled with the humility to take the occasional setback not as an invalidation of oneself but as a challenge to grow into something tougher — is precisely what we’re hoping to cultivate at Scholars Online. If that’s what you’re looking for, I hope we can provide it.

Common Ground: A Lenten Meditation

February 25th, 2016

My heart is broken these days as I read the political protestations by the candidates for president. The conversation seems to have descended to the level of a cock fight, with each side crowing over scoring a hit, rather than rising to a thoughtful discussion of the need to supply basic health care services and pay for them responsibly, the need to supply national security without destroying personal security, the need to help those who will responsibly use that help without wasting resources on those who willfully squander them — discussions that, if the proponents weren’t so concerned with winning, might actually provoke the creativity necessary to craft viable solutions. Conversations over religious issues often seems more about scoring points by citing the most proof texts than about seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit to discern how we Christians may help each other fulfill our baptismal vows to love our neighbors — all our neighbors — without violating our consciences.  Even the debate over evolution and creation is often reduced to quips and quotes of various authors that promote neither good science nor good theology, but that do sell books.

What we have forgotten, and what we desperately need to remember, is how to become reconciled, one to the other. It’s a fitting topic for Lent, when Christians reflect on the great price God paid so that we might be reconciled to Him.

Americans seem particularly bad at reconciliation. We are great at competition, but we don’t do forgiveness well. We aspire to reconciliation from time to time — we have the incredible image of the whole of Congress standing together on the steps of the Capitol after 9/11, singing “God Bless America”. Unfortunately that dream of common cause faded all too quickly with squabbles over the nature of the threats and best ways to meet them, and there was no underlying sense of real unity to carry us through the practical realities of the ensuing politics and economics. The sense of disunity has grown over the last decade to real divisions that our leaders — political, religious, and academic — seek to exploit to their own advantage, rather than amend for everyone’s advantage.

I don’t know what the answer is. I can only offer, by way of meditation, three images that continue to haunt me: an archway at Magdelen College in Oxford, a statue and a plaque in a side chapel at the Cathedral in Rouen, and a pair of Westminster Abbey tombs.

We went to England in the summer of 1986. We were grad students with little money, but we had come by a slight windfall, we had some vacation time coming, and we had friends in England we could stay with at least part of our trip. So we packed up our 9-year-old, 3-year-old, and 15-month-old, and went to find the England of J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Ransome, Dick Whittington, Henry II, T.H. White, Isaac Newton, and Edmund Halley.

Lewis’s England lies largely in Oxford, where he taught at Magdelen, so we boarded the train to Oxford and the hallowed groves of academe, where teachers have taught and students have studied and dreamed for a thousand years. Wandering through those grounds that were open to the public, we came upon names carved into the wall of an archway between a great square and a cloistered walk. It was a memorial to the members of the College who had fallen in the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

You find these memorials in every village in England, sometimes on the walls of a municipal building, sometimes on columns in the center of village square, sometimes on plaques flat in the ground of the churchyard, among the gravestones of those who made it home. Lists are long; casualties were high, and some villages lost half of their male population in the trenches. Standing in the shadowed archway at Magdelen, we paused to read through the names, and realized with awe that they were divided into two groups: those who died in the service of George V of England, and those who had died in the service of Wilhelm, Emperor of Germany.

For you see, Oxford colleges have this odd notion that once you become a member of college, you remain a member of college. You can return and read books in the library, be seated at the college dining table, wear the college robes, attend the college colloquia, and when you die, be memorialized on the college walls — even when you die in the service of a political enemy.  Governments rise and fall in the actions of charismatic leaders; industry bends to pragmatic ends; fashions will alter, economies will render the rich poor and the poor rich, but the underlying purpose of academics is to seek the truth, and at Magdelen, that shared journey creates a community that cannot be easily severed, even by war.

Fast-forward twenty-three years to a different trip, and a different country.

There was a decade in the nineteenth century when the Cathedral at Rouen was the tallest building in the world, its steeple rising nearly five hundred feet above the placid waters of the Seine, which meanders through the fields and orchards of Normandy on its way from Paris to the English Channel. Bombed and broken on D-Day, the cathedral nave has been repaired and remains breathtakingly impressive. Beneath the lacy stone and stained glass lie the tombs of Rollo the Northman and a shrine containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart, at the same time both king of England and Duke of Normandy. And, not surprisingly, since just about every church in Normandy has some memorial to Jeanne d’Arc, there is a chapel in the north transept with a modern statue commemorating her martyrdom. She is in chains, her expression calmly resigned, while stone flames lick at her stone gown.

Rouen is the end of Jeanne’s story: here she was held in a fat tower that still stands near the train station, tried by an illegal court, and burned to death in the town square as a witch at the hands of the English, who had determined that her uncanny ability to beat their well-trained armies with smaller forces must lie in a pact with the devil. One might well think the Normans should have little love for the English: Jeanne’s martyrdom marked a turning point in a century of war between France and England that left northern France devastated and economically impoverished for yet another century after hostilities ceased.

So it is with a bit of shock that the Cathedral visitor reads the plaque under the double gothic arches just behind the chapel altar: in French and English, it proclaims “To the Glory of God and to the memory of the one million dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War 1914-1918, and of whom the greater part rest in France.” In the chapel, in the crimson and sapphire and emerald light from the restored windows above, you suddenly realize that you are in a holy space, one that can abide the fundamental tension of human relationships. The English killed Jeanne, savior of France; the English died in defense of France, and became themselves saviors of France.  The English are — however long ago driven back and exiled to their island, and however badly some of them have behaved — still part of Normandy, and they will still come, if need be, to defend it.

Across the channel, in the center of London, on the banks of the Thames, lies Westminister Abbey. Here the English buried their poets and painters, dreamers and scientists, princes and kings: Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Caroll, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, Charles and James and Anne Stuart.

In the north aisle of the Lady Chapel are two tombs, one stacked above the other. In the lower one lies Mary Tudor, most Catholic queen of England, who held her sister Elizabeth in house arrest to prevent a civil war, whose courts ordered Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley burned at the stake on Broad Street in Oxford for their defense of a Protestant faith, and who sought all her life to serve God by bringing Him a Catholic kingdom in communion with Rome. In the coffin above her lies that same Elizabeth, most Protestant queen of England, who in her turn held her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, under house arrest to prevent a civil war, who ordered the executions of Mary and Robert Devereux for political plots, and who sought all her life to serve God by avoiding the religious wars of the Continent and creating a peacable England. When we visited the chapel in 1986, the plaque on the floor read: “Those whom the Reformation divided, the Resurrection will reunite, who died for Christ and conscience’ sake”.  Standing among the royal tombs beneath the stone arches of the chapel, confronted by two sisters at deadly odds with one another, it is with some shock that four hundred years later what remains is the conviction that reconciliation is not merely possible: it is inevitable where there is a fundamental common goal to serve God.

The issues that divide us as Americans and as Christians are real; they are complex, and they challenge us to be the best we can be to address them. As individuals, we have limited resources of time and money and talent and intellect and emotional stamina. We cannot resolve complex problems by isolating ourselves from each other.

One of our visions in founding Scholars Online was to create a community where Christians of different backgrounds could study together, and we welcome anyone, regardless of their religious background, who shares our conviction that education requires not merely mastery of subject matter and the development of close reading and critical thinking skills, but also the formation of character that seeks to deal charitably and honestly with others. We do not require a statement of faith from our students. Our faculty comes from diverse traditions, and we all view our call to teach as a ministry. We — students, teachers, parents — do not always agree on issues, but we hold ourselves together in community, not only to serve the cause of classical Christian education, but also to serve as a model of community built out of diversity.

We start by standing together on the common ground of God’s eternal love for each of us and all of us.

[Part of this meditation appeared a 2009 entry to the All Saints Episcopal Church (Bellevue) blog.]

A Fine Thing

February 9th, 2016

Nearly two years ago, disquieting rumors hit my work group: our jobs were moving out of the area, across the country.

I did not want to move out of my home, away from my friends and family, or face restarting our home business in another state, especially since I would just be trading one earthquake zone for another one, but one with worse winters, more flooding, and tornadoes. So I let my bosses know that I wouldn’t be following my work assignment backwards along the Oregon Trail, and starting thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

As usually when requiring clarity of thought, I turned to Dorothy Sayers, who recounts in one of her addresses how she came to learn Latin:

“I was rising seven when [my father] appeared one morning in the nursery, holding in his hand a shabby black book, which had already seen some service, and addressed to me the following memorable words: “I think, my dear, that you are now old enough to begin to learn Latin.” … I was by no means unwilling, because it seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Latin, and would place me in a position of superiority to my mother, my aunt, and my nurse-though not to my paternal grandmother, who was an old lady of parts, and had at least a nodding acquaintance with the language.”

I already know a little Latin, but I do not know classical Greek. My husband does, and my children do, so far from being in a position of superiority to my own children, I am somewhat at a disadvantage when they talk about finer points of Homer’s style, or the interpretation of a passage from Luke. It seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Greek, and would place me on something of a more level position with my husband and my children, at least, so far as classical languages are concerned.

Besides, there are some Byzantine commentaries by John Philoponus and John of Damascus on Aristotle’s de Caelo that I ran across when researching my dissertation on medieval astronomy forty years ago, and I have never been able to read them, since the only available printed editions are in Greek and 19th century philosophical German. Of the two, Greek seemed easier to master.

I happened to mention my sort of vague yearning to start classical Greek to a few friends and some family members. This may have been a mistake, but it’s too late now. Scholars Online posted its Greek I course for 2016-2017, and I enrolled, thus putting an end to well-meant but incessant encouragement that I actually indulge myself in the joys of ancient Greek. Mr. Dean kindly agreed to accept me into his course.

It’s been interesting, to say the least.

Latin has seven noun cases, forms of nouns that indicate how they will be used in a sentence as subject, direct object, indirect object, and so on (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, locative, and vocative). Greek has five, lacking the ablative and locative, whose functions still exist but are rolled into one or another of the other cases. Plowing through the explanations in Unit I, I thought, this I can do: Greek is simpler is simpler than Latin!

So for the first unit, I put my time into learning paradigms for three nouns: a first declension feminine: ἡ ἀρχή: beginning, from which we get the English words “archaic” and “archeology”; the second declension masculine ὁ λόγος, word, from which we get “logic” and “theology”; and a mixed bag word which could be either masculine or feminine — you have to pay attention to the attached article: ὁ θεός, ἡ θεός, god or goddess.

I’m sure those of you reading this who know some Greek are mentally nudging one another with barely-disguised glee, the kind novelists invoke with the well-worn phrase “little did she know….” Yes, the plot twist is coming.

With the next unit, we hit the verbs. Greek has all the Latin tenses, plus one more. It has all the Latin verb moods, plus one more. It has an extra voice. It even has an extra number, distinguishing between singular, plural, and dual (just two). That’s a lot of verb forms to learn.

Let me spare you the details, but for the first time since I was in high school, there are 3×5 cards in stacks all over the house, wherever I happened to leave a set the last time I found a few minutes to study, minutes that usually add up to at least an hour every day. The ones with green edges have the principal parts of verbs, the ones with yellow edges give the cases for nouns and adjectives, the multicolored ones hold details on prepositions and which cases they take and how the meaning changes with the case. The blue-edged ones have grammar rules for conditional phrases with wonderful names like “future more vivid”, clauses of purpose with different levels of purposefulness, summaries of all possible endings, and rules for accents that give new meaning to the concept of mathematical chaos. I’m sure there’s a connection, since my teachers insist there’s a pattern even if I can’t find it. The blue-edged cards are the most bent and draggled of the bunch, because for some reason, I can’t keep straight whether the future passive indicative uses the un-augmented aorist stem or the augmented perfect stem with an extra syllable thrown in so you don’t confuse it with the perfect passive, and I have to look up which verb stem is used when, even if I remember the six stems and the proper endings for the tense and mood and voice in question.

There was a time when I thought sequence of moods meant something like the sequence of emotional states on getting a new software program that doesn’t quite do everything you hoped — anticipation, joy, frustration, resignation. Now I realize the “sequence of moods” depends on the verb tense used in the independent clause to govern the tense in the subordinate clause. There is probably some philosophical observation to be made there, but at the moment, I’m just trying to keep my tenses straight. I sometimes feel that if I manage to get the pluperfect endings lodged firmly in my head, the aorist ones will fall out the other side.

But there is more to learning a language than memorizing forms or appreciating its contributions to one’s own native vocabulary. The next step is translation, and while forms may be approached with rigorous method (even if there are lots of niggling details), translating is rarely straightforward.

That’s because words don’t just have meaning in some one-to-one correspondence between languages, any more than chartreuse, lime, Kelly, or Lincoln all mean the same green, even though they all mean “green” at some level.

After centuries of use in philosophical, scientific, and theological works, ἀρχή and λόγος have become loaded terms in Greek, words that absolutely defy a one-word decoding translation.

  • ἀρχή can mean beginning, or the first principles or elements on which all else is built, or the source of power, and by extension an empire, realm, authority, or even command.
  • λόγος can mean the story one tells in words, a speech one makes — that is, the spoken-out-loud-word that stirs others to action (one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion), or the reason why one does something, or the root or basis behind an action.
  • θεός is more direct: it unambiguously means a god, a deity; it cannot be used for something merely divine or spiritually-inclined.

We did a lot of sentences with the vocabulary words in different situations, partly to learn the different forms, but also to gain by experience appreciation for the nuances of meaning.

  1. Homer taught the men with words (using speech).
  2. The poets teach well by means of stories (skillful use of rhetoric).
  3. The young men learned skills with words (learned to reason clearly or speak clearly).
  4. The messengers from the enemy destroyed the peace with words (of persuasion).

On December 24, I could sit down and work out out the Gospel for the first Eucharist of Christmas in Greek: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεός ἦν ὁ λόγος.

I know the English translation, “in the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”, but the Greek means more than that, so the author of John meant more than the plain English. In a word-for-word translation, the text arrives in English naked, stripped of all the nuances the author surely reasoned out when he chose those words to begin his story and lay out the foundations of his faith so long ago.

And that’s the reason for learning Greek: to read and recognize what Homer and Aristotle, Herodotus and Sophocles, Plato and the authors of the New Testament really said, and to get closer to what they still have to say to us today, in all its complexity.

Learning Greek is hard work, and that’s okay. Learning anything, and learning it well is hard work. It takes time and effort and repetition and review and thought and puzzlement and clarification.

I make lots of mistakes, and that’s okay, too. My mistakes in class provide harmless amusement to my teacher and classmates and they don’t hurt me. In fact, I usually remember the points I’ve flubbed better over the long run than the ones I somehow, and often accidentally, got right the first time.

But the very best part of my own personal Greek journey is something I haven’t mentioned yet: my teacher was once one of our own students.

And for a teacher, it doesn’t get much better than this: to sit at the feet of your own student, and learn something new.

It turns out that taking Greek really is a very fine thing.