Crafting a Literature Program

February 22nd, 2020

The liberal arts are, to great measure, founded on written remains, from the earliest times to our own. Literature (broadly construed to take in both fiction and non-fiction) encompasses a bewildering variety of texts, genres, attitudes, belief systems, and just about everything else. Like history (which can reasonably be construed to cover everything we know, with the possible, but incomplete, exception of pure logic and mathematics), literature is a problematic area of instruction: it is both enormously important and virtually impossible to reduce to a clear and manageable number of postulates. 

In modern educational circles, literary studies are often dominated by critical schools, the grinding of pedagogical axes, and dogmatic or interpretive agendas of all sorts — social, political, psychological, or completely idiosyncratic. Often these things loom so large as to eclipse the reality that they claim to investigate. It is as if the study of astronomy had become exclusively bound up with the technology of telescope manufacture, but no longer bothered with turning them toward the stars and planets. Other difficulties attend the field as well.

We’re sailing on an ocean here…

The first is just the sheer size of the field. Yes, astronomy may investigate a vast number of stars, and biology may look at a vast number of organisms and biological systems, but the effort there is to elicit what is common to the diverse phenomena (which did not in and of themselves come into being as objects of human contemplation) and produce a coherent system to account for them. Literature doesn’t work that way. There is an unimaginably huge body of literature out there, and it’s getting bigger every day. Unlike science or milk, the old material doesn’t spoil or go off; it just keeps accumulating. Even if (by your standards or Sturgeon’s Law) 90% of it is garbage, that still leaves an enormous volume of good material to cover. There’s no way to examine more than the tiniest part of that.

…on which the waves never stop moving…

Every item you will encounter in a study of literature is itself an overt attempt to communicate something to someone. That means that each piece expresses its author’s identity and personality; in the process it inevitably reflects a range of underlying social and cultural suppositions. In their turn, these may be common to that author’s time and place, or they may represent resistance to the norms of the time. Any given work may reach us through few or many intermediaries, some of which will have left their stamp on it, one way or the other. Finally, every reader receives every literary product he or she encounters differently, too. That allows virtually infinite room for ongoing negotiation between author and reader in shaping the experience and its meaning — which is the perennially shifting middle ground between them.

…while no two compasses agree…

I haven’t seen this discussed very much out in the open, though perhaps I just don’t frequent the right websites, email lists, or conferences. But the reality — the elephant in the room — is that no two teachers agree on what qualifies as good and bad literature. Everyone has ideas about that, but they remain somewhat hidden, and often they are derived viscerally rather than systematically. For example, I teach (among other things) The Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn; I have seen both attacked, in a national forum of English teachers, as having no place in the curriculum because they are (for one reason or another) either not good literature or because they are seen as conveying pernicious social or cultural messages. I disagree with their conclusion, at least — obviously, since I do in fact teach them, but the people holding these positions are not stupid. In fact, they make some very strong arguments. They’re proceeding from basic assumptions different from my own…but, then again, so does just about everyone. That’s life.

…nor can anyone name the destination:

Nobody talks about this much, either, but it’s basic: our literature teachers don’t even remotely agree on what they’re doing. Again, I don’t mean that they are incompetent or foolish, but merely that there is no universally agreed-upon description of what success in a literature program looks like. Success in a science or math program, or even a foreign language program, is relatively simple to quantify and consequently reasonably simple to assess. Not so here. Every teacher seems to bring a different yardstick to the table. Some see their courses as morally neutral instruction in the history and techniques of an art form; others see it as a mode of indoctrination in values, according to their lights. For some, that’s Marxism. For some, it’s conservative Christianity. For some, it’s a liberal secular humanism. For others…well, there is no accounting for all the stripes of opinion people bring with the to the table — but the range is very broad.

is it any wonder people are confused?

So where are we, then, anyway? The sum is so chaotic that most public high students I have asked in the past two decades appear to have simply checked out: they play the game and endure their English classes, but the shocking fact is that, even while enrolled in them at the time, almost all have been unable to tell me what they were reading for those classes. This is not a furtive examination: I’ve simply asked them, “So, what are you reading for English?” If one or two didn’t know, I’d take that as a deficiency in the student or a sudden momentary diffidence on the subject. When all of them seem not to know, however, I suspect some more systemic shortfall. I would suggest that this is not because they are stupid either, but because their own literary instruction has been so chaotic as to stymie real engagement with the material.

It’s not particularly surprising, then, that literature is seen as somehow suspect, and that homeschooling parents looking for literature courses for their students feel that they are buying a pig in a poke. They are. They have to be wondering — will this course or that respect my beliefs or betray them? Will the whole project really add up to anything? Will the time spend on it add in any meaningful sense to my students’ lives, or is this just some gravy we could just as well do without? Some parents believe (rightly or wrongly: it would be a conflict of interest for me even to speculate which) that they probably can do just as well on such a “soft” subject as some program they don’t fully understand or trust. 

One teacher’s approach

These questions are critical, and I encourage any parent to get some satisfactory answers before enrolling in any program of literary instruction, including mine. Here are my answers: if they satisfy you, I hope you’ll consider our program. If not, look elsewhere with my blessing, but keep asking the questions.

In the first instance, my project is fairly simple. I am trying to teach my students to read well. Of course, by now they have mastered the mechanical art of deciphering letters, combining them into words, and extracting meaning from sentences on a page. But there’s more to reading than that: one must associate those individual sentences with each other and weigh them together to come to a synthetic understanding of what the author is doing. They need in the long run to consider nuance, irony, tonality, and the myriad inflections an author imparts to the text with his or her own persona. Moreover, they need t consider what a given position or set of ideas means within its own cultural conversation. All those things change the big picture.

There’s a lot there to know, and a lot to learn. I don’t pretend to know it all myself either, but I think I know at least some of the basic questions, and I have for about a generation now been encouraging students to ask them, probe them, and keep worrying at the feedback like a dog with a favorite bone. In some areas, my own perspectives are doubtless deficient. I do, on the other hand, know enough about ancient and medieval literature, language, and culture that I usually can open some doors that students hadn’t hitherto suspected. Once one develops a habit of looking at these things, one can often see where to push on other kinds of literature as well. The payoff is cumulative.

There are some things I generally do not do. I do not try to use literary instruction as a reductive occasion or pretext for moral or religious indoctrination. Most of our students come from families already seriously engaged with questions of faith and morals, and I prefer to respect that fact, leaving it to their parents and clergy. I also don’t believe that any work of literature can be entirely encompassed by such questions, and hence it would be more than a little arrogant of me to try to constrain the discussion to those points.

This is not to say that I shy away from moral and religious topics either (as teachers in our public schools often have to do perforce). Moral and theological issues come up naturally in our conversations, and I do not suppress them; I try to deal with them honestly from my own perspective as a fairly conservative reader and as a Christian while leaving respectful room for divergence of opinion as well. (I do believe that my own salvation is not contingent upon my having all the right answers, so I’m willing to be proven wrong on the particulars.)

It is never my purpose to mine literary works for “teachable points” or to find disembodied sententiae that I can use as an excuse to exalt this work or dismiss that one. This is for two reasons. First of all, I have too much respect for the literary art to think that it can or should be reduced to a platitudinous substrate. Second, story in particular (which is a large part of what literature involves) is a powerful and largely autonomous entity. It cannot well be tamed; any attempt to subvert it with tendentious arguments (from either the author’s point of view or from the reader’s) almost invariably produces bad art and bad reading. An attempt to tell a student “You should like this work, but must appreciate it only in the following way,” is merely tyrannical — tyrannical in the worst way, since it sees itself as being entirely in the interest of and for the benefit of the student. Fortunately, for most students, it’s also almost wholly ineffectual, though a sorry side effect is that a number find the whole process so off-putting that they ditch literature altogether. That’s probably the worst possible outcome for a literature program.

I also do not insist on canons of my own taste. If students disagree with me (positively or negatively) about the value of a given work, I’m fine with that. I don’t require anyone to like what I like. I deal in classics (in a variety of senses of the term) but the idea of an absolute canon of literature is a foolish attempt to control what cannot be controlled. It does not erode my appreciation for a work of literature that a student doesn’t like it. The fact that twenty generations have liked another won’t itself make me like it either, if I don’t, though it does make me reticent to reject it out of hand. It takes a little humility to revisit something on which you have already formed an opinion, but it’s salutary. It’s not just the verdict of the generations that can force me back to a work again, either: if a student can see something in a work that I have hitherto missed and can show me how to appreciate it, I gain by that. At the worst, I’m not harmed; at the best, I’m a beneficiary. Many teachers seem eager to enforce their evaluations of works on their students. I don’t know why. I have learned more from my students than from any other source, I suspect. Why would I not want that to continue?

Being primarily a language scholar, I do attempt to dig into texts for things like grammatical function — both as a way of ascertaining the exact surface meanings and as a way of uncovering the hidden complexities. Those who haven’t read Shakespeare with an eye on his brilliant syntactical ambiguity in mind are missing a lot. He was a master of complex expression, and what may initially seem oddly phrased but obvious statements can unfold into far less obvious questions or bivalent confessions. After thirty years of picking at it, I still have never seen an adequate discussion in the critical literature on Macbeth’s “Here had we now our country’s honour roofed / Were the graced person of our Banquo present (Macbeth 3.4.39-40).”  The odd phrasing is routinely explained as something like “All the nobility of Scotland would be gathered under one roof if only Banquo were present,” but I think he is saying considerably more than that, thanks to the formation of contrary-to-fact conditions and the English subjunctive.

My broadest approach to literature is more fully elaborated in Reading and Christian Charity, an earlier posting on this blog and also one of the “White Papers” on the school website. I hope all parents (and their students) considering taking any of my courses will read it, because it contains the essential core of my own approach to literature, which differs from many others, both in the secular world and in the community flying the banner of Classical Christian Education. If it is what you’re looking for, I hope you will consider our courses. 

[Some of the foregoing appeared at the Scholars Online Website as ancillary to the description of the literature offerings. It has been considerably revised and extended here.]

To teach, or not to teach….to the test

February 13th, 2020

In the last few weeks, I’ve spent considerable time updating my course websites for the 2020 summer session and academic year. This has been more complicated than usual, since I’ve decided, after considerable thought and inward turmoil, not to seek Advanced Placement recertification for the biology, chemistry, and physics courses I’ve taught for the last decade as formal “AP” courses.

A little background….

The College Board owns the “Advanced Placement” name and designation. Beginning in 2012, it required that anyone teaching a course designated for AP credit submit a syllabus for review by university faculty to ensure students were being prepared adequately for second year college work. Over the last eight years, the College Board has revised their syllabus requirements several times, remaining fairly flexible about how the course was offered and giving teachers latitude to emphasize areas or approaches as they saw fit. Curriculum suggestions and standards were minimal, and the AP examination remained largely a validation of adequate student preparation for advanced college work.

So what changed?

In 2018, the College Board announced that its program was radically changing in response to teacher and student feedback. The resulting syllabi revisions for biology, chemistry, and physics are quite specific in dictating course content and performance expectations. Teachers have fewer options to organize materials according to their own priorities. In particular, the syllabus for biology eliminates requirements for any instruction on human anatomy and plant physiology in order to focus on microbiology, evolution, and ecology, apparently assuming that students will cover physiology and anatomy in other courses. The chemistry syllabus increasingly focuses on professional level instrument use and the algebra-based physics syllabus has been broken into a two-year sequence that pushes modern physics topics to a seldom-taken second year. All three syllabi restructure the course schedules to eliminate any topics not covered on the examinations.

For biology in particular, I think this is a disastrous move for the students, however much lighter it makes the burden of instruction for the teacher. I believe that human anatomy and physiology should be taught in the context of cellular biology so that students understand how all levels of living systems work together. Many students, especially home-schooled students, attempt AP Biology without a previous course in high school biology. The new curriculum leaves them without a detailed appreciation of how their own bodies work at a time when this information is vital to help them make responsible choices for their own health.

There are implications for chemistry and physics as well. Most students won’t be going on to technical careers in chemistry; it is often a prerequisite for medical training at many levels. Performing basic chemistry investigations with limited equipment to experience fundamental principles of chemical reactions provides a better learning experience than when students perform cookbook experiments with equipment they don’t understand. Since most high school physics students are unable to take a second year due to time constraints, the current AP syllabus deprives them of exposure to the unity of field theory applications and the ramifications of modern physics: relativity, quantum mechanics, and nuclear energy.

When the exam is the focus, where’s the joy?

The College Board now requires that students register by early September for the AP test given the following May. This shifts the emphasis of the entire course from learning the subject to “teaching to the test”. Since Scholars Online courses are intended to provide our students with mastery of a subject, this runs counter to our teaching philosophy. I want my students to focus on exploring concepts and playing with ideas at the risk of making mistakes. It is difficult to experiment with possibilities when you are panicking about achieving a high score on an exam or to engage with the material joyfully instead of apprehensively.

The new AP program also heavily encourages the use of the College Board’s own website materials for unit testing throughout the year. While teachers no longer need to devise quizzes for their own students (a sometimes painstaking and onerous task), the feedback promised from the AP program will allow them to see how their students are doing (and collaterally, how they are doing as teachers) in preparing for the exam. The emphasis again is on exam performance, not on the subject matter.

There is another, more subtle issue with AP-provided online course support materials. It has been my practice to contain performance data for my students on the Scholars Online servers, rather than allow others to gather detailed information about my students’ ideas. I have not used publishers’ homework websites or quizzes that would identify individual students, and I refuse to change that practice when I do not know how personally-identifiable student data will be used in the future. The AP program has made no real assurances about the data they will be collecting this way.

I am very uncomfortable with the expanded level of content control by a major testing organization, many of whose directors are textbook publishers, and I’m not the only one. A number of prestigious private schools have dropped their AP courses to allow their teachers to teach creatively, rather than surrendering control of their courses to the College Board. Reluctantly, because it reduces an option for our students to gain formal AP course credit for their work, I have come to realize it is best to join them.

Participation in a formally certified AP course is not required for students to register and take the exam. I will continue to monitor AP course requirements so that the courses I am offering will prepare students to perform well on the AP exam if they choose to take it, and provide an equivalent lab experience. Students taking the non-AP versions of these courses have routinely achieved scores of 3 and 4 on the chemistry and physics AP exams, and 4 or 5 on the biology exams, so I do not believe this decision will put my students at a disadvantage, but that a unique approach to content and experiments will help them stand out instead.

If you have any questions or concerns about this decision, please let me know.

Causes

February 1st, 2020

The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought widely and deeply on many subjects. Some of his ideas have proven to be unworkable or simply wrong — his description of a trajectory of a thrown object, for example, works only in Roadrunner cartoons: in Newtonian physics, a thrown ball does not turn at a right angle and fall after it’s run out of forward-moving energy. The force vectors vary continuously, and its trajectory describes an arc. We can forgive Aristotle, I think, for not having calculus at his disposal. That he didn’t apparently observe the curvature of a trajectory is a little bit harder to explain.

Others of his ideas are rather narrowly culturally bound. His views on slavery are rightly repudiated almost everywhere, and many others are not very useful to us today. I personally find his description of Athenian tragedy in the Poetics far too limiting: the model of the hero who falls from greatness due to a tragic flaw is one model (though not really the only one) for describing the Oedipus Rex, but it doesn’t apply even loosely to most of the rest of surviving Athenian tragedy. This curiously Procrustean interpretive template is championed mostly by teachers who have read only one or two carefully-chosen plays.

Some of Aristotle’s ideas, though, remain quite robust. His metaphysical thought is still challenging, and, even if one disagrees, it’s very useful to know how and why one disagrees. His logical writings, too, remain powerful and compelling, and are among the best tools ever devised to help us think about how we think.

Among his most enduringly useful ideas, I think, is his fourfold categorization of cause. This is basic to almost everything we think about, since most of our understanding of the universe is couched, sooner or later, in terms of story. Story is fundamentally distinguished from isolated lists of events because of its reliance on cause and effect. 

There are, according to Aristotle, four different kinds of cause: material cause, efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause. This may all sound rather fussy and technical, but the underlying ideas are fairly simple, and we rely on them, whether we know it or not, every day. For an example, we can take a common dining room table.

The material cause of something is merely what it’s made of. That can be physical matter or not, but it’s the source stuff, in either case. The material cause of our table is wood, glue, perhaps some nails or screws, varnish, and whatever else goes into its makeup (metal, glass, plastic, or whatever else might be part of your dining room table). 

The formal cause is its form itself. It’s what allows us to say that any individual thing is what it is — effectively its definition. The table’s formal cause is largely bound up in its functional shape. It may have a variable number of legs, for example, but it will virtually always present some kind of horizontal surface that you can put things on. 

The efficient cause is the agency that brings something about — it’s the maker (personal or impersonal) or the causative process. That’s most like our simplest sense of “cause” in a narrative. The efficient cause of the table is the carpenter or the factory or workers that produced it. 

The final cause is the purpose for which something has come into being (if it is purposed) — in the case of the table, to hold food and dishes for us while we’re eating.

Not everything must have all four of these causes, at least in any obvious sense, but most have some; everything will have at least one. They are easy to recall, and remarkably useful when confronting “why?” questions. Still, people often fail to distinguish them in discourse — and so wind up talking right past one another.

Though I cannot now find a record of it, I recall that when a political reporter asked S. I. Hayakawa (himself an academic semanticist before turning to politics) in 1976 why he thought he’d been elected to the Senate, he answered by saying that he supposed it was because he got the most votes. This was, of course, a perfectly correct answer to the material-cause notion of “why”, but was entirely irrelevant to what the reporter was seeking, which probably had more to do with an efficient cause. Hayakawa surely knew it, too, but apparently didn’t want to be dragged into the discussion the reporter was looking for. Had the reporter been quicker off the mark with Aristotelian causes, he might have been able to pin the senator-elect down for a more satisfactory answer.

Aristotle wrote in the fourth century B.C., but his ideas are still immediately relevant. While one can use them to evade engagement (as Hayakawa did in this incident), we can also use them to clarify our communication. True communication is a rare and valuable commodity in the world, in just about every arena. Bearing these distinctions in mind can help you achieve it.

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.