Cutting School: Why Classical Schools Fragment Education and Turn Learning into Subjects

Cutting School: Why Classical Schools Fragment Education and Turn Learning into Subjects

In a previous article, I argued that classical schools, like their progressive counterparts, “pile it on” or have too many periods and teach too many subjects. In this article, I argue that classical schools also “cut up” the classical curriculum into too many sections, resulting in more diffusion and fragmentation than we should countenance. Why do we have so many “subjects”? We have lost our ideal for what unifies and harmonizes education and human life.

In 2012, British author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson delivered a speech at the Richmond Forum on revolutionizing education in America. After hearing his presentation, a student in the audience asked him a question along these lines: “Do you think it wise for us to integrate our studies across the disciplines?” Sir Robinson’s response was that the world is already integrated—it is we who have disintegrated it.

I love the way he turned common thinking about education on its head with such a comment. The world with all of its fascinating variety, from bubbles (why are they always spherical?) to elephants, is already an integrated whole.

In our mad drive to break things down and apart, we have lost sight of the wholeness of things. “Analysis” (from the Greek analuein, “to loosen, dissolve”) is the word we use for breaking things down into their constituent parts. Analysis is good—we do need to study the various parts of an engine, a molecule, or the human body. But a study of the parts alone is never sufficient without remembering that the parts, well, are part of something. A piston ring is interesting; a metal block that contains a string of countless explosions (the internal combustion engine) is astonishing.

The world used to be called a cosmos—one great, big, beautiful ornament, or an arranged harmony. It was often compared to an organism—something living, something vital. The cosmos was an enchanted whole, existing for a purpose, and containing various integrated elements, all moving toward ends according to their essence and design. Put another way, everything that existed had a cause: a cause for its form and a cause for its purpose or end. Nothing was a mere, brute fact; all things were coordinated and “going somewhere.”

We have sanitized the living cosmos, even sterilized it. And it seems the most we can do with a purposeless world is to cut it up into pieces for careful examination. This began to happen in earnest during the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Studying the material of things (and, for many, becoming convinced there was nothing beyond the material), we sought to put nature on the rack, as Francis Bacon said, and extract her secrets.

Let me give credit: We did learn a thing or two, for the deep study of material reality does indeed merit study and reward it. With the telescope and microscope, we saw things we had never seen before. We were astonished to discover so many more parts to our world that our unaided human eyes could never see. And the great scientists (Kepler, Galileo, Bohr, etc.) expected that these new parts were in fact ordered, that they in fact did have purposes and ends, even if they were kept secret for centuries. In fact, most of these seminal scientists assumed an invisible order behind the material order they observed—they studied matter deeply without becoming materialists.

So I do not reject the deep study of material reality; I only reject the premise that material reality is a dead reality. I do not reject examining the various parts of any whole, but analysis need not become an autopsy. The world derives its life from its divine origin; once that is rejected, analysis will become a lopsided “parsing” of the world with no vivifying unity. With no unity in the cosmos, we will have no unity in education—no more genuine universities, where the many verses are folded into one (the Latin ūnus, “one,” and versus, “toward, facing”). Instead we get fragmented departments and various subjects.

Our common current vocabulary does signal our breakup. Our world is fragmented, and therefore so are our schools, studies, and terms. As a fragmented school is not unified, it is therefore weak, therefore fragile. In Latin, frangere means “to break,” frāgmentum means “something broken,” and fragilis means “brittle, fragile, fleeting.” The Latin simply reminds us of the connection between breaking up and breaking down.

Our word “college” used to signal a “collection” of scholars who gathered to read (see the lectio in our word “collection”) and teach a common curriculum; now it does not. We are left with traditional educational words (university, college, liberal arts, grammar, logic, rhetoric) that have become squishy and vague, connoting something revered and cloudy from a past we have only recently forgotten. Contemporary colleges, working out the latest expression of our reigning American ideas of materialistic relativism, pragmatism, skepticism, and pluralism, are split and fragmented, likely beyond the possibility of unification. Departments and majors have multiplied, fields of studies have proliferated, and one can get a graduate degree in “areas of study” that even twenty years ago would have been considered bizarre and beyond serious academic inquiry.

When there is no unity, there is also no criteria for what is “academic” or “nonacademic,” for what is excellent or lacking excellence. Without unity, the implications for learning follow logical lines: Why should Shakespeare be considered greater writing than The Vampire Diaries? Why shouldn’t we study “Tree Climbing,” “Getting Dressed in the Morning,” “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” or “How to Watch Television”? Colleges can and do offer such courses now, and usually without any sense of irony.

Here is the rub: American high schools have been designed to prepare students for what our colleges and universities have become. The trends on our college campuses become the curricula of our high schools. Classical schools want to return to the studies of a common canon of the Great Ideas and the books that contain them; modern high schools want to (and need to) make students ready for modern colleges without a canon.

Classical schools are working hard to remember what we have forgotten (and to remember that we have forgotten), and have been trying to do so for about thirty years now. It turns out that remembering is hard. It turns out that what was forgotten over two or three generations is not recovered in a single decade. We have been doing good work recovering the classical trivium (first) and then the classical quadrivium (second), while slowly learning to integrate learning and study across the curriculum and cultivate a vibrant culture (third). The work has begun and is well underway. We have not yet, however, come to terms with the way that time and space are ordered in our schools.

Our schools are generally drab, pedestrian, and pragmatic in design. That is to say they look and function like virtually any other modern school. This is not surprising, nor is it really a criticism. We have been formed in these kinds of schools, and our blindness is only healed gradually. Now, however, there are many who are seeing our school buildings and schedules for what they really are: modern and progressive. (Aside: What should a school look like? Visit a monastery or any college at Oxford. Build a school around a garden.)

The ordering of time and space matters, and it matters deeply. We are embodied creatures and our five senses are very good qualities indeed. I will leave behind concerns about our school space and architecture (though these are related dynamically to our use of time and space) to focus on the fragmentation of time. We might say that our buildings are “cut up” in ugly ways; so is time. We cut up time into seven or eight fifty-minute periods with a brief twenty-minute lunch period crammed in the middle (your school may have a thirty-minute lunch period, but measure the amount of time that students actually get to spend eating). Most classical schools follow this pattern as an inherited educational norm (like the way we grade). Most classical schools are just beginning to question the practice.

Thus, we are left with “periods” and “sections.” Even these words connote the science of dividing, rather than unifying or harmonizing. Secāre in Latin means “to cut,” and we indeed cut our way through education. Our word “period” suggests a small unit of time after which we definitely will have to stop. In our class sections and periods, we know that we take a small cut at something and then stop in short order—often just when things were warming up. Our learning is periodic. We constantly start and stop, we cut learning short, we sell learning short. It is no surprise that many American students are inclined to cut classes, or cut school altogether. They want to do what we do to them. We cut school; they cut school.

There is an irony here, because classical schools know that learning should be integrated, and seek to integrate subjects and to integrate faith and learning. You might remember that a whole number in math is called an integer. Both “integer” and “integrity” come from the same Latin root word, integer, literally meaning “untouched” and thus something that is unimpaired, undivided, or whole. Learning should be holistic, for if Ken Robinson is right, the world lies before us already integrated.

But even to call our courses of study “subjects” can be problematic. The word “subject” has a legitimate use as a generic word for any directed matter or study. It is similar to words like “theme” (a general conception running through a composition of some kind) and “topic” (often meaning a more specific idea treated in a section of a composition or speech). The reason I think we have grown comfortable with the word “subject” to refer to courses of study is that we have so widened our “curriculum” that it can include just about anything. Thus, we need to use adjectives to further modify “subjects.” We have traditional subjects, literary subjects, mathematical subjects, vocational subjects, technological subjects, classical subjects, linguistic subjects, and so on. We used to study the liberal arts and the four traditional sciences (natural science, moral or human science, philosophical science, and theological science). There was a time when virtually all that we studied was either an art or a science, and with a clear idea of the difference between the two.

The word “subject” originally meant something “thrown beneath,” as something thrown before you for your examination and consideration. Now virtually anything can be thrown at our feet, and virtually anything is in our modern schools and colleges. Virtually anything one encounters can be a subject, possibly even configured into a four-year degree. While we cut up the curriculum, we find that the curriculum has become a pie as big as the moon—so we must press on with our cutting, as there is so very much to divide.

I know the words “section,” “period,” and “subject” are here to stay and can be used without causing cancer. Still, what if we used some older words instead? Consider the following:

  • Art: from ars, artis, which means “skill, craft, craftsmanship.” This is the fitting word for any of the seven liberal arts. Each liberal art is a study in verbal or mathematical skills that find application in any human study or enterprise. Art can also be applied to the fine arts that connote something we make or fashion that is an end (finis, “end”) in itself.
  • Science: from scientia, “something known, knowledge.” Any collected, organized body of knowledge can be called a science. In this sense, biology and chemistry are sciences, but so can philosophy and theology be regarded as collected, organized bodies of knowledge, and thus sciences. We use our training in the liberal arts to classify, collect, categorize, arrange, and organize a science. The liberal arts enable us to create sciences.
  • Discipline: from diciplīna, which means “learning, teaching, instruction, training, habits, discipline.” A discipula is a student (female) or a learner engaged in a discipline.
  • Form: from fōrma, “shape, idea, kind, model, pattern.” The British refer to their “grades” as forms.
  • Course: from cursus, “a passage, journey, course.” This word connotes that we together are heading in the same direction to an appointed end.
  • Session: derived from sedere, “to sit.” A session is a gathering in which we all come together and sit down to learn.
  • Seminar: from sēminārium, “a nursery or seed plot.” This is a place of exploration, discovery, and planting and growing seeds. Often the seminar is conducted around a table.
  • Symposium: a Greek word that means literally “with a drink.” This generally connotes a larger gathering of mature learners who gather for discussion, usually hearing from several presenters or lecturers.
  • Conventiculum: literally a “coming together.” This Latin word can also designate a place as well as an activity, and may be smaller in scope than a convention.
  • Convention: a “coming together” that generally will involve a larger number of people.
  • Conference: literally a “bringing together,” often with a small number of people who gather to discuss a given topic.
  • Colloquium: literally a “gathering to talk or discuss,” usually on a designated topic. Any class that is dedicated to discussing a particular topic could be called a colloquium. (The plural is “colloquia.”)
  • Tutorial: a class in which a tutor guides and instructs either an individual or a small group of students.
  • Forum: This Latin word means “marketplace.” A forum today is a gathering for the purpose of discussing questions, often with a larger group, and possibly in a public setting.
  • Workshop: a seminar or discussion group that emphasizes the exchange of ideas surrounding a particular art and the demonstration of a technique or skill.
  • Disputation: from disputātiō, “discussion, debate, dispute.” A traditional word for a debate in which a resolution or claim is disputed by two parties, following a moderated and formal pattern of exchange.
  • Declamation: from dēclāmātiō, “practice in public speaking, oratorical exercise.” A traditional word for a set speech prepared on a theme in which persuasive counsel is given for resolving a dilemma and adopting a wise course of action.
  • Oration: from ōrātiō, “a speaking, speech, discourse.” A traditional, general term for a prepared speech.

After contemplating all of the above, why do today’s classical schools, like progressive schools, still fragment the curriculum—still cut school? The answer is simply because classical schools have been busy working on other pressing matters, even pressing priorities. We have been working on reimplementing the seven liberal arts and the Great Books. We have been working on cultivating a culture of wonder and delight.

Over the last thirty years, many of us questioned what we found in our progressive educations, but only recently have we begun to question the wide, sectioned curriculum. To be honest, at first many of us did not have the eyes to see it. Yes, we changed or substituted the subjects. We brought in Latin, logic, and rhetoric—but we still called them “subjects” and treated them as such. It turns out they are not so many subjects among a sea of other subjects. It turns out they are arts that cultivate humans to be the fullest versions of themselves. It turns out they are the occasion and setting for mentorship, formation, and friendship. Perhaps they are holy places where we learn to love the True, Good, and Beautiful. They are not mere subjects.

Now, however, it seems time to dedicate our full attention to the matter of putting back together the pieces of our fragmented curriculum. Just how we might do this will be the subject of my next article, on reunifying our classical curriculum. In the meantime, I welcome your ideas, suggestions, and criticisms.

Piling It On: Why Classical Schools Have Too Many Periods and Teach Too Many Subjects

Piling It On: Why Classical Schools Have Too Many Periods and Teach Too Many Subjects

Piling it on . . .

Over the years, a question has continued to rise before me like a puppy on alert after hearing a strange sound. Why do we organize a school day over eight periods, and why do we teach up to twelve subjects to students—sometimes all in one year? Like so many of our modern school practices, it turns out that this is not a traditional, classical practice. The classical tradition insisted upon multum non multa—much, not manyas a meaningful approach to study.

We moderns, however, have fallen in love with the buffet line. We like to sample many foods and fill our plates with small servings of nearly everything. I myself love the buffet line, or a really good potluck. Our church hosts one every Sunday (yes, every Sunday). I scan the line of dishes as I approach to make sure I don’t fill my plate with some good x when there is some scrumptious y ahead. I usually succeed in gathering a remarkable collection of about eight to ten different dishes.

It turns out that a buffet can be a marvelous way to eat, but not such a great way to study. To study and learn well, humans have learned that it is important to study a few things deeply, even to mastery, rather than to dabble and sample dozens of things. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, while recounting his junior-high education:

In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life. Smewgy taught us Latin and Greek, but everything else came in incidentally.

Studying and learning well is more akin to building a house than to strolling through a buffet line. A foundation must be laid, and laid very well. It is no good doing much of anything else until a solid foundation has been dug and poured. Then we turn our attention to framing; then to wiring and plumbing; then to exterior walls, windows, and a roof; last to interior walls, flooring, and finishing work. There is a natural sequence to building a house, and each stage in the sequence requires mastery for a lovely, strong home to exist. The sequence matters—no one can start building with a roof. Mastery matters—a poor foundation will risk destroying the entire edifice.

I am sure that to you, reader, the analogy is obvious. In “elementary” school we should teach the foundations; in “primary” school we should teach what should come first; in “secondary” school we should teach what comes afterward. “Higher education” should follow secondary education, and so forth. We know this, and our educational vocabulary signals it. Yet we don’t follow this wisdom well. How can a secondary high school student reasonably track ten to twelve subjects across an eight-period day without dabbling? After all, “no one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty.” How many of us, looking back on our own secondary and college educations, realize that we mostly dabbled, and mostly have forgotten all of our dabbling? We are not even a “jack of all trades,” but instead commonly a “master of none.” Why, then, are we so comfortable having our children do just as we did?

Even AP high school courses, despite granting students high school and possibly college credits, are often not much more than another kind of rapid-pace dabbling. Students who read twenty-three novels in AP English in a given year may get to skip English 101 in college, but many have not digested or grown to love the books they raced through in high school. CliffsNotes are quite popular with such students, as we all know, but surely reinforce our dalliance with literature.

Classical schools, like other modern schools, generally follow a curriculum that, according to Lewis, dabbles far too much. Our graduates really don’t “know” Latin; many of them don’t do math, or study literature, history, math, or science “incidentally.” There is usually no room for any of this incidental or accidental learning, because we fill students’ every hour with all matter of what becomes academic “stuff.” Sadly, loves are not cultivated by rapid sampling or “drive-through” courses of study—or by simply asking students to pile their plates high with great heaping helpings of the True, Good, and Beautiful. We have a phrase to the effect that one’s eyes can be too big for one’s stomach. In contemporary classical education, I fear that our eyes are too big for our students’ souls. We dish it up, eight periods a day, with eight different enthusiastic chefs serving large amounts of what we know our students will want and love. They, however, have had enough.

I have exaggerated a bit to make a point, hoping the point will reach its mark. Some schools employ block scheduling and have dialed back the number of subjects students must track. And, yes, some students can manage our rigorous schedules and curricula. Many, however, burn out or lose their passion for study.

To those of you still chafing under my critique—well, I chafe, too. I find myself, however, compelled by Lewis and the classical tradition that knows little of our wide curriculum and eight-period day.

What I think we should do in response will have to wait for another post. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts, suggestions, ideas, and criticism.

Here is a video version of this post, for those of you who are interested:


A Restful Return to School

A Restful Return to School

I have various memories of returning to school. I was not homeschooled (virtually no one my age was), so school was a matter of returning to a bricks and mortar building, year by year, sometimes facing the prospect of a new school, with new teachers and scores of unknown students.

I grew up in a Navy family (the NCIS to be precise) and spent 11 of the first 17 years of my life overseas in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam. I attended a mix of schools–Department of Defense schools, local private schools, local public schools. Like so many military kids, I Iearned to be adaptive, moving from place to place, school to school, making new friends at each new location. For me, returning to school several times meant attending a new school at a new place. I adapted and made my way well enough, but not without some stress.

I am sure that many of you, like me, can remember the stress of attending a new school. Even if you did not move from place to place like I did, you did move from elementary school to a junior high school, or from junior high to high school (unless you attended one of the few K-12 academies). How did you experience the first day of school–or the first week? At Hogwarts, there apparently is a sorting hat that will direct students to one of four houses, where you will be placed with the right sorts of people for your temperament and background. I was not sorted so well going from school to school. I had to “sort things out” the best I could on my own. Do you remember that loneliness, that sense of displacement, that sense of not knowing one’s place and yet longing for it?

In Latin sors, sortis means “lot”–as in the kind of lot that is cast. It can also mean “allotted duty,” “prophecy,” “fate” or “fortune.”  Many of us returning to school felt as if we were encountering some predetermined, unknown fate. It was not usually a pleasant experience. Think back to entering the big, consolidated high school as a freshman. Casement windows that did not open, polished floors, fluorescent lighting, loud buzzers, cafeteria chaos, raucous bus rides, the terror of changing and showering during gym class. How would we fit in? What sort of people would be my people? What sort of person am I?

As I mentioned, I made my way, but I had to learn to be as wily as Odysseus. I learned to assess those who appeared charming but meant me harm, and those who while less popular were thoughtful, interesting and trustworthy. On Guam, as a white minority student, I learned the ins and outs of being the odd one out, the one sometimes viewed as an outsider and intruder. I learned how to play it safe and stay safe by making the right alliances, choosing those places to be that risked less trouble.

I had some good teachers, some bad teachers, and many mediocre teachers. The private Catholic school I attended for two years featured some excellent Benedictine teachers but is also featured some dismal non-Benedictine instructors. Math and biology were taught very well. The rest is a blur. The public school I attended my junior year was filled generally with well-meaning mediocrity. The few admirable teachers I heard about were not available given my schedule. I barely recall reading that year; I do remember thinking that it was distinctly clear that my Algebra II teacher did not want to be teaching algebra at all.

That was my high school experience until my senior year when I moved from Guam to South Carolina and finished by senior year of high school at the local public school. I think I graduated with a few hundred seniors. I was shocked to find myself part of large group of white students. Having been a minority on Guam, I had no hesitation engaging my African American classmates, but I noticed they typically stayed among themselves at lunch and other social settings. I played football, which enabled me to become friends with several black classmates, but our friendships had difficulty transcending the football field.

That was me. How about you? Mention “high school” and most of us can recall a flood of such memories as I just did. How would you qualify “returning to school?” For me, it was a combination of anticipation, hope, and fear.  It was stressful.

Many of us now are either homeschooling our children or sending them to a peaceful classical school. Would it not be wise for us to consider how we can ensure that our own children avoid the stress of “returning to school” that we experienced as so normal? How can we welcome the new year of study with a kind of liturgy of communal gratitude? How can we help provide a restful return to school? Here are some ideas that I have either witnessed or that come to mind:

  • Plan to welcome every child into the school or homeschool–for a solid week. Plan a weeklong “liturgy of welcome.” Children (and yes, adolescents) need not just one word of welcome on the first day of school; they need ongoing gestures of warmth, reception, delight, and inquiry.
  • Don’t jump immediately into academic work. The first two days should be focused on orientation, fellowship, and forging friendship. Academics can be woven into these activities, but not so as to detract from the purposes of commencing communities of friendship.
  • Lead with those activities, therefore, most conducive to building community and friendship: music, play, contemplation, story, food and drink.  Getting outside (especially if the weather is beautiful) for both guided and unstructured time can also help students to form friendships as they can observe one another in setting apart from the classroom.
  • Invite parents to be a part of things. Education should be intergenerational and collaborative (i.e., Paideia). Those of us in classical schools and co-ops should be serving together as a community of co-educators. Returning to school is a much more enjoyable activity–especially for younger children–when mom and dad are also present through most of the day.
  • Put God in the center, not the margins. In our public schools, God has been legally relegated to the margins of school life (an issue, for the moment, we ignore). We should do the opposite and help our children see that all education–and thus returning to school–is under God and the blessing of God.
  • Think about the ways in which you were ushered back to school 30 years ago–and then consider doing the opposite.
  • Don’t sort; salute. Exchange fate for faith. Don’t worry; welcome. Don’t rush; rest.

I hope the advice above will stimulate some thinking and wake us up a bit to the importance of salutation and welcome. Let’s greet one another with a holy kiss. If you homeschool, that should be easy indeed.




John Henry Newman and Classical Education

John Henry Newman and Classical Education

Some of you have heard of John Henry Newman, or Cardinal Newman as he is often called. Those of you seeking to renew the classical tradition of education, no doubt have come across Newman’s name, and some of you have read through at least parts of his famous book, The Idea of a University. This is a book and writer that cannot be ignored.

To understand the state of classical education in the Victorian era, when classical education was beginning to falter and diminish, Newman must be read. He is a bright light seeking to illuminate and preserve the classical tradition of education at a time when a great fog was rolling in, a time when a secular paradigm for learning was ascendant, a time when the value of studying classical languages, literature, and theology was being questioned and mocked. Newman held forth the flame, and not only defended the tradition, but managed to brilliantly restate it for his own time, and extend it.

Newman was born in 1801 in London. He went to Oxford University at the age of 16, and after graduating become a tutor at one of the colleges there—Oriel College. While serving as a tutor (professor) he also was ordained as a priest in the Church of England and served as the vicar St. Mary’s, the university church.

He and several other colleagues at Oxford become concerned with the ways they perceived the Anglican church to be drifting from its more liturgical and sacramental aspects and began to call for a return to traditional liturgies and practices that resembled those of the Roman Catholic Church. This renewal movement became known as the Oxford Movement and was described as Anglo-Catholic. Newman was the chief writer of many small pamphlets or tracts arguing for this “high church” renewal. In 1845, Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1879 was appointed a cardinal in the church–at the age of 78.

When Newman was asked to found a new Catholic University in Ireland, he delivered a series of nine lectures in Dublin that were then collected and published in his book The Idea of a University in 1852. This was about the same time (1872) that Nietzche was railing against the deterioration of the German university system which he thought was being destroyed by what he called a “micrological” pendantry. Newman argues for traditional liberal education, that instead of seeking hyper-specialized knowledge sought to master the studium generale which he translates as the “School of Universal Learning.”

For Newman, a liberal education was its own reward, valuable for its own sake, and befitting someone who would truly be free. For Newman education was the cultivation or perfection (full development) of the intellect–“the true enlargement of the mind and the power of viewing many things at once.” He is truly eloquent on this point, offering not just a restatement of the ancient Greek ideal, but revivifying it. I quote at length, so the reader can get a sense not only of Newman’s thought, but his eloquence:

To have even a portion of this illuminative reason and true philosophy is the highest state to which nature can aspire, in the way of intellect; it puts the mind above the influences of chance and necessity, above anxiety, suspense, unsettlement, and superstition, which is the lot of the many. Men, whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and are startled and despond if it happens to fail them. They are ever in alarm or in transport. Those on the other hand who have no object or principle whatever to hold by, lose their way, every step they take. They are thrown out, and do not know what to think or say, at every fresh juncture; they have no view of persons, or occurrences, or facts, which come suddenly upon them, and they hang upon the opinion of others, for want of internal resources. But the intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another. It is the [tetragonos] of the Peripatetic, and has the “nil admirari” (nothing to surprise) of the Stoic,—

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas, (Happy is he who can understand the causes of things)
Atque metus omnes, et inexorabile fatum (And the fear and inexorable fate of all [death])
Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari. (He throws underfoot, with the din of the greedy Acheron river)
There are men who, when in difficulties, originate at the moment vast ideas or dazzling projects; who, under the influence of excitement, are able to cast a light, almost as if from inspiration, on a subject or course of action which comes before them; who have a sudden presence of mind equal to any emergency, rising with the occasion, and an undaunted magnanimous bearing, and an energy and keenness which is but made intense by opposition. This is genius, this is heroism; it is the exhibition of a natural gift, which no culture can teach, at which no Institution can aim; here, on the contrary, we are concerned, not with mere nature, but with training and teaching. That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.

I think I can safely say that nearly no one speaks this way today about education. To our ears, “the perfection of the intellect” is masked by the din of the Acheron River–the river of the underworld–our coming demise–or by the yelps and hoorahs of current carnival culture, with its ubiquitous distractions. What’s worse, we don’t even know what the words “perfection” and “intellect” mean as Newman uses them. To tell an 18 year-old college student that we seek the perfection of his intellect is like telling him we that we think he should “develop his cognitive capacities”–bleh.

Newman was able to restate and revivify the classical tradition in the middle of the 19th century–and he continued the great conversation about education. Who will do this in the early 21st century?

I will leave the reader with one more distinctive emphasis found in Newman: education is essentially a relationship, a friendship between student and teacher, making a university a vibrant community of learning. When we talk of education as the cultivation of virtue, we are certatinly echoing Newman (who was restating the great thinkers before him); When we talk of education as community, we are also echoing Newman. Students learn from teachers and colleagues. Humans, he thinks, are compelled by nature to engage in “mutual education”—we can’t help but to share knowledge and educate one another. The university is one evolved and grand way we do this; it is a place “for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse.” While the university may represent a pinnacle of learning, he argues by way of illustration that similar kinds of “university” education exist in the education of a gentleman, politician, scientist, city-dweller and catechized Christian.

Man cannot live by books alone. Newman loves books, but he regards those capable of writing books to be best at cultivating wisdom and securing an education. Why not just read great books? Newman’s answer: Why not study personally with the authors? Why not become an academic disciple? If you could study with the man and not just his books—wouldn’t you do so?

This “man to man” personal intercourse Newman calls a rival method, a method that rivals the mere reading of books, and all attempts to become a self-educated man or woman. While we admire those who have read many books and studied “on their own,” we instinctively know that a full education requires a relationship with a master. Christ said as much when he said that “a student is not above his teacher, but when he is fully-trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Newman says the same when he argues that the life of a study “which makes it live in us, you must catch… from those in whom it lives already,” and “we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom.”

Haven’t we all known a self-educated man or woman who lacked the deeper, living wisdom found in those who had been tutored by a virtuoso? Don’t many of us lament that while we have learned from our private reading, we long for a person who embodied those books and who could better guide, lead and teach us?

Over 150 years ago, Newman makes a case against online learning and internet research as sufficient for a full education. He notes the same objection we hear today from advocates of a wholly online education: “Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge comes down to us?” His humorous description of the “profusion of print” is similar to the contemporary laments of the profusion of distracting digital devices that have nearly replaced our real lives with virtual ones. No doubt, Newman today would exhort us to put down our smart phones and actually converse with one another, face to face, student to teacher, disciple to master. This is Newman’s rival method, the “Oral Tradition.”

Newman raises us for the question: Why have we come to college? What is it we seek at college? Most likely students enroll in collegee for several reasons—to explore new subjects, enjoy new friendships and community, prepare for a working career, to grow in wisdom. Of these good goals, should any be chief among them?

For his part, Newman privileges the communal cultivation of wisdom and knowledge as the chief purpose and “idea” of a university. The word “university” means (from the Latin) “turned into one” such that many various parts might come together in a unity. It is similar to our word “college” that is derived from the Latin collegere, which means “to gather.” A college is a gathering of scholars and students who come together in a unity qualified by excellence in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge.

Newman mentions that universities have a kind of gravitational pull, attracting excellent thought, scholarship and interchange. If true, this means it is a great honor to attend a university and associate with such excellence, with a fair chance that we might acquire some small quantity of excellence ourselves. In fact Newman says that “excellence implies a center.” Perhaps he was thinking of the Latin root for excel, for it is excellere, which means “to rise up high, to tower.” Universities and colleges are known for their high towers that symbolize at once the quest for knowledge and wisdom, the reach for greatness, and the call for us all to gather and seek together. For many of us, it is at college that we grow up.

For further reading: 

  • Certainly, the reader will want to consult Newman’s The Idea of a University (1852).
  • The reader may also want to read his brief essay by the same name that can be found online or in the Harvard Classics, volume 28. This essay was published in 1856 as part of a book called The Office and Work of Universities and is clearly derived from his previous book bearing the same title as the essay. This essay presents Newman’s distilled thought about the purpose and function of a university, and has become a classic description of the traditional model of university education.



Let’s Pause a Moment

Let’s Pause a Moment

It won’t surprise many of you to hear that I am continuing to read, think, and write about . . . restful learning. I am working on a new book, likely to be titled Learning from Rest, which will follow and complement Sarah Mackenzie’s Teaching from Rest.

The more we trace the origins and history of scholé, leisure, contemplation, or restful learning, the more we find a lovely web of concepts that shimmer and shine. It appears humans both inside and outside the Christian tradition have perceived that we flourish when we are able to transcend the world of work and labor by engaging in lingering, leisurely thought, conversation, and contemplation. Most have not declared work to be bad (though some of the Greeks did), but simply that it is not sufficient for humans to flourish—or to realize their full humanity.

It is no wonder, therefore, that many of our traditional words for education signal this idea of a contemplative life that informs, transforms, and completes a flourishing human life. Consider just a few venerable words: liberal, humanities, study, school. We have lost the original references of these words, but they still tell the story—if we can acquire, once again, the ears to hear.

Liberal: The word “liberal” in the educational tradition refers to an education that is “free” (Latin liber, meaning “free”) from the cares and necessities of the work-a-day life. It also has referred to an education that helped those who were free, enabling them to get such an education to preserve this freedom. Such “freely educated” people attained a capacity to think, reason, argue, refute, create, speak, and make, such that they were liberated to learn for themselves and serve in virtually any vocation or capacity. All humans, whether plumbers or professors, would thrive with such an education. And yes, there is a traditional collection of studies that makes up the curriculum of such an education: the liberal arts. The fact that we can no longer name the traditional seven liberal arts shows that we are in a forgetful phase, but we have not yet forgotten that we once knew them.

Humanities: This word now denotes those studies that are not science, math, or professional courses. This word is derived from the Latin word humanitas. It was also one of the chief Roman words for education, which, to the Romans, was the full development of one’s capacities as a human being and included all learning, not just English, history, and philosophy. Yes, math and science were once humanities subjects!

Study: In the classical tradition, it was thought that we would study what we love. Both our words “study” and “student” are derived from the Latin word studium, which means “zeal, eagerness, fondness.” A student was thought of as someone who was eager and zealous for knowledge and wisdom—or for truth, goodness, and beauty. Don’t you study what you love? How then do we cultivate a love for knowledge and wisdom? This is perhaps the most important question in education, and one that is regularly overlooked.

School: School has come to mean the place where children go to be taught—I hesitate to say “to learn.” Perhaps we are safe to say that school is where students are “schooled.” Yet this word still faintly echoes an older, traditional meaning. Our word “school” derives from the Greek work scholé, which means something like undistracted time to study things most worthwhile. School used to connote a place of leisurely, restful, and contemplative learning. There is no longer much scholé in our schools; rather, they are places that mix a great deal of anxiety with all too much boredom.

Let me close with a little-known word: the Greek katapausis and its cousin anapausis. You can hear in both of these our English word “pause.” The Greek word pausis simply means a halt or pause, or a cessation of activity. Katapausis and anapausis both mean a kind of pause that includes the ideas of rest and refreshment. In a classical education, we need more than a mere stopping or halting of work-a-day activities; we need a refreshing rest.

Anapausis is used by Christ in the famous passage in Matthew 11:28–30 (NIV) about rest:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will rest you [verbal form of anapausis]. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest [anapausis] for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

In numerous places, the Apostle Paul use the word to describe being refreshed. Consider 2 Corinthians 7:13 (my own translation):

Therefore we have been comforted; in addition to our own encouragement, we were delighted for the joy of Titus, because he has been refreshed/rested [verbal form of anapausis] in his spirit by all of you.

As for katapausis, we see the common Hebrew word for rest (nuach) rendered as katapausis in some key passages, such as those in Hebrews 3, which quotes Psalm 95 (NIV).

That is why I was angry with that generation and I said, “Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared an oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest [katapausis].”

Later in Hebrews 4:10–11 (NIV) we read that there is divine rest—God’s rest—that we can yet enter:

. . . for anyone who enters God’s rest [katapausis] also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us make every effort to enter that rest [katapausis] . . .

We see that the New Testament (and the Old) calls us to a deep life of rest, one that is connected to salvation. To know the salvation of Christ is to know a divine variety of peace and rest that are connected to God’s own divine resting recorded in the Genesis narrative. How does God rest? How do we come to know the rest of God? These are more enormous questions for anyone of the Christian faith, and also crucial questions for any Christian approach to education.

How can the Christian know divine rest and yet educate out of and to anxiety? How can a Christian “learn from Christ” who gives rest and then give no rest to their students? How can the Christian “pause” for refreshment every Sunday but offer no sabbath to students? Where is the sabbath pattern in our schools and studies?

I think it is worth pausing . . . and contemplating.

Dreaming Wisdom at St. Johns College

Dreaming Wisdom at St. Johns College

When we were newly married, Christine and I took a trip to Annapolis and walked around the campus of St. Johns College. I fell in love. “What if we could go to the Graduate Institute here?” I dreamed. “What if we both became tutors and taught here?” I dreamed further. “And what if…?” At that point in my revelry, Christine intervened and urged me to stop, thinking I was being carried away to some unreasonable place. Christine is a poet and capable of dreaming, but she knows that I sometimes dream up folly.

Not all my dreams regarding St. Johns have been fulfilled, but one has. I did, about seven years after the conversation above, enroll in the Graduate Institute at St. Johns. The timing was very good, for I was in the thick of graduate studies in seminary and still a bit sophomoric, thinking myself wiser than I was. St. Johns addressed that. Sitting around sturdy old (very old) tables like the one pictured above with engaged, thoughtful and challenging students, I learned something about myself. Observing the guidance of skilled tutors who took us through the texts of Melville and Shakespeare, l learned something about teaching.

I learned that I often spoke before I should. I learned the pertinence of Jame’s admonition to be slow to speak and quick to listen. I learned to follow the dance steps in a collaborative conversation, gaining an intuitive sense of when to follow, when to compliment, when to occasionally risk an initiating move.

I learned what it meant to be assessed not by a number or letter grade, but by thoughtful words. There are not numerical or letter grades at St. Johns. So how did I know where I stood or how I was doing? By what people said–both my classmates and my tutors. At St. Johns, we would write several short papers in one class, which we could copy for every student. We all read each other’s papers and then incorporated both the ideas in those papers and our thoughts about them into our class conversations. In one class dedicated to Shakespeare, I did write a long paper for the tutor (Elliot Zuckerman). Mr. Zuckerman (everyone is “Mr.” or “Miss” at St. Johns) read my paper and wrote extensive notes assessing, challenging and occasionally commending it. I recall the two pages of notes stapled to the back of my paper. At the bottom of the page following his comments, there was…nothing. No grade, no number. I read everything he said with great attention, focus and interest. For the first time in my life, I was completely engrossed with what a professor thought of my work.

Then there was the Don Rags–the stated meeting with your tutors to discuss your work and class contributions. My tutors met for about 20 minutes before I was invited into the room to discuss…me. Then they invited me into the room and they told me what they thought… using words. I know they commended me in a few ways, but I forget those comments. I remember very well, however, what they said I could do to grow and improve: be slower to speak and quicker to listen. This stuck with me, and still rings in my ears. Until they said it, I did not realize this about myself. Once they said it, I instantly knew it to be true and began a kind of lifelong repentance. This crucial admonition came to me because of a college (and tutors) that actually wants to communicate truth about education and learning with honest, charitable words.

Some of the most delightful academic (I should just say human) conversations I have ever had occurred during my time at St. Johns. As the classical renewal continues and grows around the U.S., Socratic discussion and teaching is being recovered with it. How does one lead a good discussion surrounding an important text? How do we create an atmosphere where the love of truth, goodness and beauty transcends concerns for status, grades and props? St. Johns holds some of the answers to these questions, simply because it has not departed from the tradition of classical learning that never considered assigning someone a number or treating one as such.

Many of my dreams have slid into folly–but the dream of going to St. Johns helped confront a sophomore.

Update (April 2017):  I am also glad to report that our classical teacher training site,, is creating a Level Two course on Socratic DiscussionHow to Lead Effective Seminars and Socratic Discussions, featuring two St John’s tutors, Eva Brann and Hannah Hintze. There are also four live seminars with several St. Johns students led by Hannah Hintze. It is expected to release on April 25. To peruse 20 of our other current courses—all with free previews—visit the website: