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, ClassicalU.com, 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: ClassicalU.com.
I have been thinking a good deal about playing and learning. At two back-to-back conferences, I have spoken on this topic, so my musing continues.
Plato was perhaps the first to say that children should learn by playing. By compulsion you might make a child move through certain schooling steps, but that learning will seldom be permanent. I think experience shows Plato was right; our experience and recent research also tell us that children are not playing as much as they used to, and are perhaps trading away some important benefits and delights in exchange for… more screen time.
Here is a brief 13 minute video in which I recap what the research shows and what we already know. What will we do to make room once again for play?
Scholé Academy, Classical Academic Press’s live, online academy, is seeking a part-time writing instructor for 5–8th grade Writing & Rhetoric courses for the 2016-17 school year. Qualified candidates should be excellent writers and have previous experience teaching elementary-aged students. Familiarity with the Writing & Rhetoric series by Classical Academic Press is preferred.
Interested candidates should submit their résumé and brief letter of interest to Emily Price at email@example.com. Scholé Academy will contact applicants to set up phone and/or videoconference interviews.
Update: The position listed above has been filled. If you are interested in teaching for Scholé Academy, please express your interest to Emily Price (see above). We would be glad to consider you for future teaching opportunities as Scholé Academy continues to grow and expand.
Those of us seeking to classically educate our children know that they have a built-in capacity to bicker and quarrel. Bickering comes naturally to all children, and is only disguised by refined adults.
When it is time for students to learn dialectic, however, we want them to learn how to argue. There is no art to quarreling, but there is indeed an art of argument. It was Chesterton who said that his principal objection to a quarrel is that it ended a good argument. Just what is the distinction, then, between a quarrel and an argument?
Well, we instinctively know what quarreling is because it is so common and effortlessly rises within each of us. A good argument is quite uncommon, and takes effort and training to produce.
The Latin roots of the words help with this distinction. Our word quarrel comes from the Latin querela which means a complaint, or plaintive sound. It is related to the Latin verb queror, which means “to complain or lament.” The adjective querulus means complaining, even warbling (think whining). From the querulus we get our word querulous meaning “full of complaints; peevish.”
Our word argument, on the other hand, comes from the Latin argumentum, which means “evidence, proof.” The related Latin verb arguere means primarily to prove and make known. The related adjective argutus means “clear, distinct, graceful.”
Can you see now why argument can be an art? It takes artistry to present ideas and evidence that are clear, distinct and graceful. To learn an art takes training and apprenticeship. But who will train our children in the art of argument, if we lack training ourselves?
Of course we could seek a suitable teacher for our children. Would it not be better though to find a teacher for both our children and us? We could learn with our children and gradually become a qualified teacher of dialectic ourselves. How could anyone argue with that?
Our brains are responsive, adaptable organs—more adaptable than we ever imagined. Our brains serve us like faithful dogs that want very much to please. If we read lots of great books and novels on paper, our brains become optimized for this behavior. If we spend seven hours per day before a computer screen and swiping our iPhones, our brains will optimize for this. What do you want your brain to do for you?
May Swenson crafted a beautiful poem, entitled “Question,” about the body , in which she calls her body “my horse, my hound,” and “my good, bright dog.” In the context of this essay, I think of my brain, too, as my horse and hound. Here is Swenson’s short poem:
by May Swenson
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
How will I hide?
Our brain is a critical part of our body—it might rightly be considered our horse, our mount, or our good, bright dog. Surely we should treat it well.
The scientific evidence is in, though I doubt most of us needed it to be convinced. If you spend several hours looking at a screen every day, you have become your own evidence.
You are not reading very much. You have not read a novel in a year. You don’t subscribe to paper magazines or journals; you read mostly online. You are not having sustained conversations about an important idea. When your phone is missing, you panic. As you retire to sleep, your last gesture is to check e-mail on your phone. You greet the new day in the morning by doing the same thing. You no longer think it unusual when others consult their phones during meals, popping in and out of the table conversation. In fact, you are beginning to do the same.
When the research tells us that our adult brains will adapt and “rewire” neural pathways to optimize a life of discursive screen surfing, we may raise an eyebrow, but must of us recognize that in some way we have indeed changed. Our eyebrows raise only because we thought it was simply a change in our habits and behavior—we didn’t know that our brains had changed.
“Reading long, literary sentences sans links and distractions is actually a serious skill that you lose if you don’t use it. Before the Internet, the brain read in a linear fashion, taking advantage of sensory details to remember where key information was in the book by layout.” –Rachel Grate, “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books, Mic.com, September 22, 2014
But they have. You changed your brain by surfing the Internet for five hours a day and wearing out the buttons on your smartphone. Now your brain has adapted for a life before a glowing screen. You will do better now in this new sleek and glassy life. But you will not read and think as you used to. Go ahead and try to read a book again. It will be hard. Your brain adapted to the screen. Why do you now want to read a printed novel?
“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.” –Claire Handscombe, as quoted in the Washington Post article “Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say” by Michael S. Rosenwald, April 6, 2014
By the way, you are also moodier than you once were, and more irritable. You are easily distracted, and in fact now generally want distraction. The thought of reading a short story or some poetry does still flutter through your mind, but it is always overcome by an unconscious movement of your hand for your phone and a swipe to check Facebook, e-mail, or the news. The fact is, you have a muscle–memory relationship with your phone. You find yourself stroking the glass of your phone throughout the day with no particular purpose in mind. You touch your phone the way you sweep back your hair, rub your eyes, or scratch an itch. To the people around, you are usually not “fully present,” but for the most part neither are they—and they certainly don’t seem to mind or care.
The irony is that you say you want to be an educated human being and seek to live the good life. You even research these matters online (and your phone is one of the primary channels of information about the good life). But you find it harder and harder to read anything like the dialogues of Plato or Dante and to have conversations with others about those things of which a good life consists. And now you hear that your brain is not the strong and helpful ally it once was. Yes, you have changed, and (no surprise) your brain has changed with you. You whistle for it like a shepherd for his sheepdog, but your brain does not leap before you, ready to run, gather, and herd. No, your brain is more like a house dog, domesticated by the screen. If it is going to run and work for you again—well, it will need to be retrained.
That is the good news in this otherwise sad narrative: Your brain is capable of retraining. It still is your faithful friend, eager to please, and will gladly follow you outside if you drop your phone and go for a brisk walk. The two of you may have to walk together before you run.
“A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle weresignificantly worse at rememberingthe order of events than those who read the same story in paperback.” –Rachel Grate
I grew up with an Old English Sheepdog named J. Edgar, our family’s good, bright dog. J. Edgar lived to be thirteen, growing old and hobbling about before he eventually died (a sad day indeed for our family). He never forgot how to herd and gather. Though he was a house dog, I am convinced that in his youth he could have been taken to a sheep farm and performed nobly after a season of training and discipline. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But an old dog can still do his old tricks, even if with less agility. Our brains are not old dogs. While they age, they remain remarkably adaptable and renewable. What is more—the more we read, the longer they remain young.
This, then, is the neurological gospel: Though you have wandered, you may come home to a welcome. Your brain will happily follow you back to the books, conversation, and contemplation. Like a house dog returning to the field, it will take a while to get in shape, a matter of weeks not days, or perhaps even a few months. For some of us, it may take a solid year, but we will find ourselves regaining strength week by week, month by month.
So here is to our brain—our remarkable horse and hound that helps us ride and hunt. Let us give it a happy home, nurtured, rested, fed, and exercised.
“Pediatricians often recommend parents routinely read aloud to their young children. Now, for the first time, researchers have hard evidence that doing so activates the parts of preschoolers’ brains that help with mental imagery and understanding narrative—both of which are key for the development of language and literacy.”
“Slow-reading advocates recommend at least 30 to 45 minutes of daily reading away from the distractions of modern technology. By doing so, the brain can reengage with linear reading. The benefits of making slow readinga regular habit are numerous, reducing stress and improving your ability to concentrate.” —Rachel Grate
“To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.” —Michael S. Rosenwald
“Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for ‘executive function,’ areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project.” —Corrie Goldman
“Reading from an iPad before bed not only makes it harder to fall asleep, but also impacts how sleepy and alert you are the next day, according to new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospitalin Boston, Massachusetts. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, said the findings could impact anyone who uses an eReader, laptop, smartphone, or certain TVs before bed.” —Damon Beres
“Bothparentsand clinicians may be ‘barking up the wrong tree.’ That is, they’re trying to treat whatlookslikea textbook case of mental disorder, but failing to rule out and address the most common environmental cause of such symptoms—everyday use of electronics. Time and again, I’ve realized that regardless of whether there exists any ‘true’ underlying diagnoses, successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics use for several weeks—an ‘electronics fast’—to allow the nervous system to ‘reset.’”
As I consult with classical school and homeschool communities, I find myself talking more and more about our five senses. This is because many in the classical education renewal are rediscovering the importance of embodiment. Our educational ideals (such as wisdom, virtue, and eloquence) need to be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt.
Please pardon this gross generalization: Since the Enlightenment, the life of intellect, learning, and education has become increasingly text centered. Now, I am a great advocate of texts, particularly the best texts, or the so-called great books. I think we should read much more of them and talk much more about them. I do think, however, that too much focus on texts makes for dull schools and dull students. Some will object. Should not the written word be central? Are we not under siege by all matter of inane video, images, and cacophony? Is not Christ called the Logos, elevating the “word” to the highest place?
Well, yes and no. The word and the text do deserve a privileged position, and yes, we are flooded with visual and sonic debris. Speech does set us above the animals and mark us as being made in the likeness of God. Christians acknowledge that God has spoken through Scripture and in these latter days through His Son—the divine Word.
Still, we should note well that Adam and Eve were placed in a garden and that the Word became flesh. Eve was able to see that the fruit was “a delight to the eyes” and “good for food.” Is it safe to assume that much of the garden (if not all of it) was also a delight to the eyes? We know that much there was delicious to eat.
Christians consider humans to be enfleshed souls, and that therefore the life of the body is delightful and good. In fact, as enfleshed souls, most Christians consider the body and soul (or mind) as two parts of one unified person. This means that our body is important for a life of the mind and vice versa.
I will refrain from a summary of the various positions of the body-mind or body-soul relationship in order to stress that despite some differences of opinion, we are enfleshed souls blessed with five senses that enable us to know, learn, serve, and love.
Why then do we pay so little attention to what will delight the eyes and ears? Hardly ever do we think about what we will smell, taste, and touch in our schools. Lesson plans and curricula are filled with references to what students will read (good so far, very good in fact) and what they will write and perhaps speak. But what about the senses?
Try this thought experiment: Imagine a lesson plan or curriculum that appeals exclusively to the sense of touch, smell, or taste. We are not sure what that would look like, for we must see everything. We could do much more with touch, smell, and taste, but we scarcely know where to begin. Probably, we would be wise to simply try to extend and deepen our engagement of sight and sound.
Try another thought experiment: Imagine going into a school for a day with a blindfold on. What would you hope to hear that would delight your ears? What sounds, what music, what laughter, what kind of conversations among teachers, students, parents? Is there any poetry? Are songs being sung, some of them spontaneously? What sounds are making you truly happy?
Imagine visiting a school, and this time you are unable to hear (via some very good earplugs). What do you see that delights your eyes? What countenances, what art, what light, what arrangement? Do you see smiles? Do you see animals? Is there a large, beautiful globe on wheels in a public space? Is the art displayed big or small, delightful or part of a mishmash of visual clutter? How are the children dressed? What are they doing with their bodies that indicates their own revelry and joy?
I recommend a five-sense inventory. What does each of your senses tell you about your school or homeschool? What delights? What would you love to see, hear, smell, taste and touch? What would embody your learning ideals?
I think we need to think creatively in how we embody our ideals and not merely talk about them, and I hope taking an inventory might help. I note these sad facts: Most schools (often due to circumstances they cannot control) are ugly. By this I mean “normal.” In comparison to other institutions, our schools more than any others resemble the layout and organization of a prison—casement windows that do not open, polished cement floors, heavy doors, long hallways, industrial fluorescent lights, buzzers, and keys. Visually, the classrooms are a clutter of calendars, class rules, number lines, word walls, maps (always too small to use), art prints (always too small to see from the middle of the room and usually unrelated either to each other or to any class theme), and the standard, obligatory class globe (always kept on a shelf like a knickknack because it is too small to use, but cheap enough to buy for display). The room is brightly lit by cheap overhead fluorescent lights.
I acknowledge this situation has something to do with money. We have a habit of doing schools cheaply, and we call this good stewardship. But we generally buy the best home we can afford. What if we thought of schools more like the way we think of homes? What if we confessed that beauty is just as important as truth (in fact wed to it) so we do all we could (with the resources God gives) to make our schools like lovely homes? This does not mean tearing down and rebuilding with marble and mahogany. Many teachers live in modest homes that they have made beautiful. We could, if we put our minds to it, beautify our schools in various ways. I think our difficulty is largely a problem of mind-set. Classical educators have majored in truth, and minored in beauty, if they have studied it at all.
If I sound severe, know that I am being severe with myself. Know as well that our aesthetic anemia is a culture-wide problem, and we are more or less being carried along by the contemporary cultural tide.
Let me close with a high note. There are schools (and countless homeschools) that are making their schools beautiful. The Ambrose School in Boise, Idaho, had the opportunity to build a school over five years ago. The school leadership thought deeply about how to embody the classical ideals of education in its architecture, painting, layout (they built the school around a two-story library), lighting, and furniture. When you enter The Ambrose School, you meet a cathedral ceiling and then look up to see the second floor of the library. Immediately to your left is a coffee shop/café run by the school, with granite counters, leather couches, and large replicas of classical art. You can take a look at the school here: theambroseschool.org/about/the-facility/.
There are many other schools that I could cite who have labored to create beautiful buildings: the Veritas School in Richmond, the Regents School of Austin, the new building coming for Immanuel Lutheran School in Alexandria. Many others, however, with modest funds, have worked to make what they have beautiful.
Why not take the five-sense inventory and note what your entire body “sees.”
Here is 10 minute video in which I discuss the five-sense inventory:
Christopher Perrin, PhD, is the publisher with Classical Academic Press, and a national leader, author, and speaker for the renewal of classical education. He serves as a consultant to classical charter schools, classical Christian schools, schools converting to the classical model, and homeschool co-ops. He is the director of the Alcuin Fellowship, former co-chair of the Society for Classical Learning, and previously served as a classical school headmaster for ten years. Click here to learn more!
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