by Brian G. Daigle
MY DEAR WORMWOOD,
I’m always surprised by your lack of faith in human error. Or perhaps this is your lack of faith in our Father below. It’s as if with each turn of your patient, you anticipate how this may play in the Enemy’s favor and not our own. Your latest anxiety is a classic case. So your patient has become a teacher at a classical Christian school. While some of my colleagues down here may follow your example and expect me to bemoan this turn of misfortune, I would like to say that this could be one of those unexpected turns of fortune, for there is no current educational institution which shows higher promise than a classical Christian school. With your effort to create a few small cracks, the whole thing could burst into oblivion, at least for some individuals. And as you know, it is after all the individual over whom we have any power, so that is where we must do our work.
Your patient has joined a Christian community, and as I told you in a previous letter, if you remember, that a Christian community is fertile ground for our planting and reaping, if only our work takes effect in those individuals. Have you forgotten, my dear student? A Christian community is one of our greatest allies. Your patient only needs to create a great caricature of each of his Christian colleagues, one which they can never live up to, and he needs to always be discontent between his dreaming aspirations and the laborious doing. And let him never see himself more wretched than the person next to him, for that would afford the Enemy real ground. All this is as true in a Church as it is in a Christian school. But this situation of yours, while it is similar to your patient while he is in the pew, it has some specific differences when he is in the hallway. There are several things playing in our favor at this time, and you must take advantage of this present opportunity, however small the successes may appear.
The first opportunity is within your patient himself. Intelligent and well-meaning Christians begin teaching at a classical Christian school and often have high and unrealistic expectations for the caliber of students, the perfection of the faculty, and the maturity of the parents. These ignorant educators are men and women who love their academic subjects, and when others are less motivated or less capable, the teacher may grow cold to their students, lacking their own maturity to do the work required to truly educate. Start by keeping from their minds the true meaning of education, something far from any modern mind; that will be all the better for you. Then, if you can capture your patient’s imagination at the first sign of disappointment, you may be able to settle into him the burdened soil of regret and discontentment. The slightest disappointment in your patient’s expectations could be but the first signs of a great snowball of frustration, bitterness, and eventual resolve to no longer work among such scum. Soon enough, if your patient is willing to talk to others, and many of the Enemy’s followers will indeed disguise their gossip as prayer requests, the city will be buzzing, not with real criticisms and assessments of the school, but with second and third-hand conjectures. And these have always proven to play well into our purposes, for there is nothing easier to twist than the mind of a man who is unwilling to find out and solve a problem for himself.
The next opportunity is also within your patient. Do you see the standard these schools set for their curricula? How many of those teachers have been well educated in the same? How many of those parents who send their children to the school have also been educated this way? There is ripe ground here for insecurities, pride, and misunderstandings. Your patient knows but a few years more than his own students, and the more he knows, the more he will realize he doesn’t know. The Enemy may certainly turn this toward that virtue they call humility, and that could be disastrous for us; it could become like fuel to the fire of learning and what our Enemy calls love. But it could also turn elsewhere, and that is your job. Look for every opportunity to highlight your patient’s insecurities and hidden sins, and make him think the whole world strictly defines and interacts with him as such. The slightest glance from a colleague or a brief word from a parent could trigger all this doubt. Do not let him see the school as a place for his own maturity. Again, that could breed the other virtue they call gratitude. Do all you can for him to see it as his ministry to those who are inferior to him, and in that way you will build in him the virtue we call pride. A man has never found his home with us until pride has first found a home in him.
The other thing playing in our favor is not within the patient but outside him. We have had many successes leading up to this present era. Do I need to remind you of those greater victories? Judas himself walked with the one they call Christ, and that great ancient teacher Prodit turned him to our will. I am sure we will have many more successes to come. You must see your patient in that long line of our Father’s victories more than your patient sees himself in that long line of saints. In the present era, our mounting victories are all around these schools. On a daily basis I receive letters from our fellow colleagues that yet another college and university, yet another family, yet another church, yet another coffee company has claimed for our Father below more territory. These victories are the fruit of the ideas and implications set in motion decades ago. We currently have the high ground; their art is evidence enough. These foolish schools and churches who are attempting to form their students and teachers to the contrary have more work than they realize. It is in our favor that every truth they teach will likely fall amid a grand scaffolding contrary to the Enemy’s likeness. What these students hear once at school, they hear and see the contrary thirty times at home, in the mall, at church, and on their radio. If we can overwhelm your patient with his work, taking away the joy of the burden, then all the faster will he quit his present labors.
I do not know when I can write to you again. My days are increasingly more filled with requests for how to manage the growing number of patients in our care. Particularly in the place they call America, where I believe your patient is, there is a growing commitment to our Father. And so I must call to your attention that it is in this same place where your patient’s schools are thriving. While you are aware that we do not know the Enemy’s next move, this cannot be a coincidence. We must take every sign and seed as a threat to our work, and that means we cannot be surprised that if you are not successful in the aforementioned opportunities, we will lose even more ground,
Your affectionate uncle
By Brian G. Daigle
“What is one question from the introduction you should be able to answer if you see it on your exam?” I ask.
“Um,” the student begins.
“No Um,” I say. “Next student.”
A hand rises.
“Um,” the second student begins.
“Ums and likes belong at home. Bring them here and I’ll make them roam,” I say.
The class giggles.
I move on until we get to cleaner waters, where um cannot be found.
This scene happens approximately ten times per class period, in any one of my 7th-12th grade classes at Sequitur Classical Academy. And the same is true in colleges and universities. My response is the same every time. Our students enter upon the rhetoric stage one sentence at a time, and they will mature on that stage one sentence at a time. Even in college - especially when the students in our college classrooms did not take a formal course in classical rhetoric or were not steeped in the Latin tradition or were not set in the midst of poets, novelists, and scholars who had a high view and practice of language - it is incumbent upon us to continue the maturation of what we in classical Christian education call the "rhetoric stage." In making it part of the classroom habit to catch and do away with my students’ rhetorical splinters - and that includes my own rhetorical splinters, the “um” and the “like” and the “ya know” - I have noticed five good habits are being formed in them:
by Brian G. Daigle
Heaven and hell are at our fingertips, flowing from our fingertips, and captured in the very sights and sounds with which we are daily surrounded. But we do not see it this way. And ever since our spiritual imaginations have left education, we most certainly don’t think this could be the case in our classrooms, where, perhaps like an operating room, things have been sterilized of the spiritual, washed of the mysterious. Like the World’s Largest Prairie Dog in Kansas, heaven and hell always seem 500 miles down the road. We think, “The students will deal with the eternal when they get there, upon death. That’s God’s business.” But spiritual forces are not so relegated. Heaven and hell are at every moment breaking into our world, as if there was something immensely important and eternal about our daily lives. This is seen in the classroom, if only we had eyes to see.
I have come to believe there are two attributes which are most prominent in hell: narcissism and bedlam. This is the case because there are two attributes which are most prominent in heaven: selflessness and rest. As I visit schools, whether or not they are classical, Christian, or otherwise, I have come to see that teachers either make a heaven or hell of a classroom. The classroom is either a place of narcissism and disorder, or a place of selflessness and rest. The test for knowing the difference is based on three questions:
What do you expect of the students?
With what do you surround the students?
What do you want for your colleagues?
What do you expect of the students?
It is as disturbingly entrenched as any other idea that our students are in school to find themselves, express themselves, and esteem themselves. That education is centered upon the individual, their discovery of themselves, and their fidelity to themselves. From pre-school to college, this is the command: love yourself with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor for yourself. This is what the world expects of our children, and this is what we, being enchanted by the world, have come to expect of our children. These are the phrases with which we are equipped, and this is the parental and educational posture we, even as Christians, have come to hold. It’s hard to break the mold. But classical Christian education does. “I am not concerned,” I tell my students, “with you expressing yourself. I would quite like to see us express ourselves less, unless we have first determined what within us is worth expressing and how and when it is best expressed. What we want is that you come to express the truth beautifully.” This means in their writing, their art, in their conduct, in their speech, in the order of their wills, and in the ordering of their uniforms and binders. Express yourself above all things was granted to one man. Jesus the Christ. To implore and applaud our students to express themselves is to make one hell of a classroom.
With what do you surround the students?
One of the surest signs of a healthy school is what they teach their teachers concerning classroom décor. There are few more subtle and yet more sure ways of checking the health of a classroom than looking at what gets put on the walls and on our bodies. If hell is characterized by narcissism and bedlam, then consider how closely our classroom walls and curricula reflect the same. Because the great modern montra is love yourself and express yourself, we therefore lay that over the physical space of the classroom, and it is reflected in the art we choose, in the music we choose, in what the teachers wear to teach, in uniforms, and in classroom procedures. Baby boys indeed mature into men precisely because they are not stuck in a room of mirrors. They learn to speak because they are surrounded by more than their own babble. We moderns are perpetual babes, because our classrooms, like hell, are nothing more than a room of mirrors, a repeat track of visual, intellectual, and spiritual babble, where students may see themselves, and nothing greater, at every turn. And they are delighted, but for a moment. They glory in themselves and are confused when deep dissatisfaction, self-doubt, and self-criticism arise. We fashion a world in our image, and we wonder why we are left unsatisfied by the world.
By contrast, the classical Christian tradition takes students outside themselves so that they may more fully understand themselves. This is a paradox of Christianity: know God, who is most unlike you, and you will know thyself in greater measure. The classical Christian tradition places before our students higher language, higher art, higher thoughts, and higher goals. And all of these not fashioned after the image of the student. One of the greatest arguments leveled against the classical tradition is perhaps one of the greatest arguments for it: “But aren’t these authors and languages so far removed from our students’ lives?” Precisely. And yet not at all. Turn the student’s attributes outward onto the classroom walls, let loose the student’s individualism in the classroom practices, procedures, and portraits, and you will have one hell of a classroom.
What do you want for your colleagues?
By not fashioning the classroom in our students’ image, we may think we should therefore fashion it in the teacher’s image. But this would be just as detrimental of a mistake. Neither the teacher nor the student is the classroom’s image-bearer. Given the teacher is the authority in the classroom, set as the leader, the classroom will inevitably reflect the teacher, as it will to some degree reflect the students, but this should not be the teacher’s aim, for this would still place something far too shallow, far too small before our students’ imaginations, for their imitation and pursuit. So what do we want most for our colleagues: to get through the school year having grown in wisdom and holiness or to get through the school year having entered all the grades with as little adversity, as little conflict, and few opportunities for growth? Do we want a classroom and a school year made in the image of the teacher or in Christ’s image?
Today’s colleges and universities, given their deep confusion concerning liberty and law, crank out teachers who are either tyrannical or timorous. This is the safeguard of the classics, especially in literature. In both humility and confidence, the classical Christian educator approaches, along with his students, something bigger than any of us, something older, wiser, more fulfilling, and worthy of imitation. Without the teacher losing sight of the authority God has given them, they sit with their students, in the fullness of their mutual humanity, and consider how God has fashioned the world, how God has told, is telling, and will tell his story. But we moderns, quite to our detriment, require pages of lesson plans, innovation and ingenuity at every turn, a curriculum and pedagogy made in the image of the teacher. And so we go. Turn the classroom into the teacher’s concert hall, made in the image of the instructor, and you will have one hell of a classroom.
There are times when man may be going to hell in a handbasket. And there are still more common and respectable times when man is headed to hell in a classroom. Indeed, if we continue on our educational trajectory as a people, we will one day have one hell of a nation, if we are not already there.