(Archive: July 20-September 25, 2017)
This year, we have added a new activity to the agenda of our weekly staff meetings. Singing. It has been a beautiful addition and that is not because we are singing all that well. Trust me, we have some room for improvement. Singing is an activity where G.K. Chesterton was right when he said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." In his article "Beyond a Joy of Music", classical Christian educator Jarrod Richey says, "Music education must again come to mean doing music and not simply knowing about it." As teachers and leaders of our children, we realize that expecting our children to do music can only happen if we are expecting it of ourselves. We yearn to be a school distinguished by its commitment to cultivating the truth, goodness, and beauty of the arts in our children. This passion must begin in our own hearts and will then overflow into our classrooms and into the hearts of our children. We are continuing to develop a vision and plan for initiatives that will further enhance the fine arts at Stonehaven. But we, as parents and teachers, need not wait for these plans to get busy demonstrating a love for singing to our own children. Richey concludes saying, "Don't be content with simply their joy of music in its hearing. But do your best to see that they possess the ability to consciously create and recreate music to the glory of God as a resounding testament of this faithfulness from age to age."
An enviable characteristic in young children is their delight in repetition. "Do it again!" is a phrase uttered often by our children. My two-year-old Ruby never grows tired of a game of hide-and-seek with her Dad. "Again! Again!" she pleads. Her laughter and glee when I find her not so good hiding spot is just as effusive on the tenth game as it was on the first. At some point this week, I will join the students on the playground to play freeze tag. A game we have played dozens of times and yet, they still enjoy it as if it were the first time. This repeated exercise usually begins with me saying, "Hey, I got an idea... let's play a game called freeze tag!" They respond the same way every time... "Yay!!!" G.K. Chesterton describes it well, "Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon." A good education will be repetitive. A good education will train our children to "exult in monotony." A good education finds a way to make the "ordinary" things of this world extraordinary. We want our children to never cease to wonder at the marvels of God's creation even if it happens every morning.
I often envy the reactions that my children have to the things that I find normal. Sunsets, dandelions, and frogs cause their eyes to widen and their mouths to open. Their expressions translate to, "Do you see that Daddy? Isn't that amazing?" Isn't it sad that adults grow tired of the same thing and always want change? The challenge for us adults is to see God's creation through the eyes of a three-year-old child. We will be genuinely excited to see the sun rise every morning or to watch the leaves fall every October. If we are to imitate God, then we will seek to "exult in monotony." Chesterton adds, "It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we." This exultation will be a delight for our children and inspire them to love the consistency and repetitive nature of God's creation.
For those watching the news of Hurricane Irma the last few days, governmental officials and the media repeatedly made a desperate plea that citizens evacuate the Southern Florida region. Every few minutes, an appeal was made by either a city mayor, the Florida governor, a meteorologist, or a news reporter... "Please evacuate, this storm is for real. Get out now." The logic for evacuation included threatening facts related to the devastating winds, power outages, and the deadly storm surge. The pleas were made thinking that the citizens simply needed the facts of potential destruction to make the wise choice. Possibly, a better approach to encourage action from reluctant citizens would've been the use of storytelling. The telling of powerful stories is often more effective at moving others to action. Writer for The Atlantic, Cody C. Delistraty, writes about this in his article "The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling." He says, "that if I tell you a story about how to survive, you'll be more likely to actually survive than if I just give you facts. For instance, if I were to say, 'There's an animal near that tree, so don't go over there,' it would not be as effective as if I were to tell you, 'My cousin was eaten by a malicious, scary creature that lurks around that tree, so don't go over there.'" Who in their right mind would go close to that tree?
I watched a good bit of Hurricane coverage this past weekend. The most memorable footage I saw was a story of Snappers restaurant in Key Largo. CNN reporter Mike Weir was surveying the damage on Sunday and ran across the demolished restaurant where he had reported from just days before the storm. Standing in front of the ruined restaurant, he said, "I'm going to show you something that has shaken me unlike anything I have seen in 25 years of reporting and eight other hurricanes. On Thursday night, I stood right here..." He goes on to tell the story of interviewing a group of the locals that intended on staying put through the storm. Why did this particular scene of devastation affect him in such a strong way? It wasn't the facts of the situation alone. Surely he had witnessed many other scenes of equal destruction. If he had come across this scene without having visited the restaurant days before, it would've simply been one of the many casualties of the hurricane. The scene of devastation was a story for him... "Just a few days ago I was standing here talking with these great people." He likely began to wonder if all those people had survived the storm. Stanford professor of marketing, Jennifer Aaker, found that "people remember information when it is weaved into narratives 'up to 22 times more than facts alone.'" Watching Weir tell the story of his interaction with the owner and people of the restaurant communicates the devastation of the storm in a way that facts can not.
What does this have to do with education? Stories can be used as cautionary tales for our children. Don't think hurricanes are that dangerous? Let me tell you the story of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. They can also be a powerful tool helping compel our children towards living a life of goodness and love. We might tell the story of the Beauty and the Beast to encourage sacrifice in our children. For an older child, The Count of Monte Cristo helps a child understand the value of forgiveness. More important than the stories we find in great literature would be the personal stories of a family or community. We all have a treasure house of stories from our respective families. Some of these stories are "don't do it like this" stories and others are "follow these Godly examples" stories. Let us be busy with the telling of good stories to help instruct our children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). They love it and they need it. Delistraty says that we connect with stories because we "want to be a part of a shared history." When we hear stories we seek to make connections with our own lives and experiences. We yearn to be like the heroine and to follow their example. Christian parents and teachers are doing an important thing when they share good and beautiful stories with their children.
The value of poetry seems to create an internal struggle in the modern mind. We know deep down it is good and beautiful but we can't help but find it at least a little unnecessary. At worst, it is seen as a complete waste of time. We justify this neglect saying, "You seriously think I have the time to read poetry! I'd love to sit around with a cup of tea and read some William Wordsworth or Maya Angelou but I have more pressing things to do." In her New York Times article Memorize that Poem!, University of North Carolina history professor Molly Worthen, makes a case for the value in memorizing and reciting poetry. She says, "The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act." A 1902 handbook for teaching English recognized that reciting poetry, "stocked the mind with the priceless treasure of the noblest thoughts and feelings." Is this not what we want for our children? Are we not desiring our children to be contemplating the "noblest thoughts and feelings" of history? Edgar Allen Poe said, "I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of Beauty." If a person owned an original Rembrandt painting, I would expect the painting to be displayed prominently for others to enjoy. We have beautiful word paintings no further than our bookshelves and yet we too often fail to share them with our children. Unfortunately, schools have followed our utilitarian culture and often neglect the teaching of poetry in the classroom. Classical education is serious about cultivating a love for words in our children. What better way to ignite a passion for words than meditating upon the most beautiful expressions of humanity? Worthen concludes, "It's time we show we care about words again, to rebuild our connection to a civilization so much broader than our Twitter feeds."
In August 2016, southern Louisiana experienced a flood of epic proportions. Many parishes in the area were inundated with rainfall up to 2-3 inches per hour and more than 20 inches total. The rivers in the area quickly reached record heights causing extensive flooding and massive destruction to homes and businesses. Author Rod Dreher, a resident of Baton Rouge, begins his book The Benedict Option with a vivid description of this event. He compares the floods to the "spiritual crisis overtaking the West... We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood." He believes that, "The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization... This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it." Dreher notes that most people in Southern Louisiana were caught off guard by the floodwaters of 2016 and he wonders if the Christian world is similarly unprepared for the coming flood of unbelief. Personally, I want to be careful to adopt "the sky is falling!" hysteria that can be found in various Christian circles. However, I don't want to be naive towards the clear downward trajectory of our culture. The influence of Christianity in the public square is diminishing at an increasingly rapid rate. It is hard to deny that the current political landscape is a moral wasteland. The majority of schools in our country are controlled by individuals possessing beliefs antithetical to orthodox Christianity. Dreher emphasizes in his book that the threat is not only "across the street" but also exists inside the Christian church as well. He says, "The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves."
What does Dreher believe Christians ought to do in response to this spiritual crisis? In his book, he seeks to describe a vision for what he calls "The Benedict Option." He believes that Christians need to work collectively, thoughtfully, and intentionally to build cohesive communities of faith where a Christian way of living can be preserved. He says, "Surviving this new age of darkness might call for the construction of local forms of community, where a realist approach to morality lives on." In his view, the focus of our Christian efforts should first and foremost be within the walls of our own community; building families, churches, and educational institutions consistent with historic Christianity. Dreher devotes a chapter of the book to the role classical Christian schools can play in building these communities of faith. He believes classical Christian schools present a unique educational option where Christian families can fully trust that their children are being taught Biblical truth consistent with the teaching in their churches and homes. Amidst a crumbling society, I find excitement as I stand beside the families at Stonehaven and work with them to faithfully build, one little brick at a time, a counter-cultural community of faith here in Marietta.
In his article, The Humanities in a Technological Society, Professor John Paul Russo discusses the threat posed by a culture overly dependent and immersed in technology. "In countless ways human rhythms have succumbed to technological rhythms." A critical question to be asking ourselves when discussing the impact of technology is, "What is the danger of using this technology?" Email is an incredibly convenient tool capable of simplifying our lives. But, what might it replace? How might it change the way we interact with others? Is it not a threat to human relationships? Russo asks the right questions, "what earlier forms of communication did such technological overkill replace: the photocopier, the typewritten letter, the hand-written letter... the handshake? Face-to-face contact has been replaced by face-to-machine contact." Russo believes that the thoughtless adoption of any and every technology has "smothered the humanities" and destroyed what was once a literary culture. "Diction, tone, figures of speech, metaphor, subtler forms of syntax, connotation and etymology, sound and rhythm, all the arts of language developed over the centuries to express intricate thought and emotional depth get ironed out and suppressed. Technological society has no need of them, or finds such literary strategies to be adversarial." A primary goal of a Stonehaven education is to cultivate a love of language in our children. This is why we love great books. This is why we teach Latin. This is why we teach Logic. This is why we spend so much time training our children to write. It takes focused discipline to resist the relentless push for using any and all technologies. Russo believes that if we lose a commitment to literary language, "we will lose an attachment to culture, 'for culture has to rest on the specificity of a language.' When languages become obsolete, the cultures they enshrine will become obsolete with them."
On April 30, 2008, magician David Blaine would perform a remarkable feat by entering an aquatic orb and holding his breath for 17 minutes and 4 seconds. Although Blaine has accomplished many impressive feats of both physical and mental endurance, he says that the breath holding stunt was, "the most amazing journey of my life."
I find his "journey" to April 30 to be highly instructive for the world of education. His first objective in the effort was a deep study of the art of holding one's breath. He studied the experience of pearl divers who had trained their bodies to go underwater for four minutes on one breath. Next, he researched the world of freediving where divers rely on their ability to hold their breath rather than using scuba gear. He learned strategies to maintain high levels of oxygen and others to help rid the body of CO2. He met with neurosurgeons, divers, and other experts in the field. After researching and studying how to hold his breath, he then devoted himself to a rigorous training program. For months, every morning, Blaine would wake up and perform a routine where he would use a breathing technique to "purge" his body of CO2 and then hold his breath for five and half minutes. After this, he would purge his body again for one minute and then hold his breath for another five and half minutes. He would repeat this for 52 minutes. Of the total 52 minutes, he would be holding his breath for 44 of those minutes. He also dropped 50 pounds to better prepare his body for the effort. After only four months of training, he was able to hold his breath for seven minutes. Another aspect of his training was to lower his resting heart-rate from the normal rate of 60-100 beats per minute. With concentrated practice, Blaine was able to get his resting heart-rate down to 38 beats per minute. After years of training, he was then ready to break the world record.
What can we learn from Blaine's experience? I think he provides a helpful picture for the process required to accomplish great things. The first step in Blaine's journey was his acquiring a passion to hold his breath for an extended period of time. Second, he entered into a period of focused study and research on the subject. Third, he pursued a season of intense training to prepare him for greatness. It boiled down to three things; passion, study, and hard work.
There are two takeaways I want to highlight for the world of education. First, educators too often seek to gain the last two pieces, study and hard work, without first igniting the intellectual passion in a child. The thing that initiated the entire process for Blaine was his burning desire to learn how to hold his breath for a long time. He said that when he was young he "was obsessed with Houdini and his underwater challenges." If we want our children to accomplish great things in school we will want to get busy stirring up the academic curiosity and passions in our children. As some smart person once said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
The second takeaway is recognizing that it took what has been termed deliberate practice to achieve greatness. If we really want to improve and master something it will require a type of intense practice that focuses on the most difficult and challenging aspects of what we seek to master. In his book Moonwalking with Einsten, Joshua Foer says, "What separates the experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine... Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces." This type of training is how we cultivate our best performance. David Blaine concludes well saying, "It's practice, it's training, and experimenting... while pushing through the pain to be the best that I can be. That's what magic is to me."
Classical Christian educators like to say that our approach to education is an effort to teach "with the grain" of a child. What exactly do we mean by this? When defining classical Christian education, it is tempting to think first of a particular curriculum or unique subjects like Latin, logic, or rhetoric. Such definitions limit the grand scope and vision of classical education. In his article What Classical Education is Not, classical Christian educator Jeremy Wagner says, "It is better understood as the practice of educating in harmony with the nature of things-what we commonly call reality." It is working with the nature of a child to help them understand and love the nature of God's world. It can't be reduced to a systematic checklist of curriculum objectives. One of the errors in the common core approach to education is the idea that if a child can simply check the boxes on a long list of academic objectives, then a child is educated. An education that denies the existence of God will struggle to teach "in harmony with the nature of things." Teaching with the grain of a child is accomplished when we understand deeply, "the nature of the child, the nature of the art being taught, and the nature and form of learning itself." This is the power and beauty of the classical Christian approach. Wagner concludes saying, "To teach classically is to teach in accordance with reality. To do otherwise is to disregard, or actively to struggle against, nature and its Creator, and such hubris always ends in futility. How foolish it is when a man tries to cut against the grain! But how good it is to work in harmony with the created order."
I don't remember the names of many of the teachers from my high school but I find it interesting that one of the names I remember was a teacher that I never had: Mr. Lockerbie. Why do I remember his name even though I never spent a minute in his classroom? Mr. Lockerbie taught history and possessed a formidable and intimidating reputation. This reputation was not gained through fear but rather by his expectation of excellence from every child. He was a phenomenal teacher, capable of inspiring the demanding effort necessary for his students to produce their best work. The reason I never experienced his class was because of my desire to avoid the more difficult class. I had a choice and I chose the "easy" teacher. To this day, I still cringe to think that I missed out on this unique learning opportunity. Unfortunately, I did not have a passion to learn as a 17-year-old young man. In a classical Christian school, we seek to help our children choose the true and beautiful way even when it might be more difficult. We live in a society that wants success but is unwilling to perform the difficult learning necessary for that success. Psychologist Carol Dweck argues that our nation must cultivate "'a nation of learners' - a nation of people who seek challenging tasks, know how to wrestle them into shape, and know how to see them through. Right now the U.S. is not a nation of learners. People want to learn, but they underestimate what they can do." A school is one of the primary places where we must equip our children with both a desire to learn but also an expectation that they can learn difficult things. Classical education is not classical if it is easy.
As many of us have learned, participation in the resurgence of classical Christian education is a dangerous commitment. It is not easy being among the pioneers of a school movement that is starting from the ground up. One of these pioneers, pastor Doug Wilson, says, "There are not many who could build a first-rate classical Christian school out of baling wire, used garbage bags, mathematically impossible tuition rates, and old grapefruit rinds. But, glory to God, you did it." Developing an excellent school will require extraordinary sacrifice, energy, and effort from teachers, parents, board members, and even the children themselves. There are many school options with more resources, money, buildings, and programs. Why spend money for a classical Christian education? Classical Christian educator Matt Whitling answers this question well saying, "Raising kids is a timed event with eternal consequences, so God says 'okay, on your mark, get set, go!'" The Stonehaven School exists to provide our children with the best possible Christ-centered education we can with the talents and resources He has provided. Wilson says, "I wanted my children to have the education I didn't have." Many of us have had this same thought when encountered with the beautiful vision of classical Christian education. "Where was this school when I was young?" I can't promise you that this coming year will be easy... but I can promise it will be good (Romans 8:28). We are engaging in an activity and movement that will have eternal consequences both for our children and generations to come. The Association for Classical Christian Schools created a video called Geronimo, Amen to celebrate these humble beginnings. I would encourage you to watch the trailer for this video to learn about the history of classical Christian schools like Stonehaven.