Thursday, March 17, 2005

On Teaching From a Classical Christian Perspective (Thomas G. Wilkes, M.A.)

My experience as a teacher, coach and department head in different regions of the country has been varied, as has my experience of students. I have seen what works, and what doesn't, and I am seasoned enough to know the virtue of being flexible, and to understand that teaching is not the application of a system, but an exercise in perpetual discretion . . . I have also had the good fortune to teach students of varying age and ability. I have taught both regular and honors classes in history and English literature, and have had Latin students ranging from very bright to learning-disabled. I suppose that I have never been more at home than when sitting down as a dormitory parent, as I have, with a particular freckle-faced student with dysgraphia, the mahogany stability of my table lending self-assurance to his grasp of the pluperfect tense.

I have cherished that side of teaching, and it has taught me that patience is a quality proverbially required of good teaching. A student may struggle, but what I most love is the kid who arrives with a smile and a willingness to try. Attitude is far more important than brains. Yet, I have also "taught" genius; I'm thinking of a fubsy little fellow, age ten, in my Latin class at Saint Mary's Hall, his physical and emotional development being light-years behind that of his classmates, his own immediate grasp of the pluperfect invariably punctuated with outbursts like ". . . but how did they build the Trojan horse, Mr. Wilkes?" I remember him as my brightest student, and curiously, as my most compassionate, always wanting to help his classmates with adolescent problems of which he had so little experience. That memory of youthful innocence is important to me.

Older students so easily become disillusioned and turn to cynicism, but, I combat the cynicism by knowing the child inside the adolescent. I tell them stories. Thus, I find that what has made all the difference for me is that I do bring so many books, original readings and authors, into my classroom. My hope is always to cultivate among students a simple love of books, and by engaging them in conversation with the nobility of ideas, to teach them to hold high expectations for themselves. To teach history, for example, is to teach the most chaotic, impassioned, heroic, colorful, and inspiring panorama imaginable . . . if one can get beyond the lifelessness of the typical textbook.

History shouldn't be "studied"; it should be read. The actual deeds of real men, colored with the feeling and opinion of first-hand accounts, are far more interesting than their supposed causes and effects. Whether by reading, to Latin students, Livy's account of Hannibal crossing the Alps, or by sharing with them a demonstratively lyrical passage from Virgil, whether by having students of history view Philip of Macedon through the eyes of Demosthenes, or by opening their eyes with Dante to a Medieval view of the night sky, not looking out at spaces cold and silent but looking in, toward Heaven, bright and resonant, or whether by simply teaching students of literature just why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, I have surely accomplished something. I am always hoping to enable students by the light of what men once have been to dimly perceive what they should themselves become. . . ___________________________________________________________________________

I can share a few thoughts, here, about what I believe to be a teacher's responsibility. It is certainly important for any teacher to take seriously the mission statement of the school by which he is employed . . . As a teacher, I recognize the necessity to take seriously all that is authoritative, and to the extent that I take responsibility for students in my care, to know that I am merely a participant in the common good of the community. Living among others, understanding their weaknesses with patience and humility, sympathizing with their needs, are merely different aspects of loving God, different aspects of teaching. Teachers are not priests; there is a difference. They may promote a healthy skepticism, and they know that it is better for a student to come to hold an opinion as true out of knowledge and thoughtful judgement, which is difficult, than merely to believe what he has been told, which is easy. But, they, too, are the servi servorum Dei, and in their pursuit of truth they must see themselves as such.

No man is an island, trusting only an inner voice, feelings, passions. His freedom lies in obedience to authority, and to the love of God . . . A good teacher knows that education is ultimately individual, not collective, that the formation of character is about the education of souls, a matter of reaching into hearts as well as minds. In a world as busy as is ours, it is sometimes a real challenge for any teacher to convey transcendent values to young people, to get one student to show concern for another, or to learn to ignore fads, peer pressure, to search the world around him for what is beautiful, to discern truth from falsehood, to look within himself, perhaps to catch a hint of sacramental mystery, now and then, in his understanding of the world. And yet, sometimes, it is just a matter of lingering a little longer on a particular topic, or of coaxing him to see the world through another's eyes, or perhaps, of looking no further than the nearest mirror for the glimpse of a miracle, and thus, we succeed.

I have spoken to the importance of community, but I note that these latter sentiments are all pro-active, as was Mary herself from the moment of Christ's conception; she immediately traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth with the Good News, and it is with a smile that I think of her always as doing, loving, moving. Mary is not a static figure. And this, too, I see as a good and constant lesson for a teacher to impart, and for students to learn, either explicitly, or in the countless little everyday exchanges between them. __________________________________________________________________________

Computers are a challenge, not in knowing how to use them, or in getting kids to use them, but in using them properly. Students have taken to "word processing" with amazing gusto, but are they always writing as well as they might if they weren't "processing" their words? It is so easy to flip those words around, now. Perhaps, too easy. But, I suppose penmanship was a lost art anyway. And, who needs to proof-read, anymore? We have "Spell-check"!

Well, that's fine, unless you are a particular student of my acquaintance who a couple of years ago decided to submit a long term paper which, repeatedly, for some twenty pages, provided me with many valuable insights into the Viking worriers. I had never known that the Vikings worried so much, but apparently, they were great worriers for a long, long time. And, then, there was that other student who learned how to sneak extra spacing into his lines, fonts and margins; a four page paper can become five in a matter of seconds!

William Kilpatrick was right when he said in his book Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong that students need to be continually persuaded to be honest about their work. That, too, is a challenge. I suppose the ultimate dilemma will be the use of the Internet for research. I encourage it, but only when a student knows his way around the library, and many don't. If it does make research more fun, does it make the use of reference books that much less palatable? And, as a student begins to travel the globe via the Internet gathering all the information the world can provide, will he know what to do with it? To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, where is the wisdom in knowledge, where is the knowledge in mere information? I would worry about it, but then, I'm not a Viking.
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There is a short quotation which I once typed out and kept facing me, taped to a podium in my classroom, a simple Latin transcription from the words of St. Augustine: "Ad sapientiam pertinet aeternarum rerum cognitio intellectualis," which I translate, "To wisdom belongs the apprehension of eternal things." It was my way of keeping things in perspective, and reminding myself that a teacher has the ability, and perhaps the responsibility, of imparting that which is conducive to the intellectual vision of the good.

Plato saw this, but to Aristotle, too, the purpose of education was simple: to make a student like and dislike what he ought. A teacher who is at all religious, or who is Christian, understands the subtle meaning of that word, "ought," and tries to transmit to his students that same understanding. He does not proselytize to his students, but he does take an active interest in the direction in which their own thinking is taking them. And for me, the direction in which I want them to look is upward, to be inspired, uplifted out of themselves, to catch the hint of an explanation of what life is really all about.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that the pursuit of knowledge was itself the pursuit of virtue; "In reading great literature," he said, "I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do." A teacher just as easily as a book can be the instrument of transcendence. A man who is full of cynicism and disillusion cannot teach hope or fortitude. None can give to another what he does not possess himself.

What does it mean for a teacher in the classroom to be self-consciously Christian? Most of the time, it simply means eliciting from students an appreciation for the truth, or simply a grasp, with Aristotle, of liking what they "ought," of the good. It can also be a matter of what content is chosen by the teacher. This does not mean censoring what is not overtly Christian; the contemplation of a poem by Wordsworth may well be a student's first recognition that there is something outside himself which demands reverence. And yet, it can well mean lingering a bit longer over the story of St. Joan, or expanding a six-page textbook treatment of the Middle Ages into six weeks. It can mean assigning an essay written by Thomas More, or telling a class the story of St. Basil, who, when threatened with his possessions and his life by the emperor Valens simply declared, "Oh, I gave those up long ago."

In teaching Ancient history, I have often asked my students to consider the martyrdom of the early Christians from the perspective of the ordinary Roman citizens who, in some periods, watched day after day the bloodshed of men and women by the thousands sacrificing their lives for one thing, their faith. "How do you think those ordinary Romans felt?" I ask them. "How do you think you would feel?" Students' written responses are often quite fervent, and beautiful. Young people do love to imagine themselves in such settings, and they also love stories, like that of St. Basil. History, of course, is itself a story, and I suppose I do believe that if a teacher can become a good story-teller, he is more than half-way home . . . . __________________________________________________________________________

John Simon, in his book Paradigms Lost, once wrote that a teacher must be propaedeutic before turning heuristic. Yes, I had to look up the words; but, in simpler words, it means that a teacher must teach fundamentals, first principles, before becoming too inventive or experimental. Kids today don't read, and seldom write. For all our grand experiments, as useful as some may be, reading and writing are inherently solitary activities, and we must do everything we can to teach students to do both, to write well, which is to re-write often, and to write well because they read constantly, and develop a taste for reading, and for re-reading, and become good critics of what they read. Particularly in teaching history, I am also a big proponent of primary sources. If students are to think for themselves, we must wean them from the textbook with its ready answers and require them to read different authors, for different opinions. Literacy is not a skill. It's a habit of mind.
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When students seem to be getting bored with the typical diet of political history, with battles and dates and kings and queens, I have had great success in using the lessons of the Annales school, the approach to history from geography and demographics, and from the bottom up. I will ask them, for instance, whether it was really the myopic policies of Louis XIV which led to French failure in the War of Spanish Succession, or was it the hard freeze in the winter of 1709? One good approach to a unit on the French Revolution, I have found, is to have students research and report on everyday life as the French knew it. What did they eat? How did they dress? How many children did they have? Why do their fairy tales have so many evil stepmothers? Why were German fairy tales different from French fairy tales? How long did it take a sack of salt to travel from Paris to Marseilles? What were the road conditions? Why does it matter? And always, of course, what was the price of bread? They see first-hand the ancient weight of inertia which was the kingdom of France in all its customs and privileges, pays, fiefs, seigneuries, and parishes. I dispel in their minds all preconceived notions (or textbook notions) of class struggle, and hope that they come away with an appreciation of history as being more complex, and more rooted in ordinary lives, than they had ever imagined. I have even had students compose period fairy tales full of stepmothers, or porridge, or hungry children, in order to learn what life was like.
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. . . in my belief that good teaching is good story-telling, I suppose that if I could teach anything, it would be medieval history, where the stories abound. I have tried to convey to students the concept of Christendom, which was often more ideal than reality, but an ideal of men bound by common faith and charity, of thinking and behaving together as Christians all over Europe, an ideal stronger than national pride, in a society different from ours in one big respect: that our medieval ancestors, however imperfect, believed in the absolute value of those Christian virtues, and absolute religious truths.

Students have often asked me just why it is that the Middle Ages is such a land of enchantment, full of dragons and castles, ladies of the lake, green knights, and damsels in distress. They learn, of course, of the very real hardships of medieval life, but I answer them by pointing to Christianity, to the constant, everyday, living expectation of the miraculous in men's hearts, and to a sacramental understanding of the world which imbued it with a supernatural enchantment, to an agricultural society in which the seasonal rhythms of production were marked by religious ritual and custom, in which it was believed that the sap rising in trees was the blessing of St. Sebastian, that St. Agnes actually blessed all newborn lambs in the spring, and that any bread blessed on St. Agatha's day would protect one from illness.

I have them read of St. Boniface in the German forest, or I will read to them a passage from Froude, about earlier missionaries and apostles who ". . . had been seen here, had been seen there, in the furthest corners of the earth, preaching, contending, suffering, prevailing . . . ," bringing with them rumors, religious relics, stories of martyrs, mysteries, miraculous legends, each of them to be treasured up, and loved, and trusted, and bequeathed. The Middle Ages were, thus, enchanted from the beginning, and that enchantment only grew and developed, and spread into architecture, and faith, and learning. I have found that students always seem to be drawn to the Middle Ages, and it is sad that in so many schools and texts they are treated as an afterthought.

Certainly, our sense of that enchantment is atrophied from disuse, but it can be rekindled, and, as a teacher of young people, that is part of what I try to do. It is often difficult, but as Henry Adams, describing that Age in his famous Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, once explained, ". . . one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young. One can do it, as one can play with children . . . . One needs only to be old enough in order to be as young as one will."

Copyright 1998 by Thomas G. Wilkes. All rights reserved. Uploaded by Dave Armstrong.

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