The size of a poem is not something that can be measured by line number. Some long poems are “big” in their moral vision—like the heroic code of the Iliad, the transcendent grandeur of the Divine Comedy. But other long poems are philosophically cramped—like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Say whatever you want about the speaker of this poem (yes, the poet is large; yes, he contains multitudes), but by the end of all that soul-expansion, all that spiritual osmosis, all that singing of oneself, we are still only left with some guy from West Hills, NY.
Teaching students to think for themselves, to inquire independently, or to exercise intellectual self-reliance is all the rage. This is true of both educational theory and educational practice. For example, Harvey Siegel, one of the world’s leading philosophers of education, says, “Our educational obligation is not to deliver our students to flourishing lives (or happy ones), but rather to prepare them to consider for themselves (among many other things) the virtuousness of the virtues and their place in their own lives” (emphasis added).
In high school, I can remember reading only one work of fiction, which was, ironically, Great Expectations. In my blue-collar town, manual labor and resourcefulness were predominant virtues, so each year our headmaster directed the high school students to set up a large outdoor Fall Festival. One year we repurposed an old rubber swing seat and headed into the woods to rig up a zipline.
It has become my custom to begin every class period with the reading of a Psalm, and usually the same Psalm for each day of the week throughout a given quarter. Mondays, however, are different. We begin instead by reading from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, which is a potent reminder for all of us that the time for rest (Sunday) is over and that the time for study and labor has come again.
Dead Poets Society is a truly great film—if for John Keating alone. It’s Robin Williams at his best: a mentor authoritative yet tender, aristocratic yet plebian—a wise teacher balancing on the knife’s edge between the pater and peer. Who doesn’t rejoice at the demolition of the textbook? Who can hold back his soul when Williams performs his John Wayne Macbeth and Marlon Brando Marc Antony—rigor mortis jawline and all? And is there any teacher in film more iconic than Mr.
Creativity is the ability to bring about something new. Somewhat counterintuitively, structure, rules, and standards invite creativity. Aristotle, Plato, and the Scriptures tell us to “train up” a child. Aristotle, referencing Plato, emphasizes the importance of “having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means” (Nicomachean Ethics Book 2, 1104b).
Latin and Greek are the bane of many a classical self-educator; as we adult latecomers play catch-up to get the classical education we weren’t lucky enough to have in school, it’s hard enough to find time to read Homer and Augustine in translation, let alone the original. To learn the classical languages seems simply out of our reach.
My reading in the Year of Our Lord 2018 was marked by some fairly deliberate attempts (emphasis on attempts) at slow reading as a counter to my long-standing tradition of attempting to speed read. Hilariously, I am but a poor example of either discipline.
Have you ever quarreled about something (that you later realized was insignificant), and in so doing, lost sight of what was truly important? Have you ever been waylaid by something distracting, and lost your way as a result? Well, if you haven’t experienced this in a while, you may recall a similar gist in one of Aesop’s fables, “The Ass and His Shadow.” (If not, read on!)
“Do we have to do Latin?” Students gloomily contemplate its grammar charts, teachers of other subjects wonder what it’s doing in the curriculum, and homeschooling parents find it a constant thorn in their sides. Do we study Latin as a mental exercise, like math? To improve our English? To get a higher SAT score? Many of us aren’t sure, and we wish we could do something useful instead of studying a dead language.