Wisdom Journal

Cultivating Wisdom and Virtue

The skill of contemplation and leading into truth

Large Tree 2

October 14, 2020

“How can a Christian Classical education help students grow in their love of God?”
by Zach Sherman, Instructor
TCS Humanities, High School Literature and Composition

“Who is the most honorable person you know?”

This question often begins a lesson in my Ancient Literature class, one in which freshmen contemplate the concept of honor, write a class definition of the term, and then evaluate literary characters based on that definition. The actual instruction of that lesson is nowhere near as clean and precise as that description sounds, so let me first describe how it often looks in practice, and then explain why I teach it this way.

To start, we spend a day (or more) listing and contemplating honorable people, things, and actions. We read stories about Medal of Honor winners, analyze Honor Codes at universities, and observe monuments like the Wall of Honor near the Statue of Liberty, and a Scripture verse that contains the word honor. By “contemplate” I mean I ask students about patterns they notice across these disparate things.

When I am teaching well -- which is not every day -- I ask students to notice those patterns concretely and sequentially. We sometimes use a chart that helps us categorize our examples (or Types or Incarnations) of Honor. The chart helps us break down our examples discreetly. We discuss simple questions such as, "What is this made of?” and “What does this example require of a person?” After we chart our observations, students look for similarities and differences. They notice patterns. For example, perhaps, a Medal of Honor winner, a new immigrant featured on the Wall of Honor, and a student who upholds the Honor Code all have courage. We debate which patterns or threads are most important and, finally, write a class definition. That may look something like this: Honor -- a deep sense of respect rooted in courage and self-sacrifice

Now that you have a rough idea of this lesson -- which may 1 or 2 days -- allow me to explain why we teach this way at TCS:

1. Good instruction often moves from the concrete to the abstract. So, questions purposefully start at a basic level, which allows for more students to participate willingly. We start with what a student already knows or can easily identify, before moving to more difficult concepts.

2. We define terms regularly as part of our integration of the art of Logic into our humanities courses. When an issue is presented, its terms always need to be defined. In doing so, students are trained to seek clarity in their rhetoric and the rhetoric of others. A classical education cultivates Wisdom and Virtue, and defining our terms is one way students learn to navigate the world more wisely.

3. We will then use our definition of Honor in quizzes, essays, or discussions. We can debate, “Is Odysseus a man of Honor?” or “Is Brutus’ decision to join the conspiracy an act of Honor?” We can also use this definition to evaluate characters or historical figures, never really leaving our key definitions behind. (We also define terms such as Beauty.) Students are constantly challenged to think and write precisely, using the definitions we have developed.

A lesson such as this attempts to train students to apply the liberal arts of logic, rhetoric, and grammar through our literature course. We work toward precise interpretation (grammar); make sure our definition aligns with reality (logic); and learn to express our thoughts clearly and persuasively (rhetoric). Ultimately, this is rooted in what can be called “Logocentrism”, a belief that the universe is real, ordered, and discoverable. According to this Christian Classical principle, humans can perceive actual truth outside themselves and further discover the harmony of God’s created order. As The Logos, Christ is the basis for this, making reason itself possible and harmonizing everything. As a student harmonizes his definition of honor with an example, he participates in that ultimate harmony.

September 2, 2020

“How can a Christian Classical education help students grow in their love of God?”
by Zach Sherman, Instructor
TCS Humanities, High School Literature and Compostion

If you spend any time at TCS, you’ll hear two distinct aspects of the school’s guiding vision. The first is the school’s mission to disciple students to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds and to love others. The second is a commitment to provide a Christian Classical education. TCS defines this as the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of Scripture and the seven liberal arts. A good question, then, is just how do those two aspects of vision connect? How could a classical education help a child learn to love God and others?

An important acknowledgement to first be made is that a classical education at school, on its own, will not transform a student’s heart. Praying before every class, discussing the works of Plato, and going to chapel will not automatically make a child love God or others. True formation of the soul is founded on a life immersed in Christ’s teachings at home and at church. A Christian classical education can build on that foundation, but it cannot replace it.

That said, a Christian classical education can be a part of a child’s development in growing to love God and others. Here are three possible ways:

First, Christian Classical education encourages students to love God through its central focus on Christ. Christian Classical education looks to Christ for its modes of teaching, its definitions of Wisdom and Virtue, and its view of the nature of students and teachers. TCS teachers are trained in Mimetic and Socratic instruction, both of which Christ modeled perfectly. TCS teachers cultivate Wisdom by using Christ’s life and teachings as the baseline for all other sources of Wisdom. Students are encouraged to look for echoes of Christ’s story in literature, art, and music. They explore the history of Christ’s body on earth, the Church. TCS teachers also know that the heart of the teacher is the truest curriculum of any class. Thus, a teacher can best tend to the hearts of students by tending to his own heart, and the best way to do that is through Christ. In summary, a TCS Christian Classical education is founded on Christ because presenting Christ to students is the best way to invite them to love God.

Second, a Christian Classical education encourages students to love God through its focus on Virtue. Virtue is a disposition to do good or attain excellence. Virtue is good for human beings because they are human beings. A virtuous life is a life that many have called The Good Life. A classical teacher, then, is concerned with teaching in a way that invites students to consider Virtue. He poses questions of right and wrong because the Good Life involves thinking through moral dilemmas. The classical teacher understands that you can get straight A’s and still flunk life, as Walker Percy writes. Therefore, his job is to call his students to avoid a fractured life in which school and the “real world” are two separate entities. His class discussions, assignments, and assessments often revolved around moral decisions and situations. A focus on Virtue in class invites students to love God with their hearts, souls, and minds because it requires students to honestly consider matters of their own hearts, souls, and minds.

Finally, a Christian Classical education encourages students to love God because of its focus on Beauty. Beauty has been described as the face of God made manifest among us. It is a reflection of God’s presence all around us. A Christian Classical education takes that reflection seriously and invites students to observe, contemplate, and experience Beauty. TCS students observe and imitate great works of art. They spend time on retreats in beautiful places in nature. They take field trips to beautiful buildings. Such practices invite students to love God fully because they treat the world as a place full of God’s presence. This encourages students to love God fully because it invites them to commune with something outside of themselves. Part of loving God and others fully is realizing that the world does not start and stop with you, and Beauty can be a part of that realization.

In summary, we at TCS believe that a Christian Classical education complements our mission to help students grow in their love of God and others. We strive to do this every day, knowing that such efforts can only be realized in Christ who is before all things and in whom all things hold together.

For more on a Classical Education and some of the ideas mentioned above, check out this link.

August 19, 2020

Zach Sherman, Instructor
TCS Humanities, High School Literature and Composition

“Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” -- I Corinthians 11:1

St. Paul’s instructions to the Christians at Corinth touches on a fundamental principle of education: people learn through imitation. A young child learning a language imitates his mother’s sounds, a baseball player learning to swing imitates his coach’s movements, a new salesman learning the trade imitates his manager’s sales techniques. The principle of such instruction is that a novice learning a skill needs to copy an expert to learn. This is not to make the novice a carbon copy of the expert -- the child will eventually learn to speak in ways different from his mother -- but rather to give the novice a concrete, tangible target toward which he can aspire. In Christian Classical education, this principle can be stated succinctly: “All things by imitation.”

Our high school literature courses apply this principle throughout the school year in the way students learn composition. (We actually start in 7th grade.) The rationale is the same. If a writer wants to improve, he needs to imitate an expert writer. The process, one that has been used for hundreds of years, is simple: First, a young writer copies a worthwhile passage from an accomplished writer. He does so slowly and carefully for no more than 20 minutes at a time. Then, the writer observes and then imitates that passage’s structure and grammar, while incorporating a new subject.

For example, TCS middle school students often begin with a simple sentence such as this one written by Sir Francis Bacon. (I choose it because the sentence is clear, active, and parallel in structure):

“Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability.”

Students copy the sentence slowly, by hand. Then, we notice the sentence’s subject, verb and its parallel phrases. I then give students a new subject, such as Scripture. We make a list of benefits that Scripture offers and then, as a group, imitate Bacon’s original sentence. It may look something like this:

“Scripture serves to enlighten, to nourish, and to inspire.”

Same grammatical pattern, different topic. After the first few exercises, most students pick up on the process quickly.

Next, I start to provide sentences that increase in length and complexity. Here is a short passage that we use from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

The locust trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation, and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

We copy the paragraph, identify subjects and verbs, and students may create an Imitation such as:

The jazz band was in full swing and the rhythm of the music filled the air. New Orleans, beyond the bayou and above it, was bustling with excitement, and it lay just far enough away to seem a Righteous Festival, joyous, wholesome, and welcoming.

Again, same grammatical patterns, only instead of writing about Cardiff Hill, students may choose a different place.

Finally we move to longer paragraphs and full essays. Students are often asked to imitate Charles Dickens, a master of descriptive prose. Here is a paragraph from Dickens’ Little Dorritt that I assigned last year:

It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world... Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.

Here is a student’s imitation of that paragraph:

It was a Friday evening in Magnolia, breezy, warm, and bright. Roaring cars all over the neighborhood, loud and quiet, fast and slow, common or rare, started to quiet down as the day was coming to a close. Golden streets, from the sun’s gentle stare, gave light to the many folks that enjoy walking those roads, for a Friday evening stroll. Almost every other day, people would be busy in their houses doing work, or simply avoiding the outdoors, as it was usually hot, humid, and mosquitos have made themselves known. But this day was different for some recurring reason. No questions asked, no complaints, no explanations, people just enjoyed the Friday evening more than others. They walked those roads, enjoying the light, the sights, and each other. Nothing else mattered as the sun continued to fade, fade, fade.

This basic process of copying and imitating passages from literature is one we use at all levels at TCS. It allows students to study grammar methodically and inventively. Students discover templates -- provided by masters of style -- for their own ideas, thereby allowing them to express themselves beautifully. We imitate passages written by writers such as Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King, Jr., Homer, Jane Austen, Dante, and St. Augustine. Eventually, students learn to find passages worthy of imitation from their own reading, adding them to their writing journals. This encourages them to continue this practice as adults. In short, this is a way we cultivate the Liberal Art of Rhetoric, cultivate an appreciation for beautiful language, and embody the principle, “All things by imitation.”