Wisdom Journal

Cultivating Wisdom and Virtue

The skill of contemplation and leading into truth

Large Tree 2

January 26, 2021

The Christian High School Student and College
by Zach Sherman, Instructor
TCS Humanities, High School Literature and Compostition

I recently led a class of high school juniors and seniors through a researched exploration of the question, “Is college worth the cost?” We read articles about tuition and debt, the liberal arts, trade schools, and salaries of degree holders. We read a few others regarding the politics of most college professors and what happens to Christian teens in college (Do they remain Christian?). I highlighted a Classical college -- St. John’s -- and we discussed the benefits of attending such a school. I asked my students to write a few responses, using these sources. Here are a few of my subsequent conclusions:

  • Christian parents should avoid admonitions such as, “Do you want to end up working at 7-11?” 

I am a teacher who has affirmed the value of college to thousands to students. I have written hundreds of rec letters for seniors applying to universities. I will likely take my own children on college visits as they grow older. I know the doors that college can keep open.

But I am also a teacher who continues to hear Christan teenagers sneer at people whose jobs they deem inferior. While some may attribute this to youthful arrogance, I think teens are simply repeating to us what we say to them. If I make a critical comment to my daughter about working at Wendy’s, she will take me at my word and think herself better than people who work at Wendy’s. She will not separate the concept “working at Wendy’s” from the people who work at Wendy’s. She will not take me to mean, “Dad doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the PEOPLE who work at Wendy’s. Dad just wants me to try my best in Algebra!” She will take me to mean, “Remember those people we see when we go to Wendy’s? You are better than them.”  

As a Christian father, I should actually believe that Wendy’s is not the worst-case scenario. 7-11 is not the worst-case scenario. If my child works at Wendy’s and she works out her salvation in fear and trembling in the life of the Church, I should be OK with Wendy’s. To tell my child that Wendy’s is the worst-case scenario is to tell her that everything I told her when she was very young about the Church isn’t really true. The worst-case scenario is a selfish, fractured life, one cut off from Christ who is Life. One can easily have such a life working as an architect, engineer, or business manager.  

Consider the lives of the saints and what they show us about a life worth pursuing. Saint Paul gave up a cushy spot in the establishment for persecution and uncertainty. Saint Anthony the Great gave away his inherited wealth to the poor. Saint Lucia gave her dowry to the needy and embraced chastity as a gift to God. And while my child need not eschew material wealth to that degree, she should not think the Christian Good Life to be a different kind of life entirely. At some point, I either believe what I say about Christ or I do not. 

  • Ask your high schooler, “What’s your plan B?” 

The senior who has his future planned out to a tee needs to consider what will happen if his plan fails. If your dream college rejects you or you regret moving out of state or if you can’t afford tuition after two years, you need a Plan B. The senior who has everything planned out is admirably diligent. But he needs to know that life is about navigating unknowns more than having the perfect plan. 

And the high schooler who immediately shrugs off college needs to consider if he’s actually done any legwork to reach the conclusion. Has he looked at any colleges? Trade school programs? Gap-year programs? Has he actually researched any scholarships or grants? Or is he just lazy? There is no inherent virtue in going to college, but there is also none in embracing ignorance and perpetually kicking the can down the road of your life. 

  • Ask questions. Play the long game. 

A 17-year-old is not going to be persuaded by a long sermon about his future. He needs to learn to figure things out on his own. Ask him questions. Ask him to explain his thinking. Perhaps a parent can make a child accountable for that process (“If you want to use the car next week, you need to show me that you’ve researched 5 schools thoroughly”), but anyone made in God’s Image will resist being controlled. An adult’s anxiety about a child’s future is not the child’s problem. It is the adult’s.


November 30, 2020

School and The Real World
by Zach Sherman, Instructor
TCS Humanities, High School Literature and Composition

When a high school student talks about “the real world”, he’s usually referencing something after graduation. It occurs to him, often around the age of 13, that he probably won’t need to identify adverbs in his profession, so he starts saying things like, “You know, I won’t use this in the real world.” His teachers may not like his criticism, but many of them do not know how to respond. After all, other than English teachers, who labels adverbs? And if you’re not going into a profession that requires math, why would anyone need to be able to solve polynomial equations?

While this logic seems solid initially, it’s based on some shaky assumptions. First, it assumes that secondary education is essentially about career training. As a result, anything outside of a career (or college) scope isn’t quite “real.” This premise is flawed because any classical school worth its salt will try to train students to thrive regardless of their future careers. Vocational training is a fine thing, as is being prepared for college. But a person can earn straight As in college, make $250,000 a year, and treat his coworkers and family like garbage in the “real world.” A classical school assumes that secondary education should try to prevent this and prioritizes wisdom and virtue accordingly.

Second, the We’ll-Never-Use-This-In-The-Real-World mentality is flawed because it implies that school is not real, and that we are just biding time until the “real world” arrives. Such logic discounts one of God’s most precious gifts -- the present. What could be more real than the people and places that occupy our present moments?

Finally, this logic is faulty because pragmatic goals are low-hanging fruit. Practical things have their time and place. But teaching practical things to teenagers is often miserable. If you doubt this, try monitoring a high school Study Hall class for a few days. Or simply think back to your time in Driver’s Ed. Few things are as pragmatic as Driver’s Ed -- you need it to get your license. But a Driver’s Ed classroom is also monotonous, uninspiring, and purely transactional. Compare that to something like athletics. A great high school baseball coach offers practically no content that his players will use as adults. Few of his players will play professionally. But he inspires, showing players a wise way to live regardless of their eventual careers. Impractical pursuits can do this in a way that pragmatic ones cannot.

So what do I say to a student who tells me: “We’ll never have to find adverbs in the real world?” I say, “We learn about adverbs because this helps us interpret language, which helps us perceive the truth more accurately, and if you are a human being you want to perceive the truth accurately.” If I were a math teacher and a student asked, “Why do we learn this upper level math?”, I would reply, “We learn upper level math because math is beautiful.” (Full Disclosure: I got these answers from Andrew Kern of the CIRCE Institute.) I might also simply ask, “Why do you think the only thing that’s real is your eventual career?” None of these responses would likely convince a skeptical teenager, but they might invite a worthwhile later discussion. And they would avoid the mistake of affirming the students’ faulty assumptions with responses like, “Well, actually, you may use this in college someday”, which only kicks the can down the road and is often untrue.

High school students often begin to think school is a waste of time because they won’t use particular subjects later in life. This phenomenon is likely inevitable, but adults can help by changing how we talk to teenagers. We should talk less about grades and career and more about effort, process, and virtue for virtue’s sake. If our language implies that what really matters is in the future, we should not be surprised when students find the present pointless. If our language implies that getting a degree and making money are what really count, we should not be surprised when students mock our attempts to train their souls.

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.”