An Abhorrent Wrong
Last night, Friday, 14 May, I attended the commencement ceremonies of the 2020-2021 class of 8th graders at the completion of their final year as Regis Knights. Thirty young men stepped forward in turn to receive their diplomas. Many of them received other honors as well, but all them had finished the same course of studies as the others. All of them had struggled to attain the academic skills Regis offers. All of them had struggled to live up to the ideals to which Regis Knights are called.
Walker Moore, Student Council President, gave the commencement address to the assembled faculty, staff, and families, speaking both for and to his fellow students. Mr. Moore quoted the most famous part of President Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech, reminding us that "credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood". It is right and just that those who struggle to achieve should receive the honors they are due, and Mr. Moore's address spoke well about the rewards of effort, about the challenges yet to come, and about the enduring nature of brotherhood forged in shared struggles.
Earlier that day was much like any other school day. I met with four English classes, including the two 6th grade classes. These classes have not been part of my schedule most of this year, but those 6th graders will be in my English class next school year. It seems fitting they get a chance to experience what awaits them in my 7th grade English class. I also met with my current 7th graders, who, come August, will step into the places left vacant by the outgoing class of 8th graders. In those classes, working from James Baldwin's The Story of Siegfried and G. K. Chesterton's "The Chief Mourner of Marne", I made demands of my students.
Among those demands? Reflection on and discussion of the nobility and necessity of manual labor. We observed that custodian's Latin roots mean guardian and protector. We talked about which occupations might be classified as manual labor and which ones, such as English teacher, might not be. Like young Prince Siegfried, the young Knights in my class sought to understand work often viewed as menial serves more than just a valuable function. Such work itself becomes ennobled by the heart of service with which it is performed.
Other students confronted the stark difference between human charity and Christian charity. They started to see that agreeing to forgive something that society thinks is forgivable doesn't require much in the way of love or courage. I can easily forgive things that I don't think really require forgiveness. At the same time, I can just as easily not forgive those things that I think are unforgivable. Either way, I enjoy the the warmth of own mercy and justice, the fires of which are stoked by my pride.
In all four classes, I also saw a common occurrence. When given hard questions to answer, many of my students ask me to approve the response, in effect grading the work before it's completed. I refuse to do this. I note that the worst thing that can happen is that the answer will be wrong, that it will get corrected, and then the student will have learned something. This response seldom satisfies. For too many of my students, what seems to matter most is success.
This is a grave error. As President Roosevelt observed, "To judge a man merely by success is an abhorrent wrong". When success becomes the standard, then it isn't long before notions about right and wrong, good and evil, become irrelevant. To sharpen the point: If the thing that matters most is the grade on my report card, why not get all of my answers from someone else? Why not cheat?
President Roosevelt listed "the qualities which mark a masterful people", by which he meant a people fit for liberty, a people who can be trusted even when those in authority are not watching them. He said these qualities are "Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution...." The two qualities I most note are self-mastery and courage, which surely go hand in hand. Courage is not a lack of fear; it is a mastering of fear.
Many of my students seem genuinely afraid of getting any grade lower than what's necessary to make honor roll. Indeed, I have had students flatly express this to me. A grade of X is acceptable, but a grade of X minus one is not. A grade of X minus one equals failure to achieve honor roll status, and that's unacceptable. The inference seems to be this: not being on the honor roll is dishonorable.
To the extent my inference is accurate, the results appear clear. A grade on a sheet of paper becomes the measure of success. The amount of effort put into achieving that number is secondary. The student who sees the end of his education as achieving the highest grade possible may learn to denigrate his own self-mastery and courage. He may become the kind of man who judges his own worth and the worth of others "merely by success".
Theuth and the Loss of Truth
I tend to read too many books at once. On my reading list as of today are Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, How to Think Like Aquinas: The Sure Way to Perfect Your Mental Powers by Kevin Yost, A Shepherd in Combat Boots: Chaplain Emil Kapaun of the 1st Cavalry Division by William L. Maher, How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, I’m Staying with My Boys: The Heroic Life of Sgt. John Basilone, USMC, and The Case for Catholic Education by Ryan N. S. Topping.
I’m not making much progress in any of them because my attention is divided between too many of them.
Contrary to what modern life seems to expect (even demand), the human mind does not multitask well. No matter how much we try, we can’t really give 110 percent because, by definition, 100 percent is all there is. So, even if I could devote 100 percent of my time and attention to just reading, that total amount of time and attention would still get divided six ways by my current reading list. (Well, by an even larger divisor, since I also read material on-line, especially comic books from the 70s and 80s.)
And so I’ve been increasingly scatter-brained as I continue to scatter my brain between too many different projects at once. I cannot help but see how my divided attention has affected my ability to get things done. I’m a relatively bright professional with years of experience and a modicum of mental stability and sensible maturity. If I struggle with divided attention, how much moreso must my students struggle?
For example, several months ago, I was talking with one of my 7th grade classes about the intellectual and educational achievements of James Madison, who, at about the age of 16, could translate from memory the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, moving between English, Greek, and Latin. One of my bright, talented 7th grade Regis Knights scoffed, claiming in all seriousness that he was smarter than James Madison. How did the student know? Because, as he explained, he could pull his smart phone out of his pocket and Google whatever he wanted to know.
Another example: A few weeks ago, one class of 8th graders and I discussed a few of the finer points of the relationship between Aunt Polly and Tom Sawyer. I asked what I thought was a fairly simple question. Not a single student ventured a response. Somewhat discouraged, I wrote the question on the whiteboard, referred the students to the appropriate chapter, and asked them to read and discover. After a handful of minutes, an exchange much like this took place:
Student: Mr. C, what page is the answer on?
Me: It’s in the chapter I asked you to re-read.
Not much after this brief exchange, the student was on his laptop, attempting to use the internet to find the answer to the question.
And that second example was the final nail. I am now firmly convinced that the internet is doing grievous harm to the human soul. We live in a dystopian future where internet search engines have replaced human memory and where search engine programmers have replaced intellectual effort and achievement with a bountiful selection of clickable links on a screen. We live in a world where the predictions of Thamus about the written word have come true with a vengeance.
Socrates tells us about Thamus in Plato’s Phaedrus. Thamus, an Egyptian god-king, has a conversation with Theuth, an inventor god. Theuth claims that the invention of writing is a praiseworthy thing because it “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories”. Thamus disagrees:
"O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."
Note the emphasis I’ve added to the quoted text. The written word does not improve memory, according to Thamus; rather, the written word degrades memory. Thamus goes on:
"The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."
Hearken back to that 7th grade student and his smart phone. That marvelous product of scientific engineering does not equal intelligence. It does not lead to truth, but instead gives the student access to thousands of different narratives, many of which contradict each other. The truth might be in there somewhere, but Google alone cannot produce it. Instead of truth, what is much more likely is confusion that is banished by confirmation bias. Instead of truth, I search until I find what conforms to what I want to be true or what I already believe to be true. I can construct a coherent world-view by “solving” my confusion this way, but I won’t end up with the truth (except by accident) or with anything resembling a real education, the end of which is the acquisition of truth rather than the mere accumulation of data.
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.