Last post, I waxed philosophical and then briefly looked at how my priorities change from Vacation to Vocation. Now that I’m back in the classroom, I can’t do some of the things I did during the summer, whether at all or to the same extent. For example, if I decide I want to catch the matinee of Brad Pitt’s new movie today, people will likely wonder where I am and why I’m not in class where I ought to be.
“Ought” is a great word. It’s authentically English, dating back to the 12th century. It’s Old English roots relate to owning or possessing something. In the case of “ought”, what I own is a “duty or moral obligation” (to quote etymonline.org). It is a stronger form of “shall”, which itself is a stronger form of “will”. Consider:
I will wash the dishes.
I shall wash the dishes.
I ought to wash the dishes.
The first sentence is a statement expressing a modicum of intent. I’ll wash the dishes…but maybe not. The second sentence is stronger. The use of “shall” implies serious intent. But now consider the third sentence. Note the lack of direct object. “Ought” is intransitive, but the word’s definition means that doing the dishes is something that I owe to someone else. The dish-washing activity is a debt that either must be paid or else must be forgiven by whomever I am in debt to.
A student’s school work fits into the same category as that third sentence. His school work is a debt he owes. For my students, this debt is most immediately owed to his family, who has chosen to bear the financial costs of enrolling him in a private school. This is no small point. A student can fail to honor his debts in a public school for considerably less money.
And so we return to changing priorities. Let’s take a look at one part of the 7th grade’s ELA agenda:
Notice the four homework assignments. Only one of them is due the following day, but it is an assignment that (1) must be typed and (2) must be printed before ELA class begins on Tuesday, 9 August. Reading “A Message to Garcia” has a due date of Wednesday, 10 August, and the assignment requires reading and answering two questions to prepare for the class discussion. The third assignment isn’t due for ten days, but it’s not the sort of assignment most students can put off until the last minute and expect to do well. “The Tyger” must be memorized for recitation in front of the class. That requires daily practice (at a minimum).
Considering just ELA class, a student who during the summer became accustomed to staying up late, sleeping in, and doing little else other than playing video games and eating now finds himself with a dilemma. The several hours between sunup and sundown that were perhaps largely unstructured are now not only structured, but are structured by adults paid to ensure the student learns X, Y, and Z. His time is no longer his own. His family has purchased his time (in the form of tuition and fees) and then given that time to other adults.
We demand a lot from students, most of whom have what is effectively a full-time, unpaid job overseen by numerous competing bosses. Each student must now adjust. He has few hours remaining in the day which he might get to call his own. He can ignore what he ought to do about his ELA work, but he cannot avoid the consequences of those choices. The grade book does what it does with the data it’s given, and as King Lear noted, “Nothing will come of nothing”.
Fortunately, putting first things first helps, even if it doesn’t always make the task more pleasant. Earlier I wrote that the student’s time is no longer his own, which is true. What’s more true is the fact that his time was never really his own to begin with. Neither is my time really mine or your time yours. To begin with, the time we have belonged to God, Who in His wisdom and good grace gives us “our…threescore years and ten” (see Psalm 90). We’re supposed to use that gift of time to do first things first. This is how we honor the Giver.
When I get to part three of this series of posts, I’ll return to the ELA agenda and offer a concrete plan for one way that students may do what they ought to do.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates dialogues with several younger men about the nature of justice. Early on in the dialogue, Glaucon and his peers lay out a forceful argument that justice is not a virtue. Instead, justice is a utilitarian consideration. We submit to the demands of justice only because the consequences for not doing so are worse. What would be best would be the ability to practice injustice without consequences. This way, all of one’s wants and needs would be met, albeit at the expense of others, all of whom would have to be powerless to resist or retaliate. Since it isn’t possible to practice injustice without consequences, we accept the demands of justice, chiefly defined by the laws put into place by the ruling class, because this is the only means by which we thwart injustice, or at least gain reparations when subjected to injustice.
Socrates has no easy answer to this formulation. His earlier assertion that the just man is the happier man regardless of the consequences of his commitment to justice has not been refuted. It has been rejected as not convincing enough when compared to the utilitarian conception of justice. Socrates demurs from further argumentation and instead engages his students with an exercise in creative storytelling. Socrates invites them to “make a city in speech” (Book II, 369c) as a way of determining what is justice. What follows is a discussion in the theoretical and the imaginative. The conclusions reached are neither prescriptive nor proscriptive. They are descriptive, and Socrates trusts that his students’ own good sense will help guide them, if not to the correct answers then at least away from the incorrect ones.
Books III and IV focus mostly on the guardians, that aristocratic class of warriors who serve the kings by defending the city against both lawlessness and foreign powers. Much of the discussion relates to the necessity that the guardians be both courageous and moderate, with emphasis on moderation. The students understand that the guardians are a threat to justice unless their courage is guided away from self-interest toward service to the city. Not only must the guardians’ needs be met, but their wants must be regulated not by outside force but by inner conviction formed by proper environment and education.
In Book IV, Glaucon grows impatient with all the talk of moderation. He wants to find justice rather than yet more reasons to set limits. He asks Socrates, “How could we find justice so we won’t have to bother about moderation any further?” (Book IV, 430d). As the discussion continues into Book V, it becomes clear that without moderation there can be no justice. Those who accept no limits to their behavior do not act justly. Those who do not moderate their desires will not experience justice. Instead, these immoderate persons perceive limitations on their behavior as unjust. Their rallying cry is, “That’s not fair!”
As the new school year begins, we approach a time of increased moderation. During the summer, I can stay up late, sleep in, binge watch the British sitcoms of the 1970s, et cetera, all without any serious consequences. The time I spend during the school year as a teacher is more or less on hold during the summer. Now, with August right around the corner, my priorities must shift. The hierarchy of tasks changes from Vacation to Vocation.
Think of this hierarchy as a sequence of events assignment in literature or history. Given a list of things, put them in the proper order, with the first thing first. Here’s my list in alphabetical order: Family, Friends, God, Me, Work.
I dislike sequence of events assignments for one reason: get the first item wrong, and odds are good that everything that follows is wrong. For example, here’s the proper order for the items listed above:
If I leave out God or put God at the bottom of the list, everything ends up wrong. Socrates touches on this point in Book II during the discussion about regulating the stories told to the children of the guardian class. He says, “…we must supervise the makers of tales [about gods and heroes]; and if they make a fine tale, it must be approved, but if it’s not, it must be rejected” (Book II, 377c). Children will be told only the approved stories in order “to shape their souls with tales” (Ibid.). Socrates understands that there is a necessary link between having a correct idea of the divine and having a correct idea of justice. If the stories children hear teach them that the gods are deceitful, greedy, and violent, then children either may think it’s okay to be deceitful, greedy, and violent, or else children may think that the gods should be ignored, resulting in a sort of practical atheism.
Either result is disastrous both for the individual and the republic, which is a form of government that requires belief in an objective reality in which human rights are grounded and that therefore imposes necessary limits on both human behavior and governmental authority. Without that belief, the results are either the anarchy of a mob or the tyranny of an oligarchy or an autocrat. Regardless, justice becomes impossible because whatever justice is, it cannot be merely what a majority can force a minority to do, nor can justice be whatever the police state dictates.
In my next post, I’ll look at the list above from the perspective of a student, attempting to suss out some of the implications related to what it means to be a successful student.
Graduation time conjures up a legion of people ready to offer congratulations, farewells, and wisdom. The graduates are told about what they can expect as they go forth. Speakers laud them for their achievements and remind them to use what they have learned. Graduates are ready to make their mark, to make the world a better place, et cetera. The analog clocks of graduation time tick and tock with the sounds of hope, and rightly so.
The Regis School seeks to form young men as gentlemen and scholars within an environment nurtured by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The greatest of those is charity because charity is the eternal virtue. Charity reigns in Heaven among the Church Triumphant, who no longer have need of faith or hope because they have no doubts and have achieved perfect happiness. But, as the Apostle Paul instructs, love remains.
Hope is for the Church Militant, for those of us still working out our salvation, perhaps with at least a modicum of fear and trembling. The world is often an unfriendly place, and influential societal shapers offer a bewildering array of distractions, most marketed not as a way of avoiding responsibility, but instead put forward as Just the Right Thing. Advertisers tell us in order to sell us products that our lives lack Just the Right Thing, but have hope because here it is, available to all who want to be happy for a price that, even if high, can be broken down into a series of easy payments.
So, in keeping with the graduation times, I come bearing words. The Beatles tell us the best things in life are free. The advice that follows this paragraph is free. Therefore, the advice that follow must be well worth reading.
I can already see some of my students rolling their eyes. Mr. Chance, who often has a hard time shutting up, is telling others to talk less. I admit it. I’m venturing into the realm of “Do I say, not as I do.” All I can offer in my defense is that just because I’m guilty does not mean I’m wrong.
It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in the negative. I struggle with focusing on the very many good things I encounter every day in my life. I know that I ought to share stories of victories, of good deeds, of unexpected blessings. More often than not, however, I have a hard time remembering those things. They get lost in the shadows of my pride and my disappointment. Then, when asked how my day was, all I can think of to share are those things that failed to live up to my expectations. How much better would life be if I could live according to just one Irish proverb?
“Leave the bad tale where you found it.”
I love the use of the word tale in the proverb. A tale is meant to be told to others. That is a tale’s function. Humans are tale-taking creatures, which means sharing stories is hardwired into our nature. If I could leave the bad tales behind, how long would it take for that proverb’s corollary to become a habit? I’d become one who takes good tales with me.
And, for a time, I’d probably talk less, at least until my store of good tales exceeded the burden of the bad ones that I didn’t leave behind.
I can see more eyes rolling. Of course the English teacher is going to say read more.
But let me explain. I don’t necessarily mean read more books. It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality, specifically the quality of how well I understand what I’ve read. We today have so much to read. Too much to read, really. In days of old before the invention of the printing press, books were rare and precious things. Those blessed with enough education to be literate had few books to choose from, and so readers in the ancient world chose carefully and they read not many books, but instead read a few books many times. I’ve read Song of Hiawatha at least ten times. Every time I read it, I understand something new. I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer more than that. Every time I read it, I understand something new.
The book read and re-read doesn’t change. I change. If I read a book once a year, every time I read it, I’m a year older. Another year of triumphs and failures has passed. Another year of experiences gets added to the lenses through which I understand the world. As a result, I’m better able to grasp Hiawatha’s helplessness when Famine and Fever invade his home. I’m better able to see the devotion shining in Becky Thatcher’s eyes because Tom tells a lie to take a beating for something Becky did. “Tom, how could you be so noble!" Becky says, and my heart breaks for want of hearing anyone I love say such words to me.
Be on the lookout for that good book that merits more than one read. When it’s found, keep it. Revisit it and see how what it says has changed.
Hear is different than listen. Hear is transitive. Listen is not. I can hear a voice. Voice is the direct object. Voice receives the action of hear. I cannot listen a voice. I can listen to a voice, and it’s long seemed to me that the prepositional phrase reduces the quality of the action. I don’t want to be listened to. I want to be heard. I ought to want to hear others as well.
Hearing involves more than just the ears. It involves the eyes as well, even if they’re closed so that I can hear better. Not too long ago, Mrs. Chance and I enjoyed a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. We sat too close to the stage, and I found it a struggle to both hear and see different performers at the same time. When the lead male sang, if I focused on him, I could better understand his pathos, but then I missed the details — the context clues, to wax English teacher — provided by the reactions of the other actors on stage at the time.
Hearing also involves the heart and the imagination, especially when the eyes and ears can’t help. This happens when I read. To be present in a book requires the imaginative act of seeing, hearing, and feeling what the characters in the book experience. The author’s words help convey that information. Without the effort to hear more than just the order of the words on the page, I fail to do justice to the author’s work.
More than theater, movies, and books, the people in our lives deserve our attention. They deserve to be heard.
My son Christopher and daughter Adrienne are in their early 20s. Between the two of them, that’s more than four decades parenting experience. I’ve been teaching for about 25 years. Assume 60 students a year. That’s several centuries of time spent with other people’s children. Here are three of the more important insights I’ve gleaned about educating children.
1. Homework Is Second
A fundamental piece of the mission and philosophy of Sacred Heart schools is the idea that the one who leads the best is the one who serves the best. The saints, best exemplified by the Virgin Mary, demonstrate that leadership of others and service to others are linked. Of course, the paragon of the “servant leader model” is Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 22:28). Homework, so the story goes, serves to benefit the student by giving him extra practice with important concepts. The beneficiary of homework is the student, not someone other than the student. After a long day at school, a student who returns home with homework should not give top priority to that homework. To be sure, it’s more than reasonable for him to rest a bit, put on some more comfortable clothes, have a snack, et cetera.
But then the things that must be done must get done, and first things have priority. Service to others takes priority over service to oneself.
So, before homework gets done, a student should train his leadership skills by doing something around the house that benefits someone other than himself. He could, for example, do the dishes. He could walk the dog. He could take out the trash, or mow the lawn, or help a younger sibling with his or her homework. This training in leadership works best when the student identifies what acts of service need doing, and then he chooses which one to do. The initiative ought to be his. When the student’s initiative falters, his parents — those primarily responsible for his education — ought to step in and at least offer a few choices.
As my 8th graders learned reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the difference between work and play is not the activity. Rather, the difference is found in the choosing. As Mark Twain explained, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” When I choose to do the dishes, I enjoy doing the dishes. When I end up doing the dishes, the exact same activity irritates me. Young men — who are all leaders in training — deserve the opportunity to discover the distinction between Work and Play.
2. Devices Are Second, Too
Technology can overwhelm. Tools that are meant to make work easier end up making it easier for others to pile more work on us. Those same tools present numerous distractions that make work harder to get done. Add in technology specifically designed to facilitate play, and work diminishes further. Add to this a strange trick of the mind. Everyone has experienced being so immersed in an activity that one loses track of time. What seems to have occupied only minutes of my time ends up consuming hours. Soon, the time that I had to complete X, Y, and Z is gone, and I haven’t gotten beyond W.
Just as homework takes second place to service within the home, so to do devices that distract from work take second place to homework. The research about the destructive habits and negative psychological effects of too much exposure to the Internet and other forms of electronic entertainment, especially many social media sites, is enormous and pretty well established. Many of these entertainments thrive by presenting us with Pavlovian stimulus-response loops. After I’m done writing and posting this little essay to my site, I’ll post the link on social media. Then, since I’ve been trained to salivate when the bells rings, I’ll be drawn to check over and over again to see who has liked my social media post. Did I get an up thumb? If so, from whom? How many interactions have there been? If someone leaves a comment, I must respond to that comment. And so my electronically reinforced distractibility keeps me focused on something other than what I’m supposed to be focused on.
Time spent using devices, especially devices that grant access to the Internet, must be prioritized and limited. My children ten years ago did not have to deal with the level of distraction that today’s children face. If my son Christopher were in middle school now, I’d impose clear limits. It might look something like this:
* First, relax for a bit after a hard day of school.
* Second, pick which form of service you’ll perform and then perform it.
* Third, do your homework.
* Fourth, after all of the above is done, you can watch TV or play a video game or whatever.
And step four would include time limits. No more than an hour, for example, and it certainly would be the case that the various weapons of mass distraction would not be kept in Christopher’s room. They’d be in the shared spaces of the home, and, at night, even his phone would end up somewhere other than in his room. Bed time is bed time, and lights out means no electricity. The only activity that might delay lights out would be reading a book.
3. Personal Grooming Is Not Optional
Here I must speak directly to young men. Read and consider carefully these words of wisdom.
Like it or not, people judge you by your appearance. People judge not only you by your appearance, they also judge your parents — especially your mother — by your appearance. This isn’t fair. It’s not right. But it is the truth, and you can shut doors that ought to have been kept open by the way you present yourself in public. So, you must do these five things:
* Bathe daily with soap. That includes washing and combing (or brushing) your hair.
* If you wash your hair at night, you need to wash and comb (or brush) it again in the morning, unless your hair is as about as short as mine usually is.
* Wear deodorant everyday. If you sweat a lot during the day, bring deodorant with you to school. (I keep deodorant in my desk at school, but it’s mine; get your own.)
* Put on clean clothes everyday. This includes your shoes and the clothes that people can’t see because they’re worn under other clothes.
* Get a haircut at least every three weeks. The longer your hair, the more often it needs cutting.
There is one important rule for haircuts: If your bangs hide your forehead and eyebrows, your hair is wrong. It either needs to be combed away from your face or cut shorter. Fortunately, there are numerous options available for you no matter what kind of hair you have. Here are a few excellent links:
Best Haircuts for Black Men
How to Grow Your Hair Out Long (for Dudes)
A Man’s Guide to Brushes and Combs
Men’s Hairstyles: What’s the Difference Between a Taper and a Fade?
Today, we celebrated our annual Father-Son Mass. The celebrant was Father Jim Murphy, CSB, President of St. Thomas High School. During his homily, he gave the us fathers and father figures a homework assignment. He instructed us to share a lesson our fathers had taught us. Here’s my homework.
When I was in the fourth grade, Mom, my sister Sarah, and I traveled to Harrison, Arkansas, with Jimmie Chance, the man my mother had recently married. He is my adoptive father. His parents, my new grandparents, lived in Harrison. I don’t remember much about the trip, but I do remember canoeing on the Buffalo River. I’d never done that sort of thing before, and it was an adventure in a strange place with many people who were strangers at that time.
About mid-day, we stopped on a pebbly riverbank for lunch. I asked Mom if I could play in the water. She said I could but told me not to go too far. I wore a life vest, but I could not at the time swim, so Mom’s caution was sensible. I told her I’d be careful.
I was not careful.
I went too far, and I discovered that a life vest, when water is sufficiently deep, has enough buoyancy to lift a fourth grader off his feet. The water’s current took over, pulling me toward the center of the river and carrying me farther and farther from the pebbly bank. I called loudly for Mom. She yelled Jimmie’s name.
Today, right now as I write this sentence, I’m more than forty years older than I was that day. I vividly remember the sequence of events after Mom yelled Jimmie’s name. He looked in my direction, tracking me floating away. He dropped his sandwich as he ran, taking several steps. He dove into the river, head up, eyes locked on me, arms outstretched so that as soon he plunged into the muddy water he could start swimming. He caught the life vest near my shoulder and backstroked toward the pebbly bank. When he could stand, he picked me up, cradling me in his arms, and walked me to Mom, who took me from him.
I don’t remember anything else from that day.
A bit more than a week ago, I began an educational experiment with my 8th grade ELA classes. Back in 2011-2012, I bought a copy of Microscope, “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories”, written by Ben Robbins and published via Lame Mage Productions. I’ve read of other teachers using the game as a learning tool, and for years I've wanted to do the same.
The set up for Microscope is simple enough. I randomly divided the 8th graders into groups of three or four students per group. Each group’s work is recorded in a shared document. I then randomly assigned each group one of five Big Pictures. Within an 8th grade class, every group has a different Big Picture. One of those Big Pictures is this:
Refugees carve out a new life in a distant land.
After establishing the groups and assigning each group a Big Picture, the students got to be creative, but within a few guidelines. The process moves between collaborative and non-collaborative. For the latter parts, each student gets his chance to establish more or less by fiat an aspect of the epic history the group creates. Continuing the history being written by one group for the above Big Picture, we see these facets, beginning with the Bookends, which are the start and the end of a group’s fictional history:
Beginning Period: Nuclear war has broken out, and nobody is safe. The only way to escape is up, defectors must enter the space capsule and leave behind earth to reach Mars.
Ending Period: The colonists' peaceful time on Mars has ended abruptly. The indigenous aliens oppose the colonization and fight for their land. Warships emerge from the emptiness of space seeking to reclaim their land. After a long war, the colonists lose, but they manage to board a space capsule and flee to their former planet Earth.
After the Bookends, the group decided on the Palette. This gives each student a chance to include or exclude an element from the shared story. The Palette is not collaborative, but one student cannot outright contradict what another student has already stated.
Included Elements: planets, Mars, NASA/space organization, plague/disease, and a human tyrant
Excluded Elements: children, Asteroids
After the Palette, each student gets to participate in the First Pass, during which he gets to add either another Period or an Event within a Period. This starts the process of fleshing out the fictional timeline by adding elements that occur between the Bookends. For example:
Period 1 - Time on Earth: Nuclear War leads to nuclear fall leaving Earth uninhabitable. A group of humans flees Earth in hopes of establishing a new life elsewhere.
Period 2 - Time in Space: After humans stole the spacecraft, they flew into space looking for a new planet to live on. Their engine broke down and they had to crash it into a planet that was discovered as Mars.
Period 3 - Time on Mars: After the humans land on Mars they find ways to survive on this unknown planet and must work together to survive.
Event 3.1 - The War between Humans and Aliens: After a brief time of uneasy peace between aliens and humans war breaks and life is in jeopardy for the Humans.
As our experiment with Microscope continues into the fourth quarter, the students will increase the detail of their fictional histories. They shall add characters. They shall act out short scenes to explore the outcomes of conflicts that they invent. The students’ points of view shall jump back and forth from the macro to the micro. While their work ends up in chronological order, the creative process itself is not constrained by fictional time. What the students choose to explore need not be sequential.
Along the way, the students learn and reinforce some valuable skills. Collaboration is not easy. Strong personalities have to tone it down to ensure everyone has a voice. Quieter personalities find themselves thrust into the spotlight, having to at least briefly take on a leadership role within the group. Attention must be paid to cause-effect in order to construct narratives that make sense. Elements of characterization come up, especially regarding motivation and consequences of choices.
The 8th grade gentlemen are done with the initial steps of the Microscope system. The ten groups have good starts made for their respective fictional histories. When we return from Spring Break and the last quarter of the school year begins, this experiment in team storytelling shall continue.
I am eager to see what their fictional histories reveal.
Correction: In the original post, I stated that Ben Robbins, author of Microscope, was a teacher. Mr. Robbins has since corrected me. Mea culpa maxima.
Today, I'm going to talk about a subject that I'm quite familiar with. I'm going to talk about me.
Several years ago at another school, an administrator explained to me that I ought not take my job personally. This administrator advised me that a student's difficulties in class aren't my problem. Those difficulties belong to the student, and as such do not reflect on my skills as a teacher or my dedication to the profession.
But each year when I was evaluated (often by someone who had never set foot in my classroom while I was working with students), the government-issued evaluation form claimed to measure the effectiveness of my classroom management skills. If students misbehaved, it was some combination of me:
1. Being too permissive with discipline.
2. Being too strict with discipline.
3. Being too arbitrary with discipline.
If my classroom management skills were fine, but students still misbehaved and/or got poor grades, then that too was my fault. When that annual evaluation rolled around, the same government-issued form explained that a lack of student achievement was due to some combination of me:
1. Failing to plan engaging lessons.
2. Failing to take into account student interests.
3. Failing to take into account student differences.
So, when that administrator told me that a student's difficulties are not my fault, that statement was not quite accurate. When it came time to be evaluated, the criteria used made it clear that at least some of the responsibility was mine. Imagine a student who does not behave properly or learn well in my class. Can I honestly say that I bear no responsibility for that student's lack of progress?
Which, of course, is not to say that I bear the primary responsibility. I remind my students that they cannot escape two great truths about education:
1. The primary responsibility for behaving like a scholar is yours.
2. The primary responsibility for behaving like a gentleman is yours.
No matter how well I plan a lesson or how clearly I communicate behavioral expectations, a student who refuses his primary responsibilities is going to run into problems, and that's his fault. When necessary, the student must be held to account for his failures, preferably in a way that demonstrates the benefits of cooperation.
But that does not let me off the hook. At other schools, I've worked under administrations that I felt were a bit too permissive about student conduct and/or achievement. That also does not let me off the hook. No matter what, I must do what I can to encourage my students to succeed both morally and academically (and it ought to go without saying that the former is more important than the latter). Thus, I must do these things:
1. I must set the example morally and academically. I cannot ask a student to be either a gentleman or a scholar if I am not both.
2. My example must be visible in both word and deed, especially in deed.
3. I must pray for my students, especially the ones who most vex me.
4. When praying for vexatious students, I must pray more for me to have the grace I need than I pray for the student to amend his behavior.
That last point cannot be over-emphasized. Returning the word to its Latin roots, "educate" means "to lead out of". If I'm going to be the best educator I can be, then I have to be out front of my students, leading them to where they need to go while pointing out the paths they ought to avoid. If a student gets lost, I've got to do my best to find him, to take him by the hand if necessary to get him back on the narrow way.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In March 1925, the Tennessee state legislature passed into law the Butler Act. In the Tennessee House of Representatives, about 93% of legislators voted in favor of the law. Eighty percent of state’s senators supported the passage of the bill. The text of the law is brief. Here’s the substantive part:
"That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
Let’s parse this. Note that it applied only to public schools that received funds from the state government. The Butler Act did not forbid teaching the Darwinian evolution, except in one specific context. The Butler Act forbade teaching “that man has descended from a lower order of animals”, thus demonstrating that “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” is false.
By May 1925, the ACLU had enlisted the cooperation of John Scopes, a coach and substitute classroom teacher; Fred Robinson, a drugstore owner; and a group of Dayton, Tennessee, businessmen. These men answered a newspaper advertisement searching for people to mount a challenge to the Butler Act. Robinson and other business leaders figured this would be a good way to put Dayton on the map, thus increasing local business profits. Scopes, then in his mid-20s, saw an opportunity to become famous, and local business leaders promised Scopes that they’d help shield him from any resulting problems (such as having to pay the fine mandated by the law).
The Butler Act was not passed into law due to anti-science animus in Tennessee. Rather, the act aimed at crippling the influence of the eugenics movement. Proponents of eugenics embraced a pseudo-science that was all the rage among early 20th century progressives. More than 30 states had passed eugenics laws by the 1920s, and state government agents had forcibly sterilized tens of thousands of Americans in keeping with the “public health” aims of these laws. Tennessee’s neighbor Virginia, for example, used roadblocks and house-to-house sweeps conducted by police officers in order to arrest so-called “defectives” for subsequent sterilization. Entire families were subjected to these measures.
Tennessee was one of the few states in the U.S. that had no eugenics laws, and the majority of Tennessee’s citizens didn’t want such laws. The citizens and elected officials of Tennessee understood that progressives wanted to ensure that measures to protect “public health” were enacted, and that those same progressives viewed rural Tennesseans as unfit to marry and have children. The biblical doctrine of God’s creation of man was seen as a bulwark against eugenics and the sorts of public policies and laws that eugenicists promoted.
In response to what the majority of Tennesseans wanted, a collection of Dayton businessmen looking to increase profits allied themselves with the ACLU and a young football coach to concoct a case against the Butler Act. Scopes admitted that he taught about the evolution of man from lower animals in violation of the Butler Act. His guilt under the conditions of that statute was never questioned. The Scopes Trial’s whole aim was to discredit “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” in order to establish the truth “that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” To use a current phrase, those opposed to the Butler Act just wanted “to follow the science”.
The textbook Scopes admitted to have used was George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology, first published in 1914. It was the required text in Tennessee high schools. Since Scopes admitted to teaching about the evolution of the human species, it’s necessary to look at a few sections from A Civic Biology to see what the textbook says about the topic. Here are six relevant excerpts:
1. “Although anatomically there is a greater difference between the lowest type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is between the highest type of ape and the lowest savage, yet there is an immense mental gap between monkey and man.”
2. “At the present time there exist upon the earth fives races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”
3. “If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.”
4. “When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.”
5. “Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents…. Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”
6. “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.”
It’s again necessary to parse some text to see the implication of what the proponents of eugenics wanted taught in school:
1. When the text refers to “the lowest savage”, it is referring primarily to peoples living in sub-Saharan Africa. The claim here is that there is a greater difference between monkeys and apes than there is between apes and certain “races or varieties of man”.
2. The most evolutionarily advanced race are “the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” Note that the “varieties of man” are listed in order from lowest to highest, as determined by the pseudo-science of eugenics.
3. People should breed (or be bred) with the same goals sought in the breeding of livestock.
4. It is criminal that certain people are allowed to marry and have children.
5. The “science of…eugenics” has studied the topic of human improvement and has reached sound conclusions based on these studies. People with “mental and moral defects” who have families “are true parasites.”
6. Since killing these “true parasites” is not possible, steps must be taken to separate them from society in order to prevent “intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”
Contrary to popular history, the defense never demonstrated the falsity or even the unreasonableness of the biblical view of creation. Scopes was found guilty after a bit less than 10 minutes of deliberation by the jury. He was fined. The prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State under President Wilson and three-time Democratic Party nominee for the Oval Office, was not revealed by Clarence Darrow to be a simple-minded biblical literalist. Darrow had Bryan on the stand under oath. Darrow tried to get Bryan to admit that the biblical creation story was soundly contradicted by the theory of evolution. Bryan admitted no such thing, stating, for example, that days of creation in Genesis need not be seen only as 24-hour days. Bryan plainly stated:
“I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.”
The Butler Act was not passed into law by narrow-minded, anti-science bigots. Rather, the Butler Act’s supporters intended to protect the citizens of Tennessee from the racist, classist, and ableist pseudo-science of eugenics that progressives thought justified violating the “unalienable Rights” of citizens viewed as “low and degenerate”. The “unalienable Rights” held by the people targeted by eugenicists come from an equality granted by “their Creator”; therefore, it became a necessary part of the eugenics movement to dismantle the idea of “the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. Once the idea of a Creator who grants rights that transcend the state is done away with, forcible sterilization and even wholesale extermination become law put into effect by those who claim “the science is settled.”
A few days ago, I thought out loud about the Parable of the Sower from the Gospel According to St. Mark. Last night, I watched my school's varsity basketball team hit the court for their first (and last) playoff game this season. Most the young men on the team are my students. Those who aren't shall be next year. Watching them play, I saw good ground. From the beginning of the season to now, their improvement as a team is obvious. Likewise, the individual improvement of several players cannot go unnoticed.
On the court, they paid attention to each other and the other team's players. They kept their eye on the ball. They had absorbed the drills repeated during practice. The Regis Knight with the ball knew who to look for. The Regis Knights without the ball knew where to be and when to be there.
I saw them play some of the best basketball I have seen them play all season. They had each other's backs. They demonstrated grace under pressure. They demonstrated physical courage. They demonstrated the sort of a gentlemanly conduct in the face of a challenge that we teachers strive to impart. In those long last two minutes of the game, when it became ever clearer that their opponents would win, my Regis Knights stayed focused and driven. If any Knight had lost hope, it didn't show.
I couldn't be prouder of them.
On the court, those young men were good ground. They were what I called "fourth-way students" in my last blogpost. The difficulties, worries, and distractions encountered during the game did not stop them from playing as well as they could. What would that focus and drive look like in a different context?
Imagine if each of my English classes thought of themselves as a team. Imagine if each student in each of my English classes knew his peers had his back. How often would a student show up without his book? Without something to write with? How often would a student show up on Mass day wearing the wrong uniform? How often would a student be blind-sided by a quiz that's been on the calendar for more than week?
Consider this: About every three weeks, my student have a poem to memorize for recitation. For some reason, one of the recent poems looked to be an insurmountable challenge for too many of them. More than two weeks after the poem had been assigned, student after student failed to recite more than the first quatrain. A few couldn't get through the first line. Imagine if my students saw poetry as a team sport. Imagine how that might change their behavior and attitude.
Imagine how much better their ground could be.
One of the earmarks of truth is its applicability in contexts beyond that truth's initial setting. The more often some thing remains true regardless of its context, the more true that thing is. For example, let's consider the Parable of the Sower (The Gospel According to St. Mark 4:1-20).
The occasion of this parable is remarkable in Scripture. In it, Jesus tells a crowd a story about a farmer scattering seeds. Later in private, the Apostles ask Jesus what he meant, and Jesus explains the parable's meaning to the Apostles alone. Obviously, the Apostles shared what Jesus told them in private, otherwise Mark, who was not one of the Twelve, could not have recorded the explanation, but this incident points to at least the possibility of authentic apostolic teaching passed on orally but never written down. In other words, it points to Sacred Tradition.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains the four responses to truth that a person might have. Implicit in Jesus' explanation to the Apostles are two main points:
1. The primary responsibility for my response to truth rests with me.
2. The circumstances of my life affect my response to truth.
If we divorce the parable from its Christian purpose, the truth of the parable does not change. It remains an accurate examination of human behavior and psychology. I see this truth every day with my students. When I turn my powers of perception toward myself, I see this truth in my own behavior as well.
In the parable, the seed that is sown is the word of God. It is the truth that leads to salvation. Like all truth, it imposes obligations. Accepting the truth means setting my own will, my own desires, aside insofar as those desires conflict with the truth. If I refuse to conform my actions to the truth, then I live a lie.
So, what does this have to do with teaching? Well, at a basic level, it reminds me that every time I ask my students to do something, they have four courses of action open to them.
Course one involves defiance. The student hears what I'm saying, knows what he's supposed to do, and refuses to do it. He makes a conscious choice to disobey. Courses two and three are similar to each other. On either path, the student chooses obedience, and he starts out intending to do what he's told. He may even be enthusiastic about the task, but he still falls short of the mark. Along one way, difficulties arise. The task turns out to be harder than anticipated, and the student gives up or phones it in. Along the other way, worries and distractions turn into obstacles. Students who end up on these two paths do not complete their task, or complete the task with a minimum of commitment to their best efforts.
A student who chooses the fourth way does what he is told to the best of his ability. He may not end up doing as well as the student sitting next to him, but he completes the task, and he can justly be proud of his efforts even if room for improvement remains. The fourth-way student experiences difficulties. He has worries and encounters distractions. These difficulties, worries, and distractions do not keep him from reaching his goal.
Which brings us to a Big Question: How do we charged with responsibility for a student's education and moral development encourage those students to choose the fourth way?
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.