Gauntlet 5 - A New Holiday
In honor of National Hair Day, celebrated today, it's time for a new Gauntlet.
The challenge this time? Simple. Using about 250 words, invent a new holiday by answering these questions:
When does the holiday occur?
What does this new holiday celebrate?
Why does it celebrate what it is does?
How ought people celebrate the holiday?
I look forward to your responses, which are due before Monday, 11 October. Save your submission as as Gauntlet 5 [Insert Your Name Here]. For example, my file would be named Gauntlet 5 Mr Chance. Email your response to the challenge to mchance at theregisschool dot org.
A tree better weathers the storm when it has deep roots. So too with people.
Growing up, I didn’t have deep roots. I barely had roots at all. My contact with my father’s side of the family was nonexistent for almost my entire childhood all the way through my first few years in the military. Contact with my mother’s side of the family happened, but not often, mostly due to distances. My grandmother and uncle lived in El Paso, and my aunt and her husband lived either out of state or even out of the country for many years. After my mother remarried, I met my stepfather’s family, and we saw them more often than other extended family members, but not much more.
In high school and later in the Army, I had friends from disparate places. I knew people from Pakistan, India, Mexico, and Japan. I served alongside soldiers from both U.S. coasts and all sorts of places in between. I met Koreans, Puerto Ricans, West Virginians, and Virgin Islanders. What a revelation!
Many of these friends talked of something that I didn’t have growing up. They talked of close family, of their ethnic and religious heritages, and, often, of the music and the foods they grew up with, which often grew out of their culture.
I was jealous. I hadn’t had those things. Sure, I grew up listening to music, but it was mostly the popular music of the 60s and 70s. Of course, I had food, much of it processed or fast. My religious upbringing was spotty, and I had no discernible ethnicity other than “lower middle class white kid”. My friends talked about their cousins, nieces, and nephews. I have cousins. I don’t know any of them. I had no nieces and nephews until after I got married.
So, in a conscious effort of self-invention, I sought what I’d not had. The easiest way to do this was through music. If a friend loved a musician or band, I bought the album and learned to love it as well. I prowled through the dustier sections of my parents’ album collection and found the LPs that seldom got played. I discovered the Blues, the works of George Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, blue-eyed soul, and the rock ’n’ roll of the 50s. From my friends, I found funk and R & B, heavy metal, Tejano, hip hop, new wave, and punk rock.
And, following the musical roots of those genres back through time, I found undreamed of treasures, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Tharpe picked up a guitar and started to play when she was four years old. She was born into a musical family, and by age six she toured with her mother as part of a gospel troupe that performed in churches throughout the South. Along the way, Tharpe absorbed the Blues of the Mississippi delta and the jazz of New Orleans, and she joined those uniquely American forms of music to her formative gospel songs.
And, man, but could she play the guitar!
Tharpe’s guitar playing influenced a host of later musicians, including the likes of Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards. The latter two musicians were part of my childhood soundtrack. My stepfather Jimmie is an Eric Clapton fan, and my mother was a Rolling Stones fan. I knew Clapton and the Stones, but I didn’t know that through them I connected to styles of music that originated in the early decades of the 20th century United States.
Jazz and the Blues are distinctively American, and the aspirations and struggles of America’s disenfranchised peoples birthed them both. Along the way, the jazz and the Blues have influenced every other form of American music there is, becoming the first vehicle by which American popular culture spread to foreign shores. In the cities of some of those other nations, American music became the soundtrack of freedom despite various regimes’ attempts at suppression.
This year, I introduce my students to a Musician of the Week each week on campus. Not all of the musicians are from the U.S., but their music usually includes American influences. Most recently, my students met Sister Rosetta Tharpe. They’ve also met Django Reinhardt, Charlie “Bird” Parker, John Coltrane, José Manuel Calderón, and Tito Puente.
Tomorrow begins a new week. Whom shall my students meet next?
The Coming Battle
The 2021-2022 school year has roared to life. My 7th and 8th grade boys experienced the joys of homework on the very first day of class as I handed out novels for them to read: Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece for the former and Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc for the latter. The reading pace to complete their respective novels ought not exceed 50-55 pages a week at most, and that’s excluding weekends. The students have by now all watched and taken notes from at least one instructional video as well. The maximization of instructional time being used to observe and assist students demonstrating their level of mastery over our curriculum has begun. The 8th grade boys have also participated in their first Socratic discussion over the question, “How can Chaplain Kapaun teach me the meaning of heroic virtue?”
Hitting the ground running has so far proven prudent, but that’s not the topic of this post. Instead, I return to 3 June’s post wherein I reflected upon last school year’s writing challenges.
I shall toss down the first gauntlet just before Labor Day weekend, and I shall strive to issue another challenge a couple of weeks later. The two gauntlets a month rate of writing challenges seems the best way to go, and so we shall.
I’ve also pondered more the advancement of Pages toward full knighthood. Students earn points based on the number of challenges they answer, doing so as follows:
A Page has answered one or two challenges.
A Squire has answered at least three but fewer than six challenges.
A Knight-Errant has answered at least six but fewer than ten challenges.
A Knight-Bachelor has answered at least ten but fewer than fifteen challenges.
A Knight-Banneret has answered at least sixteen challenges.
This means, as I mentioned in that previous post, I have one student who has earned promotion from Page to Squire. His Certificate of Merit will be ready for public presentation during our morning assembly this Friday.
Preparing to Flip
We’ve got a bit more than a month before we return to campus for the 2021-2022 school year. Barring some major turn of events, the most onerous of policies related to COVID-19 will be gone. When we start up again, we’re back to business as usual. This means the return of my efforts to flip my classroom.
The usual format for many classes goes something like this (in theory):
1. The students arrive and take X amount of time to get settled and attentive.
2. The goals and structure of the day’s lesson are previewed.
3. Explanations, discussions, examples, and note-taking about the day’s lesson occur.
4. During some of time remaining in class (often about 10-15 minutes), the students work on a class assignment.
5. Homework is given, and the day’s class is summed up.
6. The students leave. When they get home, they have X amount of homework to complete before the next time class meets.
In practice, those six steps may go awry. One or more students may be absent or arrive late. Note-taking may grind progress to a halt while most wait on the few to catch up. The homework may not get done until the following morning in the time between arrival and morning prayer. Et cetera.
The most pressing problem with this usual format also relates to homework. A student may claim he understands the concepts covered via homework. This claim may be based in reality, or the student may be saying what he thinks the teacher wants to hear, or the student’s self-assessment of his understanding may be inaccurate. Regardless, when the student gets home, he struggles with the homework as well as with a lack of access to the one who assigned the homework. None of my students live with me, and attempting to contact me via email after the school day’s end may not produce results quickly enough for the student’s needs.
A flipped classroom shifts typical classroom steps 2, 3, and 5 to different locations, thus transforming step 4 into something with greater impact. Via recorded lecture, I move steps 2 and 3 from the classroom to the home. The lesson’s goals and structure, explanations, examples, and note-taking become homework. For example, here’s one of my videos.
The next time class meets after the video has been assigned, we pick up with discussion and questions about the video followed by in-class activities designed to give students a chance to see how well they understand the lesson. Consequently, the amount of time available for work under the supervision and with the guidance of the expert (me) may increase by as much as one-hundred percent. Along the way, students develop two important skills applicable to more than just the classroom:
First, they develop the discipline needed to prepare for work by focusing their attention on expository material and includes note-taking and a small amount of independent work. This occurs at home with no expectations that anyone assists the student.
Second, given the longer periods of sustained, supervised work, the students continue to strengthen their self-discipline and their fortitude. It also becomes more difficult to rush through a short assignment (step 4 above) so that class time can be used (or misused) for other things.
Visiting Some Benedictines, Part 2
Wednesday, 9 June
Our second day at Clear Creek Monastery started with Matins and Lauds beginning at a quarter after five in the morning. The morning air cool, the church interior silent and dimly lit, a few guest attendees already waited for the monks’ arrival when Christopher and I took our places in the pews. The monks entered. There was no conversation, no music, no fanfare. The bells tolled, and there was a sort of silent anticipation. The monks chanted their prayers, starting the clock, so to speak, on their day.
As Matins and Lauds echoed, outside the sun rose. Slowly, surely, light filtered in through the small windows to our left and right. The dark stained glass windows behind the main altar illuminated. Morning prayers finished, and the new day had dawned. Most of the monks left. A few stayed to prepare three altars for Masses.
Each Mass was “said” in silence, all three simultaneously. Two altars on our side of the Communion rail stood to the left and right. The main altar stood some distance away. While I couldn’t be sure because of distance and dim lighting, I think there is a smaller altar between the main altar and the farthest wall below the stained glass windows. A fourth priest may have been celebrating the Mass at that altar as well. Although the celebrants spoke nothing aloud, the familiar gestures and postures clearly let us know which part of the Mass we were witnessing. In the downstairs crypt chapel, there is another main altar as well as eight side altars. For all I know, nine more priests also could have been celebrating the Mass at each of those altars.
Part of every Mass said everywhere in the world every day of the week includes petitions of prayer offered for others. The monks celebrate Mass twice each morning: the Low Masses after Lauds and the Conventual Mass after Terce. This is the first part of the Benedictine Order’s motto: Ora et Labora. Prayer and Work. Every Mass is a prayer, and everything the monks do begins, includes, and ends with prayer. By means of Ora et Labora, the entire day is ordered toward God. Everything is done for God out of love for God.
The first Mass of the day completed, we had some time before Prime, the next period of common prayer. Christopher and I didn’t do much. After Prime, it was time for breakfast, which was served about 9 a.m. We’d been up since before 5 a.m. Half a workday had elapsed before our first meal of the day.
Breakfast is somewhat informal. There’s still no chit chat, but the monks and guests come and go as necessary during the time breakfast is served. I had Frosted Mini-Wheats, hot coffee, cold milk, and bread with peanut butter and jelly. Once breakfast was done, we had some time to kill before Terce and the Conventual Mass.
I called my wife Trina, who informed me of car troubles with the Kia. She was working back in Houston to see how serious those troubles were. Christopher and I were due back in Houston some time Friday. Leaving my wife and daughter without a vehicle for two days was not an attractive thought.
Then, it was time for Terce and the Conventual Mass, both of which are open to the public. Several families arrived. This second Mass was the first Latin High Mass I’ve attended. As is the case with the Latin prayers, not knowing Latin is not really an obstacle. The English translation is included in the prayer books and missal. The austerity of the Mass has a sort of stark beauty. There’s no choir, and, thankfully, no band.
Bongos, tambourines, and guitars are not bad things, but they have no place in the Latin Rite. Such innovations do not add to the Sacred Liturgy. Also, there were no hymnals, which, in Catholic parishes, are too often filled with cringe-worthy folksy music influenced by the 60s and 70s. Again, such music has no place in the Liturgy, which is supposed to offer our best to God. The works of Marty Haugen and Dan Schutte, for example, are never going to be our best.
After Mass, Christopher and I visited the monks’ book store. I purchased both The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture by John Senior. I called Trina again, talking outside to get a signal, which also necessitated staying away from the gradually increasing number of wasps and hornets, two of the main reasons why I like the idea of the country more than being in the country. The prognosis for the Kia appeared dire. I found Father Guestmaster and let him know that Christopher and I would need to leave in the morning, a day earlier than planned.
Mid-day prayer time arrived, announced by the bells. Lunch followed. The informality of breakfast was gone. Lunch begins and ends with communal prayer. Of course, we had bread. There was also a potato-in-vegetable-broth soup, something very much like a quiche, and a mixture of hominy and cabbage. For dessert, we had cold lemony curds with Hershey’s Kisses and coffee. By this time, my knee was swollen again, which meant it was time to recline and read more of The Wind in the Willows. I also slept some. Christopher ended up working in a garden with one of the monks.
Twenty-four hours after our arrival, it was time for Vespers again. Dinner followed Vespers, which meant more communal prayers before and after the meal. The meal itself consisted of bread and broth, steamed carrots mixed with some sort of grain, and a wedge of heavy, bittersweet cake. Also, I drank water. Lots of water.
We ended our day with Compline in the chapel. As the monks chanted the last prayers of the day, outside the sun set. The gradual illumination of the large stained glass windows we watched in the morning reversed itself. Light and color faded into shadows and muted tones.
Christopher and I packed non-essentials before retiring for the evening. After Matins and Lauds the next morning, we packed the remainder of our things and hit the road. Our trip to Clear Creek Abbey ended, albeit earlier than planned.
Visiting Some Benedictines, Part 1
Tuesday, 8 June
At oh-dark-thirty, Christopher and I arose. We’d packed our clothes the night before. I showered. While Christopher showered I ground some coffee beans and made what I thought might have been my last cup of coffee until Friday morning. After Christopher and I dressed, we finished packing, loaded the car, and hit the road, directions from our home to Clear Creek Abbey in eastern Oklahoma spelled out on a five-by-eight index card.
We had packed light. Shirt and pants combinations sorted on hangers. Necessary toiletries and medicines (or so I thought). My school computer on which I’ve typed these words. My copy of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which is the summer reading for my incoming 7th grade boys. We took the Rav 4, which had been serviced a couple of weeks ago and which proudly rode on four new tires. I filled up the elbow-side compartment with CDs to sing along with during the drive.
Our route took us up I-45 North until Fairfield, Texas, but first we stopped in Madisonville to visit the Lakeside Restaurant. I’ve eaten there once or twice before heading to or from the Dallas area, a section of the state we would avoid this trip. The freeways around Dallas and Forth Worth are a maze built by madmen, and so we left I-45 behind in Fairfield, taking farm roads and state highways, zigzagging north toward the Red River.
We passed into Oklahoma shortly before lunchtime, arriving in Hugo. It was here that my index card of directions proved inaccurate. A helpful lady at a Dollar General and then later a helpful gentlemen at a Choctaw Nation gas station in the Ozarks kept us on the right path. We hit Muskogee around 4 p.m., and I regretted not bring my Merle Haggard collection.
Since we’d skipped lunch to make up some lost time, we decided to not skip dinner. When traveling, I prefer to eat at local places rather than nation-wide chains. Give me some Mom-and-Pop family business diner over Denny’s or McDonald’s. Intrigued by a roadside sign, we stopped at the Amish Country Store & Restaurant in Muskogee.
Christopher had the open-faced meatloaf and I had The Jacob, a hearty portion of roast beef flanked by slices of American cheese and sandwiched between thick pieces of toasted bread with a side order of onion rings. Christopher had the apple cider; I had the blueberry. Wonderful food and friendly service by his and hers youths. The His, a lad sporting longish hair and an attempt at a moustache, restored some hope in today’s youth with his Pink Floyd T-shirt. I refrained from asking about his favorite Pink Floyd album for fear that he’d admit to only buying the T-shirt because he thought it looked cool.
We arrived at the Clear Creek Monastery about 5 p.m. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. No paved roads lead onto its property. At night, not a single town light or head light is visible. Wooded hills surround the monastery on all sides. We carried our stuff to our cells in the men’s guesthouse, a four story structure adjacent to the church and refectory. Our rooms are small, about 15-feet square, with an attached shower-and-sink bathing room. The other facilities are down the hall in a common men’s room.
At 6 p.m., we attended Vespers. My Latin is rusty due to disuse. Even with the aid of the prayer book, I lost my place as the monks chanted the prayers. I kept up with what Latin sections I could; when I couldn’t, I read the English. The chant was beautiful. The acoustics in the high-ceilinged, thick-walled, minimally windowed church gather up the Latin chords and spread them about the space, adding a soft layer of meditative hum to the prayers. Best of all, there was absolutely no sense that Vespers, which was well-attended by guests of the monastery, is any sort of public performance. The monks do not chant to impress an audience. They chant to raise their voices in unison to the praise and glory of God in a manner similar to what Benedictines have been doing for about 1,500 years.
(Nota Bene: If you’ve got about 25 minutes to spare, this link goes to a video of monks at Conception Abbey in Missouri chanting Vespers.)
After Vespers, we male guests lined up outside the refectory. Father Guestmaster (his title, not his actual name) explained briefly the structure of supper. We filed past two monks, one of whom held a bowl and pitcher of water, the other of whom held a towel, so that we could ceremonially wash our hands before entering the refectory. Father Guestmaster showed up to our places.
After more prayers standing so as to face the center of the room, we sat and ate in silence. No idle chit-chat occurs during supper, which consisted of three courses. We started with heavy bread and some sort of grain in vegetable broth. A mixture of cold carrots and green beans from the monastery gardens followed. For dessert, there was a sort of dense cake, vaguely sweet, which we could top with applesauce. We served ourselves lemonade or water from pitchers. Supper concluded, and we stood for a brief prayer before filing out of the refectory.
By this time, the early morning start combined with the long drive and the lack of air conditioning in the monastery's buildings had caused my feet to swell. Heading up and down the stairs to and from the third floor of the guesthouse had taken its toll on my knees. I’d forgotten my joint salve as well as any sort of over-the-counter pain meds. I was uncomfortably sticky. So, I showered, put on a pair of shorts, and set the box fan atop the desk in my room so that the air circulated better. By the time Compline, the final prayers of the day, started, I had read the first two chapters of The Wind in the Willows and fallen into a reasonably sound sleep.
Thus ended day one.
Reflecting & Planning
Back in October 2020, I started the Knights of the Mightier Pen as a response to COVID-related restrictions putting the kibosh on extracurricular activities. Our Regis Knights needed outlets for their energies, but the school's precautions made the normal after-school activities impossible for a time. I figured that since so much of what we were doing had been moved to on-line formats, why not one more thing? I concluded the first Mightier Pen post with this paragraph:
Each Friday starting 6 November, I shall throw down the gauntlet in the form of a writing challenge. Regis Knights who have chosen to join the Mightier Pen Knights may pick up that gauntlet and complete the challenge. By doing so, a student enters the Hall of Heroes and may even earn the honor of having his work featured in a blogpost.
And, for several weeks, it all worked well. Sort of. Between October 2020 and the end of January 2021, I tossed down a total of five gauntlets. Those who are good at counting may note that five in about four months is not one writing challenge each week. A small number of students answered my challenges with about a dozen submissions. The last challenge, the one from January 2021, remains unanswered. I didn't post again to this site until near the end of April 2021. If the Knights of the Mightier are to survive, we need a reboot.
One challenge a week from me is unrealistic. I know that now. It's not so much that I can't come up with a weekly challenge as it is that each challenge which solicits responses obliges me to devote time to each student's submission. Posting to the site and updating the Hall of Heroes also takes time. It all adds up. Also, our Regis Knights are busy gentlemen and scholars, and this next year they'll be busier as it seems likely that COVID-related restrictions shall continue to vanish, which means their usual extracurricular activities shall return. With all the additional options and demands, this attractions of this project may become increasingly small.
So, when the new school year begins in August 2021, I shall endeavor to post a challenge twice a month. The more leisurely pace affords me more time for reading, site maintenance, et cetera, and affords the students more time to craft their submissions.
If you look at the Hall of Heroes, you'll notice that each student has a rank followed by a parenthetical number. For example, Tate C. is a Page (2). This means he's answered two writing challenges. Presumably, by diligent effort, Tate C. shall continue to advance in rank.
But what does this mean?
The three basic steps of knighthood are Page, Squire, and Knight. Knighthood is conferred via the accolade, at which time the squire is dubbed a knight. Within the rank of knight, there are distinctions, such as knight-errant, knight bachelor, knight banneret, et cetera. These distinctions may prove useful for the Knights of the Mightier Pen.
Advancement is based primarily on accepting and meeting challenges. Each challenge earns a point, so to speak. After a certain number points are earned, the Page becomes a Squire becomes a Knight, and so forth.
With the slower pace planned for the coming school year, it makes sense to scale the number of points need to advance downward. (Not that I ever really had any hard, fast numbers in mind to begin with.) I'm thinking three points reaches Squire, and four points reaches Knight. Going this route, I owe Dominic H. a promotion, along with the attendant honors.
Page: Entry into the Hall of Heroes suffices for the honor bestowed upon a Page. A Page also receives a Coat of Arms, which is displayed in the Hall of Heroes. After this, additional honors ought to be conferred.
Squire: A Page reaching the rank of Squire shall be bequeathed a Certificate of Merit in a public ceremony. Our morning assembly is an ideal venue for this sort of thing.
Knight: A Squire reaching the rank of Knight shall receive the accolade in a public ceremony. This should include the new Knight receiving his nom de plume, an additional title suffixed to his name. (This also gives me an excuse to bring my sword to school.)
I like the idea of adding additional ranks beyond Knight. I'll have to hammer out those details. Also, since Knights compete in tournaments, maybe I need to plan some sort of writing tournament? I've never done this sort of thing, so I'll likely need to seek out some expert help.
Summer time off arrives, and with it arrive new opportunities, chief among them the opportunity to properly understand what leisure ought to mean.
Leisure is not merely time off from labor. Leisure does not just mean sitting around, watching TV, playing games, and giving in to the near mindlessness of clickbait social media and news entertainment. Leisure has a higher purpose. As Josef Pieper's thesis states, "[I]t is essential to begin by reckoning with the fact that one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure" (Leisure: The Basis of Culture).
"Leisure" has its roots in Latin, specifically the verb licere, which means "to be allowed" and is also the root of the word "license". In Greek, Pieper notes, "leisure" is skole, which means school. The classical conception of leisure asserts that leisure is a privilege, a time free from the demands of labor performed for the benefit of others which is then used for benefit of the self.
In short, leisure, properly understood, is time I use to make me better than I am.
The Regis School is a Sacred Heart school, which means the students' labor aims at more than just the acquisition of knowledge (itself a very good thing). The overarching goals of the Regis School put first things first by aiming to educate our students toward "a personal and active faith in God". After this comes "a deep respect for intellectual values".
In short, education at the Regis School, properly understood, includes time that I structure so that others may become better than they are.
During the school year, if I'm a student, the demands of my teachers consume much of my time. My students' school day officially starts about 8:00 a.m. and ends about 3:30 p.m. Before this, students presumably get ready for school. After this, students usually have homework and/or some sort of extracurricular activity. Each of my students has what is the equivalent of a full-time job.
For this reason, I am loathe to assign homework over weekends and holidays, to include over the summer, and there is a danger in this. By signaling that those times ought to be as free as possible from school work may encourage the perception that those times ought to be from learning.
Leisure time should be oriented toward self-improvement based on my talents, my interests, and my honest assessment of my deficiencies. C. S. Lewis compared a bad habit to a bent wire. If I want to straighten the wire, I have to bend it in the other direction. For example, if I know I spend too much time reflexively refreshing this or that social media site, then my leisure time should be spent doing something else.
Reflexively refreshing this or that social media site adds little value to my life. It doesn't make a better man, a better father, a better teacher, or a better husband. One could argue that it detracts from progress toward those goals. Odds are really good that if I stopped posting on Facebook or MeWe that very few people would notice. Life for most of my hundreds of friends, many of whom I've never met in real life, would go on as before. Social media sites don't do much other than feed morsels to my ego. The likes, shares, and comments, no matter how superficial, reinforce the illusion that I've connected in a meaningful way to another person.
The truth is this: Just about all I've really done is continue to provide data to be sold to advertisers, who are then better able to target me with solicitations for products that algorithms indicate I might purchase. Surely I can do better, and so, this summer I've put together a simple schedule that might help keep me focused on being active both mentally and physically. Today is day two of that schedule, and this blogpost, once written, revised, and posted, is a goal accomplished.
Little by little, I strive to straighten a few bent wires.
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.