The hyperbolical account of my private-school teaching job: Part 1
For a couple of years I worked for the small private Christian school here on the Island. Its name isn’t important, but its denominational association grew in significance the longer I taught there. The school was run by the Assemblies of God (AG) church and many of its denominational principles could be seen in the administrative decisions and in the overall structure of the school. One such principle was that of informality, of a kind of ‘pal’ or ‘buddy’ relationship that could be seen everywhere: in the emails, in the meetings, and even in the décor and use of space within the building itself. It was this infernal informality that ultimatey drove me to doubt every tenent of education I’d ever held and eventually got me, not exactly ‘fired’, but ‘let go’ from the institution. It is likely that my orthodox beliefs—both in theology and in education—also had something to do
with it. But then, what is orthodox if not formal?
This pal-around school was also what is popularly known, with varying degrees of meaning, as a ‘Christian Classical school’ where—at least in theory, and in this instance, only in theory—principles of classical education are put to work. The principles of classicism are somewhat wide-ranging in this day and age, but essentially they operate on what is known as the Trivium, a laddered and multi-layered approach to learning that encompasses the stages of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
From the grammar stage, which is also called the ‘poll parrot’ stage because it involves lots of memorization and ‘parroting-back’ of information, one moves into the logic stage, in which one learns not merely fallacies and how to spot them, but also formal logic and what Aristotle meant by ‘argument’. One then rounds this out with the rhetoric stage wherein language becomes ever-more significant and the art of speaking is raised to an appreciated level. One begins to see the need for formality here, but for now we shall continue on without editorial.
These stages—grammar, logic, rhetoric—are roughly coordinated with the Elementary, Junior High and High School levels, respectively, but grammar, logic and rhetoric are, as one who has any experience with classical learning will attest, also stages within a subject, and form the framework for further growth in that subject. That is: even history has a ‘grammar’, as does art, music, and science. One will not be ready to move to the logic stage in anything without an understanding of its grammar, which includes vocabulary and terminology as well as the rudimentary forms of its outline or foundation. The rhetoric or discussion stage similarly depends upon the logic stage having been completed and more or less grasped, as no one wants to engage in dialogue with someone who cannot follow an argument or present a valid point.
So briefly—very briefly—those are the principles of classicism and they form and have formed the basis of scholarship in the West for centuries. It is the education even Tolkien and Lewis were given before they became Oxford and Cambridge Dons, so there’s something. It is only relatively recently that the ‘classical model’ was abandoned in favor of a more modernized, and one might even say progressive model that includes psychology, genre literature (sci-fi studies, for example), and film studies. Even shop and woodworking are more classical than one might at first imagine. But the classical model, as you will notice, places great emphasis on language—even in the maths and sciences—for each of these stages reflects an aspect of writing, speech, or thought. Grammar, logic, rhetoric: linguistically-based elements, to be sure, and vital if one is going to take this classical learning thing seriously.
And yet, at the classical school at which I worked, I rarely saw examples of this emphasis on language anywhere, even in language arts or English classes. There was no school library, something which to this day sends shock waves through my system, and what books there were at the school were often tucked away, or consciously stacked or carefully monitored within classrooms. As an aside, students were not allowed to read Harry Potter, despite the overwhelming number of classical references in each of its seven massive volumes. This decision was based on the Evangelical belief that Harry was about witches, and not about the battle between good and evil, ultimately won by a Christ-figure. But no matter. This deficiency baffled me, however, and I began to seek ways in which to surround my students with literature in spite of the obvious roadblocks before me.
I brought in my own volumes and collected copies of classics I’d found in the various thrift shops or cupboards around the school. I had a small bookshelf that looked, if not like a library, then at least like a solid collection. The anthology we used was massive, but I liked it, as it portrayed the weight of knowledge and contained an impressive and respectable collection of works from Gilgamesh to Sir Gawain. I would win everyone over with literature and good books. It was silly of me to think this way, I know, and even sillier to think anyone would understand, let alone condone these thoughts and actions, but I am not known for my good sense in regards to placating the illitarate, and so I continued my mission, not realizing I was being slowly beaten down by my own optimism and intelligence.
In presenting my plan for a 4-year high school Humanities curriculum the previous summer I had genuinely struggled to accurately convey the importance of reading and the correlation of English to History to Art to Science. I had made charts and provided relevant materials. I had shown in my findings and research that the significance of mere exposure to the classics, such as The Odyssey, Beowulf, great poetry, and philosophical and theological writings was the basis of classical education and that it could be done, even at our small school. These ideas were accepted on the surface as good ideas, and ones that other classical schools embraced, but the more I talked, the smaller I felt, and when I was told that most of our students wind up going to Running Start after 10th grade, I suspected my words were falling on deaf ears, but even I did not have eyes to see. I should have run—not walked!—to the nearest fire exit and barred the door behind me, but I have a miserable tendency to latch on and hang on to things pertaining to literature, even when those things happen to destroy that which I love.
It is now rather clear to me that language, including literature, simply possesses too much formality. It is not something that transfers well to ‘quips’ or looks good in a devotional journal. It is rather difficult to ‘sum up’ classical literature unless one has studied it quite thoroughly and has paid attention. Who understands a good Odysseus joke who does not know Odysseus?