Remembering the Basics: It Begins with the Teacher

Those who teach the early grades understand the extreme weight of the responsibility they take on when they agree to teach the very young. Knowing that you are beginning the journey of cultivating virtue in a young one can be ominous and downright petrifying! I well remember the year that the kindergarten teaching position at our school opened and our head of school asked me to take the class. I said, yes, and then, no, to the job numerous times throughout the summer but finally gave in and took on the class. By saying, yes, I learned more about myself and what it takes to be a good teacher than what my students ever learned from me. I guess you could say that as far as my teaching career goes, everything I learned, I learned in kindergarten! (Or at least almost everything)

Lesson one: A successful teacher is a disciplined teacher

Being disciplined meant that I had to commit to putting in the time and effort required to make my lessons. My students and my students’ outcomes had to be my first priority. That may sound obvious, but it has some real- world consequences. It meant things like reading a book cover to cover, annotating it, and writing comprehension questions for it when I would have rather watched my favorite show. It meant going to the community library every week to find books that might instill a sense of wonder in my students or add richness to our lessons. It meant writing postcards to each student three times a summer so that they could feel a connection between their lives and my life and look forward to whatever we were going to learn in the upcoming year. It also meant that I might need to attend a local pee wee baseball game or soccer game so that each child might know that I was interested in his whole life and not just his life in my classroom. Discipline for a teacher means that you have to become a voracious learner. Not only must you learn what you must teach presently, you must learn as much as you can about each level of work that your students will encounter as they work through the levels of the trivium.

I spent time in visiting and learning in other teachers’ classrooms so that I would have a better idea of what was ahead for my students’ sake.

Lesson two: A teacher must always be prepared

John Milton Gregory (The Seven Laws of Teaching) describes this as “a teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught.” This means, anything that you are going to teach needs to be thoroughly read, thought out and practiced by you first. Practically that meant that I needed to read every page of every book in advance, I needed to learn every lyric to every song and chant and be the master of any information or fact I was going to teach. As Gregory wrote, “what a man does not know he cannot teach successfully.” You cannot “wing it.” You cannot open a book for the first time in front of your students. You have to think about the questions your students might ask. You have to know the lessons you are going to teach “inside and out” before you enter the classroom. Along with preparing a lesson, in the youngest grades, this also means that you have planned out where in your classroom each lesson will take place (mapped it out) and have thought out and readied all teaching armamentaria there. This allows you to teach and then release without interruption so that discovery and the joy of successful learning becomes internal for each student.

Lesson Three: Teaching must be predictable and offer consistent structure

This lesson was not so difficult for me to grasp. Being the mother of three children, early on in their lives I had learned that the best way to keep a happy home and form good habits in my children was to offer them the structure. This structure took the form of a set of negotiables and non-negotiables in our home, and I was always steady, stable and unwavering in my expectations of their meeting those. This made for an easy transition to the classroom. Beginning lessons for the very young means a lot of practicing procedures and expectations over and over until the desired behavior becomes habit. Practically that might be a young student learning to raise his hand to speak instead of blurting out, or it might be the expectation that the students will line up quietly and orderly every time they get ready to exit the classroom. For the teacher, this also means practically that a classroom schedule must be fairly regimented so that students can come to depend on “what comes next” or “what they should do next.” The structure must first be set by the teacher, and the structure is then imposed on the student.

Each subsequent year of teaching kindergarten, I gained a deeper understanding of what it meant to be disciplined, prepared, predictable and structured. All three lessons served my classroom well. My students flourished and their parents were appreciative of the changes they were seeing in their children that were spilling over into their homes and lives.

About the Author

Debra Sugyama, Executive Assistant and Educational Consultant at SCL (2009-2015)

A Positive Approach to Technology

“Today, there’s a new elite schooled in an entirely reconstituted classical education…. [These students] stuck on the dark side of the new media digital divide will be as out of luck and out of touch as those who cursed Johannes Gutenberg as an agent of the devil when that first printed Bible came off the press in 1452.”

— Richard Rapaport,

According to progressives, the ferocious pace of technological advance changes all the rules. They believe that an education holding to old traditions is worse than useless; it’s negligent. Success in the modern world requires a “new literacy;” students need new skills, new tools, and new norms.

Are the progressives right? Will classically trained students be as out of luck in the new world as those who cursed Johannes Gutenberg? Of course not! Our students cannot only survive the digital age, they can lead it. Well- prepared students can bridge any divide, but we must keep our wits about us!

But keeping our wits is difficult. Modern technology frightens us, especially as we see it motion- blurred by rapid change. It’s like watching a bullet train speed past our platform. Even if we wanted to get on, we couldn’t catch hold now–not without having our arm ripped off. So why even try?

Thankfully, things aren’t that bad. Yes, our gadgets evolve at breakneck speed, but humans haven’t changed since Adam’s lips first touched the apple in Eve’s hand. Men’s tools may change constantly, but the purposes for which they create those tools never change. Man will always be man, and a classical education’s cardinal goal is to train humans to be good humans, not good gadget operators.

This principle directs our approach to teaching in the digital age. Change is constant, but so is the virtue required to survive it. The greatest challenge our students face in the digital age is not acquiring basic technical skills. Any student with a modest amount of self-determination– and who can read–can teach himself these skills in a long afternoon. No, the greatest challenge our students face
is acquiring wisdom. After all, even if I can type at 400 words per minute, what good is that? The critical question is “What will I type that quickly?” Will it be a ceaseless stream of narcissistic drivel (in 140-character chunks), or will it be something of weight and consequence? From this perspective, classical educators do not need to change anything in order to prepare their students for the digital age. We’re already preparing them. If the rapid change of technology requires anything of us, it requires wise decisions based on stable principles. And cultivation of wisdom is the very soul of our education.

Yet wisdom is not merely apprehending timeless principles; it is also willing and acting according to them in concrete circumstances. We cannot, therefore, ignore advances in technology. Specifically, we cannot shun the Internet. More than any other advance, the Internet is pervasively altering our modes of communication. Man’s nature hasn’t changed, but the Internet is a constantly changing space in which man acts. We can call it the “virtual world” or the “digital world,” but whatever its name, it’s a new and distinct circumstance that warrants the attention of prudence.

On the positive side, the Internet grants us unprecedented access to each other and the archived corpus of human writing, and this access is growing all the time, but this is only the beginning. Take for example the humble search tool. Never before have men been able so quickly and precisely to search the contents of the great human library. Oh, without a doubt, danger lurks in this tool. Google can indeed make us dumb; Socrates condemned books for the same reason. The Internet can become “an elixir not of memory, but of reminding,” offering “the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.” But, like books, the Internet can also make us much wiser. Our choices make the difference. As with the Great Books themselves, we should plunder the Egyptians.

On the negative side, because the Internet is a new and changing space, we cannot simply assume that students growing up in the digital world will “just know” how to live in it well, any more than we can assume that students growing up in the real world will “just know” how to live in it well. Yes, mere exposure teaches them to manipulate the tools of the digital world, but not how to do so wisely. They might be able to fix a computer, but they don’t know how to behave on Facebook, or search responsibly, or how to handle the Internet’s dangerous mix of freedom and anonymity. It’s like knowing how to work a car’s gas pedal without knowing wise driving habits. Simple experience can teach the former; another person must teach the latter. Which, incidentally, was Socrates’ point about books as well.

Free men–virtuous men–must be others-focused, not self-focused, and this is what Christian classical education cultivates in our students’ hearts. But students need practice in order to learn virtue, and we cannot depend on our students to draw the connection between virtue in the real world and virtue in the digital world. We need to provide guidance and opportunities for them to practice. That means using technology, particularly the Internet, in our curriculum. Of course, this will also help our students reap the great benefits of wise use of the Internet.

Please understand me! I am not arguing for touch- typing classes in the second grade or for a computer lab at every school. Nor am I arguing for integrating Facebook into your class. I’m simply arguing against absolute negation of technology and arguing for a considered, realistic, and positive approach to using technology in our schools. It is a part of our world, and we cannot ignore it, nor should we want to, since there is so much good to be gained from it.

Part of a realistic approach, however, means carefully counting the cost. I do not believe we should go on a shopping spree like progressive educators who hope that owning fancier gizmos will resolve their snowballing failure. Instead, we need to weigh our educational goals, our teachers’ time, and our school’s budget against the cost of buying technology. Sacrifices must be made, and I firmly believe in sacrificing flashy hardware over precious time in class or salary dollars.

Ironically, many educators overlook the most significant costs of technology: time and training. Even if your institution can afford a fleet of new computers, you must consider the time it will require to secure and maintain them. More importantly, you must weigh the cost of initial and ongoing training, especially for your teachers. If you neglect training, any money you spend will be wasted. If your teachers do not know how to use technology virtuously, how can they train the students to do so?

Practically, however, many institutions can avoid large investments in hardware. Most of your students already have their own computers or have access to one at home. So you don’t need to buy computers. Instead, when it’s time to teach responsible search skills, have students bring their own devices to class, or use only one computer (perhaps the teacher ’s or a student volunteer ’s) and do small group tutorials. A teacher who knows what he or she is doing, both with the technology and with the assignment, is more effective than one laptop per child.

Clearly, the most important factor is teachers who know what they are doing. Administrators, we need to train our teachers, and, teachers, it’s time to stop excusing your refusal to learn by complaining about technology’s harmful effects. You must lead by example. Show your students how to be excellent students and learn to use the tools virtuously yourselves. Only then will you be able to teach your students to do the same.

Finally, if we think creatively, we can find ways to kill many birds with one stone. Our teachers need training and so do our students. It makes sense to bring these two together. Again, you do not need a computer lab. Instead, recruit a tech savvy parent to offer after school workshops and advertise them as BYOC: Bring Your Own Computer. The basic skills can be taught in hours, so a few weekend courses can accomplish a lot, and the conversations you can have about technology’s role in our lives will be invaluable.

The good news is that a classical education will prepare students to lead in the digital age. Indeed, a good classical education meets students’ greatest need: the need for wisdom. Yet we cannot assume that our current curriculum is sufficient. If we believe in practicing virtue in all areas of life, we must practice it in the digital world as well. Incorporating technology into our curriculum does not require us to give up our principles. On the contrary, it is our unique principles that compel us to incorporate technology wisely.

The Three R’s of Mathematics

Success in mathematics requires a variety of skills, all of which are perfectly situated within classical Christian schools. Classical Christian educators can use God’s Word to help students develop these skills. Recognizing the good information from the bad is a key objective sought by classical educators. The ability to see truth in a world full of untruths is imperative. The same skill applies to mathematics: Students must be able to recognize relationships in mathematics to be able to know how to proceed. This recognition, the first R, will help students get started on one of the toughest parts of mathematics at any age, problem-solving. The second R, retrieval, is a basic tenet of classical education: Students must memorize their basic facts and be able to retrieve the facts quickly. Finally, the third R, resolve, can be taught both biblically and through developing students’ mindsets. Classical Christian educators have at their disposal biblical truths in developing students’ resolve.


Developing students who have good number sense is critical in mathematics. Nguyen et al. discovered that early numeracy ability in preschool is a strong predictor of fifth-grade mathematics achievement scores (2016). What is number sense? It is a group of skills that allows people to work with numbers. Witzel, Ferguson and Mink discuss five components of number sense: magnitude comparisons, strategic counting, retrieval of basic arithmetic facts, word problems and numerical recognition (2012). The authors go on to discuss three methods for improving number sense. First, the authors support constructivist claims that children construct their knowledge through manipulating concrete materials. Second, they discuss how proficiency of skill should not just include algorithms, but also the meaning behind the algorithms. Finally, the third key element of the theory, the importance of making language connections, is offered to integrate math to everyday life. The first R, recognition, is best accomplished through these language connections. In her article on this idea of language in mathematics, Susperreguy emphasizes the importance of math talk, specifically the use of language comparisons. The use of math talk that includes cardinality and counting is ubiquitous in homes. What is missing, according to Susperreguy, is the use of comparisons: more than, less than, parts and wholes (2016). It is the recognition of parts and wholes in problems that unlocks mathematical understanding. Knowing that two parts are given in a problem allows the solver to add, no matter what the numerals are that are being added. Knowing that a whole and a part are given allows the solver to subtract. Taking time to recognize the information in the problem is key. This is best understood in the context it is required: problem-solving.

Nicholas needed to distribute 5 ¼ bags of grass seed on a lawn. He distributed 3 ½ bags in the morning. What is the total amount of seed he still needs to distribute before running out?

These rational adjectives (5 ¼ and 3 ½) can sometimes cause angst for students, and students then struggle with knowing which operation to choose. What if, on the other hand, the problem had no fractions in it?

Nicholas needed to distribute 5 bags of grass seed on a lawn. He distributed 3 bags in the morning. What is the total amount of seed he still needs to distribute before running out?

The problem becomes much easier for upper elementary students and they can immediately recognize that a whole and a part are known and that they need to subtract. By using the language of parts and wholes, students recognize the relationship and are on their way to solving. Knowing the operation required to solve problems eliminates one of the most common errors: choosing the wrong operation (Ferrucci, Yeap, & Carter, 2003). The same idea applies to multiplication and division, the only difference being that the parts are equal parts and that if you have equal parts and know the number of parts, you multiply to determine the product.

When we encourage students to seek truth in the relationships and carefully work through problems, we encourage the biblical virtue of carefulness. Phillip Dow writes in his book Virtuous Minds that, “Those who are intellectually careful earnestly want to know the truth; thus, they are reasonable and consistently careful that they do not overlook important details and habitually avoid hasty conclusions based on limited evidence.” When we teach students to take time to discover parts and wholes in mathematical problems, we are teaching this carefulness. And finally, from John 8:32, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” God’s truth illuminates the need for seeking truth.


Retrieval of basic mathematics facts is a hot topic in education. Classical educators, however, have consistently held students responsible for memorizing basic facts. The importance of quick retrieval of basic facts cannot be overemphasized. A study by Calderon-Tena and Carerino in the Journal of Science and Mathematics Education in 2016 supports this return to holding students accountable for memorizing their basic facts – something classical educators never left. The researchers found that longterm retrieval skills became a better predictor of both mathematics calculation and mathematics problem-solving as age and grade increased.

The time that is devoted to fact retrieval tends to focus most on the initial counting stages and on the ubiquitous practice of timed tests. How to get effective practice at that middle stage will be the focus of this section, and brainbased research will help explain why it is important. In his 2014 book The Confident Student, Kanar discusses the three stages of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Sensory memory is the memory that takes in information. What a person sees, hears and touches all are taken in and sensed by the brain. If what the brain senses is attended to and processed, then it makes it into short-term memory. Short-term memory manipulates and processes information for about 30 seconds. Finally, if the information is rich enough and engaging enough, the information gets transferred into long-term memory. How does knowing this information help with basic fact retrieval? Simply put, attention matters. Students typically are first taught basic facts through a progression similar to the following: counting, adding zero, doubles, doubles +1, combinations of ten, make ten, doubles +2, +9, +4 in addition, then using addition facts to help retrieve subtraction facts (Purpura, Baroody, Eiland, & Reid, 2016). When they are taught these strategies, such as doubles plus one, teachers use effective manipulatives and visuals to first teach the meaning behind the basic facts. This follows cognitive learning theory first introduced by Jean Piaget and further developed by Jerome Bruner. Bruner significantly added to learning theory by stating that children first need to use concrete manipulatives to learn concepts, then transition into pictures of the objects, and finally transfer to abstract numerals to represent the number of objects. In math fact retrieval, they may count eight blocks, then add two blocks to work in the concrete stage. Next they might use a ten-frame to show pictures of blocks and visualize that 8 and 2 always make 10. Finally, they will write the equation 8 + 2 = 10 and work with numerals. This type of practice is in every mathematics curriculum in the United States, including those used by classical Christian schools. This is as it should be, for students who have good number sense and practice with rich strategies are more successful at transferring the information into long-term memory (Purpura, Baroody, Eiland, & Reid, 2016).

The question should follow then, why we have so many students who struggle with their retrieval of basic facts? The answer lies in what comes next in schools around the country. Students who initially practice retrieving their facts by spending time counting to retrieve them, such as 8 + 2 = 9, then 10, do not experience the same level of richness as students who associated their facts with known facts. Utilizing what is known in memory to learn unknown information is key to all of learning, but especially to basic fact retrieval. Students must be fair-minded enough to try new methods for retrieving facts. Dow speaks of the importance of fair-mindedness as well in developing students who have virtuous minds (2013). Fair-mindedness in mathematics is crucial to understanding the subject. Fair-mindedness comes into play in problem-solving, understanding relationships, and yes, in basic fact retrieval. Students who are retrieving their facts by counting as fast as they can should learn new retrieval routes, but in order to do so they must be fair-minded.

Classical Christian schools traditionally emphasize the importance of basic fact retrieval, and they should. I am not saying that basic fact retrieval is time wasted. On the contrary, research demonstrates that it is time well spent. What comes next, however, in many schools is the use of timed tests to retrieve basic facts before students are ready to be timed. Much research has shown that the overemphasis on timed tests at too early of an age results in math anxiety, something we all want to avoid for our students (Boaler, 2016).

Why not allow more practice for basic fact retrieval within the associative, strategic stage? This is no small task, and I do not mean to trivialize it. Most educators do not know what this looks like. What I am calling for is a change in both curriculum and instructional practices that still allow for accountability, a key component of classical Christian education. Students who are struggling with their fact retrieval do not need more timed tests or more manipulatives. Instead, they need more time associating, or deriving their facts. At our school, The Geneva School of Boerne, students are doing just that. If they show signs of counting or skip-counting while trying to retrieve their addition, subtraction, multiplication or division facts, they are given the tools to help them practice more in the deriving stage. We still require them to spend time retrieving their facts, and we hold them responsible for memorizing those facts. However, using standard flash cards can be just as detrimental to developing math anxiety as timed tests if pressure is placed on students to retrieve them quickly. Rather they should spend time altering their retrieval by associating the unknown fact to known facts. Students need rich practice to transfer information from short-term memory to long-term memory, as Kanar suggests (2014). They also must be fair-minded enough to try new methods to retrieve their facts if they have continuously built the counting pathway in their brain. The second R, retrieval of basic facts, is a key tool that students must possess.


Finally, the third R, resolve, must be considered as an important characteristic for students to develop. Students who think they can solve math problems are the most successful. Self-efficacy, or beliefs about one’s abilities to accomplish goals, can influence activities people participate in (or not), the amount of effort they give to tasks and the persistence of effort and level of achievement reached (Boaler, 2016; Cerit, 2013). Self-efficacy is an area of study that needs to be further investigated in all teacher research studies, but specifically in the content area of mathematics.

Additional research on self-efficacy has been conducted recently by Carol Dweck (2006), who clearly shows the importance of students’ mindsets in her book, Mindset, by elucidating the difference between students who have a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset. Those with fixed mindsets believe that they either have a talent, or do not. Those with growth mindsets, on the other hand, believe that if they work hard enough they can learn anything. Boaler has connected mindset research from Dweck to the area of mathematics in her book Mathematical Mindsets (2016). Students who have growth mindsets score higher on mathematics achievement tests. Teachers, according to Boaler, can encourage a growth mindset in their students in several ways. For example, the praise that teachers direct towards students is extremely influential. Praise suggesting a student is smart furthers the fixed mindset, whereas praise suggesting the student has worked hard furthers a growth mindset.

Classical Christian educators, however, have the best tool available to help develop students’ mindsets: God’s Word. We can first give examples of grit from the Bible. Moses took a long time to reach the promised land and faced great strife. Yet he persevered. We also know from 1 Peter 1:3-5 that we have a promise of hope and that this promise is not wishful thinking, but rather confidence in God’s faithfulness. A second way to inspire grit is to remind students of times when they were successful in the past. If you develop a relationship with students and know their past success stories, you will be better equipped to help them through challenges they encounter in the future. The third method for mindset development is to model it yourself as a leader. Students look up to their leaders who have grit and are honest about their struggles. We know that one way students establish their own self-efficacy is by watching it modeled by their peers. Tenacity, or resolve, is a virtuous trait that can be developed by reminding students that hard work pays off. Resolve, a virtuous trait, is worthy of being titled the third R in mathematics.


The three R’s in mathematics – recognition of relationships, retrieval of basic facts and resolve to work through difficult problems – can be developed by parents, teachers, coaches and mentors. Students need to be surrounded by people who show that they care and take time to help students develop these traits. The Christian virtues of carefulness, fair-mindedness and tenacity can help students develop the three Rs, which, in turn, will help them succeed in their mastery of mathematics.

Dr. Cristina Dube, Grammar School Math Specialist at Geneva School of Boerne

In Defense of the Humanities

In the past few years I have noticed three troubling trends with regard to the humanities. I have been an English professor at Houston Baptist University for nearly three decades. During that time, I have seen the number of humanities majors – literature, history, philosophy, Spanish, Latin, classics, etc. – rise and fall, but never in all those years have I witnessed the kind of precipitous decline I have seen recently.

Secondly, in addition to teaching literature I have devoted the last nine years to lecturing for our Honors College, a program that allows students to obtain a full classical Christian Great Books education while also majoring in a field of their choice. In the beginning, a significant number of Honors College students chose a major in the humanities; today, more and more are majoring in the sciences, in business or in the social sciences.

Finally, I have spent the last 12 years speaking for classical Christian schools and conferences across the country. Though the movement as a whole is healthy and growing, I have noticed as of late a slow, but increasing danger. Parents who have been supportive of classical education and pleased by the intellectual and moral progress of their children are feeling the temptation to jump ship mid-stream and move their classically-trained middle school students to a non-classical high school.

What do these three troubling trends have in common? A growing perception on the part of students and their parents that an education grounded in the humanities/liberal arts is somehow impractical and will leave graduates without the resources to find a good college or a good job. “A passion for literature, Latin, history or philosophy is all well and good,” so the current wisdom goes, “but those pursuits will not provide the kind of training that students need to survive and thrive in the modern age.”

I’ve always known in my gut that this knee-jerk, utilitarian response to the humanities is false, but I never dreamed that its falsehood would be exposed by the very business world that the utilitarians invariably point to as their greatest ally and their key source of proof.

Now, before I proceed, I must confess that as a lifelong humanities person I feel an aversion to quoting statistics and current events. I have always preferred, and continue to prefer, time-tested wisdom to the latest trends, the testimonies and experiences of individual human beings to reductive and often anti-humanistic statistics. Still, I will here break my rule (temporarily) since the news and the numbers are punching holes in the current wisdom and letting the true light shine through.

Try typing this phrase into your favorite search engine: “Employers want liberal arts majors.” You will be greeted,  if not deluged, with articles, reports, book reviews and studies asserting that the naysayers are wrong and that companies do very much want employees who have cut their teeth in a good humanities program. You might be skeptical at first, figuring these articles must have been posted by humanities departments or classical schools. If so, you quickly will realize that you are wrong. Here is a brief sampling of what you will find:

  1. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “According to studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers often rank skills such as critical thinking and communication – hallmarks of liberal arts training – above technical aptitude as essential for career readiness.”
  2. From the New York Times’ review of George Anders’s You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education and Randall Stross’ A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees: “According to both Anders and Stross, the ever-expanding tech sector is now producing career opportunities in fields – project management, recruitment, human relations, branding, data analysis, market research, design, fundraising, and sourcing, to name some – that specifically require the skills taught in the humanities. To thrive in these areas, one must be able to communicate effectively, read subtle social and emotional cues, make persuasive arguments, adapt quickly to fluid environments, interpret new forms of information while translating them into a compelling narrative and anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arise. Programs like English or history represent better preparation, the two authors argue, for the demands of the newly emerging ‘rapport sector’ than vocationally oriented disciplines like engineering or finance.”
  3. From the Harvard Business Review: “From Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context – something humanities graduates happen to be well trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history and philosophy nerds.”
  4. And, an Investopedia survey of executives – including CEOs, presidents, vice presidents and C-level executives – by the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed:
  • 93% of executives say “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than a particular degree.”
  • 80% of executives say that regardless of a student’s major, they should have “a broad knowledge” of the liberal arts and sciences.
  • 80% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on oral and written communication skills.
  • 71% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on the ability to innovate and be creative.
  • 74% of executives would “recommend a liberal education to their own child or a young child they know.”

I easily could quote another dozen passages, but I hope these will suffice to show that the humanities/liberal arts are not as divorced from the needs of real-life employers as has been supposed. In taking a non-utilitarian approach, one in which the discipline is studied as an end-in-itself, the humanities end up producing graduates who excel in just the skills that modern companies are demanding from their employees. Furthermore, because the graduates acquired those skills not through direct vocational training, but as a natural consequence of dialoging with the great works of literature, history and philosophy, they internalize them in a way that better enables growth, flexibility and innovation over time.

Quote two above does a fine job listing some of the skills that develop organically from the humanistic disciplines, but I, as a humanities professor, prefer to flesh out the exact nature of those critical thinking skills by looking to the past for guidance, clarity and illumination. When I do so, I discover, to my delight, that all that needs to be said on the subject was said a century-and-a-half ago by a British Victorian sage who lived and wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution: Cardinal Newman.

In 1852, Newman delivered a series of nine discourses – later published as The Idea of a University – in which he laid down foundational principles for a proposed classical Christian liberal arts Catholic university in Dublin, Ireland. In discourse VII, chapter X, Newman describes, in terms prophetic of the passages I quoted above, the fruits of a liberal arts education grounded in the humanities:

A University training is the great ordinary means to a great, but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself.

Were my concern here the ability of the humanities to shape virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens who can redeem public discourse and uphold and preserve a deliberative representational democracy, I would zero in on the first sentence. Heaven knows, our modern, fractured society is in desperate need of such college graduates! Since, however, my focus is the link between the liberal arts and the workplace, I will turn instead to the remainder of the paragraph – not to enshrine it, but to explicate, parse and interpret it as though it were a poem or a historical event or a Latin verb. For that is the way humanities majors interact with the world around them; it is as familiar to them as breathing or walking or falling in love.

It is this education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.

In the language of classical Christian education, such a student has successfully worked his way through the trivium (“three ways”) of grammar, logic and rhetoric. He, like the college humanities major, has learned to “think for himself,” not by parroting the words of others or rejecting all that came before him, but by measuring his ideas against standards of goodness, truth and beauty, synthesizing them into a coherent thesis or worldview, and then sharing that schema with his peers in a persuasive, but irenic manner. A humanities student learns to do this without knowing he is doing it – by wrestling with the timeless issues raised by Sophocles or Plutarch or Aquinas – and he will carry it with him into committee board rooms where such integrative, high-level thinking is required and valued.

It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.

The humanities excel at training students to read a text –any kind of text – and go for the jugular. That is to say, students who spend their college years intensively studying literature or history or philosophy become adept at cutting through what is peripheral to get to the core, to what is most essential, most lasting and most human. The business world very much needs employees who can analyze a situation and identify, quickly and with precision, the root causes of that situation and the consequences it is likely to produce. True, some of that can be gained by studying business case studies, but what those studies lack are the simultaneously particular and universal issues that confront humanities majors in every class.

It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.

It may sound like a cliché to refer to the humanities major as a Renaissance man, but it should not. The liberal arts strive to produce graduates who can speak intelligently and with passion on a wide range of topics, not because they have memorized a packet of trivial pursuit cards, but because they have spent four years actively participating in the Great Conversation that has been going on since Homer and the books of Moses. Though they are sometimes ridiculed for being jacks of all trades, but masters of none, they are in truth generalists who see and appreciate the connections between all areas of thought. Such employees will be able to connect with clients in a way that goes beyond small talk at the bar or restaurant. Their training will allow them to see the client, not to mention their officemates, as fellow travelers on a  journey of self-discovery.

It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.

One thing that the humanities are particularly good at fostering and strengthening in their students is a sense of what I like to call, after Percy Shelley, the sympathetic imagination. To open oneself to the joys and sorrows, passions and fears, convictions and foibles of people from various ages and cultures – as humanities majors do every week in their classes – is to gain, by slow osmosis, the ability to see the world through different eyes. Although the characters that humanities majors meet in their studies share with them a common humanity, they all have unique struggles that draw students out of their comfort zones and cultural bubbles. Whether they be fictional (Achilles, Antigone, Aeneas, Elizabeth Bennet) or non-fictional (Alexander, Caesar Augustus, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I), poets (Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) or philosophers (Plato, Augustine, Kierkegaard), their intense reality forces those who encounter them to get inside their heads, to understand their actions and motivations, to sympathize with rather than stand in judgment over them. Needless to say, a company that employs workers who possess these skills will attract clients and customers who feel that their needs, desires and apprehensions have been understood and respected.

He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself.

To immerse oneself in the literary, historical and philosophical records that have been passed down to us over the last three millennia is to be confronted at once with our great potential and our profound limits. The humanities present man at his best and his worst, as a noble and glorious creature created in the image of God who is yet broken, fallen and depraved. Not until a student comes to grips with the good he is capable of – and the bad he is equally capable of – will he gain both the confidence and the humility to serve his fellow man. Only then will he know when to speak and when to remain silent, when to voice his own opinion and when to listen to the opinions of others. Employees who are firm in what they believe, yet open to correction and new ideas, are a rare and precious commodity in the business world. Employers are eager to hire such people!

It thrills my heart that the business world has finally caught up with what Newman wrote 150 years ago. Now, if only students (and their parents) could read and interpret the signs of the times. There are now, and always will be, students who do not feel drawn to classical schools or humanities majors. That is fine and as it should be. But for those students who are passionate about an education that immerses them in the liberal arts, please rest assured that the skills such an education fosters in them will serve those students well in whatever career they choose to pursue.

The Church, the School, and the Political Economy of Virtue

The final book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, paints a provocative political scenario. A talking ape dresses up a talking donkey in a lion skin to impersonate Aslan. The ape hopes to rule Narnia by using the lion-donkey as his puppet mouthpiece. When the donkey, named Puzzle, objects that he does not want to rule Narnia, the ape, named Shift, tries to convince him of the benefits.

“Everyone would do whatever you tell them.”

“But I don’t want to tell them anything.”

“But think of the good we could do!” said Shift. “You’d have me to advise you, you know. I’d think of sensible orders for you to give. And everyone would have to obey us, even the King himself. We would set everything right in Narnia.”

“But isn’t everything right already?” said Puzzle.

“What!” cried Shift. “Everything right? When there are no oranges or bananas?”

“Well, you know,” said Puzzle, “there aren’t many people – in fact, I don’t think there’s anyone but yourself – who wants those sort of things.”

“There’s sugar, too,” said Shift.

“H’m, yes,” said the Ass. “It would be nice if there was more sugar.”

“Well then, that’s settled,” said the Ape. “You will pretend to be Aslan, and I’ll tell you what to say.”

In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis brings Narnia to anend. Father Time rolls up the sky, and the stars are eachsummoned to Aslan’s side. But this occurs only after Narnia falls to the bizarre and tyrannical rule of the ape, aligned with the Calormenes who worship the evil god Tash. At first, the true king of Narnia, Tirian, does not know that Aslan has not appeared and is only being impersonated. The talking beasts all report to Tirian that Aslan has come and that indeed he is “not a tame lion.” The beasts did not perceive the ape and donkey’s lie. But Tirian and his steed, Jewel the Unicorn, conclude by the disgusting behavior and vicious commands of the false Aslan that something was dreadfully amiss. Tirian begins:

“Horrible thoughts arise in my heart. If we had died before today we should have been happy.”

“Yes,” said Jewel. “The worst thing in the world has come upon us.”

What is this worst thing in the world? It is to conclude that the lord whom one has worshiped and placed hope in is in fact an unjust and cruel tyrant. It is to conclude that
the foundation of justice is itself unjust. The reported deeds of this false Aslan nearly convince Jewel and Tirian that he is an impostor. But it is finally the words of the Ape that ring as blatant heresy and spring Tirian into action. The Ape says:

“Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now …. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”

To this Tirian finally objects:

“Ape,” he cried with a great voice, “you lie. You lie damnably. You lie like a Calormene. You lie like an Ape.”

Slowly the plot thickens and the differences between the two sorts of government emerge. Both the traditional Narnian rule and the government of the ape have habits, causal explanations and theological foundations. But one ruling culture believes in a transcendent source of divine goodness, and the other says good and evil are the same.

The statements of the Ape and the Calormenes feel familiar even to a child – familiar but disingenuous. They have the recognizable tinge of hypocrisy. At the bottom of that system lie the arbitrary wants and desires of the Ape and the king of the Calormenes, the Tisroc. While they claim to serve everyone, they serve only themselves. Nonetheless a whole government emerges around these motivations. How? In contrast to the Narnians, the Calormenes are ruled not by their own consciences or by alignment with what is right. The Calormenes are full of trickery and deceit and are compelled by force. The Narnians who defect to their side are willing to affirm their deplorable practices grounded in Realpolitik.

The true and faithful Narnians, on the other hand, are ruled by a transcendent code of conduct, the pursuit of virtue. At one point King Tirian and Jewel strike down two Calormenes without first warning them of attack and calling them to arms. After some reflection, the two Narnians feel disgraced. While the Calormenes were indeed part of an evil plot, the Narnians conclude that the way they themselves attacked the Calormenes was outside the bounds of proper combat. The end did not justify the means.

Lewis, a master of history, in Narnia and elsewhere often contrasts the ideologies of the present with the ideals of the past. In his Funeral for a Great Myth, he criticizes the myth
of progress, the notion that things are inevitably getting better all the time. And nowhere else in The Chronicles of Narnia besides The Last Battle does he more vividly depict the differences between the ancient and modern visions of political economy.

While readers of the Chronicles feel the contrast, they may still wonder, “What would a political economy founded in Christian virtue look like?” This is a good question because the term “political economy” did not enter into the Western lexicon until after politics itself had departed from upholding the primacy of virtue for public life. The word “economics” is an old one, used by Aristotle and meaning “the law of the household” or “household management.” In ancient Greece, households were also small businesses, often specializing in a craft such as the production of cloth or another trade. But the word “economics” did not come to have its contemporary meaning until after the days of Adam Smith. Adam Smith wrote about political economy, “the household management of nations.” He extended Aristotle’s meaning to ask about the relations not merely within the city but between cities and nations – between polities. For both Aristotle and Adam Smith, economics and politics were within the discourse of moral philosophy, the mother of contemporary social science. As Gladys Bryson explains in The Emergence of the Social Sciences from Moral Philosophy, “From the time of Socrates until the emergence of the social sciences in the 19th century, moral philosophy consistently offered the most comprehensive discussion of human relations and institutions.”

Aristotle wrote two key books on moral philosophy – what he called practical philosophy – Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. In Aristotle’s point of view, human bonds are natural, and one cannot learn to be ethical in a social vacuum. Rather, one learns virtue in the context of the community, the city, the polis. “Man is by nature a political animal,” he wrote in Politics. Virtue was historically a central concern of moral philosophy and, therefore, of both politics and economics. To grow in virtue was a lifelong pursuit that began in childhood and was not finished until death. Aristotle writes Nicomachean Ethics that, “Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” He goes on to explain that, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” Moreover, the majority of moral philosophers throughout the ancient and medieval world believed that one could not live a happy or blessed life without growing in virtue. Virtue was essential to the purpose of life.

While there are key differences between the ancient pagan notions of virtue and Christian notions, they do share similarities that are now rejected by the modern moral order. Both the pagans and the Christians believed that there is a transcendent order and that to grow in virtue is to grow more aligned with that order. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.”

In the modern moral order, there are no given goals or ends for human beings. Machiavelli and Hobbes stand at the headwaters of the modern political tradition. Both are less interested in the development of virtue among the citizens of the polis than they are interested in the means to accomplish the purposes of the ruler. How can The Prince
(or the state) accomplish his goals, whatever they may be? The questions ignore ends and ask only of means. Only in this post-Hobbesian context could Adam Smith advance in his Theory of Moral Sentiments the centrality of self-interest or “self-love” for accomplishing desirable ends without falling afoul of historic Christian thought. Nonetheless, Adam Smith sounds more balanced than his immediate predecessor, Bernard Mandeville, who in 1705 wrote a book titled The Fable of the Bees: or Private Lives, Public Benefits. Just four centuries earlier at the time of Dante, the Augustinian notion of virtue as “ordered loves” was still axiomatic. While Augustine conceded that the “City of Man” is indeed ordered around self-love, the “City of God” is ordered around the love of God. Christians are called to a political economy of ordered loves, a political economy of virtue.

In a telling passage from The Last Battle, the Ape explains the goals of his rule. What does it mean to “set everything right in Narnia” and what does a well-governed productive society look like?

“Everybody who can work is going to be made to work in the future. Aslan has it all settled with the King of Calormen…”

“No, no, no,” howled the Beasts. “It can’t be true. Aslan would never sell us into slavery to the King of Calormen.”

 “None of that! Hold your noise!” said the Ape with a snarl. “Who said anything about slavery? You won’t be slaves. You’ll be paid – very good wages, too. That is to say, your pay will be paid in to Aslan’s treasury and he will use it all for everybody’s good … There, you see!” said the Ape. “It’s all arranged. And all for your own good. We’ll be able, with the money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in. There’ll be oranges and bananas pouring in – and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons. Oh, everything.” 

“But we don’t want all those things,” said an old Bear. “We want to be free. And we want to hear Aslan speak himself.”

“Now don’t you start arguing,” said the Ape, “for it’s a thing I won’t stand. I’m a Man: you’re only a fat, stupid old Bear. What do you know about freedom? You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.”

No arguing, says the Ape. More pointedly, no moral discourse. In the modern moral order the foundation for applying moral reasoning has been eroded. (See Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.) The traditional notion of the liberal arts supported exactly the polity that was founded upon the freedom of conscience. Though in Cicero’s Orator he uses the Latin words probare, delectare and flectere (to test, to delight and to persuade) in describing the duties of the orator, by the Renaissance the Ciceronian duties of the
orator are commonly listed as movere, docere and delectare (to move, to teach and to delight). The goals of dialectic are to discover and demonstrate arguments through reasoned dialogue. Aquinas writes in Summa Theologica that they are called liberal arts “in order to distinguish them from those arts which are ordained to works done by the body, which arts are, in a fashion, servile, inasmuch as the body is in servile subjection to the soul, and man as regards his soul is free.” The church fathers recognized in the liberal arts those studies that support the freedom of conscience. Regarding this freedom, Christ said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Aquinas similarly wrote that, “Man as regards his soul is free.” One can say that 2+2=37 all day long and threaten another’s life and limb if he does not accept this as true. While the mathematically persecuted man may repeat any phrase that is demanded, when the threat is removed he will again acknowledge that 2+2=4. You cannot make somebody believe something against his will. He must be persuaded. This is the job of the liberal arts. The opposite is when states of affairs are enacted by force not by reason and conscience. This kind of dogmatic bureaucracy is too often a marker of contemporary social ideology. Nonetheless, it can be detected. The behavior and commands of the Ape, despite all his platitudes, brought slavery, not freedom.

Surely Lewis was aware of the political philosophy of Jean Jacque Rousseau who describes the role of the state thus:

He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual who is by himself a complete and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being … He must, in a word, take away from man his own resources and give him instead new ones alien to him, and incapable of being made use of without the help of other men.

The 20th-century UC Berkeley and Columbia University professor, Robert Nisbet, says this of the modern state in Twilight of Authority:

The word bureaucracy has come to symbolize, above all others in our time, the transfer of government from the people, as organized in their natural communities in the social order, as equipped with the tastes, desires and aspirations which are the natural elements of their nurture, to a class of professional technicians whose principal job is that of substituting their organizations their tastes, desires and aspirations, for those of the people. It is this seemingly ineradicable aspect of bureaucracy that makes for the relentless, unending conflict between bureaucracy and freedom that more and more people in the present age have come to regard as very nearly central. And it is this same aspect that has led so many persons in the present age to despair of restoring to political government those foundations in popular will which are utterly vital to the political community.

Or in other words, “You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.”

Interestingly, these words themselves are not altogether wrong. Consider this prayer of St. Augustine which informs an Anglican liturgy that C. S. Lewis would have known: “Grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom, in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

There is one whom to serve is perfect freedom. It is the one who is himself the way, the truth and the life. It is the one who is the foundation of all virtue. Hans Boersma, the J. I. Packer Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent College, speaks of the way the church fathers thought about virtue. He writes this of the 4th-century Christian
thinker Gregory of Nyssa in Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa:

First, for Gregory, virtue is primarily identified with God or Christ. Virtue, insists
Gregory, is identical to divine characteristics such as blamelessness, holiness, purity, and
incorruptibility. The reason, therefore, that Gregory expounds on virtue . . . is [because] by
expounding on virtue one discusses the goodness and beauty of God himself. Second, human virtue is participatory in character. It is by putting on the “garb of Christ” that we become virtuous, and it is through our eating of the body of Christ in the Eucharist that we ourselves are transformed. The metaphor of Christ as the head and the Church as his body points to the participatory character of human virtue. The bride’s beauty is, in a real
sense, the Bridegroom’s beauty, because the former is derived from and participates in the latter.

Thus, to grow in Christ is to grow in virtue. And to grow in virtue is to experience true freedom. Here we encounter the centrality of the church for the fostering of true freedom. As it was for the ancient Greeks, virtue is something that is nurtured in community. But for Christians that community is not the Greek city state; it is the Church. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (2 Corinthians 12:27). It is within the context of the Church that parents are to raise their children. As it says in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers do not exasperate your children, but raise them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

It is precisely this older vision of raising up children within the context of the Church for growth in virtue and growth in Christ that is today threatened. Harvard historian, Christopher Dawson explains in Crisis:

In the new America the socialization and secularization of education has created an
immense professionalized organ for the creation of moral and intellectual uniformity. In this way the constitutional principle of the separateness of Church and State which was intended to secure religious freedom has become the means of secularizing the American mind so that the churches have lost all control over the religious formation of the people. This was not so in the earlier phase of American history when the churches were the chief, and often the only, organs of education and culture. The American way of life was built on a threefold tradition of freedom – political, economic, and religious – and if the new secularist forces were to subjugate these freedoms to a monolithic technological order, it would destroy the foundations on which American culture was based. The American way of life can only maintain its character within the general framework of Western Christian culture. If this relation is lost, something essential to the life of the nation will be lost and American democracy itself will become subordinated to the technological order.

This is why The Last Battle feels so familiar. It describes the order of the Ape, a bureaucratic order in which the natural organizations of the Narnians have been replaced with the artificially imposed order of the Calormenes and the Ape. It is an order in which the Narnians’ desires for virtue and freedom have been replaced with intemperance and an inordinate lust for goods and progress – goods detached from natural desires and progress detached from reasonable human purposes. It is an order in which there is no basis for moral discourse and public reasoning, only various thinly veiled coercive techniques. What is instead needed is a political economy of virtue. And the only polis that can support this economy of virtue is the city of God, that city ordered around the love of God and not the love of self.

Bless and Curse Not: a Path to Loving Words Well

The Bible is rich with teachings about the work of our words, from lines of poetry to pastoral exhortation, from wisdom proverbs to prophetic utterances. The psalmists remind us that the tongue and lips are for the praise of God and not deceit (Ps. 34:13; 119:171-2), Solomon observes that rash words kill while wise words bring healing (Prov. 12:18), and Jesus unequivocally links the words of the mouth with the state of a person’s heart (Matt. 12:36-37). James depicts the tongue as a rudder, moving a person like a ship and soberly appraises the hypocritical capacity to at once “bless our Lord and Father…and curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (See James 3:2- 10). The Apostle Paul, too, uses the language of blessing and cursing in his instructions to the Christians in Rome: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom.12:14). The Biblical language of ‘blessing’ and ‘cursing’ offers a very deep well to draw from when asking what it might mean to love and care for and with words.

Except in reference to taboo “four letter words,” or as a synonym for an evil spell, ‘curse’ is rarely heard today. In contrast, ‘bless’ is used frequently and variously, from ‘blessing’ someone who sneezes to bumper sticker prayers (“God bless the U.S.A.”) to mildly amused appraisals of awkward people or well-meaning actions (“Bless her heart”). Whether because of disuse, overuse or misuse, the meanings of these deeply Biblical words, and especially their connotations to the Hebrew imagination, need to be recovered if we are to heed Paul’s directive in more than a cursory or shallow manner. Throughout the New Testament the Greek word eulogeō (to speak well of, to praise, to flatter) is used to convey the idea of ‘blessing.’ Eulogeō is also the word used in the Greek translation
of the Old Testament to render the Hebrew word barak,
a term that “is bound to a very rich theological set of semantic construals.”1 Suffice it to say eulogeō, and most certainly our contemporary uses of ‘bless’, fall short of a more comprehensive Biblical vision for the term. A fuller appreciation of the Hebrew barak can fill out an otherwise anemic understanding of what it might mean for us to “bless and…not curse.”

Barak is used almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament for the verb bless, and etymologically, its meaning is “shrouded in mystery.”2 Theories of the root meanings include break down (into pieces); kneel; hence, “adore.” What is not mysterious is that God is first to bless and blessing is his to give. If it is within the range of semantic possibilities to imagine God’s act of blessing as God kneeling to his creation, we see from the beginning intimations of
the Incarnation: God in Jesus is God unequivocally with his creation from the beginning.

Genesis 1 shows that God speaking, creating, seeing goodness, and blessing happen together. Before there is speech there is a speaker, and the words of the speaker
have the power to create. The speaker sees what is created and blesses it—a speech-act that sees the inner coherence between what is spoken and what is made, and is pleased. Additionally, God’s blessing involves commands to be fruitful, to multiply, and to humans, to have dominion over all of creation (Gen. 1:22, 28). God speaks, creates, sees goodness, blesses, and the result of blessing is fruitfulness. Ephraim Radner summarizes, “Blessing is life created by and from God, a life that gives life and extends life.”3 Put differently, life is a gift contingent on God’s blessing. The converse is also true: God’s blessing is contingent on living life as God created it. That existence is first and foremost a gift given by God is critical for our concern for words today, for as Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has observed, “…the marketing language that dominates descriptions of human interaction in a capitalist economy obscures a much deeper understanding of the gift character of all that is, and our familial relationship to all life and especially to each other.”4

It is also noteworthy that God speaks blessing: “And God blessed them, saying…” (1:22); “And God blessed them. And God said…” (1:28); and in the retelling of the human creation story in Genesis 5: “Male and female
he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man…” (v.2). Again in God’s covenant with Noah after
the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them…” And again—and perhaps most profoundly—in God’s covenant with Abram: “the LORD said…and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be
a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). This promise of beautifully entangled blessing is the first time we explicitly see a human being become a blessing, a mediator of God’s blessing. Yet I would argue that even back in the garden, humans are given the vocation of blessing, and this too
is linked with speaking. In the Genesis 2 account of the creation of humans, man is put in the garden of Eden
“to work it and keep it,” and God brings the animals before man to see what he would name them. Why is this work—this naming—part of the working and keeping of the garden? Is it not the right of the creator to name his creation? Naming strikes me as an exceedingly parental right, and yet perhaps it is not too great a stretch to see this work of naming as God’s invitation to man to (I use the theologically weighty term advisedly) adopt the rest of creation as his. It seems, strangely enough, that God is to some extent sharing the divine right to bless with humans.

If blessing is God creating life and thickening it with blessing—adding life to life to life in interconnected layers of sustaining care—the Hebrew notion of “cursing” (qalal), Ephriam Radner notes, “seems to imply ‘thinning out’ reality, making it light and superfluous, and finally lifeless.”5 This picture of thinning—of wasting away in
a famine—brings to mind disconnection, fragmentation, shallowness and façade. A shell-like existence and shell-like words. And this is exactly how speech is used in Genesis 3, in the serpent’s deception of Eve.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The two words “actually say” leap out as full of incredulity that God could mean what he says, and of course, as the woman rightly points out, God did not actually say what the serpent suggested. But reality is thinned out as the power of suggestion hangs heavy: God doesn’t mean what he says, God doesn’t stand by his words. Though the word ‘curse’ does not appear here, I would argue that what is happening is curse-like: reality is being thinned out; God’s trustworthiness and his faithfulness to his words is radically questioned. And of course a curse
is precisely what ensues: they ate and their eyes were opened, but rather than a heightened vision of depth and complexity and connectedness, there is nakedness. Craig Gay writes, “Tragically, the serpent managed to deceive our first parents, thereby introducing death, corruption, and the distortion of language into our world […] Refusing to take words seriously or deceitfully playing with them is still the surest way to confuse and to unmake our world.”6 So it stands: death and life are indeed in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21).

What does blessing and cursing with our words— giving life or dealing death—look like today? Here I will consider two sets of contrasting possibilities for words: first, deceit versus speaking truth, and second, terrorizing with words versus healing with words.

All the way back in the garden of Eden, words were used to deceive. Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Lying” depicts the work and nature of deception exceedingly well. He considers the “airy fabrication” produced for the sake of small talk at a party, then the “toxic” nature of pretentious chatter. He identifies boredom at the root of this: “a dull/ impatience or a fierce velleity,/A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude,/To make or do” and sees that behind boredom is a failure to see the world as it really is and respond with due thankfulness. This, he shows, is precisely what was behind the first deception. He writes, “In the strict sense, of course,/We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each morning brings again to light…” and it is this fact of our contingency that so nettled the Devil, and drove the spite underlying his deceit:

There is what galled the arch-negator, sprung From Hell to probe with intellectual sight The cells and heavens of a given world Which he could take but as another prison: Small wonder that, pretending not to be, He drifted through the bar-like boles of Eden
In a black mist low creeping, dragging down
And darkening with moody self-absorption
What, when he left it, lifted and, if seen
From the sun’s vantage, seethed with vaulting hues.

(Underlining mine)

Behind deceit is the gall of not being able to make in the way God makes, to create. And so, the “given world” is taken as a prison; everything that is is seen through the black mist of “moody self-absorption,” and the work is spite, negation, and fraud. Reality is thinned out, made out to be superfluous, prison-like, lifeless. The curse of deceit is first a failure to see things as they really are, and to, in Wilbur’s words, “bear witness.”

A recent example of this failure is the Volkswagon emissions scandal, which was a blatant act of “thinning
out reality.” “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had devices in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results” all the while advancing “a huge marketing campaign trumpeting its cars’ low emissions”7 (Ibid.). This deceit depicts a familiar problem today: when persons are seen as merely consumers, the “moody self-absorption”— hear here, the profiteering agenda—becomes the “black mist” over a much brighter reality.

But deceit is often more subtle than this, taking the form of half-truth, spin and euphemism, which all rely on deliberate imprecision. MacIntyre notes, “…precision is difficult to achieve. Imprecision is easier. Imprecision is available in a wide variety of attractive and user-friendly forms: clichés, abstractions and generalizations, jargon, passive constructions, hyperbole, sentimentality, and reassuring absolutes.”8 Deliberate imprecision is a way in which lying can masquerade as confidence, tentativeness, sensitivity, even humility. All of these are critical traits to nurture when they are put in the service of truth telling, but where they merely serve to blur and blunt precision, they are agents of deceit. Wendell Berry describes such language as “unable to admit what it is talking about” (38). Political discourse is perhaps most infamous for this, especially language used around war. Phrases like “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation program” obscure the realities to which they refer: accidentally killing civilians and torture. As George Orwell said, when “certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract.”9

Two ways we might instead bless by speaking truth include bearing witness, and refusing to tolerate lies. Remember the words from Richard Wilbur’s poem: “In the strict sense, of course,/We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each morning brings again to light…” This is at once a maddeningly basic and dauntingly lofty goal: to bend our full faculties toward what is, to perceive well—and then to articulate it! This involves close and patient observation, attentive listening and the humility to be transparent with our own limitations. This posture of bearing witness is prerequisite to the work of precision and to the task of resisting lies. This is a posture to take before God, each other, and creation, and this work of witnessing—of perceiving—must come before the work of speaking. So to tell the truth we must first “bear witness/To what each morning brings again to light,” and when words are spoken, we love them by attending to them. To riff on Wilbur’s line: We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each speaker speaks, to get it right…” To love words, and to love with words means we attend “to the ways the word is used, not merely to some notion of how it should be used. It means humbly inquiring what the user means, and then listening” (45). In this way loving words through bearing witness means learning to love silence, and its vital relationship to truth hearing, and truth telling.

When it comes to resisting deliberate imprecision and other cursing deceptions, refusing to tolerate lies begins with resisting our own preference to be deceived. McEntyre writes, “Indeed, we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to.” She quotes Pascal’s observation, offered “long before the age of media spin, ‘We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered and people flatter us; we like being deceived, and we are deceived.” Piercingly, she lists what seem to
be the deceptions we especially want today: “those that comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.”10 Calling those who lie to account begins first by calling ourselves to account for our tolerance of— or passivity toward—lies. For words to give life, to bless, there must be a speaker behind what is spoken and a hearer whose involved listening holds the speaker accountable. Herein lies the heart of the problem: we expect to be lied
to and so we are cynical. We want to be lied to, and so we are passive. But loving and caring for words, and choosing to bless rather than to curse with them requires that we seek truth, and hold those in leadership to account for their words. This means “clarifying where there is confusion; naming where there is evasion; correcting where there is error; fine tuning where there is imprecision; satirizing where there is folly; changing the terms when the terms falsify.”11 These are numerous and complex responsibilities and not one of us can fulfill them alone. These are tasks for whole communities, churches, and schools.

Deception distances us from reality—thins it out—and it does so on a path toward blotting out reality all together. The cursing potential for words to deal death—to terrorize—stands in stark contrast to the God- given intention for language: to give life. Recently the BBC carried an article about a Syrian Catholic priest who had been kidnapped by the Islamic State, held for three months and regularly threatened with execution. Father Jack Murad said of his captivity: “We were well-fed, given medical treatment, and never tortured…what stood out
was the verbal abuse…For them, my fate for refusing to convert to Islam was death. To frighten us, they would even tell us in detail how we would die. They are truly gifted at using words and imagery to terrorise.”12 Of course,
the Islamic State is not the first or only military body to
use words—among many other means—to terrorize. The myriad abuses of language by the Third Reich are well- documented. Words that strike fear, manipulate, taunt and threaten are perhaps most noticeable and most appalling to us when they are spoken by those acting on a global stage with widespread impact, but playground and school hall power struggles begin with bullying—even terrorizing— words. The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words—or names—can never hurt me” has it exactly wrong. Craig Gay notes, “Indeed, words can crush our spirits more efficiently and effectively than perhaps any other single agency,” (12). And Solomon observed “A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Prov. 18:14).

One way of responding to the power of language to terrorize in small and large ways is described in The Atlantic article, “Better Watch What You Say!: The Coddling of the American Mind.” Writers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, take a critical look at the priority placed in colleges and universities on protecting students from words and ideas they don’t like—words and ideas that ‘trigger’ or offend them. The trend basically amounts to policing language in the name of protecting students’ emotional well-being. “Microaggressions”— “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless” are condemned, an example of this being the question, “Where were you born?” posed to an Asian or Latino American—the subtext of the question assumed to be, you’re not a real American. Professors are also expected to provide “trigger warnings” before assigning course content (books like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby are noted) that carries the potential to retraumatize students who have experienced, for example, racism or domestic violence in the past. This movement takes very seriously the potential for words to terrorize, but I cite it here as a negative example of a cultural response to this reality that words do hurt more than sticks and stones. As Lukianoff and Haidt convincingly show, this policing of speech and censoring of content is doing no one a great service, and is in fact perpetuating and deepening pathological patterns of thinking in students. To counter the curse of terrorizing speech, we must learn to bless with language that makes safe and ministers healing, not attempt to create a language bubble around emerging adults, or go on verbal witch-hunts.

In contrast to the cursing power of terrorizing words and this policing reaction, two ways of blessing by ministering safety and healing with words include staying in conversation even when it is hard, and speaking peace.

In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt ask the questions, “What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?” One key way to do this is through modelling and teaching the art of conversation and building up in students the emotional and mental reserves to stay in conversation— especially with people they do not agree with.

The first lesson of conversation is that it is persons— not disembodied ideas, opinions or principles—engaging one another. This requires respect and a measure of grace from the outset. Conversation has been called the “process of coming to an understanding” and Gay notes, “At the end of the day, the words that really make ‘coming to an understanding’ possible for us are those that are spoken genuinely and truthfully…Our words only become solid and dependable…in so far as we have committed ourselves to standing behind them.”13 But conversation pursued deliberately, honestly, with genuine curiosity and with great effort to hear what, exactly, the other person is saying, is truly a way to bless—to give life—with our words.

Not only does genuine, sustained conversation create a safe space to “come to an understanding,” it is
also an essential component in healing and reconciliation. In Proverbs we read, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb sweet to the soul and healing to the bones,” (16:24) as well as, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (27:6). Perhaps we have not terrorized or bullied with our words, but we have all hurt with our words or will hurt with our words, and so the work of confessing wrong, asking forgiveness and seeking to heal wounds we have inflicted with our words with new, healing words, is a way of blessing we must all cultivate. This is deeply humbling work, but it is the way of blessing.

Remember Jesus’ words: “out of the abundance of the
heart the mouth speaks”: words are our primary means of showing a change of heart, and it is a gift that we are able to do so.

Akin to this work of reconciling and healing conversations is the possibility of blessing with words by speaking peace to one another. In Psalm 85 the psalmist longs to hear the Lord’s voice: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints…” To speak peace is to impart life-giving speech that powerfully contradicts and undoes the cursing of words that terrorize. The simple absence of the word “of” unites the action of speaking with what is spoken—we do not read ‘speak of peace’. This kind of speech is not a cerebral reasoning about peace, this is peace itself spoken and imparted. This kind of speech is an extension of prayer, and for those of us who worship in a liturgical setting, the location of the ‘passing of the peace’ reflects this order: we confess, we are reminded of God’s forgiveness and declared free from our sin and extended God’s peace, and then we are invited to extend that peace to one another. It takes hearing God the Lord speak peace into our anxiety, into our heartache, and into our fears for us to be able to speak a peace that is true peace to others. And then speaking peace might take the shape of words that provide a new angle
on a difficult circumstance, or words that open a hidden door where there seemed to be a dead-end in our thinking, or words that simply allow pause, and quiet, and space
to believe there may be alternatives to our way of seeing things.

Bless. Bless and do not curse.

What Hath Athens to Do with This Cafeteria? Debate, Rhetoric, and Psychagogia

You’re sitting on an uncomfortable plastic bench. You rest “spreading” (speed reading) and technical debate jargon. your arms on an equally uncomfortable plastic table. You The bad habits acquired through participation in these note the marbled linoleum tiles under your feet. Everything events would more likely undo a classroom training in around you is illuminated in a pale greenish-hue from the rhetoric, rather than supplement one. Events of this na- fluorescent lights overhead. Shuffling all around you, like ture and their styles will likely vary from region to region.

Extras in an episode of The Walking Dead, are tired adoles- cents. Some lean with their backs against stainless steel industrial-grade kitchen appliances, faces aglow from the tablet computer screens in front of them. While others stand mere inches from the walls, passionately addressing their stucco audiences. You’re a high school debate coach, and this is a typical speech and debate tournament.

By now you might have guessed that the setting I’m describing is a school cafeteria. The cafeteria, so depicted, is an odd scene to be sure. Even more odd, is that on most weekends, these places are transformed into the proving grounds for a training in classical rhetoric. Now, at first glance, public high schools and rhetoric are two things not often associated. Government funded educational institu- tions seem an unlikely arena for rhetorical training; but I assure you, it is happening all across our nation, on almost any given weekend.

For a little over four years, I’ve coached debate at Geneva School of Boerne, a few miles north of San Antonio. For almost as many years, I’ve also taught a sophomore course in classical rhetoric. In many ways, these two roles are effectively the two sides of the same coin; rhetors can be trained well in both the classroom and the cafeteria. Yet, just as Washington’s profile looks nothing like an eagle, these two types of training are distinct. Participation in a competi- tive debate team, in particular, offers a unique training in rhetoric. A classical and Christian school seeking to provide the best training in rhetoric to her students would be wise to consider doing so through a competitive debate team.

Now, before explaining the benefits, I should warn the reader that not all debate events are created equal. Most modern competitive events emphasize rapid speed and quantity of content over eloquence and analysis. Any school considering participation in competitive debate should avoid events where persuasive delivery takes a backseat to “spreading” (speed reading) and technical debate jargon. the bad habits acquired through participation in these events would more likely undo a classroom training in rhetoric, rather than supplement one. events of this nature and their styles will likely vary from region to region. Prospective coaches would be wise to attend a few local tournaments, observing several different speech and debate events, noting counter formative tendencies.

Public Forum Debate is one event that is a relatively safe bet for classical and Christian schools, regardless of the region. Unlike most competitive debate events, Public Fo- rum Debate is tailored to the persuasion of a non-specialist, citizen judge. Debating on topics of national significance, Public Forum debaters must be prepared to convey compli- cated arguments to a judge, who until that moment might have no prior knowledge of the topic. Students, working in pairs, must be prepared to take up either side in the debate, as determined by the flip of a coin prior to every debate round. Students take turns setting out their cases, refuting opposing cases, summarizing the debate round, providing final appeals, and periodically engaging in questioning, all in the hope of convincing the judge to vote for their team.

Just imagine yourself as one of the student debat- ers. Your judge is an elderly woman, who just set down her needlework. Your task is to convince her that development assistance should be prioritized over humanitarian aid in the Sahel Region of Africa. Or perhaps sitting in front of you is a college student, wearing a T-Shirt that reads, “No, I’m pretty sure guns kill people,” and you have the insurmount- able task of convincing him that Congress should not renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Complicating matters further, is the other team seated next to you. They take up the opposite position, waiting for you to make a mistake so they can use it against you. This isn’t an MLA-formatted es- say on white paper. This isn’t an in-class oral address to an audience of familiar faces. This is real-life discourse to real- life people. It is at this moment that a training in classical rhetoric becomes tangible. Here, rhetoric is alive in the eyes and ears of the audience, in the increased heartbeat and sweat of an anxious adolescent, and in the secret script of the judge’s written verdict. Debate truly offers to the student an embodied training in rhetoric that sets it apart from the classroom.

Because debate provides a real-world application of rhetorical skills, antagonists to challenge and overcome (or learn from!), and raises the stakes for the continued study of rhetoric, students’ rhetorical skills are sharpened. In making this case, I’ll allow the Five Canons of Classical Rhetoric to serve as my guide, those categorized rhetorical principles established by ancient rhetoricians: Invention, Arrange- ment, Style, Memory, and Delivery.

Like many debate events, Public Forum Debate centers around resolutions: declarative statements on a given topic for debaters to affirm or negate. Public Forum Debate resolutions change every month. One month before the start of a new debate topic, the National Speech and Debate Association, the organization that sets the rules
and oversees much of American speech and debate tourna- ments, announces the new resolution. This is when debaters engage in the practice of skills related to the first of the Five Canons: Invention.

There is no more exciting time to coach a debate team than when a new resolution is announced. Debaters chomp at the bit to discover what arguments can be made on any given topic. Indeed, discovery is what the the Canon of Invention is all about. For several weeks following the release of a new topic, the team engages in energetic, but systematic, round-table discussions about available argu- ments. As the team’s Harkness-table heuristic continues, the list of possible arguments grows, and research begins. Each student unearths authoritative support for his claims. These findings are presented, scrutinized, and, finally, debaters draft their cases.

In all the frenzied excitement of topic preparation, it’s easy to lose sight of the rhetorical skills being developed. While these skills are too numerous to list, one of the most important is lexical discernment. Students pay particular attention to the definitions of key terms in the resolution. I recall, for example, a few months ago, when no less than two full debate class periods were devoted to discussion of the definition of the word “ought.” These students rightly recognized that alternative definitions of that word would allow the debater to “frame” the argument in a way that benefited one side of the debate or another. One seemingly insignificant verb in the resolution would prevent or allow access to certain lines of reasoning. Successful debaters rec- ognize the importance of owning a good dictionary. In this, debaters are apprentice wordsmiths; attentive to their own words and the words of their opponents. Given enough practice they become masters of their craft.

Skills related to Invention are honed beyond the initial preparation stage. Once the students find themselves at a competitive tournament, there is much related to the rhetorical situation left to discover. Take our biased, tee- shirt wearing college student from earlier. As a student of rhetoric, a debater will instinctively glean as much informa- tion from his audience prior to the round. In this situation, recognizing potential for bias, judicious debaters might modify their case in response to perceived partisanship. They might choose a different side (assuming they win the coin toss), modify their lexicon, or use different arguments to best appeal to the individual. When rhetors look to the opportunity of the moment, they are practicing kairos, an ancient means of Invention that looks to the role of timing or opportunity in persuasion. Debaters must not only be masters of the words they use, but they must recognize where and when to use (or not use) them. Students who participate in debate develop the ability to assess and re- spond to the rhetorical situation because they are presented with new and varied audiences.

Arrangement, the second Canon of Classical Rhetoric, also has applications before, during, and after a competitive tournament. Once debaters have invented their arguments, they must decide in what order to struc- ture their cases, and how much background information
to provide. Generally the pre-tournament arrangement
of a debate argument is a given by convention. Debaters will typically begin with a short verbal hook to grab their audience’s attention. Then, they will provide background information necessary for the audience to weigh in on the issue. They will then state their claim; that is, whether they are affirming or negating the resolution, and why. Then, for each of their subordinate claims, the reasons why the judge should vote for them, support is provided, and the impact, or importance, of that claim is stated. If time allows, debat- ers will attempt to refute the most commonly used oppos- ing claims. They will end with a brief conclusion, summa- rizing and urging the judge to vote for them. This format might sound familiar to many classical educators, because it is very similar to the Six Part Classical Oration Arrangement taught at many classical schools. Drafting debate argu- ments enables debate students to frequently practice their writing in a way that reinforces what they are taught in the classroom. Unlike a standard classroom essay and oration, however, debaters encounter feedback that is immediate and often harsh. Opponents and angry judges don’t mince words. This, coupled with the next round looming, exhorts the student to revision in a way that the assign-grade-return format of classroom writing can’t match.

It’s not enough to just include the requisite parts of the Classical Arrangement. Students must also consider the appropriate length of each of the parts. Consider again our elderly crocheter. Remembering their own ignorance of the Sahel Region in Africa prior to their research, and the unlike- lihood that their non-specialist citizen judge knows much about it either, the debaters deem it necessary to expand on the background information in their case. They quickly con- fer, deciding to cut some support from their cases to spend more time establishing background information necessary for their judge’s understanding. Judging the appropriate- ness of the length of the arranged parts is yet another skill frequently practiced by debaters.

The third of the Five Canons of Classical Rhetoric is Style. The Canon of Style is concerned with choosing words suitable to a rhetorical occasion. The ticking clock looming over every speech forces debaters to wrestle with word econ- omy. Speeches in Public Forum Debate vary in length from two to four minutes. Faced with this scarcity of time, debat- ers must make use of every second of the speech to inform their audience, refute their opponent’s claims, and expand their own case. Every filler word is a missed opportunity. Whether drafting their case or speaking extemporaneously in round, a debater’s language becomes clear and simple. They instinctively learn to say only what is necessary with as few words as possible.

Memory is the fourth Canon. Memory deals not only with familiarity of a speech, but also having a stock of support available and knowing how to recall it quickly. It is not uncommon for debaters to compile hundreds of pieces of evidence for each resolution. With little time to prepare during a round, debaters must quickly bring to mind a
fact or retrieve a lengthier quote. I’ve seen debate rounds lost because an unorganized debater spent the lion’s share of his speech rifling through unorganized piles of printed evidence. To combat this, debaters develop organizational systems to assist in retrieval. It is not uncommon, however, for the most used facts, figures, and quotes to be memorized verbatim by the end of a month on a specific topic. The memory of a debater is continually exercised.

The more familiar with the speech and its support, the more comfortable the student will be in presenting it. Delivery, the final Canon of Classical Rhetoric, deals with the presentation of the speech. Here is where all those carefully selected and arranged words might fall upon deaf ears. For if debaters speak too quietly, or in a monotone voice, or rattle off their case too rapidly, their words will likely not be heard at all. Debaters learn to speak audibly, at a restrained rate, and with varied intonation. For the work of Invention, Ar- rangement, and Style to matter, a debater must be skillful in vocal delivery.

While debate is certainly a competition of words, it does offer to the participant the exercise of other persuasive skills related to Delivery. Consider, for example, debaters who look down toward their printed speech or computer screen. Debaters recognize the importance of eye contact in a speech. Eye contact signals confidence and holds the attention of the audience. Hand gestures are also important. Debaters use hand gestures to reinforce their vocal deliv- ery. Wild, frenzied gestures detract from their case, while smooth, purposeful gestures provide a visual underscore
to their words. Through practice and feedback, debaters acquire the skills that unite speech and body.

Debate offers to the student of rhetoric a unique opportunity to expand on those skills acquired in the class- room. They learn to discover arguments. They understand, arrange, and use words well and at the right time. They in- crease their capacity for and organization of support. Finally, the debater learns to take those words and present them in an engaging way. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the cafeteria we began in. You note that the linoleum tiles look more like marbled rock. The pale greenish-hue gives way to a warm, yellow glow, like that of the midday Mediterranean sun. The tired adolescents begin to resemble Ancient Athenian citizens. The speeches your students are practicing begin to sound more like the words of the Apostle Paul. You’re atop Mars Hill. For the reason we are at this tournament is for far more than the practical benefits of linguistic development, or the cheap plastic trophies re- ceived in victory, or the bolstering of college transcripts. We are training our students to discern and defend truth and to winsomely persuade others to it. We are training them for a rhetoric that Plato describes as psychagogia (“soul leading”). We are training them in the footsteps of Paul the Apostle, for their own Mars Hill moments. We are preparing them to be psychagogues: leaders of souls by words to the truth found in Christ Jesus. And debate is a fantastic way to do this.

Why Latin? Learn it for the Hypallage!

For several years now, Latin has been making a steady and decided comeback. Not just classical schools, but private schools of various stripe as well as some suburban public schools, inner-city schools, and everything in between have Latin again as an option – sometimes even a popular one – in the curriculum. This semester at my college I am teaching “Latin 101: Beginning Latin” to an eager group of twenty-four students, none of whom are using the course to meet a language requirement; they simply want to learn Latin. The last time introductory Latin was offered here was nearly thirty years ago, when it died due to simple lack of interest. A few years ago several students circulated a petition asking for signatures from students “who would take beginning Latin even if it did not fulfill a language requirement”; they quickly amassed more than sixty signatures. Latin success stories from struggling inner- city schools to prestigious private academies are common enough, and, of course, the classical school movement essentially has made the study of Latin for its students a sine qua non.

Well-worn responses to the old “Why study a dead language?” have returned with vigor. We all know the pragmatic answers which once tried, in vain, to prop up dying Latin in school curricula of the 1960’s and 1970’s – Latin teaches logical thinking; Latin builds English vocabulary; Latin will raise your standardized test scores (thereby helping you get into top colleges, professional programs, graduate schools). In some classical circles, these answers likely mask another necessity-driven, usually unspoken, one – Smart young hires at small private schools can usually teach themselves enough Latin in order to teach elementary students, something they could not do for modern spoken languages like French or German. Many of us could probably give plenty of examples of the latter, even if the reality of it does not thrill us. I have, many times, taught upper-level “Reading Latin” to college students who could boast four or more years of middle or high school Latin (partly from teachers who more or less taught themselves Latin) yet who have not even encountered the Subjunctive Mood.

It is not easy to deny the validity of any of the above answers, even if the idealist in many of us probably balks
at the crass pragmatism at play. School administrators, teachers, and board members, no doubt, know they have to give the above answers (minus, of course, the final one) to inquiring parents. Such a message, in some circles, unfortunately tends to get absolutized. Once again, some administrators are heard arguing that Latin (and/ or sometimes Koiné Greek) is essential to learning logical thinking skills. There is rich irony at play whenever parents (who have never studied Latin) parrot this claim which they have heard from teachers and administrators (many of whom have never studied Latin either). To be quite frank, there are many very effective and efficient ways to learn logical thinking skills, to build vocabulary, and to soar on standardized tests without a single day of studying Latin. To suggest otherwise borders on the naïve, on the one hand, and the dishonest, on the other.

So, without muddying the waters by arguing that Latin should be required for all students, let me suggest some reasons why I love Latin (and Greek), and why the study of dead ancient inflected languages is an excellent pedagogical option. In doing so, I will try to avoid the Scylla of elitism and the Charybdis of populism. The former, which I see in some students coming from classical school backgrounds, is rarely backed up by substance (see note on the Subjunctive Mood above, for one of many examples). The latter, the essence of Americanism, ignores the fact that truly learning Latin takes sustained thought, hard work, and dedication, and most are not going there, even given the most energetic of teachers and supportive of parents.

First, the study of Latin exposes one to a truly foreign culture, a beautiful world outside of our own. In this respect, Latin does something that teaching modern languages generally does not. Learning any language is never just about grammar and vocabulary, but rather about getting access to a different world. While I refuse to pit learning Latin against learning French, and remain a firm believer in students learning modern languages, I would argue that there is a fundamental difference between the two in terms of foreign exposure. Modern languages, in spite of the occasional and very welcome exceptions (bless them!), are taught primarily in a touristic and consumeristic way. High school modern language classes are ultimately geared toward preparing you to check into a hotel, to rent a car, to order a meal, to buy a trinket. The point is to bring their world to me in a way I can negotiate it, touch it, enjoy it, take it home. The point is not to truly enter a foreign culture. There are exceptions, but the pattern remains, and implicitly or explicitly serves as a justification for requiring modern foreign languages in schools.

In our modern globalized world, moreover, even those who truly immerse themselves in a contemporary foreign culture begin to see how foreign it is not. Discussions about western pop stars, western “restaurants” (is McDonald’s a restaurant?), western politics, western television shows, western movie stars, western sports figures, etc. tend to dominate. By contrast, note what happens when even a beginning Latin student encounters a line from Vergil, Livy, Cicero, Ovid, or Seneca. No longer is the student thinking about how to order a sandwich or how to find the train station (as important as these are), or talk about One Direction or American Idol (as important as these aren’t), but rather he is pondering a question about natural law, the nature of friendship, or the role of the divine. To the extent that some of this is not explicitly foreign, it at least remains timeless. Emphasis on Rome as part of something we call Western Civilization can blind us to how truly different those people were from us in worldview. Even a brief study of Roman religion or cosmology would show the gulf between us and them. Through the study of Latin we can encounter a glimpse of the beauty and sheer variety of human creativity across time and space – and the Roman world is a truly foreign place.

Second, the study of Latin can teach us about grammar in a way that spoken language does not necessarily do. This argument has a long history, but we should not forget it. With spoken languages, most of us learn by imitation, by hearing. Is it, “If I were you, I would be glad to study Latin” or “If I was you, I would be glad to study Latin”? Our first impulse is to hear which one sounds correct (admittedly, a poor method if our community / family / peer group does not take grammar seriously). With Latin, understanding Tense (e.g. Present, Imperfect, Future, Perfect, Pluperfect, Future Perfect), Mood (e.g. Indicative, Subjunctive, Imperative), Case Usage (Direct Object, Indirect Object, Subject, Means, Manner, etc.) comes from learning how the grammar works. No one who has ever taught Latin (or Greek) at any level has not frequently heard “this really helps me understand English grammar a whole lot better.”

To be sure, all languages, ancient and modern, have a rigorous grammatical logic. Learning Latin, though, is rarely if ever about learning by hearing and imitating, but necessarily about understanding the grammar intrinsically and extrinsically.
that they use the logic of Latin every day to think about relationships between words, about syntax, about grammar. All of this comes in addition to learning vocabulary terms (which might or might not help one on the SAT). Additionally, grammarians and philologists have long noted that languages tend to devolve over time in terms of grammatical complexity. The earlier phases of a language (and what are French, Italian, and Spanish but living Latin?) tend to be the most complex, again giving us insight into the rich beauty of human creativity in ways not necessarily observable in current forms of any language.

Finally, Latin expresses itself in ways which are impossible in non-inflected languages such as English. Of course, English does things that Latin (and Greek) cannot (like make an art form of rhyming poetry, for example), but inflected languages show us, again, a beauty and creativity which we cannot ever experience in English or any language readily accessible in American educational systems. To illustrate, I will take an example from an Attic Greek text and then move to a Latin counterpart. Early in my studies of Attic Greek, I was assigned a section from Book Two of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The scene was a dark, rainy, night battle in a city. Like many parts of Thucydides, the passage was very difficult, but this one seemed more intractable than any passage I had yet encountered. Word order, of course, in highly inflected languages, is far more flexible than English, which depends closely on the order of words in a sentence (another point to support the argument in the previous paragraph, incidentally). Even with flexibility, though, there are patterns into which Latin and Greek sentences generally fall. One learns where to look for the verb, the subject, the object(s), modifiers, etc. When they are not where one expects, it is for a purpose such as emphasis, and one learns to recognize this. The Thucydides passage, though, was convoluted well beyond my neophyte powers of recognition. Verbs were positioned where I expected nouns; modifiers were far away from words they were modifying; participles flew at me from odd directions. I began to get frustrated, angry, exhausted as I tried to translate the description of this night battle.

Then it hit me – I was being brought into the thick of the battle! Nothing was where I expected it, just as the fighters in the dark, rainy streets did not know who was on what side as they came upon a person in the dark chaos, slipping and falling through the wet streets. Was that a foe or a friend rushing at them? Nothing was where they expected. Such was the beauty of the passage – I could translate the words (eventually), but more than that, I could feel the action. Latin does the same, because it can. Working in a similar way would be Cicero’s famous descriptions of conspirators where he employs word order which illustrates immediate danger, yet allows the reader to picture the conspirators in the hills around Rome, in the city itself, and, ultimately, in the Senate house itself.

Rhetoric, of course, was the basis of higher education in Rome, and Latin (and Greek) formed the essential structure from which to launch their verbal fireworks. While modern education is oriented toward “facts,” education in the ancient world was oriented toward the rhetorical presentation of facts. Originality, for them, was primarily not a matter of thinking up new material,
but rather handling old and well-known material in a rhetorically new and interesting way. All classical literature was thus rhetorical, and relied on picturesque means of conveying a message. The tropes and figures for doing so were more or less canonized by the Romans.

To truly appreciate these tropes and figures, it is necessary to encounter them in the original languages, for much depends on word order and grammatical inflection. I would maintain that this goes well beyond simply “Vergil reads better in Latin just as Camus reads better in French.” Just to give one example, how about Hypallage?4 Vergil’s Aeneid (6.268), Ibant obscure sola sub nocte per umbram (“they set off through the shadows, the dark ones, beneath the lonely night” is but a poor shadow of a translation) represents a brilliant double Hypallage. Or, turning to the Silver Age, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (3.4), iam medium curru Phoebus diuiserat orbem / et proprior Nocti fessas quatiebat habenas (“Phoebus in his chariot had already passed mid orbit, and, nearer to Night, was shaking his weary reigns”). No doubt J.R.R. Tolkien’s own classical language training inspired his own Hypallage (The Hobbit, chapter 11): “The others went down the valley and up the newly found path, and so to the narrow ledge. Along this they could carry no bundles or packs, so narrow and breathless was it, with a fall of a hundred and fifty feet beside them on to the sharp rocks below.”

So, why should we study Latin? Certainly it can help teach logical thinking and build vocabulary, and perhaps boost standardized tests scores. But why stop there? In a word, why not extend to our students the offer of encountering a beautiful and creative world otherwise currently beyond their ken. Latin is not for the select few any more than is algebra. Yet neither is it for everyone, just as astrophysics is probably not for everyone. But it remains a window into a lovely foreign world, and we would do well to emphasize this aspect more often. There is nothing elitist about all this. Hard work brings with it rewards, and beautiful ones.

Rhetoric Awakens

How does the study of Rhetoric and the preparation and presentation of a Senior Thesis culminate the first twelve years of schooling? In developing an extended analogy with Star Wars, I beg your tolerance. Like much of the world, my four sons and I are going through a phase of Star Wars obsession in anticipation of the new movie, Episode VII, The Force Awakens.

-Who are you? -I’m no one.

A dejected young woman (Rey) looks up from a pile of old debris she is sorting through. Her landspeeder cruises through a desert. A half-buried star destroyer juts out of the distant sand dunes. The opening scenes of the movie trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens convey a listless feeling of living amid ruins of a prior age’s imperial ambition. Rey’s story has been about surviving. Like Luke Skywalker many years earlier, her story is set to grow into something more–an adventure in which she discovers her destiny.

-I was raised to do one thing, but I’ve got nothing to fight for.

An exhausted young storm trooper (Finn) peers over the dunes to behold a horizon of endless sand. He is alone. He has been training to fight for the wrong side. Finn’s story of sudden awakening and transferred loyalty requires him to embrace the danger, which comes with his joining the Resistance.

The climax of the trailer is an exchange between Rey and Han Solo:

-Those stories about what happened?
-It’s true–all of it. The Jedi and the Dark Side of the Force, they’re real.

In the original Star Wars a younger Han doubted the legends about Jedi knights and the Force. He was indif- ferent to the Rebel Alliance. Then Han found friendship, love, and common cause with Luke, Leia, and Obi Wan.

The once cynical smuggler found a larger story, or rather he was swept into it. Han, who once was suspicious of Obi Wan, now plays the same role as a mentor of the Resistance guiding the younger generation with hard won wisdom. Han’s new story is about passing on to the next generation the wisdom they need to struggle against the dark side.

Rhetoric and thesis programs in the classical Chris- tian school movement have diverse needs and face different challenges and opportunities. What do all schools seeking to renew Rhetoric in a Christian context have in common? The Star Wars, Episode VII trailer symbolizes some common elements that I take to be crucial for any program. These common elements are themes each protagonist develops within the plot of a larger story; they receive discipleship, embrace danger, and find their destiny. Our students may not have to dodge TIE fighters and wield light sabers (although my sons think it would be really cool if they did); nevertheless, the thesis process feels like an epic struggle, and in a real sense it is.

“A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.” Luke 6:40

Researching a topic, preparing and refining an argument, presenting and defending it is the most demand- ing assignment our students face in their K-12 education. As Aristotle noted, Rhetoric is the counterpart to Dialectic. Neither of these skills has content besides formal concepts to be applied in the stream of life. Dialectic and Rhetoric have concepts and skills useful for discovering, clarifying and developing any topic. Students have to supply the con- tent by selecting a viable topic and developing an argument. The degree to which seniors must generate the substance of their learning in the thesis process is unlike anything they have done up to this point. In light of the challenge posed, we should seek to follow a model of apprenticeship, or discipleship learning.

Teachers, parents and administrators should seek to foster a culture of discipleship as a key ingredient in any Rhetoric and Senior Thesis program. Every student should have a faculty advisor. Parents should help stage practice sessions with family friends as the day of their presenta- tion and defense approaches. If possible, as many teach- ers, coaches, administrators and staff members as possible should be invited to advise and judge theses. These are some simple ways to build in support. Less obvious, but just as crucial, is the tenor in which we mentor our students. We must discern the appropriate mix of adult input and student independence. It can be tempting as an advisor, teacher, or parent to want to take over a student’s thesis.

As we mentor, we need to remember it’s not about us; it’s not our thesis. But neither is it entirely theirs. Successful theses are the fruit of a community effort that calls forth the emerging adult in each student. We need a healthier model than either codependence or independence. Discipleship offers a biblical and classical model to temper the extremes that we are prone to pursue.

What does full or completed training look like in the context of our movement, and especially the capstone Senior Thesis program?

The last two winners of Regents School of Austin’s Thesis Award, Brandon and Jennie, are fine examples of stu- dents who embraced discipleship as integral to their thesis process. In addition to working with their advisors, they took initiative to seek out other teachers. Both students regularly sought input and more reading material from mentors. They took ownership of their learning beyond the minimal requirements of research. In turn, Brandon and Jennie modeled for their peers the creative balance of actively seeking guidance and discovering their own voice as rhetoricians contending for the truth. Discipleship can be contagious.

I love the Star Wars saga for the way traditional vir- tues and institutions are reinterpreted in a fantastic world. Luke’s training to become a Jedi requires the discipline and training that only comes from Master Yoda. Like Luke, our students have to be allowed to learn through struggle. All the adults in the thesis process must strike a wise balance of involvement and letting our apprentices work out their difficulties.


“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have over- come the world.” John 16: 33

Embracing danger is the counterpart to receiving discipleship. Discipleship without danger is stifling and danger without discipleship is harsh. As the Star Wars saga shows, all good stories involve some danger and risk. But it’s one thing to recognize this in the fantasy world of mov- ies, it’s another thing to embrace danger in reality.

Parents and schools bear an enormous responsibil- ity to protect our children especially when they are young. But as our little ones grow, enter high school, begin to drive, and eventually graduate, we have to let them face the dangers of being responsible adults. Helicopter parenting and schooling that endlessly coddles the egos and emotions of children will not help prepare students for handling the struggles of independent life, much less leadership. Many college students leave overprotective homes only to find more of the same, but from the opposite end of the politi- cal and ideological spectrum; patronizing professors and administrators encourage students to hunt for “trigger warnings” and use evasion strategies such as labeling as “micro aggressions” any position or view that threatens their comfort.

It is not entirely safe to take a stand on a controver- sial topic in a divided society. Even in the actual presence of family, friends and the school community, the very act of taking and defending a stand is intimidating. Especially in our time, the wider culture offers few healthy models of honest, intelligent debate. Since human nature naturally avoids or minimizes threats to security, we need to face and embrace the countercultural role of the entire thesis process.

One of my best thesis memories is of a student who struggled to find her courage. She struggled all year with anxiety over the thesis process, especially the public speak- ing it requires. Since delivering and defending a thesis is a graduation requirement, she simply had to face her fear and do it in spite of the risk. Melanie argued for propaga- tion of classical Christian schools in Tanzania. During the question and answer period she was asked a very tough question: “Isn’t your claim basically a form of cultural imperialism–the rich Western world imposing itself on the model of educational colonialism? Why should Africans want to embrace a Western tradition of learning rather than developing their own indigenous traditions and resources?” After a long pause, Melanie answered by quoting a true au- thority– a girl who attended a Raffiki Village school (classi- cal and Christian) in Kenya, who was asked to describe her education: “I have become an explorer and now I see things more clearly than before. Through the Bible study, my heart has grown to love God and seek to know Him more. I am anticipating opening a classical Christian school in Nairobi to share the Good News with small children and society at large.” Some things cut through cultural relativities. Saint Augustine couldn’t have summed up the purpose of educa- tion better. Regents’ strict requirement and Melanie’s cour- age to face the danger of defending a thesis set the stage that allowed that incredible answer to happen in the face of fear. And we know that will not be the last time she is asked to be bold for truth, goodness, and beauty.


“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” Matthew 28: 18b-19a

In an annual ritual, our community gathers around each one of our seniors. The seniors dress up to the hilt, approach the podium, and spend forty minutes present- ing and defending a case they have developed all year. Gathered together are parents and grandparents, teachers and staff, siblings and friends. A host of emotions and energies pulse through the gathered community. For our community and for each senior, it is a moment of destiny. Our graduates get to give back the fruit of their education to the community that has formed them. What is at stake in this culminating moment? Is it mundane or transcendent or both? What makes this destined event more than just a graduation requirement?

In reenacting this ritual each year, for each student, our communities strive to honor an old tradition of rheto- ric. It is the Ciceronian-Quintilian tradition that refuses
to separate argumentation, ethics, and persuasion. It is a tradition aiming to produce a good person speaking well. The sixteenth century humanist and reformer Petrus Ramus thought that Quintilian improperly included ethics in the domain of rhetoric and sought to reduce rhetoric to tech- niques of ornamentation. Quintilian was right and Ramus was wrong. Rhetoric is inextricably bound up with how we negotiate a wide range of issues in life–for good or for evil. It can and should be distinguished from, but it cannot be separated from other modes of inquiry. Reckoning with the rich scope of Rhetoric may be inconvenient if you, like Ramus, are seeking tidy classifications for all disciplines. But in light of God’s reign, learning effective persuasion is bound up with all endeavors inside and outside academic disciplines.

Senior Thesis is, on the one hand, a moment that passes like all others. On the other hand, by embodying their message and contending for the true, good and lovely, it can be a moment when all the ultimate issues of life in God’s kingdom transform that moment.

This is not safe–this incursion of the Kingdom of God. It is not easy to reckon with the powers and princi- palities that affect discourse. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Gulag Archipelago, said “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either –but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” Once our students have been fully trained, they are asked to enter a difficult world–and they are part of the difficulty. There is no quarter for simple dualisms in God’s kingdom. Learning Rhetoric and going through the Senior Thesis program can help students be more self-aware.

The Force can be used for good or evil. The heart and mind of the Jedi must decide the end for which the Force is used.

In our time the clash of civilizations, political grid- lock, culture wars, social injustices and perennial internal damage wrought by sin all conspire to make chaos in God’s creation. It is in the mess of reality that we pray our seniors graduate as disciples who will face danger with courage because Christ truly is their one sufficient destiny who calls them to be persuasive for His kingdom in all that they do henceforth.

The makers of Star Wars, Episode VII hope that moms and dads, boys and girls will come and find some- thing of their own story reflected in the adventures of the new protagonists of Star Wars, The Force Awakens. I share that hope, for we can see reflections and hear echoes of Christ’s Kingdom in the movie and in our Rhetoric and Senior Thesis programs.

On Stuttering

Hear fellow Triviumites: Dr. Schmitt, tutors, parents, friends, alumni, students, and seniors, all those gathered by the all-wise Word of God to this place at this time, Greetings!

Many, many years ago, when I was a student here at Trivium, we studied Geometry upstairs in the little room off of the kitchen. I think it was called the End Room, then. There were four of us; just four of us and all those beautiful demonstrations to divide between us. One day, in a moment of rare despair, one of my classmates turned away from the chalkboard and cried: “I know how it goes, but I just can’t say it!” And in that moment, our tutor said something very wise that I have recalled nearly daily, ever since. He said: “If you can’t say it, you don’t know it.” Having put this saying to the test over the many, many years since my Trivium graduation, I am now finally ready to announce my findings: It is ninety-seven percent true, and as such, a trustworthy rule for living. But I want to talk to you today about the other three percent: those few but important things we know that regularly, sometimes tragically, and rightfully escape our attempts to “say them.” I want to try to talk about the inarticulate. (From articulare, to divide according to distinct joints. So the inarticulate is that which cannot be chopped up into parts by language.)

Now before I begin, I don’t want to get into trouble. Seniors, I don’t want to overhear you later saying that your Commencement speaker doesn’t believe in grammar, logic, and rhetoric (she does), or that she despises the duties and delights of articulate speech. As Dr. Schmitt and your other tutors have pressed you, so do I: every day, for the rest of your life on this earth, struggle and keep struggling to say the truth clearly.

But because this is a very difficult task, I want to take time today to encourage you and to remind you that you stand among a cloud of witnesses who find that when they try to speak about the greatest matters, the ones that most deserve to be spoken, they start to stutter. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, a book so good that I’m not afraid of ruining the ending for you, if you look ahead to the very last lines of the last volume, called the Paradiso, you’ll find Dante, after his long pilgrimage through hell and purgatory, caught up into the highest heights of heaven, where he beholds an image of the dual mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. He can’t speak. He can’t even remain conscious for very long. Like a geometer trying to square the circle, he attempts to do divine geometry, at a loss to say how Christ can be both man and God, finite and infinite, with a human face and an eternal, invisible nature. He turns from the figure in wonder: He knows this God-man, but he just can’t say what he’s seeing.

And we don’t need to travel to the heights of Paradise to discover the limits of our speech. In his Confessions, St. Augustine says that we are largely incapable of saying what is in our very own minds. Our souls, he says, are like underground caverns, full of rooms leading through innumerable passageways to other rooms and to still other rooms, all poorly lit, full of memories and treasures, traces and runes. Our own torches aren’t bright enough to discover what lies forgotten in our labyrinthine selves. Left to ourselves, we can’t fully say what we ourselves are.

In my senior year at Trivium, we read Herman Melville’s short novel, Billy Budd, about a noble sailor who tragically can’t say what is in his heart. Melville says this intriguing thing about him: “The bonfire in his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek (Penguin ed., 327).” Something inside Billy Budd makes his whole face shine, but when he goes to speak—he can’t, he blushes, he stutters, he chokes, his fist flies out, and in a moment, he has accidentally killed a man and sealed his fate—to be hanged upon the deck at dawn, as military law requires. Those of you who’ve read the book may have wanted to shout out at the crucial moment: “Speak! Why can’t you speak!?”

You might find occasion to say the same thing to yourselves, after you leave this place: As you go out from Trivium to the wide world—to new work, perhaps new families, new studies, new friends, you will try to explain who you are, where you came from, the school you attended, the visions you have seen. Like Billy Budd or Dante or Augustine, you may flush and stutter.

So here is the bind we’re in: On one hand, we must struggle for articulation, especially in this dishwater age, and especially given our natural intellectual laziness. Therefore, we study Euclid, the most articulate teacher of truth in the whole curriculum. Therefore, we endeavor to follow in St. Thomas’s footsteps and present theses and defend them in articulate paragraphs. Therefore, we define terms, we speak aloud in class, we clarify, we rewrite, we rewrite again. As the poet T.S. Eliot says as he stands at the battle line between the speakable and the ineffable: poetry, too, is a “raid on the inarticulate.” (East Coker). (“Ineffable,” from effabilis, speakable. So that the ineffable is that which cannot be spoken. By the way, how astonishing that poetry can claim to steal something from the land of the unspeakable and drag it into the camp of speech!)

But on the other hand, our best efforts to “just say it” will show us that some things admit of distinct speech while others do not. Aristotle himself, the perfecter of the definition, warns us that different matters admit of different kinds of precision (Nic. Ethics I.iii). Some very unimportant things—like toasters—admit of very precise speech (the red wire attaches to plate A, fixed in place with a 1/2 inch pin…). And some important things are like that, too: the triangle, for example. One can speak very articulately about the triangle. On the other hand, others among the most important things that we know stand at the limit of articulation. Think again of the mystery of the Trinity or the Incarnation. God is one… but God is three. But He’s not three Gods. But He is blessed—happy—in the love between each Person of Him….? And Jesus is one… but Jesus is two. God and man. Eternally begotten and born on earth like
the rest of us. Where are the joints? How do we cut these realities up into speech? We try mightily to speak clearly about these greatest realities—the Athenasian and Nicene creeds are perhaps our best though stuttery attempts—but it would be illogical to think that finite words could do justice to such high mysteries.

So, as I’ve said, we are in a bind: the more we struggle to articulate the truth (as we ought), the tighter the knots. We realize, as we fail to capture the truth how much we want to say it. Or to take Melville’s image, we feel the bonfire in the heart most when we find ourselves tongue- tied. How can this fire be anything but torture? How can the serious lover not despair? The things we most want
to be able to say, and to say to those we love, are the very things that nearly escape language altogether.

But I want to remind you today that we are not alone in this struggle. St. John tells us that God, the Son, is a Word, the Word; the word is Logos in Greek, the same source of our word “Logic.” He is the meaning, the saying, the explanation, the expression, the speech of God. (How can a person be a speech? More on that to come.) In any case, God is fully in favor of articulation, his being is expression. The Father wants to be known, the Son want to tells us about him, and the Holy Spirit wants to remind us of what Jesus has said: “I will pray to the Father,” says Jesus in John 14, “and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. […] “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. […] [T]he Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. […] Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” We are not alone as we struggle to speak. God himself, Speech himself, lives in us. He is beyond human knowledge, but he makes us know him and even teaches us a language to speak about him.

The ancients called on the Muses to help them to speak; in this, they were half-right. But we who know the Logos and confess that we are stutterers pray: “O most blessed Trinity, guide me listening and speaking.” Look at the order of the petitions. Listening means receiving. First, receive words; then you’ll have something to say. And we will receive what we need to speak about God. So, do not worry about what you will say, as Jesus says elsewhere: The God who gives us loaves instead of stones and eggs instead of scorpions also gives words to stutterers.

And here, I’m going to lay out my cards as a Lutheran: read the Scriptures, read them every day; God’s words are in there, the answer to your prayer. And not just the answers to certain questions: We ought, of course, to go the Bible to discover what God thinks about love, family, work, heaven, hell, the soul, and so on, but beyond these practical excursions, can I suggest that we all try
to be more like St. Augustine? He “spoke Bible,” as one of my teachers used to say. St. Augustine swam in the Scriptures, he breathed them in, so that by the time he wrote the Confessions, nearly every other line was a direct or indirect quotation of the Bible. He couldn’t help it. It wasn’t plagiarism. The Bible was his language.

And it’s a language we speak, too; we recognize it as a baby recognizes the intonations of his mother tongue.

Rmember the disciples on the road to Emmaus: They should have studied the Scriptures more—they didn’t even understand that the Christ had been resurrected— nevertheless, they said: “Weren’t our hearts burning within us as he explained the Scriptures?”

The Bible is the Great Book among Great Books. It manages to say through images and arguments and stories and poems what would otherwise be simply ineffable. Through the Scriptures and with the help of the Holy Spirit who caused them to be written, God allows us to make raids upon the inarticulate. Thus Scripture is not only a guide for living; it is also a guide for speaking. When we use those words, we are speaking more than we realize. Incidentally, the study of Scripture is a leisurely pursuit when we think of it this way. We are simply learning the language now so that later, we can use it. All of the images and stories and arguments and poems in it, like the words children learn, don’t become clear until later. For many
of us, the experiences of life that match these words—the real desires and sufferings and joys, about which the Bible speaks—haven’t yet happened to us. But when the time comes, we’ll have the words to talk about them. Until then, store up those words.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century writer and scientist (perhaps you know his famous line “the heart has reasons that reason cannot grasp”?) is another figure who, like Melville’s Billy Budd, lived with a fire in his breast. Unlike Billy Budd, he listened for the voice of God; like Augustine, he lived in the Bible. And in 1654, he had an encounter with the Word that changed him forever. After his encounter,
he got out a piece of paper and wrote down the following, nearly inarticulate account, which he then had sewed into
a hidden breast pocket in his coat, transferring it from coat to coat as he wore them out. I’m going to read an excerpt, because it is so beautiful, so inarticulate but striking:

It starts out distinctly, speaking clearly of things that admit of distinct speech, namely, the time and the date. Pascal begins:

The year of grace 1654
Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.
Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.

And then, Pascal suddenly broaches the ineffable: Fire

‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not

of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
’Thy God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God. He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
’O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters. ’My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him forever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I will not forget thy word.

Like Augustine, Pascal lapses into Bible. Many of these lines are nothing but Biblical quotation, nothing but the names that God taught us to call him through Holy Scriptures. Now, neither Pascal’s whole heart nor the whole being of God could be contained in this little snippet that he sewed into his coat, but such powerful speech is not nothing.

So, seniors, when you shortly leave this place,
what will you say about Trivium? About the trivium? About your faith, about your upbringing, your future,
your past, your soul, your God? If the prospect makes you tremble, then I hope that you realize that you are in good company, the company of saints and poets who have tried and often failed to speak of the most ineffable things, and the company of the Blessed Trinity. Pray, read, and trust the God who gave us speech, who still gives words and memory and a torch to light our inner cavernous selves and images to show us the blessed, incomprehensible Trinity and the incomprehensible Incarnate One, that we may know him.

And finally, when, in the infinite wisdom of God, he allows our speech to fail, whether because of our sin, or inexperience, or ignorance, or illness, or old age and mere mortal finitude, still all is not lost. I want to remind you of the final scenes of Billy Budd (or ruin it for those of you who have not yet read it): in the final scenes, Billy Budd is hanged. Melville says that with calm courage, Billy blessed his executioner and as “in a mystical vision [….] watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” Bathed in new sunlight, his suffering and his failure, his face and his body say something to the men below. Like the Son of God, Melville suggests, his person is a logos. I like this story of the stutterer turned into a speech because it tenderly comforts us: struggle to say what you know, and when you fail—and this is another very great mystery—God will use your silent being to speak to the world.