Birds of a Feather, or The True Meaning of Friendship

“Birds of a feather flock together,” my mother told me over and over again while I was growing up. At first I had no idea what she meant. But gradually it dawned on me that the sorts of people I spent time with somehow had an influence on the sort of man I would become. If I wasted my time with ne’er-do-wells, I would become a ne’er-do- well. If I made friends with the studious and athletic types, I would most likely be both studious and athletic. Who knows? Maybe I could have a good influence on some poor, undirected child who didn’t know whether to listen to the devil on one shoulder or the angel on the other.

My sense is that sayings like these—and there used to be hundreds of them, for most every aspect of childrearing and life in general—have largely passed out of usage, though perhaps the parents who send their children to a classical school are more likely to cling to their grandparents’ old sayings, to say nothing of their guns and their Bibles. I suspect, though, that even in a classical school, teachers find that students are more influenced by the silly mantras of modern culture—at best empty clichés about “respecting others” now that the word respect has lost its original meaning and, above all, respecting others’ ideas, no matter how misguided or base. Modern culture, you see, urges less discrimination and judgment with regard to people’s character since being discriminatory and judgmental is about the only thing you are not allowed to be in the modern world. Yet if my mother’s maxim holds true, the lack of discrimination and judgment leaves children and young people morally vulnerable in a world where precious little moral instruction is offered. In fact, it abandons them to an adolescent ghetto, where the latest thing done or said by a rap star or Lady Gaga passes for the apogee of coolness. It would seem, then, that a classical school, as not only a place where children come to be instructed in the fundamentals of sound learning but also in the first principles of sound morality, should spend some time on the topic of friendship.

To help young people understand and indeed improve their friendships, teachers should, where appropriate in the curriculum, engage students in a Socratic dialogue suited to their capacities. For example, while reading Tom Sawyer (usually in upper elementary or middle school), the teacher might ask, “Are Tom and Huck friends?” “Of course,” will be the answer. Here the teacher might play “stupid” for a moment. “So you all have friends, then? And you recognize that Tom and Huck are friends because you know what friendship looks like?” “Sure.” “And is friendship important, that is, is it important to have friends?” In fact, very little is as important to young people as having friends, and they will say so. “Okay, then, define what a friend is.” Now the plot will thicken a little. Most likely the students will say that a friend is someone you like to be with or to hang out with, or it is someone who has the same interests as you do or who knows you better than others do or someone “you can be yourself around.” The more thoughtful students will say that a friend is someone you can count on.

Then the question becomes whether a friend is a good person and whether friendship is a good thing. The students will answer universally “yes.” “A friend, then, is someone you want to have around and someone who wants the best for you?” “Of course.” “So, then, can bank robbers be friends?” Here the question gets a little tricky. If they say yes, then we must ask whether bank robbers can be good people and remind the students that we said friends are good people. Further, how could wanting your friend to engage in a life of crime and possibly be shot or put in jail for life be wanting the best for you? If the students say no—or come to that conclusion after some further questioning—then we have to figure out the flaw in our logic from the beginning. (Realize that bank robbers hang out together, have the same interests, and rely on each other. Yet bank robbers are not good.)

To solve this conundrum, we should consult the classical authors on friendship. (For younger students, the classical authors are a little hard to read, but students can certainly be told these things.) Cicero in his dialogue De Amicitia (On Friendship), a work that used to be widely read in upper schools, agrees with our own students in saying that friendship is an important human experience.

In fact, he regards it as “the greatest thing in the world.” Nonetheless, he defines friendship more exclusively than our students might. According to Cicero, “friendship can only exist between good men.” He further defines “the good” as “those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honor, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions.”

Therefore, according to Cicero’s more exacting definition, bank robbers can never be friends. Cicero furthers says that a true friend will give good advice, even correct a person when he is doing something wrong. In other words, a friend is not just someone you “hang out with” but a person who urges you to do the good and prevents you from doing the bad. And if you were to persist in doing the bad, the friendship would have to cease. In modern parlance, the good person would “fire” you as a friend. The question now is whether the students really have friends or merely acquaintances: peers but by no means true friends.

St. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that groups of young people do not always pursue the good. As a youth he and some other boys stole pears from a nearby orchard. He did not need the pears because he had plenty of his own. He did not eat the pears but instead threw them to the pigs. When he reflected on this event years later, he concluded that he only stole the pears because he was in the company of other “ruffians.” Had he been alone, he would have never done so. A few years later, Augustine spent his time with youth his age talking about girls. The subject was whether the boys had done such and such with this or that girl. Even when they had not done things, they would make up stories, so ashamed they were of having not done shameful things. That’s right! Locker-room talk in the fifth century, in which a future saint took part. How times don’t change! Were these boys friends? Later reflection led Augustine to the conclusion that they were not, though those attachments and his reputation among the boys meant a great deal to him at the time.

Students might be invited to reflect upon their own conduct. Whenever students break the rules in school or disrupt classes by whispering or note-passing, do they do so as lone individuals or in groups? When they get into trouble or do mischievous things outside of school (toilet- papering a house, for instance), do they do so on their own or as a group of conspirators? In fact, is not planning the conspiracy half the fun? Students must realize these small partnerships in chaos are not groups of friends—at least not at that moment—but rather groups of wrongdoers. The essential question of friendship is whether your friends appeal to your baser or your higher passions, whether to the base or the noble.

Further insight into friendship can be found in Aristotle’s Ethics. In fact, it is worth noting that Aristotle devotes more time in the Ethics to friendship than any other subject, even justice. Aristotle, as we might expect, is a little more practical and offers less of an either/or than the combined force of Cicero and Augustine (though it is actually useful to begin with the clearer distinction). Aristotle classifies friendship into three types: those based on utility, those based on pleasure, and those formed by people “who are good and are alike in virtue.” An example of the first would be a business deal. The second type is very much like “hanging out,” as students put it. In fact, Aristotle states that friendship based on pleasure is most characteristic of young people. “But the friendship of the young seems to be based on pleasure, since they live in accord with feeling, and pursue especially what is pleasant to themselves and present at hand.” Here is the rub. Those kinds of friendships do not last very long. As soon as the friend is gone, that pleasure can be found with someone else. Or, to use the modern term, pleasure friendships are not very “deep.” Friendships between good people, whose purpose is often a mutual pursuit of the good (such as the good to be found in the life of the polis), have this characteristic: they last. Typically this is not the friendship of the young.

Armed with this understanding of friendship, we might return to our original question: Can Tom and Huck be friends? Presumably this question also has some bearing on the students’ own lives. Nevertheless it is a tough question to apply either to Tom Sawyer or to students. Tom and Huck, on our first meeting them, are having a conversation about curing warts with dead cats or with spunk water. Is that a case of utility or pleasure? Or might there be even some virtue in getting rid of “thousands” of warts? Further, young people (what we now call teenagers) are characters in the making. They are not as yet formed; they are serving an apprenticeship in humanity. So they can’t be said to be virtuous—not completely—before they have done anything, just as they cannot be considered citizens until they have voted and paid taxes. Further, most young people do not get together to discuss Plato; nor should they. Even Plato and Aristotle did not think young people should study philosophy.

This question is important since it causes us to reflect on the examples we can give students of the friendships they should long to have one day as well as the friendships they can attain right now. Once we know what friendship is, we cannot fail to realize the tradition of the West provides many examples of friendship in history and great literature: the Founding Fathers, the characters in Jane Austen novels, Henry V, to name a few. Our students should be required to see how important friendship was to these real statesmen or to these compelling characters and how, without friendship—without love—their ventures would have come to naught. At the same time, we must treasure those books (not really found among the ancient classics) that shed light on human beings in the making, the incipient efforts of young people to develop friendships based on virtue, that is, based on a good bigger than themselves. Recently, I wrote a book in which the protagonists (heroes, I would claim) are thirteen years old. I had to struggle with creating dialogue that was both plausible for adolescents and yet somehow aimed at times toward the good. This exercise made me realize how hard a task it is to offer good accounts of young heroes in the making and thus why we should treasure such classics as Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, Franklin’s Autobiography, and Churchill’s My Early Life. Nor are these books to be read and enjoyed only by children. A truly great children’s book should shed light on the whole scope of human life. Further, such books lead students to question whether they are on the right trajectory to do the good and to do the good—as they must—with other people whom they will call friends. The ancients and the Founding Fathers, you see, knew that friendship is about the most powerful force in the world. By the way, if you think Tom and Huck’s friendship ends with curing warts and trading ticks for lost teeth, read on.

The Essentials of a True Writing Program: Part 2

Having labored to establish the ends and means of good writing in the last issue, I should very quickly be able to show how a classical education answers them in every particular. Classical education by its very nature invites students to have “points” to make on matters of great moment. The method of Socratic discussion employed in all subjects, but particularly in literature, requires students to answer questions such as “Was Julius Caesar a great man or a tyrant?” “Did Robinson Crusoe learn to be more human by being away from human beings?” “Would we find ourselves more alien or at home in Huxley’s brave new world?” “Does Dostoyevsky show through Raskolnikov’s turmoil that religious faith is the only true antidote to the will to power?” Now compare these questions to the thoughtless ones being asked of students in regular public schools. Is it any wonder why our students are engaged (nihil humanum mihi alienum est) and typical students are bored and completely alienated from the inquiry into the human condition? Our students are having to figure out who they are, where they have come from, and how they must act in the world. Wishy-washy answers to inane questions, the routine of the regular public schools, won’t do.

The points that our students have to make are not based on their untutored “feelings” and reflex opinions as at other schools. The constant refrain of progressive education is “how does this make you feel?” rather than “what do you know?” A classical education demands students to know things: many, many things as it turns out. Students cannot offer glib commentary on how the world works without having a deep knowledge (or at least beginning to have one) of the people and events that have shaped and continue to shape that world. Initially, our students speak and write on topics that are confined to a particular text or experiment or historical moment. By the time they graduate, however, they are able to marshal these discreet articles of knowledge to make sense, with some more advanced study, of almost any problem or challenge that comes their way. These basic facts are precisely the pieces of evidence that their less-informed fellow students and colleagues will neglect, still relying, as Plato’s prisoners, on the shadows of the cave.

To write well, as we have said, the writer must know grammar. Students in classical schools typically study grammar formally in every grade K-9 and continue to encounter grammar either in foreign languages or in the comments they receive on their papers in grades 10-12. Many schools ease into grammar by devices that set sentence structure to nursery rhymes or jingles, but students are ready to start more formal methods even in the early elementary grades. In addition, teachers in all grades and in all subjects should vigilantly police their students’ bad usage by correcting incorrect or substandard speech in class, no matter the subject under discussion at the moment. “Me and Johnny need to go to the bathroom” is unacceptable. By the fourth grade, if not earlier, students should be knee- deep in sentence diagramming, just as Churchill was as a boy. Further, students at classical schools will generally take at least three years of Latin, starting in the later elementary grades or the middle school. To the progressive “educator,” and to the ultra-utilitarian singing his chorus of “job skills for a twenty-first-century work force,” Latin is anathema.

“Why would you waste time on dead languages with so much new technology and information out there?” (The world “out there,” you see, is very scary!) These whiz-bang progressives forget the basic Aristotelian insight that human beings are the creatures that use language, and language— whether texted or tweeted or faxed or e-mailed or sent in Morse Code or still yet written down with quill and ink—still has a basic structure that anyone must acquire to express himself logically, vividly, and forcefully. While students are often awfully casual about the grammar of their own language, they cannot afford to be so in Latin class. Even if they make it all the way through grade
five without learning how to employ the parts of speech, the various forms of the past tense, the indicative and the subjunctive moods, and all the other hard facts of grammar, they cannot escape them through three or four or more years of Latin. Latin was in the past and remains today the boot camp of ordered expression.

Words are the meat and potatoes of a classical education. A student has no excuse for graduating from a classical school with anything short of an immense vocabulary, a ready “stock of words” in Franklin’s phrase, and an ability to choose the right word on the right occasion. Both the academic program and the atmosphere of a classical school encourage students to become masters of words. In the first place, a classical headmaster should be hiring only articulate teachers: in every grade and in every subject. Second, the teachers in classical schools do not “talk down” to students but encourage students to come up to their level. Children are emulative beings. They follow the verbal patterns to which they are exposed. For this reason, the greatest of classical schoolmasters, Quintilian, urged mothers to spend time with their infants rather than passing them off to servants. Even in the crib, babies would become accustomed to the standard speech of their well-spoken mothers rather than pick up the bad grammar of the uneducated, according to Quintilian. In every class in a classical school, therefore, two levels of instruction are taking place: first, in the particular subject matter at hand and, second, in the form of civilized speech through which subjects are discussed and explained to students. Though nominally a teacher of history, the more time I spend in the classroom, the more I consider myself a teacher of language. Consider for a moment the many words that must be understood to have a meaningful discussion about our political history: liberty, equality, sovereignty, faction, justice, rights, inalienable, happiness, limited, government, federalism, and so on. Not only are such words misunderstood or only vaguely grasped by today’s young men and women. Such is the impoverished language of today’s culture and schools that often students have not even encountered these words. Every year I am surprised by a word that whole classes of freshmen in college have never encountered or cannot define. A few years ago it was the word bicameral. How can students who have supposedly taken years of American history and in most cases a semester
of government in high school not know the word bicameral? To what extent did the American Founders think that their liberties depended upon the principle of bicameralism? The different outcomes of the American and French Revolutions are one measure of the importance of the matter.

All is not left to osmosis and chance in the imparting of the meaning of words in a classical school. From the first day of kindergarten, students are taught the meaning of words. At some point, one hopes, the students will learn the meaning of the words of the Pledge of Allegiance which are by no means easy (allegiance, liberty, justice), but ought to be understood nonetheless. Students are required to look up words they encounter in the rich literature they read from the second grade onward. At least by the fourth grade, students learn “word histories” by being introduced formally to Greek and Latin roots. At some point in the upper elementary or middle school students formally study Latin, the language which accounts for about 60% of English word origins. Should a girl be praised for her “pulchritude” or a boy for his “pecuniary prescience”? A proper Latin student will not even have to look those words up. Finally, even in the higher studies of literature, science, history, and other subjects, students continue to discover the precious treasures found in the words of the English language. In a moral philosophy class I used to teach to high school students we would spend a lot of time on the differences between happiness and fun as found in some of the texts. The word history is instructive. “Fun” seems to have come from the Middle English
fon, the word for fool. The “fool” or jester in a medieval court was always the character cutting up and making light of everything. The individual who pursues fun, then, in contrast to Jefferson’s (or Aristotle’s) happiness, takes nothing in life seriously. The consequences of such a life can be easily seen in Jane Austen’s Lydia, the character in Pride and Prejudice who speaks of nothing but fun (and uses bad grammar to boot). Language, then, is not mere ornament. It is nothing less than the medium through which we govern ourselves, express our souls, and live out our lives. We cannot afford to be sloppy or unknowing about language.

A classical school also requires the student to write logically and with coherence. It is often said by classical schoolmasters that “the logic stage” of learning trains the young mind to make logical distinctions about complex subjects so as to gain understanding. At the same time, it is not easy to explain what exactly “logical distinctions” are. In terms of writing, however, the issue is a little clearer. Logic usually refers to the marshalling and ordering of evidence so as to make a compelling argument based, we hope, on truth. The untutored student will often say, “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t say it.” As a result, he will often resort just to his feelings or a jumbled assemblage of platitudes. The classically-trained student, who will have read, among other things, The Declaration of Independence and the Lincoln- Douglas debates—models of logical expression— will be able to deploy quotations, historical events, the actions and decisions of men and women in history or characters in literature, the results of scientific experiments, plausible theories of human nature, and, of course, the meaning of actual words, in order to prove his case. To this end, the classical student will be able to handle more than the silly, trivial, or ho-hum essay questions required on state standardized tests, the most popular being, “Tell us who your hero is and why,” with the standard response being incoherent ramblings about my dad or Beyoncé or the current champion cage fighter. Rather, the student will be able to take on questions such as, “Was Washington really the ‘indispensable man’?” or “To become human, were Adam and Eve bound to fall?” Such questions require much work in the grammar of history or philosophy, to be sure. What did George Washington do, exactly? How precisely did the story of the Garden unfold? Yet such probing questions also demand the strenuous exercise of a logical mind. What might constitute a single man in history being indispensable? Could the Revolution have been successful without Washington? Can we imagine a Revolution without a Madison, a Jefferson, an Adams, or even a Franklin, yet not without Washington? Might America have become something very different had the Founding Father acted differently, even in a single moment? (Newburgh, perhaps?). In what respects were Adam and Eve “human” before the Fall? In what respects were they not? What does it mean to be human? Is knowledge opposed to happiness or to human goodness? Is freedom the opposite of obedience? Were there fallacies in the serpent’s argument? Was it in any sense—at least technically—true? Did the original couple have the mental capacity to beat the serpent’s argument?

Should they have entered into the discussion in the first place? And so on. The thinking to ask these kinds of questions, the answering them, and the ordering of them into a coherent and convincing thesis is a logical undertaking of no small degree. And such an intellectual enterprise sure beats the “critical thinking skills” so much talked about and so little demonstrated by the prevailing education regime. The logician might even be prone to ask whether there can be thinking that is not critical or whether thinking is an art or a discipline rather than a skill.

A classical education also seeks to impart style in the writer. Style, admittedly, does not come without great effort on the part of the student. Yet for any student who knocks, the door will be opened. Just as Franklin worked hard to acquire an elegant English style by internalizing the essays of Addison, so students at any classical school read, analyze, and—above all—enjoy the best that has been written and said in our great language: from Shakespeare to Milton to The Federalist authors to Burke to Emerson. Style, like dress, is an emulative fashion. The classical school does not leave students’ style to drift in the winds of popular culture or to be further truncated by the high-tech grunting of the text or the tweet. Nor does the school only count on the influence of the teachers’ verbal habits, though that, too, as we have said, is of consequence. At the classical school, the young keep company—we dare not say “hang out”—with the most celebrated writers who ever put quill or pen to paper. The masters of the language are our students’ private tutors in the elements of style. For hours every day students of the classics consider, to be sure, the great writers’ aims, examine their evidence, follow their logic, learn their words, and wrestle with their insights into the human condition. Even so, our task would not be done if the students failed to appreciate—and to imitate—the finest style of the finest writers. The student truly ambitious of becoming a “tolerable English writer” cannot falter in that noble, some would say that noblest, art. One more thing. True art only comes with practice. I am told that learning a musical instrument requires two hours of practice every day. To become a virtuoso takes more. The craft of writing is no different. Writers write. They spend a fair portion of their day writing. Even when not writing, they often look at the world as they would write about it. Students at classical schools have to write. Their teachers compel them to write often, and then those teachers correct that writing with considerable attention to the elements of good writing. Those teachers are not reticent with red ink. If my intelligence is accurate, students at classical schools write about four to five times more than do their counterparts at regular public schools. Whether so much time spent writing is warranted can be seen in simply asking the question, In what field of endeavor does four times more practice not produce better results?

We began this subject by asking whether classical schools have a better approach to writing than the canned “programs” of the typical school. We ask that question again: Who has the real writing program, them or us? Consider two football teams, the players being of equal size and speed. One coach was a solid player in his day and became a great student of the game. He has mastered the playbooks of Lombardi, Shula, Landry, and Walsh. The other is a ham-and-egger. He was never a first- string player himself and has spent no time with
the great luminaries of the game. The first team has an elaborate playbook, but it is based upon the fundamentals. It is also tailored to the strengths of his players. From this playbook, the coach carefully chooses the plays that make up a distinct game-plan aimed at the weaknesses and strengths of every opposing team. The coach knows which play to call on which down. The second team has a limited and predictable playbook that the coach bought from a profitable publishing company called Step Up to Football. The book consists of a couple of running and a couple of passing plays. Its method is straightforward. First down: run up the middle. Second down: run up the middle. Third down: pass in desperation. Finally, the first team practices several hours a day, five days a week. The practices are extremely orderly and comprehensive. The second team practices once a week; their practices seem more like an unorganized pick-up game than a real practice. After practices, the first team watches films of their previous game and goes over and over the mistakes they made. They also watch the films of the team they will play in the next game to know what they are up against and to learn how they will approach their adversary. The second team watches a lot of films, to be sure, but nothing to do with football. Which of these two teams will be the most prepared on game day? Which team has the better “football program”?

The Essentials of a True Writing Program

A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words; and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I flow’d to the printing house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.

About this time [around 14-15?] I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I have never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was very much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.

Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. . . . Therefore I took some of the tales [in the Spectator] and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and completed the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.“

–Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Thus did Benjamin Franklin, after some hints from his father, teach himself to become one of the greatest writers in the English language. The occasion for this long quotation is the consideration of the question whether classical schools should adopt a specialized “writing program” or instead teach writing as an art that is closely allied with and emanates from the other disciplines of classical training. The temptation in schools is to opt for a “program” that can be handed to the teachers in a binder, the teachers being told, “Here, follow this.” I contend that students learn to write rather by reading good writing and by being required to write often under the tutelage of someone who has an eye for good writing and who can bring to bear all other parts of the curriculum in teaching students how to organize and express their thoughts on the blank page. That endeavor is an art, not a “process,” and not a canned “program.”

We should first be frank about what a “writing program” is. These programs, which have been “adopted” in schools throughout the country, public and private, attempt to reduce all thoughts on all occasions to a contrived, prescriptive, mind- numbing formula by means of a lot of gimmicks. These programs are all deficient in major respects, though each usually has one or two fairly obvious suggestions that might prove useful. Mostly they are deficient because they are not written by good writers nor written for good writers as a guide to teach good writing. Instead, they are made for the typical uneducated schoolteacher who has no love of nor proficiency in the English language, who cannot write well, and yet who must “teach writing” because the curriculum calls for it. With this need in mind, textbook publishers and program-makers are ready to come up with an easy-to-use method that promises higher standardized-test scores, a method, by the way, that no real writer has ever used. One wonders how Bacon and Locke and Addison and Johnson and Franklin and the Federalist authors and all the great essayists of our language, not to mention the poets and playwrights and novelists, ever learned to write a sentence without Six Traits and Step-Up to Writing. The greatest deficiency of these programs, however, is that in showing teachers and students the quick-and-easy method of getting thoughts down on paper, they never quote or make reference to those great writers in our language from whom we have the most to learn. Had Franklin learned from Six Traits rather than from Addison’s Spectator, he no doubt would have learned to slap some words down on paper but would never have fulfilled his ambition of becoming a “tolerable English writer,” certainly not a writer whom anyone wanted to read. We must begin, then, by asking, “what is good writing?” All good writing makes a point. Without a point, writing is in vain. We have all read articles and essays, some written by children, others by older students, some by those who appear in journals and newspapers, and wondered, “What’s the point?” Professor Joe Williams, my own writing teacher and the author of the acclaimed Style, used to say, “the biggest problem with undergraduate writing is that it’s pointless.” By that he meant that immature writers often make no claim, have no thesis, do not build their writing around a central theme. Very often they have no point because they have nothing to say or do not know what is at stake on a given topic. To this end, young writers often have to be given topics. Nonetheless, even young children and adolescents have big questions on their minds. Notice that the young Franklin’s point in his first essay came from an argument he had been having with his friend Collins. (Whether girls could undergo a classical education—“learning”—in those days was still an open question.) Writers must take care not to drift away from their points as they write. Furthermore, they should avoid being wishy-washy. Too many papers of young writers take on an “it’s-sort-of-this- but-sort-of-that” quality. I tell students to write their papers as they would argue a legal case. As a prosecutor you would not make a very strong case by arguing that the defendant is “sort-of guilty.”

Once a writer has a point, he must harness the forces of knowledge, logic, and eloquence to support it clearly and convincingly. All good writers must have a thorough knowledge of their subject and of the world in general to find supporting evidence for their case. Writing without knowledge only exposes one’s ignorance. Knowledge differs from mere opinion. Opinions are people’s raw desire to express themselves without having studied an issue or given it any thought. Knowledge comes as the result of patient study combined with sound judgment.

Such knowledge is derived from many sources, but two are crucial: books and nature. With the former, only books that are themselves the result of patient research and sound judgment are worth reading. The latter can be divided into the physical and the human world. Any good writer will then be a voracious reader and a careful observer of the natural world and of the human condition. Consider Franklin’s essay. Even given the knowledge about women at the time, he could easily have argued that women could undergo a classical education. From books he would have learned about Cornelia, mother of the brothers Gracchi, who had essentially home-schooled her famous sons. He would have cited Locke, the great philosopher of the age, who had similarly observed women schooling their children. He could have referred to many young women privately educated in the home who had acquired French and Italian through their singing lessons. Finally, he could have decimated his rival’s arguments with a bit of common sense. “Learning has always centered upon the learning of Latin. Girls can learn Latin as well as boys. They merely have not done so recently because no one bothers to teach it to them. If girls cannot learn Latin, then what did women in ancient Rome speak? Surely, they did not speak a language wholly different from their fathers, brothers, and husbands. And unless my opponent wishes to argue that human nature has changed fundamentally since the times of the ancient Romans, he cannot provide a reason for thinking girls in these enlightened times are any less capable of learning that noble language.”

Good writing is also logical. In a logical essay the arguments are separate and coherent and follow a sensible order. Forming separate and distinct points to support the major one is critical to good writing. Immature writers will often make the mistake of taking up the same topic two or three times over the course of an essay rather than dealing with it all at once. At other times, the individual points seem to have no connection with each other. Redundancy and incoherence are major faults the young writer must overcome. The writer must further arrange those distinct points in the most compelling order. To teach himself logical arrangement, Franklin even jumbled up his individual “thoughts” and later put them back together as Addison had originally written them. No writing program can teach this logical order since too many variables exist for each attempt at writing: the demands of the subject, the style of the author, the nature of the audience, and the occasion for the essay. Should the most powerful piece of evidence come at the beginning or end of an essay? No writing program can answer that question.

The good writer must be both a master and a lover of the English language. The writer deploys words as an artist uses paints or a composer arranges notes: by putting words together to achieve a sublime composition. Language consists in many elements: principally grammar, vocabulary, and style.

Grammar, though to some not an alluring study, ranks as the most necessary for any writer. The English language, after all, has a structure or framework. That framework is essential to the stability of the edifice, and its integrity cannot be compromised. Had Jefferson written, “We hold that these truths is self-evident,” no one would have read what he had to say. Teachers of writing must not content themselves with correcting bad grammar, surgically, that has gone awry; they must teach good grammar prescriptively. Here is how Winston Churchill, one of the greatest writers and speakers of the English language, described his learning of English grammar:

[B]y being so long in the lowest form [grade] I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practiced continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its color and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Fourth three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

There is no getting around it. The English sentence is a noble thing, but not a thing that can be picked up on the fly. Grammar must be drilled into a student’s very bones.

If grammar is the framework of the language, words are the bricks and mortar. We have a great many words to choose from in English. There are a couple of hundred thousand words in a good collegiate dictionary and around a million in the OED. English is said to be the richest language for its sheer volume of words. And yet any good writer knows that at a certain moment only one word will do. It is one thing to call a girl pretty. It is quite another to call her radiant. True, one girl may be pretty and another may be radiant, but they are not the same girl. A good writer does not blast away at his target with a shotgun but uses a rifle with a scope to achieve pinpoint accuracy. To achieve such accuracy, the good writer must be a lover of words. “Lover” is no hollow metaphor and no exaggeration. Again Churchill: “I had picked up a wide vocabulary and had a liking for words and for the feeling of words falling into their places like pennies in the slot. . . I admired these words.” In the middle of World War II, Churchill visited his alma mater Harrow to listen to the boys sing the old school songs, which he loved so much. To one of the school songs the boys had added another verse: Not less we praise in darker days/The Leader of our Nation,/And Churchill’s name shall win acclaim/ From each new generation. Though immensely touched by the added verse, Churchill requested that the boys change “darker” to “sterner.” Though admittedly difficult and challenging, these were not dark days. What sort of man, himself at the helm, would take the trouble in the middle of the greatest war in history to change a word in a school song? Was Churchill a pedant? No, indeed. To him the difference between darker and sterner was everything.

In addition to a solid grammar and a precise vocabulary, a good writer must possess style. The chief flaw of the contrived writing programs is their total want of style. Style is the manner, the tone, the address, the quality of a person’s writing. We normally use the word style in reference to dress. The analogy is apt. We change our dress to suit the occasion. One does not wear a tux to the gym or flip- flops to a funeral. Style in writing, too, must suit the occasion. Certain moments summon energy and force while others invite a lighter touch. Style also gives texture and nuance and force to writing by the use of various literary devices such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, parallelism and the like. When Lincoln called the nation a “house divided,” he did more than quote the Bible. He perfectly diagnosed the nation’s malady. More than suitability or literary device, style is the true signature of the writer. I remember reading somewhere that style is the image of the mind. The way one writes does, indeed, reveal qualities of mind, perhaps even of character. Consider the character that comes through in Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Not only does each author have a style, but we may say that each age in history writes with a particular style that reflects the society’s manners and habits of mind. In the eighteenth century, men and women dressed with elegance, spoke with elegance, and consequently wrote with elegance. Is it any wonder that we in the twenty- first century dress in jeans, speak mostly of trivial things, and therefore too often write in a sloppy and slapdash manner? In classical education, though, there may be a remedy.

Having shown that the sources of good writing derive from disciplines and habits of mind that are not acquired in a “writing program,” we should be able with some force and perspicuity to demonstrate in a subsequent essay that a thorough classical education is the best means to learn and practice the art of good writing.