It happens often enough: I meet a nice lady in the line at Costco who asks me what the stubby orange flying rhinoceros is on my jacket. I say it’s a Raggant. Puzzled look. I quickly explain it’s our school mascot, a fictional creature from the book series 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. By-passing most of that explanation, the lady has identified I am a teacher, and so she asks where: at ECS. Typically, between the evasive “evangel” portion (which at least sounds slightly familiar), and “classical,” she chooses the next ever-popular question, “Classical? What does that mean?”
I now have around six years’ experience answering this question, and have rarely done so well (or quickly, as at this point that cashier has rung through my mountain of provisions, the debit machine is beeping, and one of my children has to use the potty). I have learned to employ an analogy, which may be helpful to you in future shopping excursions, but will hopefully also aid in explaining why we teach Rhetoric proper at ECS.
Classical Education is like Legos. In the Grammar stage, about Kindergarten to sixth grade, the students are learning the basics of all the subjects: the colors of the Legos, shapes, how many dots are on the top of each one, how those fit together, and how to add and subtract them when constructing large towers. You start to give them rudimentary instruction manuals as they progress, and they begin to assemble the pieces into forms, putting together buildings or cars, like writing a paragraph or completing a math equation. Then, they progress to the Logic stage in late sixth to about ninth grade. Here we hand them the advanced manuals, and start studying why these Legos work the way they do and introduce strange new things, like hinges and motors and mini-figures that can act upon the stage of these large Lego worlds and do odd things like fight entire wars over one pretty girl-figure with nice hair. We hand them some Lego creations to disassemble and reconstruct. They may begin debating with each other the best way to construct a Lego colony. The final stage is the Rhetoric stage. This is the Master Builder stage, where we take everything they have learned in the previous two stages and tell them: Build. Build excellently, beautifully, and truthfully in a way that matters to The Master Builder and changes the world.
Rhetoric is the capstone of Classical Education. It is what everything in the early stages of your child’s education is building towards. That said, actually defining Rhetoric is tricky. It is a bad buzz word in political circles; it is a subject; it is field of study; it is a stage of development. And, ironically, definitions vary widely. Aristotle defined Rhetoric as “the faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of Persuasion”; Plato defined it as, “the art of enchanting the soul”; ECS’ composite working definition of Rhetoric is “the art of a virtuous man writing or speaking well.”
Accordingly, Rhetoric is aiming for three primary things:
- Crafting Art
- Cementing Virtue
- Communicating Excellently
Students work on all three of these elements through their early years at ECS, from needing to rise from their seats to give an answer in class, to the Character Evaluations before them on every quarter’s Report Card, to Art and Music classes. The Progymnasmata exercises which students are completing in their Writing & Rhetoric texts (pro meaning “early” and gym meaning “exercise,” so early writing exercises) are a critical part in all of this, giving students foundational ways of writing about and processing the world. Thus, they will have actually studied and gained the skills of Rhetoric before they ever reach upper-Secondary.
But Rhetoric class is an essential time of special training which takes every tool in the tool-bag and uses it in new and creative ways. We start with studying virtue, personality, and identity: How are you formed? How do you, as you have been crafted, now craft to God’s glory? Who is the person next to you; how do you know; how do you show him Christ’s love? Next we move into the study of Rhetoric proper, types, and how to present it all well. Logic? You can deploy that in a Rebuttal paragraph to disarm your opponent, and even turn his own arguments against him. Diagramming sentences? To go now boldly and split infinitives, or start stacking substantive alliterations, or use cliches wisely; it’s all up for grabs. We practice through many different forms, employing impromptus, writing speeches, reading books, and discussing it all.
The end goal is, as Rebekah Merkle says in Classical Me, Classical Thee, to make each student “a leader…someone who is compelling enough that others want to follow…the skills you are learning in rhetoric are actually all about beauty, about expression, about learning to articulate clearly and communicate precisely in order that truth will be desirable to the hearer.” This is one of the final classes our arrows experience; it is their target-practice. They fly, they miss; they sometimes hit the wrong targets in the wrong ways. But with each flight they learn the warp and woof of their own making, they learn more of their Maker, and hopefully by the time they are notched into the bow and make their final flight from ECS on graduation day, they will fly uniquely straight, strong, beautiful, and true.
Students at ECS read. A lot. They memorize phonograms, diagram sentences, and parse verbs–in English and Latin. They begin frolicking with Biscuit and homesteading with the Wilder family before they graduate to plodding with Plato, adventuring with Thucydides, and finally wrestling with a Leviathan.
In light of this reading load–and as a shameless plug for our upcoming Fiction Festival in March–I wanted to tackle (or at least arm-wrestle with) the question: “Why Fiction?”
There are clinical answers: it will help you communicate clearly, construct a work email, or write IKEA instruction manuals so people can actually assemble something resembling a desk instead of a piece of modern art.
Trust me, I am not disparaging clear communication or the use of possessive apostrophes. I would die upon the hills of subject-verb agreement, correct hyphenation, and the Oxford comma–to name but a few.
But may I offer that one of the most influential components of reading is the construction of people? Words mold, alter, edge-chip, buff, and refine. As Christians, this should be no surprise. The Word creates, divides, illuminates, enlivens, sustains, breathes, and communicates. God spoke and the Word created all that we see, and then the Word entered his own dimensioned and constricting materials to quite literally die for walking pillars of dust.
Story has a unique ability to shape our loves in ways few others things do, because it reflects the way the ultimate Author pre-eminently shapes. No child I have met wants to grow up to be pre-Dragon Eustace, Uriah Heep, or Javert. Give them Aragorn, Lucy, or Curdie.
Especially as young children, stories train our virtuous taste buds – they create flavor palates we love or spit out. As children we don’t necessarily know why we hate the White Witch, but we know that anyone who keeps Christmas away must be evil…because deep down we understand that things like life, color, messiness, parties, and even a redeemed Bacchus wandering through the forests of Narnia, are good things. Evil directly opposes those things–stories teach us that those who whitewash the world and create graveyards do it for power and for pride, and we shake our heads and back away, joining with the nymphs instead.
Not only do stories train our taste buds, they expand our palates. Stories pry us out of our own brain-boxes. As Franz Kalfka asserted in a letter to his childhood friend, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” The tragedy of humanity’s inherent narcissistic prison is that most don’t feel the chains – we are all in desperate need of a light to shine on the bars and an axe to break us out. We want students at ECS to die to themselves while knowing and loving and caring for those around them; literature is a unique tool in this process.
Obviously, the Gospel is the only thing that can truly set a soul free from this dungeon, but literature can act as the match to light the lamp, and for Christians, it can certainly be a guide out of the maze of tunnels and into the fresh air of fellowship and selflessness and freedom.
Jumping into the great texts of Western Literature (and other cultures and times) is one of the only, and primary means, of dislodging our superiority. It fosters true critical thinking. It can humble us and teach us wisdom. Most people can cite the dates for World War II, the main players, and some concepts like Imperialism. Very few know what Hitler read, or what worldview led to the rise of Eugenics. Drill down a bit farther and actually crawl up into someone else’s soul for a moment: what makes a person turn Monster? Spy a golden ring with Gollum and feel the jolt of experimentation with Frankenstein. How does one justify horrendous crimes? Engage with the self-victimhood of Mein Kampf. Who would ever die for a sniveling weasel-child? Romp with Aslan.
This is where the role of literature takes a central role in the life of the reader. In fact, literature may be the primary – and potentially only means in this world–of entering into another person’s mind, albeit fictitious. Where else can you feel the desire of another, or understand his or her motivations, like in a novel? As Scientific American noted in an article in October 2013, a study from the New School for Social Research in New York showed that “literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking.” Interestingly, popular fiction didn’t affect young readers in the same way–it simply took them on an oft frequented emotional ride with familiar-looking people in what the researchers called ‘readerly’ reading–you are simply entertained. Literary Fiction that is ‘writerly’ makes you fill in the gaps and participate–it forces you into different shoes–it enlarges your soul just a bit. This is why we teach some of the those hard, old, boring books at ECS–to foster humility, empathy, and action.
The Holy Spirit, prayer, meditation, and the Word can and must all resuscitate and foster our delight in God, His creation, and His people. They are the source and the bedrock. Yet Literature can aid in the recovery effort, and we must read with wisdom–rejecting that which would mold us grotesquely away from the good while fostering a voracity for vomit. True, ECS does sample some deceptively delicious looking appetizers in the hope that the students around our table learn some dishes are best fed to the dogs.
Ultimately, may ECS teach–and we all read–books that mould sturdy characters while whittling away our own weaknesses, stories that chip away at blinders to move our gaze further up and our steps further in. In this endeavor, please consider joining us for ECS’ third-annual Raggant Fiction Festival Saturday, March 24th. The theme this year will be “Character Development and the Development of Character.”
The following article was written by Mrs. Bowers and is included in the Raggant Standard from March 3, 2017.
When most people think of uniforms they conjure up ranks of faceless soldiers, grease-spattered and braces-bespeckled McDonald’s workers, or straight-laced English schoolchildren standing rank and file under a grey mizzle.
Certainly there is a type of uniform that seeks to flatten and deface–a bit like the Green Witch of Underland and her Earthmen, or the above instances. The point in these scenarios is to not be unique–to efface individuality in the interest of uniformity and obedience to orders (sometimes with life-or-death consequences).
I would like to argue not for uniform uniformity at ECS, but for harmony. As I was discussing this with Mrs. Higgins, she brought up the example of singing, and as we like singing here, it seemed an apt analogy. We love all the individuals of ECS with their quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and oddities–and we love all of that being present within our two choirs. However, the goal of a choir is harmony. We have some strong singers, but those strong singers need to learn to harmonize so everyone makes beautiful music together. There will come a time–within the school and without–for that individuality to shine, but that is not the primary emphasis of daily song, nor daily learning. Much like within the Church, we love the toe-ness of toes and the finger-nail-ness of fingernails–and sometimes we stub our toe and it has its moment of grandeur–but we are part of one body. Our students are part of one school–as they learn and are equipped, they are in it together, encouraging and edifying and challenging and even teaching one another. Our harmonizing of gifts and talents is liturgized (of course that’s a word) in our uniforms.
We desire blending in this sense, but we also want close-knit unity. Students can hit all their notes while casting a vicious sidelong glance. We may not be seeking the same uniformity of the military, but we are in a fight, and there are a lot of arrows being whittled around here. And what exactly is school for? It equips them to be winsome, deep-souled worshippers of the triune God. This is squire-academy for valiant fighters-in-training. We are part of the same squad, team, group, and unit–this is the training ground and boot camp for future battle, and as such, we come dressed for the occasion. This is not so kids won’t be distracted by others’ clothing choices (because you can’t prevent distraction in a world of squirrels and snowflakes), nor for the ease of knowing what to wear in the morning, and not to equalize the playing field of fashion (because the mayfly and Michael Jordan alone evidence that no playing field, animal or otherwise, is equalized).
It is to remind the students that this is their job–this is their people–this is their fight, and they are all in it. Little or big, fast or slow, older or younger, a uniform presents a physical, instant recognition of inclusion and solidarity.
Amongst this harmony and unity, we also seek clear identity. To borrow yet another analogy, did any of you fuss when you donned the uniform of your high school or college sport’s team? You may have disliked how something rode up in the wrong place, or the shortness or tightness of an item, but you didn’t mind wearing it. Your parents may have gulped when they wrote the check. But they did it. It was worth it.
Why? First, it was an accomplishment. You were proud of where you were, and you were excited about the history of that school and program. It identified you as part of something. We want the Raggants to feel the same way – they are all a part of something BIG and AWESOME. I will try to tease it out in a future article, but we even wear the plaid skirts as a nod to Scottish Presbyterians who planted Classical schools as they moved across the country. There is history and weight here, and we want to rejoice in that (and identify with the Scots, because….haggis. And golf.).
Second, it was the accepted and pragmatic uniform for the sport. We wore these hideous full-body leotards in crew because you didn’t want anything catching in the shell (and chafing is a beast). Swimmers wear suits that will minimize drag. In the same way, uniforms help us to minimize academic drag – we are here to work – we are here to be part of the team – we are here to learn and fight and win and be proud of the whole process.
Third, uniforms are a representation of something–we identify uniforms with teams and countries and cities–if we are doing things right, the longer our students wear uniforms, the more they love them because the more they love what the uniforms represent. Of course it could all dissolve into high-flung legality and high-nosed pomp, but that’s part of why we are the only school on the PLANET who wear a little, tubby, basset-hound-unicorn-rhinoceros on our uniforms. It’s just downright cool, and it helps keep us in our place.
Finally, uniforms are utilitarian. They make it easy to tell who is who in the parking lot or on the court. They make dress code enforcement far easier, and mornings less complicated. In the long run, especially with a system and numerous offspring of the same gender, they save a good deal of money. They (hopefully) reduce the stress and pressure of the Fashion tyrants who exert their iron will in back-to-school sales and commercials.
Uniforms carry the force of tradition and weight of history–from the slums of Haiti, where students without enough food still get dressed in crisp uniforms on school days, to the robes and jester-hats of Medieval Professors, we stand with them. Uniforms are, in the end, just exterior. But like a squire who finally proves himself worthy of knighthood, as our graduates lay aside navy cardigans and white button-up shirts, our hope is that they will do so with a sense of fondness–a thankfulness for the training they received in those uniforms, training which now well equips them to don new uniforms in new adventures.
The following article was written by Mrs. Bowers and is included in the Raggant Standard from January 11, 2017.
I grew up watching This Old House with my Dad. I actually couldn’t care less (then and now) about nuances of carpentry or dovetailed joints, but I loved spending time with my Dad, and the information proved invaluable when working at Home Depot and smugly telling a pretentious lumber associate that OSB stood for Oriented Strand Board.
The other valuable thing I learned while watching carpentry shows with my Father was the need for the right tools – and the many uses for those tools. I learned about the basics like socket wrenches. I was amazed at the power of a radial arm saw, or the beautiful application of a lathe.
Recently during a Sunday morning sermon, Mr. Higgins asked parents, “What do you want your children to be?” In light of your child’s education, as you round the final proverbial lap with your eighteen- year-old shaking Mr. Sarr’s hand and clutching an ECS diploma, what type of soul do you want to see?
As parents and educators for both young women and men alike, we need to establish – perhaps simply daily remind ourselves – of the foundational goal of classical education. It is not to get a good job, get good grades, make good money, or even change the world. It is not geared to boys more than girls; the intellectually gifted nor the intellectually different. The end construction project all these tools are aiming at – what we want our students to be – are worshippers who glorify God. We desire to aid young people in their love, devotion, adoration, service, and delight in the triune, magnificent Almighty. Every algebra equation should be a small peg upon which to hang their wonder of fractals and bodily chemical equations and reactions – every diagrammed sentence a tiny glimpse of the Word that spins spider webs every day and the intricacy of language and relationships – every music class a mini-study of Three-in-One, diversity in unity, the necessity for major and minor chords in all things. The main point of classical education for parents, educators, and administrators is the carpenter him or herself: a full-bodied, fully-equipped, fully individualized sub-creator.
But this formative process is hard, and really, you have to believe that Latin actually does influence you as a worshipper of God – otherwise, why are you here? Why are you panting along the marathon? The 5K is just around the corner, and it’s free. As your son or daughter stands with their metaphorical tool bag before you, see the future carpenter first. See how education shapes and strengthens the hands, heart, mind, and soul. See that education is about virtue and character.
Then, look to the tools themselves. At ECS, we are trying to give your student a huge variety of tools; each young man or woman will use those tools differently. You have to trust that reading Plato equips a student for engineering and for mothering equally. The application will vary wildly, but as your student reads hard books from Kindergarten to 12th grade, educators are placing a powerful tool in the child’s bag. Let’s say it’s a hammer. Basic. Essential. Wildly useful. Your 12th grade son graduates and goes on to an Ivy League university where he seeks to become a biologist. He encounters Evolution in his survey class, and all of a sudden he pulls out the hammer and uses it for an application he hasn’t before: when the professor states Darwin introduced Evolutionary Theory, the student asks about the influence of Socrates on Darwin. Bang.
Your daughter graduates from a great school, gets a job, and then marries at twenty. Though she and her husband weren’t planning to have children right away, just nine months later, at the age of twenty-one, they are blessed with a glorious little soul. This soul begins growing, and one day in the wake of the child’s uncle dying, late at bedtime (when children become profound philosophers), he asks about heaven. He is scared of death, and Heaven is just some nebulous cloud in the sky. The young mother, rocking her child, begins to tell him of a Real World, where everything is solid, where there are un-fallen Forms of strawberries and grass so real it would hurt your feet now to step on it. She asks, “Will you help me pick real Strawberries and make Real pie in Heaven? All this, dear son, is but Shadows – Heaven is the Reality.” Bang.
So thank you for trusting us to help teach your child the difference between a phillips-head and a slotted screwdriver; thank you for helping bind up paper cuts and nurse weary muscles; thank you for dealing with the sawdust of intellectual fallout and the splinters of irritating math equations. Thank you for seeing that the carpenter and the carpentry is worth it, because we are part of the far bigger Building of an infinitely good Builder.