Laughing in Wartime

The following are notes from the Convocation address by Mr. Higgins


The word perspective derives from two Latin words, the preposition per meaning “through” and the verb speciō meaning “I look.” We might think of a person with perspective like a bird, high enough to see a broader landscape, or as one using a telescope, far enough away to see how things relate. But at its root, someone with perspective is someone who is able to look through. Someone who can look through is someone who can see clearly as if having found a window in the wall.

From a calendar perspective, we are only on the first day of an entire school year, and so we have a long way to go. From an institutional perspective, we are on the first day of year ten, and so we have come a long way. From even another perspective, not just looking at time, we can see through the fog and know that what we have here is something special.

Follow me here. Perspective enables us to see that what we have is special, and I’d say that what’s really special is that we have perspective. My evidence for that is all the laughter. Bona fide laughter requires perspective.

The painting ‘De Lachende Rembrandt’ (‘The Laughing Rembrandt’) is displayed in the Rembrandt House museum in Amsterdam, on June 6 2008. It is a self portrait by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, presumably from 1628. (Photo credit OLAF KRAAK/AFP/Getty Images)

Both our mission statement and our motto talk about laughter. Here’s our mission:

We commend the works of the Lord to another generation with the tools of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that they will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.

Our motto is: Risus est bellum, or Laughter is war.

We talk about laughter, and in the nine finished years of ECS, there has been nothing more difficult, and nothing more important, than laughter. This kind of laughing is not mostly due to a specific personality type, though it’s certainly true that laughing comes easier to some than the melancholy. I feel as if I have a good view of what this laughter looks like, like a drowning man looks up at the water’s surface with desperate attention and desire to reach it. Laughter is that important.

Of course not all laughter is the same. Solomon had some unflattering things to say about chuckling fatheads.

For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fools;
(Ecclesiastes 7:6)

Thorns in fire heat up fast, but don’t last. They burn out before providing any real benefit. The laughter of fools is as useless as it is noisy.

If a wise man has an argument with a fool,
the fool only rages and laughs,
and there is no quiet.
(Proverbs 29:9)

Fools laugh because they can’t see the bigger picture and because they don’t want to look at the immediate problems. A fool’s cackle is mere defense mechanism, making a racket against the reasonable.

Weaponized laughter, the kind we’re after at ECS, is laughter from faith for faith. It is able to see through the current troubles to what God is accomplishing in them. We have some historical examples surrounding us in a great cloud of witnesses.

“When sometimes I sit alone, and have a settled assurance of the state of my soul, and know that God is my God, I can laugh at all troubles, and nothing can daunt me.”

—Hugh Latimer

Latimer was the same English Reformer burned at the stake in 1555 with Nicholas Ridley, when Latimer is reported to have said:

“Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

That is the kind of thing you can only say with perspective. A man with the perspective of faith in God can “laugh at all troubles” even to the point of greatest sacrifice.

John Bunyan, who lived less than a hundred years after Latimer, also in England, was the sort of man who had perspective enough to laugh, and his counsel for those being persecuted:

“Has thou escaped? Laugh. Art thou taken? Laugh. I mean, be pleased which soever things shall go, for that the scales are still in God’s hands.”

Godly laughter is God-trusting laughter.

It’s why David wrote, “The righteous shall see and fear, and laugh” (Psalm 52:5). Not only did David have perspective, while on the run from King Saul and from Doeg the Edomite, he was laughing at the man who didn’t have perspective. Doeg seemed to have the upper hand, and he had the King favor, but he wouldn’t make God his refuge. The righteous see right through that.

We will be tempted not to laugh for a number of reasons, especially because of our work. This is true of students, new and old, true of parents, and true for teachers, a thing I know by personal testimony. Temptations come because:

  • The work is unknown, and we don’t know what we’re doing. There’s a certain level of discomfort, and fearfulness is an easier default than trying while laughing.
  • The work is unenjoyable, and we don’t like what we’ve been assigned. It’s easier to do the job with more whining than laughing.
  • The work doesn’t have enough time (from our perspective) to get finished. It’s easier to be flustered than to be laughing.
  • The work (we got finished) isn’t perfect. It’s easier to to be proudly irritated than to humbly laugh.
  • The work is tiring. It’s easier to belly ache rather than belly laugh.
  • The work is unappreciated, at least not praised as immediately as we’d like. It’s easier to fuss than to laugh.

Are you doing your work from faith and for faith? Are you doing your work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23)? Then trust the Creator of time with the use and fruit of the time He gives you. The woman who fears the Lord has such an approach.

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
(Proverbs 31:25)

There is a potent sort of laughing, and it’s the sign of a virtuous man.

You’ve got to be able to not get sucked in by the complainers, to keep your cool when everyone is freaking out about the assignment, to be patient even when the deadline is looming. Laugh in faith because your life is bigger than your grade, and then laugh in thanks when you got a better grade than you probably deserved.

Little did I know how much I would come to appreciate an address given by C. S. Lewis (just a couple months in to WWII in 1939) which is called, “Learning in Wartime.” (Listen to the whole thing here.) I don’t know how many times I’ve shared this quote, though I know I quoted it the first day of ECS.

“If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.”

Choose this day which character you will be, Distracted, Fearful, Grumpy, or Dopey. How about instead we aim to be those who are laughing in wartime?

I also said the following on the first day of ECS, 3290 days ago:

“We don’t want our kids to want someone else to do it. We don’t want them to wait for all things safe and predictable and comfortable, for the “perfect” conditions. We don’t want them to work in reliance on their giftedness but rather because they believe God. We want them to walk by faith, ready to deal with the challenges of the battle even if they don’t have all the resources. We want them to be starters and singers. We want them to be just like us, only better. We want them to have first days like this, only bigger.”

As we present ourselves as living sacrifices to Him, and as He blesses the fruit of our hands and homework, we will sing with the psalmist:

Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
(Psalm 126:2-3)

May the Lord give us His perspective on 2021-22 and fill our mouths with laughter.

Summer Break for Seeds

I read the following story for our school’s end of year assembly. Good stories are supposed to stand on their own, but it might be helpful to read this 2021 Summer Challenge from Mrs. Bowers first.


The seeds walked out of the co-op after their last day of class. It had been a good school year, unprecedented even. But as good as school can be, the arrival of summer break, even for seeds, is always worth celebrating.

Oakly, Elmer, Bruce, Lerry, Tom, Iris, Rosie, Lily, Heather, and Willow were standing around in the parking lot after the barbecue and got to talking about a comment that their teacher had made in their final Almanac Class. He said that whoever wanted to have a fruitful summer should try to get buried as soon as possible.

Mr. Croft had said it matter of factly, like it was obvious, like it was what they were made to do. It’s not that they hadn’t ever heard a message like this before, but for whatever reason, hearing it this time caused more curiosity, and concern.

Most of the friends weren’t interested in getting so down to earth, nor did they believe that they were being told the truth. Milling around on the surface is way less scary than the dark and soggy soil. School was the time for work and summer was the season for play.

Oakly was the only seed with the faith to see that being buried might produce better things. So while everyone else made plans to binge on sun-fun, he committed to some things he didn’t really want to do.

Oakly woke up a little early every morning and did some seed yoga. You may be wondering what “seed yoga” is, and I understand. Probably the most frequent and foundational movement for seeds is called the downward-facing-dolphin. Like a dolphin flaps her flippers to push water backward, a seed must learn to angle his nose down and push the dirt upward.

After seed yoga he did cardio workouts on a furrowing machine. Some seeds grow just fine scattered in no particular pattern, others do better entrenched together. The furrowing machine let seeds get stronger at getting their groove on.

Oakly also picked up some extra chores at a neighbor’s field. His first project was to push the pebbles from the main part of the field to the perimeter. It was hard work, because rocks are hard, and because some of the rocks were larger than him and all of them were heavier. When he was done clearing a section of all the small stones he could find, he would practice digging hole-slots. Some seeds just aren’t strong enough to drill down into the dirt on their own, so other seeds can scoop out a little cozy niche where weaker seeds can jump in and get their start.

All these workouts and work still didn’t take up all his time so he thought he’d try his hand at growing some fruit. He had heard about a mysterious fruit called a seedless watermelon. As you might imagine, this was a difficult challenge because it still takes a seed to grow a seedless watermelon, but you have to know somebody. Oakly didn’t, he was just a little seed himself.

Maybe the most surprising choice Oakly made was checking out a few books at the local Farmer’s Library. The first books that Oakly chose were not the kind he would usually read. One of the books was about GTP, Getting Things Planted. Another book was about how to find the right field, and had an appendix on whether more sunlight or more shade would give certain seeds a better ROB, Return on Burial.

Then he found some really novel tales. He initially thought that a book called The Lord of the Rings would be about tree-rings, and was a little disappointed until he met Treebeard and the Ents whom Oakly realized were the real heroes of the battle. And he found all sorts of stories about Dryads, stories as old as the Odyssey, as new as Percy Jackson, and cried little seed-tears when he read about what Tirian and Jewel found happening to these living trees in The Last Battle.

In a far corner of the library he found a book about a holiday entirely devoted to tree drip. Not drip like tree sap, but drip like tree swag. And also, the holiday isn’t really about trees, but it includes trees, and how every December pines get decorated with bling, wrapped with necklaces of lights and garland.

Most interesting to Oakly was an ancient book that included a large family tree. He learned that distant cousins many generations ago had provided wood for a family for a boat that spared them and animals of all kinds during a great flood. He read about other relatives who were chosen by the wisest of Eastern kings to become beams and planks in a great temple. And then he came to the chapter where his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather once became a crossbar that held the Master Gardener for a few hours one Friday.

This Master Gardener was also the Maker of seeds, and had once predicted not that He would climb a tree He had created, but that He would bear it and then be born by it. What was fascinating to Oakly is that this Gardener likened His work to that of a seed. He became like a seed, was crucified, died, and was buried.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

He said this would be His glory, and that just as a seed which is buried brings forth much fruit, so would His death bring much life.

Most seeds want to bear fruit but they don’t want to be buried first. Even for seeds, it takes a kind of faith to see what happens. But the first seed under the ground doesn’t get bloody, he gets blessing.

On a hot June afternoon, years and years later, some human students were eating their hot dogs sitting under Oakly’s branches, enjoying his shade, giving thanks for how Oakly spent himself many summers ago.

Mellifluous Minutes

Good evening to our school board, faculty, families, friends, raggants young and old, and especially to our candidate for graduation. I know the work required to get to this point, and it is an honor to push this celebration toward its crescendo.

Our fifth graduating class turns out to be our smallest. There is a song that says one is the loneliest number, but one senior allows for a more singular charge, even as others listen along.

ECS is a not a music school, but music is certainly both an instrument and expression of our learning. Bonnie is a musical young lady. Music isn’t the only thing we teach, and music isn’t the only thing Bonnie makes, but there has been a harmonious relationship between she and the school.

It would be irresponsible to say that ECS caused Bonnie’s love of music, and certainly we didn’t create her appetite and aptitude for singing or her abilities with instruments. As she said during her capstone presentation, her family is a musical family, dad and mom and also older siblings. They have been taking songs and packing instruments with them all over the world, sort of the traveling Netherlander von Trapps. On our school’s trip to the UK in 2018, one of her sisters pulled out packets of worship song lyrics from previous youth retreats; apparently carrying such papers was an international priority. The Bour sisters’ mantra might be: “Let’s sing!” How many Raggants Got Talent entries has Bonnie been in singing or strumming (or sashaying)? It won’t shock you that she took quite seriously the job of ukulele arrangement for “Let It Go.” Musica eius erat, est, et erit (Her music was, is, and will be).

ECS also has a history with music, and Lord willing, we will repeat that chorus many times. One school story from before there was a school seems appropriate to remember tonight. On Friday evening, October 14th, 2011, we had our very first Committee meeting. A Committee was formed before a Board, because a Board decides what the school will do, a Committee decides if there should even be a school. Mr. Sarr, Mr. Weinberg, Mr. Martin, Mr. Light, Mr. Bowers, Mrs. Higgins and myself got together, and after we prayed, the first thing we did was watch a TED Talk on YouTube, just like they did at Plato’s Academy.

It was a talk about how everyone can, and should, come to enjoy classical music, given by the conductor/composer, Benjamin Zander. I rewatched those twenty minutes again a few days ago, and it resonated just as loudly. He played a few pieces on the piano, he pointed out some connections between notes (“the job of the C is to make B sad” and the B wants to “get home to E” in Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Opus Number 28: No. 4 in E Minor), and also commented on how leaders see great opportunities and do not doubt that they can encourage and empower others to get where they’re dreaming.

If I remember correctly, we hadn’t started singing any Psalms yet as a church. We certainly hadn’t had a Matins because we didn’t have any students, so no Cantus, no choir, no Bible songs, no school-endorsed egg shakers. What we did have that night was a drum beat of conviction that we could come to love a lot more things, that it would be good for us, that we could grow, and that a bunch of others would also get a taste and be drawn into the gravity of the project.

This is about music, sure, and music is a metaphor for a bunch of things that make up the tones and rhythms of our school culture. And this, as it turns out, shouldn’t be too surprising, because there is a sort of music that plays in the universe.

You may hear it referred to as the “music of the spheres,” or the “harmony of the spheres.” These spheres are not the various spheres of life, as Kuyperians regularly refer to them, but the heavenly, celestial orbits. Not only poets, but scientists watched and measured and calculated the movements of the planets, and they noticed and celebrated the ratios and harmonies.

Joahannes Kepler was a German mathematician and astronomer, born 25 years after Martin Luther died, who worked before the word gravity was applied to stellar phenomenon, who labored to describe the motions and laws of the planets, and he spoke about it as music. One of his books is called Harmonices Mundi, or Harmonies of the World, in which he presented his case that the speed of the planets at two various points in their ellipse around the sun have a proportion equal to a musical interval. This heavenly choir had a tenor (Mars), two bass (Saturn and Jupiter), a soprano (Mercury), and two altos (Venus and Earth). Though earlier philosophers like Pythagorus and astronomers such as Ptolemy considered songs of the cosmos, Kepler commended them as God’s works.

It is no mistake that Lewis has Aslan sing Narnia into creation in The Magician’s Nephew, or that Tolkien has Eru teach the Ainur to sing reality into existence in The Silmarillion. Whether or not Yahweh sang in Genesis 1, God asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7). Certainly our future is one of singing, and we will join the angels singing the Lord’s praises for creation and redemption.

Music is not mere “filler,” not just background noise, though those are fine uses. There are many different lawful and beautiful types of music, occasions where certain styles are fitting and good. Music was not only one of the seven liberal arts, in many ways music is the rhetoric of math, perhaps even the crown of classical education. The Quadrivium are arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. If arithmetic is numbers, geometry is numbers in shape, astronomy is numbers in movement, and music is numbers in time. Music is the adorning of time.

One of your responsibilities, Bonnie, is to carry and advance Christ-honoring culture by beautifying time, and by blessing others as you help them develop and ears to hear. This includes all of your interests, not just your instruments.

You are well known for taking a long time to do your homework, breaking homework surveys in the process. You are also well known not just for taking a long time to eat your food, but for taking a long time to decide if you even like what you’re eating or not. It was a frequent conversation on the UK trip: Do you like it? Do you like it now? Do you think you’ll ever know if you liked it?

This is a funny quirk, and perhaps your non-committal relationship to food will go with you for a long time. But, I want to charge you not to settle for this with your calling to make mellifluous music.

You have a desire to please others, and this is generally a good desire. But you also need to learn what really pleases you, and in doing so, make it and play it and perform it and it will be a delight to others. Benjamin Zander called it “one-buttock playing,” where the music pushes you over. Keep learning, and then honor your teachers by multiplying their investment.

Mellifluous is an adjective that applies to a voice or words meaning sweet or musical; pleasant to hear (New Oxford American Dictionary). It comes from the Latin mellifluus a combination of mel ‘honey’ + fluere ‘to flow’. So, put some honey on a minute. Make mellifluous minutes.

Do this with every thumb’s-plunk on the piano, every thumb’s-pluck on the ukulele, every thumb’s-strum on the guitar, every thumb’s-swipe to the next sheet of a song you’ve written.

It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
(Psalm 92:1–4 ESV)

In submission to the Lord of math and ratios and decibels, with thanks for majors and minors, white keys and black keys, uks and kazoos and synthetic cat gut violin strings, with a Steinway and with a Stradivarius, honor Him as a steward who beautifies time. Let’s sing!

A Place for Our Shelter

I recently read the following assessment (made in the fall of 1970): “When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious” (Irving Kristol). We are surrounded by those who not only lack the will to see reality, they willfully won’t, and so we are basically living in an Alfred Hitchcock mystery, and no one knows when this twilight zone will end. (And yes, I understand that Hitchcock did not write The Twilight Zone, but that’s how mixed up things are these days.)

What an island of normal ECS has been this past school year. What a refuge our campus has been for those with the will to see things as they really are, who are otherwise confronted at every doorway by masked faces and unmasked fearfulness and/or fatigue. King David taught Israel to sing, “Where shall I go from Your Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7), and we may be tempted to scream, Where shall I flee from Dr. Fauci’s press releases?

Where can you go to buy groceries without needing to mentally prep yourself for possible run-ins with door police and scolding from fellow shoppers? Perhaps some of you are still faced with distancing and masking requirements when you go to worship on the Lord’s Day. The panicked, angry, self-righteous virtue signaling on social media cycles virtually on repeat, and the only thing worse than scrolling through it on a screen is walking through it in person.

And here our little school has been, by God’s grace, without a single a Zoom class this past year. We’re meeting, we’re singing, every day, multiple times throughout the day, inside, and not just in our hearts. We share the same basketballs playing bump at recess. We sit next to each other in class without plexiglass in between. Our problems are things such as getting homework finished and finding the playground equipment left out overnight. We’ve had some boy-girl drama, we’ve had water left running in some bathroom sinks. What we’ve had are problems that are normal.

Other problems are growing, such as having a hundred more students enrolled for next fall than we started with renting at Reclamation (around 60 students in 2015 and already over 170 for 2021). The other significant problem, one which is a blessing for a school like ours, is that it’s increasingly frustrating to enjoy a place where so so much is so great and then realizing you can’t stay at school 24 hours a day.

That said, calling ECS an “island” of normal isn’t really right; the metaphor isn’t sufficient. We’re not trying to get away or hide away.

I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about a Christian or conservative “bubble.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard “bubble” used in a positive sense, always as a pejorative. It suggests that people are afraid, and even more that they are trying to bunker down, to barricade themselves as an escape. It’s as if they can’t handle the heat, as if they don’t even want to deal with the fact that the outside exists.

We are not hiding in a bubble, but rather building a shelter. C.R. Wiley (our guest speaker at the recent Fiction Festival) wrote (before 2020) about living in a world that’s falling apart, that “people build institutions for shelter” (Man of the House, Loc. 1346). Building a shelter is different from being sheltered. A shelter is for sake of protection from the elements, being sheltered is to avoid any engagement at all.

It is almost laughably easy to find reasons to build a shelter reactively. We are a local school, and in our State, even though a couple hundred-thousand petitioners made it so that a mandatory sex-education bill our legislators invented made it onto the ballot, enough of our neighbors voted their approval anyway. Just last week our Governor signed a bill to make Critical Race Theory teaching mandatory in government schools ([source]), a set of ideas based on externals and sure to increase suspicion and discrimination.

I mean, there is not really a reason to be surprised at this because government schools gave up appeal to God and even to transcendence (and therefore dignity and morality) decades ago. The tale of evolution is being played out, even if scientists don’t argue for it any more. Men are, wait, I mean humans are, I mean, what are we allowed to call ourselves? Whatever. We are “progressing” and there is no objective standard that we are progressing to. It’s like if a jigsaw puzzle factory exploded, all the pieces were mixed up, and all the box covers destroyed. What are we even trying to make?

Some of you have heard of (or even reading) the book Live Not by Lies. The book recounts testimonies of many Russians who lived through the totalitarian rule of Communism. We are staring down the barrel of a soft totalitarianism, wherein we are not being beaten (yet) but we are being bought.

Tyranny is oppressive rule. Totalitarianism is worse. Totalitarianism pushes someone else’s ideas and priorities into our space to displace our loves and traditions and values and institutions. They want us to live as if their illusions are obvious. It is part of our job to know the truth and to oppose the falsehood and propaganda. This isn’t about turning everything into political debate, but we are acknowledging that every thumb’s-width is claimed by Jesus. What bonds us together is not that we are victims, it is not that our contempt is more virtuous, but that we love God and His world and our image-bearing responsibilities to commend His works to another generation.

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” —G.K. Chesterton

We need to preserve memory, including historical memory (unlike the Ministry of Truth and its “memory hole” in 1984) of what has actually happened. We preserve and pass on cultural memory, remembering all the good that God has given us through the stories of people who built what we’re standing on. We need to see the obvious, and we need the imaginative capacity to fight back. We need to know how to endure pain, and to know which pleasures are false. There is false comfort, false peace. There is also true feasting, in true shelter and with true thanks.

God doesn’t promise to build any school like He promises to build His church. God doesn’t give promises to schools like He gives to fathers and mothers raising their children in Christian homes. But as a school puts feet onto the mission of our churches to make disciples, and as a school multiplies the efforts of parents to raise their children in the ways of the Lord, it is an institution that protects and promotes and pushes forward.

If ECS has been a little island of normal, it’s like a war-island. So, teasing that out a bit, we are much more like an aircraft carrier (though we started out kayak size). We are like a little city of our own, a small community distinguished from others, living together and working together and fighting for the same things.

An aircraft carrier is a shelter and a refuge and a training ground and a carrier of weapons and a weapon itself. It makes a statement. It’s more than a monastery to preserve what is important and obvious. ECS is an advance of Christ-honoring culture.

And this is our ship. This is our shelter, for the education of our children and our great-grandchildren. This is our culture, for the part of your life in which learning about all the thumb’s-widths in the universe happens. This is our normal because Jesus is our Lord.

We are not trying to shelter-in-place, but we’d love to put our shelter in a place. We are looking for a metaphorical port for our metaphorical shelter-warship. We are creating valuable shelter where it didn’t previously exist, and now we need more space (and more workers). Our mission is not yet accomplished, so we will continue to commend the works of the Lord to another generation and trust Him for the next stage of our advance. As a modern day poet wrote, we are “Like a small boat, on the ocean, sending big waves into motion….”

—Mr. Higgins

Brave New Unhappiness

It is hard to believe that this is our tenth Information Night for ECS. I’ve been to all of them, I’ve said some words at all of them, and I can say with certainty that the tenth looks nothing like the first. That night we didn’t have any students, no cute Kindergarteners in sweater-vests, no fun fish sound-offs from Second Graders. We had some ideas, but they were as concrete as a Plato’s view on the afterlife, which is to say, not very substantial.

A lot has happened in a decade, and I have a better idea of what we’re doing, and what we’re trying to do. I also have a better idea of the limits of a “talk” about classical Christian education and what we want that to look like at ECS. But all that leads me to the point I want to share tonight: I am more unhappy than ever. And what’s more, if you choose to send your students to ECS, we will do everything we can so that they, and you, experience the same thing.

This kind of unhappy begs for a bit of context, some explanation, and I’ve got two sources in my mind for what I mean.

The first source is Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World. Have you read it? Orwell took a different route with his 1984 (published 1949), let alone Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (1945) (and Lewis is the best of the three). Huxley imagines the World State where science and data and reproductive technology and entertainment have enabled the government to eliminate all the inconveniences and pains of life. Big Brother isn’t so much a threat to make you disappear as in 1894, but rather to medicate you so that your worries disappear. It’s like a Johnson & Johnson baby-shampoo regime: no more tears tyranny.

Near the end of the book there are two chapters (chapters 16 and 17) of 151-proof ideology presented in a Socratic-ish dialogue in the office of the head of the World State, known as the “Controller,” a man named Mustapha Mond, and another man named John, simply called the “Savage,” who is one of the few natural-born men in the story. The Controller calmly reasons that the Old and New Testaments are unnecessary, as is Shakespeare, that salvation comes in a pill called soma, that the government can provide every comfort necessary. Then the Savage replies:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

The more you know, the more you’ve tasted, less you can be manipulated or conditioned, and the more unhappy you set yourself up to be.

My second source is from the Old Testament, by a man who called himself a Preacher, or perhaps he could be better called a pundit, or a sage.

“In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

The sage was Solomon, gifted by God with great human wisdom, wisdom which he applied to learn even more. His proverbial conclusion is that wisdom is a grief-giver, wisdom harasses the mind with a clearer picture of what’s wrong. The second line is about sorrow; it is a coordinate action, the more gold you put in the bag the heavier it is to carry.

So I am unhappy like the savage, and I get the lesson of the sage. In our day it is harder to tell them apart.

ECS is a project that claims the right, even more, we claim the responsibility, to be unhappy.

Some of us are unhappy that we didn’t get an education like this. How much different or better might we have done?

We are unhappy with how our government sees us as so easily pacified, satisfied with stimulus checks and streaming video. Perhaps you remember the scene in “The Matrix” when the traitor, Cypher, says he’d rather enjoy the imaginary steak his mind convinces him is real than to be real, and be unhappy: “Ignorance is bliss.” Dorothy Sayers warned in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” that we would need better education to ward off all the propaganda. She could not have imagined “15 days to flatten the curve.” The Ministry of Truth has been working double-plus shifts.

We are unhappy that the State celebrates their legislative attempts to turn 220lb boys with pony tails into star women’s soccer players. We are unhappy that we can’t have civil debates about anything, that we can’t ask and expect answers about mandates that violate our constitution. We are unhappy that no one seems to remember the past, let alone learn from it. We could have learned about religious liberty, we could have learned about how fear often spoils freedom. We could have learned that communism has been tried, and found everyone wanting.

Our mission at ECS is as follows:

We commend the works of the Lord to another generation with the tools of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that they will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.

Because we take that seriously, we are unhappy that we have so much ground that needs to be recovered, and now defended, with still so much more ground that needs to be covered.

We use the tools of classical education to help us. Though “classical” can have a number of forms, it certainly includes recognizing that we are not the first humans on the planet to know anything. We receive (and rejoice in) the truths about subjects and verbs, about sorts of fish, about suffrage and Jesus’ suffering for our salvation. In the Trivium, the “three ways,” these truths are part of the grammar, and there is grammar for every subject. Things happened leading up to and in 1776 that have objective reality, and we’re not trying to rewrite it. 2 + 2 = the same thing, every time, and that’s not because of systemic racism; God said, and it was four.

In the Trivium there is also an emphasis on logic or dialectic, where ideas are debated, rules of argumentation are learned, and fallacies exposed. It’s more than just heat, more than just feeling, and more than just throwing bricks through storefront windows in the name of justice. Dialectic is a method for teaching subjects, and is itself a subject especially suited for those junior-high students who are probably already contrarian; why not make it constructive, or at least less annoying?

The Trivium is capped with rhetoric, where the truths have been gathered and sorted and then adorned. Whether in writing or in speeches or in some other form of expression, truth is shown with great allure. Grammar is like learning the names of notes on the staff, logic is like discerning the difference when it’s sharp or flat, and rhetoric is like making it sing.

At ECS, we’re happily addressing our unhappiness. We have teachers who love the Lord, who love their students, who love the Word and all the things that God has made.

So in this respect our school is not a “safe” space, it’s not trouble-free. We have God, and poetry, and inconvenience, and tears, and good, and sin. And the evangel. This is a project for brave new unhappiness, or from the other side of the coin, a brave new happiness, as we remember that laughter is war, and Jesus is Lord of it all.

The above is roughly what I said at our school’s annual Information Night last evening.

A Graduation Rumpus

The following notes are from the commencement address by Mr. Higgins at the Evangel Classical School 2020 graduation held on May 31.

Good evening to our school board, faculty, families, friends, raggants young and old, and especially to our candidates for graduation. All of you have worked a great work to get here tonight, and it is an honor to celebrate with you.

I suppose it is fitting that we are outside in a yard for this commencement ceremony, since the first convocation many of you attended, the first convocation ever at ECS, was also outside in a yard. How many things have changed in these last eight years, and how many things have become even more important.

You are under no obligation to remember the first quote I used that September Tuesday afternoon in 2012. I’ve given it voice numerous times, and each time I tend to think that I finally know what it means.

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.

From holding classes in a basement (four of you were the “big table buddies”), to a drought on the property requiring a port-a-potty for multiple weeks, then a flood in the same basement, soccer in a gravel driveway, and backpacks too big for Odysseus’ shoulders, these were just some of the challenges in the first six months. Ha. We thought last spring was challenging, as the Headmaster in particular spent months searching for a space that could hold our growing student body, trying to avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars for a fire alarm, only a year later to have a non-functioning fire alarm in a building we can’t meet in according to the governor. Who knew what sort of damage declarations of emergency could accomplish? Mr. Lewis said it, “Favourable conditions never come.”

Of course ECS doesn’t exist to reach scholastic utopia, even less are we attempting to bunker down and ride out storms. We exist to sharpen arrows for shooting (that is, shooting with arrows, not at them). We exist because there are problems, not to get away from, but to be equipped for. You have been doing cultural work, plowing the field, and it is time for you to expand the field and plow with the tassel on the other side of your cap.

We have given you not just our first years, but our best years. And now it is time for you to do it even better. From the beginning we have never desired that you would be able to solve our problems. From the beginning, we have wanted you to learn a much bigger lesson. We have wanted you to have an example of wanting something so badly that you would go through walls to get it.

To that end, let me pass along two lessons, two exhortations I believe will help you carry and advance Christ honoring culture.

Change your mind, a lot.

By this I do not mean that you can never know anything. I mean that you do not know everything. This is not a call for ignorance or feigned humility. It is a call to acknowledge that God loves growth, that God cares about a lot of things, and that He cares about You learning about and loving more of His things.

Your classwork at ECS has exposed you to the stream of Western Civilization and in particular to the radical changes brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” And in fact, the gospel requires a change of mind, it requires repentance. When men and women (two categories about which you should not change your mind) realize that they are sinful, when they turn from self-righteousness to the gift of salvation by grace, reformations explode.

If you do not learn to change your mind, you will have less opportunities to be right. If you do not change your mind, your pride will make you brittle and fragile. If you do not change your mind, you will be left behind, fighting old wars that only exist in your head.

The Bible describes the character who won’t admit when he’s in a mess as one who is “wise in his own eyes.” Solomon wrote, “Be not wise in your own eyes / fear the LORD, and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:7). The opposite of being wise in one’s own eyes is fearing the LORD. The wise-in-his-own-eyes-guy, or “wise guy” for short (note that we do not use this as compliment) thinks his mind is hot snot.

As just one example, I spent most of my life being wrong about the usefulness of fiction. I thought all fiction was bad or, at best, a distraction for younger or weaker minds. Now I think that bad fiction is bad and that good fiction is marrow for the bones. A man who isn’t reading good stories will have brittle bones.

In his essay titled, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” In other words, sticking to your guns no matter what is a sure way of shooting yourself in the foot.

To the degree that we have succeeded at ECS, you realize that there is more to learn than ever. More than a head start, we hope you have a taste for what is good and want more of it. It isn’t just that we wanted you to learn Latin and Logic and literature, we want you to have a life. A well educated person knows how to spend her leisure time, not filling up on the vanity of life under the sun, but resting or sharpening their tools for advancing the work.

My wife has illustrated it as standing on the shoulders of parents, or teachers, and being able to see that if everyone moved down the wall 15 steps, it would would be more strategic. If the person on the ground complains that the one looking over the wall isn’t being thankful, “Don’t you know how hard this is?” it’s the person on the bottom who can’t see what they’re supposed to be doing. They demonstrate that what they wanted is credit, not climbing. You are the ones climbing, but it won’t be long before kids (or students) will be climbing on you.

The reason for changing your mind is because you submit to the unchanging Word of the unchanging God. Evolution is a illusive progress to who knows where. Repentance is growth toward eternal glory.

Count your blessings, a lot.

You are #blessed. That is an assumption that has warrant. There are things that are “your blessings,” and counting them is not futile. Our God blesses those who fear Him, and the blessings are like streams of water.

To always be counting your blessings is to live a life with the perfume, or cologne, of thankfulness. How fragrant are the grateful. How like a light in this perverse, dark, and grabby-souled world you will be. Any fathead-airhead-knucklehead-bonehead-blockhead-pudding-head can (be governor, I mean) grumble. Complaints are running over the gutters of our social sewage system.

If there is any difficulty in counting one’s blessings, it is that it’s exhausting. Who could keep up with every given heartbeat, let alone name all of the visible and invisible care and kindnesses you receive from the Lord.

But let me add that counting your blessings may, it will, require you to change your mind about what counts as a blessing. Your expectations should not only be higher, your expectations should be wiser. Very rarely will your blessings look, let alone feel, glamorous.

We know the resurrection of Jesus is a blessing, but do we also call His death, death which atoned for all our sins, blessing? And though we do not seek the pain, He sends it to us. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:28). It is granted, it is chosen and appointed. Don’t flinch in the dark.

Learn the shape of your blessings, work your way out from the cross. On one hand, it is disappointing, and unfavourable, to finish your final year in quarantine and to graduate like this. On the other hand, no graduating class from ECS will have this story. No other class has been blessed to embody risus est bellum like you. No other rumpus of raggant alumni has had to practice civil disobedience just to get their diploma. This ceremony itself is a lesson, it is a blessing, and there will be more where this came from.

The cheeky motto of the class of COVID-19 is Omnino cancellatum est, “everything is canceled.” But, because of the education you’ve received, a better motto might be: omne mirile est, “everything is awesome.” It’s true even when conditions are not favorable. All are yours, and you are Christ’s.

In many ways you are responsible for the depth of friendships between your parents, for the increase in breadth of vision and love for Marysville, for revealing our shortcomings, our need for grace, and how sweet that grace tastes. You are much to blame for my interest in Narnia, Middle Earth, coloring pages and more. I am tired, but I am changed, and thankful.

We don’t want you to want someone else to do it. We don’t want you to wait for all things safe and predictable and comfortable, for the “perfect” conditions. We want you to be starters and singers. We want you to be just like us, only with merry impudence. Geronimo, yes, and also, Fix bayonets.

“What is vital and healthy does not necessarily survive. … We ask too often why cultures perish and too seldom why they survive; as though their conservation were the normal and obvious fact and their death the abnormality for which special causes must be found. It is not so. An art, a whole civilization, may at any time slip through men’s fingers in a very few years and be gone beyond recover.” (Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, 113)

“No art lives by nature only by acts of voluntary attention on the part of human individuals.” (124)

You are going to have harder days potentially than we have imagined. And if the Lord does not return, future students will study about your work. You are changing the world from a backyard, in Jesus’ name.

Good Fences Make Good Students

I used these notes for my most recent Information Night address.

Maybe Robert Frost’s most popularly known poem is “The Road Less Taken,” but the title of my talk plays off a line from the poem, “Mending Wall.” A stone wall separating two farms in New England needs mending, and while they work one of the farmers questions if the work is really necessary. Twice the neighbor farmer says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Among other layers of meaning, we’re reminded that boundaries are a blessing. I know where myself and where my stuff belong, and so do you. A good wall, rather than create tension, enables neighborly trust, and trust enables fellowship.

When it comes to so much that poses as education today, the primary passion seems to be to break down every wall, to tear down all the fences, to demolish every boundary line, especially if it looks like someone is hiding their privilege. Modern education is a bulldozer in Prius clothing, driven by suspicion and doubt and envy.

Just last week WA State Democrats introduced House Bill 2184 to provide “comprehensive sexual health education” starting in 2022, which includes compulsory sex education for Kindergartners. A Comprehensive Sexual Health Education work group (CSHE) argues for starting so soon because the “social emotional needs of our youngest students must be addressed for prevention of future challenges.” On one hand there have always been sex assumptions for Kindergartners; Bill was a boy and Jill was a girl. Bill had the pocketknife, Jill had the butcher knife. No one had to teach students that there were two sexes, and it certainly wasn’t controversial. That was education with good fences, with the God-given (and naturally observed) distinctions: male and female. This is a truth, one of many truths in God’s creation, that are a blessing to those who leave the fence alone, or at least have two separate bathrooms.

The denials of male and female by many modern “educators” causes the opposite of education. That kind of curriculum isn’t transferring a body of knowledge, it questions knowledge about the body. It causes confusion, it raises doubts, and it grows fruitlessness. It is built on tearing down walls. The unwillingness to distinguish and celebrate and train toward strengths of the differences between male and female is just one example, but it is the sort that has other faces. How many politicians have recently said that “Abortion equals healthcare.” That is like saying “War is peace,” which George Orwell wrote in 1984. It’s how the Ministry of Truth trashed truth and rewrote history.

The only way for there to be liberty and justice is by acknowledging the fences of objective and fixed truth. For Christians, we have these walls because God made the world, and He made it knowable (not exhaustively but dependably), and He blesses those who receive His gifts, including the boundaries. What God has joined together let no man separate, and what God has separated (light from dark, day from night, male from female) let no man muddle up.

At ECS we see His gifts and we utilize the tools of classical education to help our students appreciate the fences and enjoy the gifts.

In the earlier stages, K-elementary school, we teach the facts about the alphabet and phonograms, about how letters make words (with proper spelling), about how words make sentences (with proper syntax). We still teach that 2 + 2 = 4, that triangles have three sides, that addition and multiplication share the associative property, that long division can be checked because it is not a guessing game. In classical education jargon this part of the Trivium is referred to as the Grammar stage, with grammar referring to the ABCs of each subject. Each piece of truth is like a brick in the wall. Gravity only works one way on earth, and that’s helpful to know and changes what you expect when you walk out the front door.

We aren’t creating robots, though there is a lot of repetition and reminders through songs and chants and catechisms and sound-offs. They may sound like parrots, but it’s fun, and it’s not filling their minds with the false.

As students mature, as they begin to see even more things for themselves than what their parents and teachers put in front of them, they start asking questions about how? things work together, or don’t. They start asking a lot of why? things are the way they are or aren’t, should or shouldn’t be. Our emphasis around the time of Junior High is in Logic, the second part of the Trivium, which includes training in formal logic and validity of argumentation. It also includes putting questions of worldview to Homer and Plato, to Beowulf and The Divine Comedy, and many other great books.

There are two problems with teaching students logic. One is that they can get critical of those who are sloppy or those who cheat when they argue; ideally, though, they are learning to sort out their own faulty thinking first. The biggest actual problem is that so many people today, including the talking heads on television and YouTube and Instagram, only care about how something makes them feel. Our students should be able to say that’s the Snowflake Fallacy. Or, narcissism.

Already at the Logic stage, but encouraged even more as they near the latter years of High School, we emphasize Rhetoric, presentation, beauty in art and artful writing and speaking and singing. It is possible to adorn a pig, but the truth can be adorned, too. Persuading others is not pummeling them, nor is it propaganda. It is the art of showing that the walls we live by are attractive.

We want to help make Marysville great again (#MMGA). We want to play a part in making Marysville a destination for Christians to worship and work and raise the next generation to carry and advance Christ honoring culture. That means that we need walls, and teachers, working beside parents, who maintain those walls. Good fences make good students.

I love this illustration by G.K. Chesterton near the end of his book, Orthodoxy:

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (p. 143)

It’s no wonder that so many students are having no fun; they have no safe place to play.

We live in a wild world, but not an imaginary one, and the walls of truth enable us to laugh and to learn; if you visit on a school day, you will hear how loud it is; our song has not ceased. Ironically, in our context, living with such walls makes our school offensive, not just as an annoyance but on the assault. Because we believe that Jesus is Lord over it all, we are outrageous. More than outrageous, we want you to consider ECS as a place that helps your students become outcourageous.

—Mr. Higgins

An Eye for Learning

The following notes are from the talk given by Mr. Higgins at our Convocation on the first day of school.


Or, Paying Attention to Curriculum and Character

There is an ancient Egyptian myth about Osiris, a god known for many things, including being the ruler of the dead. This is not a Bible story, but it is its own kind of mirror to problems that people have.

Horus head
The head of Horus

Osiris represented tradition, and even more than tradition, he came to represent dangerous failure to change. Osiris had a scheming brother named Set who was eager to overthrow and destroy Osiris. It wasn’t that Osiris was dumb or even deceived by Set, but Osiris didn’t want to see his brother’s evil intentions. Osiris chose to be blind. Eventually Set took a chance and attacked his brother, hacked him into pieces and sent his parts throughout the kingdom and his spirit to the underworld. Humpty Dumpty would have had an easier time pulling himself back together.

Some time later Osiris’ son Horus came to fight Set. You may have seen the symbol of Horus as the single Egyptian eye. He was also represented as a falcon-headed man; falcons are known for incisive vision. One story teller put it like this: “Osiris is tradition, aged and willfully blind. Horus, his son, could and would, by contrast, see. Horus was the god of attention” (12 Rules for Life, 222).

Seeing is not less than, but it is more than, mere knowing. This seeing beyond what is already grasped. Because Horus could see, he could see the wickedness of his uncle and fought him. He defeated Set, but not before Set tore out one of Horus’ eyes. Later Horus took back his eye, and then in a surprising twist, Horus went to the underworld and gave the eye to his father so that Osiris could see.

There are a couple angles in this story. The first is that it may hurt to see; Horus saw his uncle’s evil and lost one of his own eyes fighting the evil. The second is that seeing is the necessary act to move forward. Seeing was necessary to defeat Set. Seeing was what Osiris needed. If we do not see, if we refuse to learn and mature, our knowledge will grow stale or corrupt.

“Every bit of learning is a little death” (ibid., 223). It is death to our pride to acknowledge that we didn’t know everything already. It is death to our reputation as our ignorance is exposed, or worse, our pet blind spots. But when we learn, when we pay attention, we are sacrificing what may feel secure for something that is better. To get perspective, it’s easier to stand on a dead long than climbing a growing tree, but the dead log will only let you see so far.

There are two general categories that I want to exhort you to open your eyes to see this school year. For simplicity sake, let’s refer to them as head and heart, or we could summarize them as curriculum and character.

Pay attention to the curriculum.

This may surprise you, but our school does not exist as a proving ground for experts. Our school is a provoking goad to learning. What I mean is that we don’t meet here in order for you to Show and Tell all that you know, let alone that you know it all. One thing we know is that you don’t actually know it all, and more importantly, what you know should become a foundation to see more, not a fence to keep you from going further. Knowledge should increase your attentiveness, not your apathy.

One of the most fundamental principles at ECS is that not only are we permitted to, but we are accountable to, grow in Christlikeness. But what does that mean? It does mean that we should obey the Father like Christ did. But it also means that we should observe what Christ has made. Being like Christ means being interested in the things that He is interested in, and He made the world. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3).

Christ made the heavens and the earth, He made the visible and the invisible. He not only created but He continually sustains all things. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). We don’t keep the stars in place, but we can at least pay attention to them. Science, subtraction, Logic, letters, poetry, and history are all His delight.

Your current knowledge is not absolute, as in, you do not know everything. There will be times when you wish you knew more than you do, but the solution to that frustration is not to complain about the work required to see more. Teachers must keep seeing, and so must parents, so that you can keep seeing. The mission of ECS is that you would carry and advance Christ honoring culture. If you don’t have anything more to learn, then here we are, and here we’ll stay.

I remember my first day of 7th grade, and in particular my literature teacher Mr. Brenner. He had a sign hanging on his podium that he made sure to emphasize: “Hire a teenager while they still know everything.”

Pay attention to your character.

It often hurts to look at our own hearts. We don’t like what we see, so we go out of our way not to see. I mean, who wants to see his own sinfulness, more deeply, more clearly? Considering how we’ve offended God is nerve-afflicting. Looking at ugly things is not a good time, especially if we are the ugly ones.

But this is where you make or break your joy. You cannot be one of God’s children and thrive with unacknowledged sin. Willful ignorance about your sin, or proactive defensiveness of your sin, will choke out your joy. What is true for each individual is also true for a culture made up by those individuals. One weed can get its root deep, but if there are a lot of weeds in the garden, things are going to be a snarled mess.

If you don’t watch your heart, the sin in your heart will cut up your gladness into little pieces and scatter your soul all over the place. It won’t feel good. Paul told Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself,” and that such attention had effect not just on himself but for those Timothy led (1 Timothy 4:16). It requires looking, and admitting, and sometimes even getting help to grow.

There will be all sorts of exposures of your heart this year. You will get to see how much patience you really have, how much diligence you really have, how much truthfulness you really have, how much skill you really have. Will you look for the opportunity to repent?

Don’t lie to yourself, or to others. You need to grow. We’re not going to freak out that you have immaturities, ignorances, and sins. Don’t you freak out either, and also don’t cover your eyes.

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15)

Conclusion

Do you know what you don’t know? What do you want to learn more about this year? You don’t necessarily need to have a plan, but your teachers will help. They have books for you to read and homework to assign and tests to give. They have curriculum, they have maps to show you more places that Christ loves and wants you to love. Listen to them, follow the path of their dry erase marker. Knock on their doors until they open up library of their own looking.

And also, are you prepared to become more like Christ in head and heart? Do you have an eye for learning the right loves, for seeing more ways to obey, for attending to the parts of your heart that need to be wrapped into integrity?

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. (Ecclesiastes 4:13, ESV)