Reflecting Back on This Year
As we reflect back on this year it is tempting to think about all that we have missed and lose sight of the good. Much of what I have read about the impact of the virus focuses on the more exceptional and superficial things we have lost—“we can’t go out to dinner and a movie what are we to do?!?” But I think the changes have hit most of us more deeply than this.
For example, even though we are with our kids more often, we can’t integrate them into the normal rhythms of life. Right now we are planting a family garden. We went to the garden store this weekend to let the kids pick some things out only to find that no one under the age of 16 is allowed in the garden center, not even in the outdoor area. Or some of you may have had the experience of trying to buy a new pair of shoes (my son’s old shoes were letting in water through the soles) when you aren’t able to touch, try on, or return shoes. We currently are stuck with three new pair of shoes for our son and none of them fit well!
We also find ourselves kept from normal celebrations and milestones of loved ones—birthday parties, weddings, graduations. When good things happen to people we love it is moral to celebrate with them! But we can’t. As a result both their and our joy is diminished. (And when normal, healthy sources of joy are cut off it is far more tempting to turn to sinful counterfeits.)
Finally, we find our children completely bereft of normal socialization. Playgrounds are closed, playdates caput, and while our kids are getting a lot of sibling time, their ability to interact with new people has been severely diminished. I worry about how my youngest son is going to transition into Kindergarten this year if he is kept from normal socialization through this summer!
I of course could go on. But my goal isn’t to complain or focus on the negatives, rather I want to simply give expression to what all of us are feeling in some way and to some degree: you are not alone in your fear and frustration!
I also want to affirm that though this is a bad situation God is using it to bring about good things.
Consider patience. I doubt there is a single one of us who has not come to recognize the limits of our patience. A lot of how we control our temper is by controlling our environment—we can no longer do that! Instead we find ourselves cooped up, surrounded by kids bouncing off the walls, and all the while our kids (how do I put this delicately?) often don’t pick up on the subtle signals that mom and dad put out when they are under stress. No one would choose this, but here we are and it is a great opportunity for us to grow in patience!
Likewise, every single one of us has experienced fear and anxiety to some degree. Whether it is fear of the virus, fear for our business and livelihoods, fear of the government’s growing authority—all of us have experienced fear to some degree. Though fear is not good, it can be a prompt, a spiritual cattle prod, that leads us to repentance of our self-sufficiency and repentance of the foolish trust we put in things and people so that we may trust more deeply in Christ.
Finally, this time has forced many of us to reevaluate how and where we are investing our time and money. Are youth sports worth all the effort we put into them? In some cases yes, in some no. Only one of my kids knows how to swim—I really want them all to learn how to swim this summer and I hope they can! Yet we have found better alternatives to some of the other organized activities I had them involved in. As we can longer go out and “shop for fun”, many of us have been challenged to consider what it is that we really need and what we are buying out of a sense of boredom or to create some purpose that we should find elsewhere. Most of us don’t revaluate our life in deep and meaningful ways unless we are forced to. And here we find ourselves forced to do just that!
As we think through all the ways we can be growing during this time it is easy to despair. You may be thinking, “great, not only did this time suck, but I am less patient, more fearful, and compulsively spending on Amazon instead of at Target!” That is how all of us feel in some way and to some degree. And this leads us to the greatest opportunity yet, something that, Lord willing, we’ll be able to model and pass on to our children. We have the opportunity to trust in Christ’s atoning work more deeply. The solution to sin and failure isn’t self-improvement; it is Christ! Here we have gone through this difficult time that we could have used to grow in character and not one of us did it perfectly! And that is ok!!! Christ didn’t just die for our sins of commission, but also our sins of omission—He lived the life that all of us should have lived but never can and never will. And we can rest in that. Even now. Especially now. Though we are faithless; He is faithful. He is the answer to our impatience and fear as well as our failure to respond well to difficulty. We will never model perfection to our children, but we can always model repentance from sin and faith in Christ.
This year didn’t go the way that any of us desired. Our plans have been frustrated time and again. But God’s plans cannot and will not be frustrated. As the world around us grows darker, the light of Christ grows brighter! While I am looking forward to a return to normalcy, I am also eager to see the good things that God will bring out of this time of trial.
Our Approach to Next Year
A lot of you are probably wondering what school is going to look like next year. Right now we are in the process of putting together a protocol to ensure that we are doing what we can to keep our community safe while also ensuring that our students get the education that they need and that you all desire. When it comes to the details of our plans, a lot of what we will be able or have to do will be dependent upon state mandates that have not yet been announced. We, like all the other area Christian schools, will open when we can and will comply with state law, but what that law will look like is at this time unknown (as I am typing this I see that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled against the extension of Governor Evers’s ‘Safer at Home’ order. But it looks, as I understand it, as if their order will be stayed for six days and in the interim Dane County has issued its own order. I am not sure what all this means yet, but I will continue to follow it and watch for new developments.)
This being said, I think that we all recognize that our collective response to this virus has in many places divided our country. My hope and prayer is that this virus will not divide our school. Our mission and our vision have not changed, but the circumstances in which we pursue and live them out have. These circumstances will not last forever, but for the time being we need to learn to deal wisely with them.
I have put together a short video (https://www.dropbox.com/s/lttpy8zm2q89efc/Approach%20to%20Next%20Year.MP4?dl=0) in which I talk about the approach, the posture, that I hope we will all adapt. No matter what decisions we make as a school, some of you will want us to do more and some of you less. And that is ok—godly people can disagree and nonetheless find a way to remain in fellowship with one another. If we walk with grace and patience and mutual forbearance; if we listen in love and defer to one another in humility; if we trust in God and seek to honor Him in all our thoughts, words, and acts, this can be a great year no matter what we face! But if we interpret our school policy through political lenses we’ll drag the division and disfunction that we see all around us into our school and we will set ourselves up for frustration and failure. My prayer is that we will not be divided by what is passing and temporary (e.g. the virus and our response), but will be united in what is lasting and high above us, namely Jesus Christ.
Thank you for your time. You know it is a good video message when the Headmaster discusses The Thirty Years’ War, plastic straws, and Thomas Jefferson. Please let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part XI) - Chapter 9: Make America an Idea Again
Senator Sasse foresees three challenges in the near future:
1) Accelerating technologies are going to make a lot of current jobs disappear. 2) The coming-of-age crisis that he's discussed in this book. 3) The fact that in times of economic disruption we see the rise of people who offer quick fixes, nativist campaigns, and more centralized powers as a way out.
In other words, he believes we need to solve the second so that the first does not bring about the third. If we want to avoid tyranny, if we want to avoid discipline and control from without, we must become self-disciplined and self-controlled.
Right now only a third of US adults know the three branches of the federal government. People who cannot identify the branches of government are probably equally hard-pressed to explain the roles of the different branches. (Over one third can't even name one branch of our government.) 85% of US citizens cannot define "the rule of law"; 82% can't name at least two of the three "unalienable rights" listed in the Declaration of Independence, and 71% aren’t aware that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
And yet though many people don't understand our government far too many people find their ultimate meaning within politics. This is backwards. The government exists so that we can find joy and happiness outside of it.
Sasse believes we need to return to foundational ideas and character traits that made America great. What makes America great? Sasse, building on Tocqueville, says that it is not our government, not our bureaucracies, and not our politicians. What makes America great is the existence of many small, voluntary associations wherein people build their lives together: things like churches, the Rotary club, and this school. Our system encourages individualism, which in turn discourages people from fully participating in public life. Without local communities to connect to, places that create a shared sense of civic purpose, we will drift toward materialism. Materialism makes people shallow and vapid, unable to embrace hard work and face challenges head on. This is what we are seeing happening. And according to Sasse, if this continues to happen we will lose something great.
Ben Sasse believes that ultimately our national destiny depends less on what happens in Washington and more on what we do at home. If we want to live in a free and virtuous society we must raise our children so that they value and are able to embrace both freedom and virtue. We must teach them to read and to embrace hard work; we ought to encourage them to travel and show them that consumption does not lead to happiness. This will help them to live better, happier lives and it will create a society where virtue and human flourishing can advance together.
This concludes this series. I hope you have found these messages edifying.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part X) - Chapter Eight: Build a Bookshelf
Allan Bloom: the failure to read good books both narrows people's vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency: the belief that the here and now is all there is.
America was founded deliberately by people who believed in heaven and hell, who thought about rights and responsibilities, and that considered what type of society would promote virtuous living by serious thinking. What we read, or don't read, still drives not only what we believe but also how we engage with each other and how we make decisions about our future. Living in a republic demands a great deal of us. Among the responsibilities of each citizen one is keeping ourselves sufficiently informed so that we can participate effectively, argue our positions honorably, and, hopefully, forge sufficient consensus to understand each other and then to govern. Critical reading skills are not a luxury, but rather a necessity for responsible adults and responsible citizens. America's future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes.
Ben Sasse relates a time when a friend of his asked, "what books do you want your kids to have read by the time they leave home?" In response, he and his wife created a list that they now constantly update. He encourages all parents to think through what type of wisdom and knowledge they want to pass down to their children.
Becoming truly literate requires work. Reading done well is not a passive activity, like sitting in front of the screen. It requires attention, engagement, and active questioning. But our culture of the “ever present” conspires to blunt our curiosity and distract us from sustained thought. The average American now reads only 19 minutes per day. According to Sasse, this is a threat to our republic. Great books create a shared community with those who have read them, discussed them, and argued about them. In contrast with our age of short attention spans Sasse discusses the Lincoln-Douglass debates. Back when Lincoln and Douglas debated, they would speak for hours without interruptions, and then would proceed to rebut one another. At one point Douglas spoke for three hours uninterrupted. In another debate, Lincoln suggested a break so that the audience could go home, eat dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. We no longer have the habits, that is the attention span, that comes with concentrated, uninterrupted reading that makes debates like this conceivable, let alone pleasurable.
Sasse ends the chapter by sharing a list of books that he has found helpful. I'm not going to repeat this list, but I will say many of them are books that your sons and daughters will read if they continue on at this school.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part IX) - Chapter Seven: Travel to See
Senator Sasse believes that, like hard work, travel can challenge and transform us. It can create empathy. It can create challenges for young people to overcome. Sasse quotes Edward Gibbon’s description of a good traveler. "He should be endowed with an active, indefatigable vigor of mind and body, which can seize every mode of conveyance, and support with a careless smile every hardship of the road, the weather, or the inn. It should stimulate him with a restless curiosity, covetous of time and fearless of danger, which drives him forth at any hour of the day or night, to brave the flood, to climb the mountain, or to fathom the mine, on the most doubtful promise of entertainment or instruction.”
In our increasingly connected and democratic world it is possible for people to travel to more places more economically than ever before. Yet Sasse recommends that we reject consumer tourism. In his words, "nobody's life is ever greatly changed by spending a week on the beach in Cancun." He advises us to be active, not passive travelers. An active traveler searches for people, adventure, and experience. Indeed, the old English word “travel” has the same root as the word travail, which means trouble, work, or torment. The goal of travel should be to do something laborious, troublesome, something meaningful. On the other hand the passive tourist expects interesting things to happen to him.
Travel done right takes one out of one’s comfort zone and offers one the chance to see the world with new eyes. One begins to think, “do I really need so much stuff when I seem to be freer when I'm away from it?”
Traveling with kids can help them to grow and mature by forcing them to make decisions, to reflect and summarize on things they discover, and by requiring them to help plan the trip.
What is more, people that are well-traveled tend to be more mentally flexible, not tied to one approach or solution. They tend to be calmer under pressure and thus able problem-solvers. Traveling can help us to conquer the fear of the unknown, to see beyond instinctive prejudice, and to look at things more deeply. It can help us learn to be less upset about minor inconveniences and see beyond social convention.
Finally, the more time you spend in other cultures the clearer it becomes that most things and phases you thought important aren’t terribly important after all. Indeed, many people reorder their lives after experiencing extreme poverty. Travel has also helped many to overcome prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Done rightly, travel should awaken a desire to read history and geography and economics.
Ben Sasse recommends living somewhere for two months, if you can. He says we should consider having our children take a semester off of high school to live with a relative and work a job, preferably doing something with their hands. While a lot of these suggestions may not be possible to embrace, Sasse says that even visiting a new part of the city or a new town with an “active traveler mindset” can help us and our children to grow.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part VIII) - Chapter Six: Consume Less
In another chapter perfectly fitting the current crisis, Senator Sasse writes that we need to teach our children to exercise self-control in what they consume and train them to seek happiness in non-material things.
He says that we must draw a firm line between things that help us to survive, to learn, to live a fulfilling life, and those that are merely wants. We need to teach our children this by not over-consuming ourselves. We also need to consciously instruct our children how to resist the strong forces in our advertising and popular culture that push us in the direction of immediate and over-gratification. Instead we need to teach our children self-denial and deferred gratification. The idea of limitless acquisition is a soulless idea; limits are real and often good.
There are many people that have uncritical views of consumerism. They fail to ask whether our affections are rightly ordered, whether all of our appetites are necessarily healthy. Instead they think: whatever makes you happy is good.
This is leading to economic hardship for many people. 30% of Americans today are not credit worthy. A lot of this is due to technology that allows us to buy things quickly. A sandwich beyond the reach of kings is now available to us by the push of a button on a phone.
Markets are good. Poverty rates have fallen faster than even the most optimistic writers and thinkers predicted a century or even 50 years ago. Yet despite the expansion of our wealth and leisure Americans report being less happy than they were 50 years ago. This is because we are looking to things to make us happy. They never will. If the unexamined life is not worth living, neither is a life of passive material appetites.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part VII) - Chapter 5: Embrace Work Pain
Productivity is essential to human flourishing. We often fail to see this. Among our young there is an outsized sense of entitlement without any corresponding notion of accountability. This is because we often see freedom the wrong way. Ben Sasses was president of a college for five year. While there he conducted a survey wherein he asked students what they enjoyed the most. They said things like partying, sleeping in, skipping class, and so on. Almost nowhere did student surveys reveal that they had eyes to see “freedom to” categories like the freedom to read, to learn, to be coached, and to be mentored.
What is more, there is a fetish with authenticity among the young that hinders their ability to mature. Many young people think it is "fake" to act mature. But it is not fake to begin imitating desired behavior even before it is a full and fair representation of who you are in the moment. That is the only way people grow.
In sum, our kids view freedom the wrong way and don’t know how to mature. A lot of this is because they haven’t been exposed to work that would train them to see the value of being productive and show them how to grow and mature. Whereas young people in the past used to be trained in trades, our young people now spend a lot of their time in organized games (sports). Both parents often work and there is no energy to train kids to work at home. As a result kids aren't learning anything useful and helpful, but rather things that tend to increase their own pride and vainglory. Sasse believes that instead of putting fun first, we ought to put work first. Our children live in a world of celebrity driven pop culture, secularism, consumerism, and hyper-sexuality. Much of American life seems to be focused on the goal of finding more efficient ways to shirk responsibilities. But the fact is, nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty. We need to teach our children to swim upstream. We need to teach them to learn how to embrace suffering and to embrace difficulty. We need to teach our kids that hard work, not the absence of work, will help to make them happy and good.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part VI) - Chapter 4: Flee Age Segregation
If someone from 18th century Boston were to travel to the present, after they got past our technology the two changes that would more surprised them would be the way we separate work from home and the ways in which we segregate our young from older people in our communities.
300 years ago nobody commuted to work. People worked where they lived. As we separated work from the home we also separated our children from the home by putting them into schools. With time we began to further separate students within schools by age as well. 300 hundred years ago few people knew their birth year; today the year of one’s birth drives one’s life.
Age segregation is closely correlated to antisocial behavior and socialization for competitiveness and aggressiveness. This makes sense. The people most like us are the people that we naturally compete against. A person who spends most of his or her life with peers will feel a sense of constant competition. Conversely, older kids who spend time with younger kids learn to be nurturing, while younger kids learn concrete lessons about the coming stages of intellectual development and economic productivity, as well as how to navigate communities larger than themselves.
What is more, separating ourselves from the elderly makes it easier to deny our own morality. This is detrimental. Life needs to be lived and prioritized with the understanding that it is limited. Awareness of one's mortality makes life richer because the important can be emphasized and the trivial marginalized. Instead of looking at hard truths and making difficult decisions, we pretend that eternal youth is attainable.
From schools to television programming, there is a lot of pressure to segregate ourselves by age. If we want to grow and mature we must resist this and intentionally seek out inter-generational communities (as soon as the quarantine ends :).
The Vanishing American Adult (Part V) - Chapter 3: Contemporary American Education
All motion is not progress. Neither is increased choice. For example, as our independence becomes more boundless, our loneliness grows. Our schools have changed a lot in the last fifty years. They are different, but they are not better. In fact, by many metrics they are far worse. Why?
Is it because they are underfunded? Per capita spending by school districts is not correlated to student outcomes nationally. Sasse discusses the example of Kansas City and how over a twelve year period it became the highest funded school district in the country, spending over $2 billion on 60 new schools with amenities such as Olympic size swimming pools, a robotics lab, a recording and television studio, a planetarium, an arboretum, a zoo, and even a 25 acre wildlife sanctuary. What was the result? There was no real change or improvement. Over the past 30 years there has been a quintupling of federal spending on education that has produced nothing quantifiably better. Inflation-adjusted spending per pupil increased from $440 at the end of the First World War to more than $8,000 at the end of the 20th century, an increase over 1700%. That is an average yearly growth of nearly 6%. Are our schools improving by 6% every year? Our four-year universities, despite having lowered standards for freshman year performance, now place one-third of their incoming students in remedial reading and mathematics courses. In all, about half of incoming college students require some degree of remediation. This is a nice way of saying that half the students that are admitted to college are not qualified to attend.
At the same time our schools began to replace the family and became the center of adolescent life, they also moved away from their traditional role of transmitting and conserving knowledge. John Dewey, our most influential thinker on education, was skeptical of the obsessive need to teach children reading. He called it a "perversion." Instead, he wanted the school to focus on how it could be an instrument of social progress. As a result of moving away from traditional goals and methods of education our children spend more hours in the classroom than ever before and yet they leave high school for college or the workforce less prepared and less able to cope with the next stage of their lives.
Sasse believes we must have a discussion about the role of the school so that we can tailor our reforms to improve what we can and ought to improve. Schools can't solve every social problem, so we need to ask: what do we want for our children? Once we answer this question we can decide whether school or another institution is the best way to inculcate a given value or skill. If we want our students to be ready for work, why not internships? If want them to be more civic-minded, why not community service?
It is essential that we think this through because neither our current system nor our attempts to reform our schools are working. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre schools that exist today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. This is true for the rich and poor alike. Our young are indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. Rich and poor alike cannot concentrate on anything for very long and they all have a poor sense of time passed and time to come.
Liberal and Conservative; Republican and Democrat: we all want good schools for our children. But to do this we must first answer the underlying question: what is the purpose of education? Once we answer that we can decide what portion of that purpose can be reasonably accomplished by formalized school. But instead of debating and discussing this issue, we have assumed the school can and should do everything. This approach is empirically not working.
Sasse believes our nation would be served if we had a broad marketplace of schools. We should have family schools, religious schools, entrepreneurial schools, craft schools, and farm schools (Editor's note: I would Gospel-Centered, University-Model, Classical schools that utilize Charlotte Mason's thought to promote Joyful Discovery :) These schools, in competition with one another, would raise the level of education and lead to a number of new ideas.
One thing that Ben Sasse strongly opposes is the P-16 initiative. This is the idea that students should routinely go through grade 16; that a college degree should be the new norm. He asks the question: if grade 12 isn't working why should we pursue grade 13? Instead of admitting that the one-size-fits-all model is extending the period of adolescence rather than producing active learners, we are deciding, without open and honest debate, to invest even more power and authority in the same one-size-fits-all model. Unfortunately, centralized education bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a proof of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. We are still trying to spoon feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, and to work to become the kind of students who ask questions before being handed a three point formulaic answer. Sasse believe we already over-manage the lives of our young adults and the P-16 initiative will only further this trend. In Nebraska, Sasse’s home state, the percentage of graduating seniors enrolling in college has increased by roughly 25% over the last 15 years. This is incredibly encouraging! However, the college graduation rate has remained completely even, as one third of Nebraska’s students drop out without graduating (this is also the national average).
What is more, this increased time in a bureaucratic setting means less family life, less time in the community, and less effort invested in thinking about what coming-of-age work experience could and should look like.
In sum, Sasse worries that it is foolish to invest more time and resources in an education system when we don't even of a clear idea of what education should produce.
How to Respond to the Coronavirus
I want to take a week off from my Vanishing American Adult message series to share a few thoughts about how we can respond and talk to our kids about the Coronavirus.
1) First off, we need not fear. This is may be the most repeated command in the Bible. Yet it does not mean that our lives will be easy or safe. But if our lives may be difficult and trying, why should we not fear?
God is sovereign. This disease will go no further and last no longer than God allows.
Our hope is in the resurrection. Our lives will be marred with sickness and pain and, if Christ does not return in our lifetimes, we will die. Our hope is not in living forever on this earth, but rather living with Christ forever in Heaven. If our hope is in the resurrection we can face even death without fear. This is an opportunity to grow in faith! To the extent our trust is in our health or our youth we will feel fear and anxiety. We all feel this to some degree (at least I do!) because none of us completely trusts in Christ (at least I don’t). But that fear is a gift from God to turn you towards Him. When you feel anxious, turn to Christ and seek to deepen your faith in Him.
God is with us. Always. Everywhere. Even when we don’t “feel” Him. Nothing can separate us from His love. Nothing. Ever. In the storm Christ’s disciples were overcome with fear, but He rebuked them—why fear when I am present? Christ is just as present with us as He was with His disciples two-thousand years ago.
2) This is an opportunity to love others.
We can slow the spread of this disease (even if the risk is low to us personally) by foregoing things we love.
There will be more opportunities for us to serve. We can get groceries for the elderly. We can comfort and encourage those caring for the sick. And we ourselves may have the opportunity to care for the sick. Christianity spread rapidly in the ancient world largely because when plagues came through and pagans abandoned their families and neighbors, Christians stayed behind and cared for the sick—they even cared for those that had been brutally persecuting them. Christians lowered the mortality rate by 20%, but many of them died as a result. They rejoiced at this because it gave them the opportunity to show their hope was in the resurrection. Lord willing we will not lose our lives in great numbers during this pandemic, but we may have the opportunity to sacrifice our comfort and even our health to love and serve others.
3) This is a great opportunity for us to reevaluate the things we love.
When we love things we can lose they never bring us happiness because they can be taken. When we lose them, they bring us pain, but even the fear of losing them brings us pain. Right now we are losing a number of things: safety, health, entertainment, freedom, money, our ability to be productive at our jobs, and some are even losing their lives. This is bringing real pain. But that pain is a gift from God to drive our hearts towards things we can’t lose: Christ, Godly virtue, wisdom, the joy of our salvation, the hope of our resurrection, etc. Don’t use this time to up your Netflix intake; use it to evaluate what you really love and then repent of your idolatrous loves and seek to know and love Christ more!
4) Enjoy this time!
We can’t control what happens to us (and this is most of life(!), though technology gives us the illusion of control), but we can always control how we respond. We’re going to be shut in with our families over the next few weeks. Use this time to read together, play together, pray together. Tell stories, do puzzles, go on walks, visit parks, cook together, bake together—this can be a truly blessed time.
May God be with you all. May he keep you all safe and healthy. May this pandemic quickly pass over us all.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part IV) - Chapter 2: New Conceptions of and Challenges to Childhood
Adulthood is not an age. It is something to be earned after going through various milestones that mark a mature, autonomous human being. There used to be structures in place and a predictable set of steps one could take. One would finish school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have children, etc. We have lost that.
What is more, the idea of what it means to be a kid has significantly changed. Prior to 1800 most people didn't know precisely when they were born. Children were not treated as "precious", but as little workers who were just not very good at their work. Our ancestors viewed childhood not as a time for indulgence, but rather as a training ground. Children worked as soon as they could and they were encouraged to contribute more and more to the good of their communities as they got older. As late as the 1870s children between the ages of 10 and 19 were providing at least one third of their families' income. Parents thought it was good for their kids to learn to work. They believed that children are naturally self-centered and needed to be shepherded towards self-discipline and self-control. They believed that the resilience that people need to flourish didn't come naturally; it had to be cultivated and work was a good way to cultivate it. Our child-centered, nurturing approach would have been quite foreign to these earlier generations.
According to Sasse, some of the ways we now view childhood are better and our children are better off as a result. However, there are a number of ways in which our children have changed for the worse.
1) Medication. A 2015 report says that ADHD medications have grown 8% per year since 2010. They topped $12.9 billion in 2015 and are expected to exceed $17.5 billion by 2020. This is not to say that some children don’t need medication, they do. But we are overmedicating our children (and ourselves!) often in order to avoid difficulties that should be faced head on and overcome.
2) Screens. Even more damaging has been the screens that our children use. American teenagers average about nine hours of entertainment media use each day. Tweens use an average of about six hours. On average kids over 13 are spending nearly 2/3 of their waking hours with her eyes tied down and their body stationary. According to Nielsen Research, the average adult has increased his or her time on smart phone applications by 63% in just the last two years. According to other studies that Sasse cites, the relatively average young American male has played more than 14,000 hours of video games by the time he turns 21. That's 583 days, or 1.6 years. This translates to half of all waking hours for 280 weeks (more than five years). Just one month after the release of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” in 2010, the game had been collectively played for 68,000 years. Among our low-skilled young men, a substantial share play upwards of 30 hours of video games per week.
3) Refusing to leave the nest. For the first time in more than 130 years, 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States are more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a spouse or partner in their own household.
4) Marriage avoidance. The failure to leave home has a lot to do with the fact that our young people are avoiding marriage. They do not see it as important for them individually or for our society collectively.
5) Church avoidance. The young are also avoiding church. This in turn makes it difficult for them to see their communal responsibilities and leads them to a highly individualistic understanding of right and wrong.
6) Loss of patriotism. Our young have lost an understanding of our country and what makes it great, which has led to a resurgence of interest in socialism (which is something Sasse regrets). Although only 16% of millennials can define what socialism is, nearly half of them conclude that is preferable to capitalism. Among our young, nearly half have no preference for democracy over other forms of government.
7) Intellectual fragility. Trigger warnings marginalize honest discussion of big and important topics, insulating people not only from exposure to new ideas, but also from the intellectual and character development that comes from being forced to articulate, defend, and potentially revise one's opinions and positions
8) Helicopter parenting. Parenting has become more time-consuming and ever present and yet simultaneously less goal oriented. In our quest to ensure our children's educational and financial futures, we undermine both.
How and when did this change? The family and parenting underwent significant changes beginning in the 1950s. By the 1950s adolescence decreasingly became a period of moral development under parental authority and increasingly a period in which unchaperoned peers shaped the sensibilities of those coming-of-age. As teenagers began to spend the better part of their days with their peers, they learned to look to one another and not adults for advice, information, and approval.
At the same time, given the baby boom, teenagers made up a significant portion of the market and a “youth culture” was born as advertisers sought to sell to them directly. As a result, instead of adolescence being conceived of as an apprentice stage in route to adult life and responsibilities, increasingly teen culture became the model or ideal American life.
Simultaneously parenting "experts" encouraged American parents to spend quality time as a family, to reassure their children of their love for them, and to make children the center of adult attention. Simultaneously adolescents were encouraged to explore and develop their own unique identities. Parents were told they did not need to direct this exploration, but rather to simply assure children of their love.
Let me be clear, some of these developments are really good—it is good that families spend more quality time together and that parents reassure their children of their love for them. But taken together many of these other developments, from ubiquitous screens to the idea that children should be encouraged to create and live by their own values, have negatively impacted our children’s ability to develop mature character and embrace responsibility. What we can do about this will be a main focus moving forward in these messages.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part III) - (Chapter 1: How Did We Get Here?)
It is inhuman to live only in the present. And yet that is where many people live. Sasse wants our children to be intentional about everything—to reject mindless consumption and to embrace an ethos of action, of productivity, of meaningful work, and of genuine lifelong learning. But many things in our society work against this type of maturation and growth.
Traditionally there was a clear sequence of events that one went through to grow up. And there was a new set of obligations associated with each new phase of life. Certain rites of passage were hard, but not with the goal of making kids miserable. Rather they were intended to prepare kids for the inevitable tribulations that come with adulthood and to instill in them the work ethic and perseverance necessary to survive upon leaving home. Many of our kids no longer see the reason for embracing adult responsibilities. As a result they embrace a broad range of time killers that keep them perpetually immature.
How did we get to this point?
1) Material surplus. Following World War II we became the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. As a result the immediate need to work in order to survive has become less apparent.
2) Age segregation. Kids no longer see their parents work and spend most of their time in age segregated environments. Although kids live under their parents’ roofs for longer than past generations did, they are far more separated from the social and moral universe of their elders.
3) Family breakdown. Because of divorce and cohabitation, the nuclear family is in peril.
4) School is overemphasized. We have so come to identify our obligations to teenagers with the institution of secondary schooling that we've lost the collective memory of folks who came of age without schooling as the defining formative institution. One problem has been that institutionalized schooling has displaced work in multigenerational environments. What is more, as school has become more important, it has paradoxically become shallower. When we removed prayer and religious study from school we also removed the great existential questions about how the individual fits into the bigger cosmic picture; we removed questions about life's purpose.
5) Likewise, as high school has become overemphasized the importance of high school has diminished. As college became more popular, the value of a high school diploma waned. A diploma is no longer a predictable ticket to full-time, middle-class work; as a result, high schools are fraying. Many students were faced with the question: why try to do well in high school if the only point of high school is to get into a college and I don’t plan on going to college?
6) The counter-cultural movement. In the 1960s we had a lot of conflict about what America means. Instead of deliberately coming together and forging a new consensus, we have allowed polarization to hollow out much of our discourse. Instead of a new national consensus, we have permitted popular culture and the trivial to substitute as the basis of our shared experience.
When discussing the current state of our schools, Sasse believes that our predicament can be traced back to John Dewey.
For centuries there has been a controversy between realists and romantics.
Realists recognize that much of man's lot in this life is to bear the burden of suffering and to do his best in the moral quest to turn away from self-centeredness. A book that embodies this is Augustine's Confessions.
Romantics on the other hand reject the idea of original sin. Instead of trying to overcome the sin within us, romantics believe people are naturally good and that if government and education are rearranged the right way, they will allow man’s natural goodness to flow out of him. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile is a typical work in this school.
In the midst of this debate John Dewey asserted that there should be no debate—we should simply embrace pragmatism and do what “works”. Dewey is very difficult to argue against because he wanted to, in effect, stop all argument. His legacy is huge, but few of the steps that he advocated and American schools adopted were ever formally debated and accepted.
What is his legacy? We no longer see school as a tool, as a means to an end and not an end in itself. For Dewey the school would become everything, the literal center of the world. The school ceased to be an instrument supporting parents and became instead a substitute for parents.
On the other hand, Sasse believes that great teachers shouldn't try to be the exclusive center of life, but rather instrumental servants of a larger life. Great school administrators should know and honor the limits of their institutions and not try to displace families in the deeper and wider institutions of life that they are based in.
According to Sasse, it is important that we think through these questions and come up with good answers soon as we are currently living through what is surely the greatest economic disruption since the Industrial Revolution and what might end up being the largest economic disruption since nomadic hunter gatherers first settled down to plant crops. In this new economy work instability will become an even more regular feature of future experience. Only about 150 years ago did people first begin to develop the concept of picking a job. And at that time it tended to be a one-time decision as a teenager that defined one's life until death or retirement. We now live in an age in which the average duration of a job is about four years. We live in a world where technology has eroded the need for human hands on farms and factory lines. What is more, even the “knowledge economy” is in danger from automation. Sasse quotes estimates that predict that in the near future automation tools, systems, and machines will be able to equal the output of 110 million to 140 million full-time "knowledge" workers. To flourish in this new economy our children will need to be nimble and entrepreneurial workers. And they won’t become this if we rely exclusively on schools to form them.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part II) - Introduction
Have any of you ever heard of the term “adulting”? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is “The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks. 'It feels really good to take a step back from adulting and have someone else cook dinner for me.’ ” There are number of memes and even books about this because, for a growing number of young Americans, acting like a grown-up is a kind of role-playing that can be thought of as a joke.
In the past there was clarity about what coming of age into adulthood meant. This is no longer the case. Ours is now a nation of both delayed grown-ups and adult children who create words to mock the idea that we can ever become responsible, civic-minded leaders.
According to Senator Ben Sasse, our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history as America is becoming a place of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don't know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Many don't see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to make an effort ourselves to teach them.
This would be a big problem in any society, but it is even more significant for us given the fact that we live in a republic. Our nation is premised on the idea that the government exists not to define and secure the good, the true, and the beautiful, but rather to maintain a framework for ordered liberty so that free people can pursue their happiness in the diverse ways that they see fit.
This is all from the introduction to Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. Over the next three weeks I will write about the next three chapters in Sasse’s book. You won’t need to read along in his book to understand these messages, but you are obviously welcome to do so.
Chapters 1-3 discuss the problem of passivity that is becoming more and more apparent in our young people. After these three messages I will spend the next five weeks discussing five concrete steps that Sasse recommends we as parents take with our children to help them mature, things like breaking the monopoly of peer groups and connecting them with people of different ages, encouraging our kids to embrace hard work and consume less, as well as to read well and read more and travel.
In these messages I am not going to give you my opinions, but rather I’m going to do my best to summarize and pass on the main ideas of Ben Sasse’s book. That being said, please don’t assume that I endorse everything in these messages. There are places wherein I disagree with Senator Sasse, but I’m not going to clog up these messages with my commentary.
Finally, as many of you know, Ben Sasse is a Republican. He is generally ranked as one of the more conservative members of Congress and he has been one of the more outspoken opponents of President Trump. Nonetheless, while Senator Sasse has a number of very strong political opinions, this is not a book about politics; it is not even a book about policy. Senator Sasse believes that the key to fixing our politics is to fix the underlying factors that drive our politics, one of which is the way we raise our kids. It is to that end that he has written this book.
Hopefully you find these messages edifying and helpful.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part I) - Prologue
Over the next couple of months I am going to be doing a series on how we can help to lead our children into fuller maturity. In next week’s message I will frame this series and introduce the specifics, but before doing that I want to take a moment and explain why I focus on what I do and why I take the approach I do.
I have had a few great conversations over the past few weeks and I always appreciate your feedback!!! Some of you have noticed that I talk a lot about building character and forging virtue. Why is that?
First, when I came of age my understanding of the Gospel was one “cheap grace”. That is, I thought ‘God loves me no matter what, so I may as well do what I want.’ I had no burden or desire to become a man of character or virtue. As a result I had good intentions, but nothing more and I often made a mess of my life and the lives of others. Because of this fairly gaping hole in my youth I tend to focus more on what I lacked.
Second, over the past decade I have spent far more time with teenagers than with adults. And a lot of them are in rough shape. There are a substantial amount of young men that play more than forty hours of video games a week and a substantial amount of young women who spend that much time on social media. I’ve seen dozens of young men and women burning with a desire to change things, thirsting for justice, but incapable of committing themselves to any type of group or organization that could effect any real change. I know far too many young people that desire to get married, but they lack the wisdom, self-control, and selflessness to take even the first steps towards marriage. In response, I tend to focus on the things that I see undermining their growth in godliness—the things that make us into shallow, vapid, weak people that lack character.
However, in the midst of this it is important to remember that behavior modification is not the goal—Jesus Christ is. Christ did not die to make us better, but to save us from sin and death and remake us in His image so that we can enjoy Him forever. While we need to understand what we are moving from in order to grow and overcome, our focus is not on what we are rejecting, but Who we are pursuing.
We have a saying in our house, ‘we say “no” to some things so that we can say “yes” to others.’ For example, we say “no” to lots of junk food so that we can say “yes” to better health. I want my children (and God commands them) to say “no” to laziness and greed so that they can say “yes” to industriousness and generosity. Because we can’t have things on our terms—we can’t eat what we want and be fit; we can’t have complete and radical independence and autonomy and have friendship or community. I think it is absolutely necessary to say “no” to bad things in order to pursue good things and we must talk about and understand what we are rejecting. Yet our ultimate focus, the central desire of our heart, must be in the thing we are saying yes to. The merchant that sold everything he had to buy the Pearl of Great Price found in that Pearl ‘more than he could ask for or imagine.’ But he had to sell everything to get it! As I write and speak against things that hold our children back from virtue, please remember that my goal is to help them to overcome sin and infirmity not so they can become better people, but so that they will be freed from the things that hold them back from knowing, loving, and becoming more like Christ.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part IV) - The Synthetic Approach
The goal of classical education is virtue. To gain this Charlotte Mason believed we should rely on “Living Books” to educate the whole child. However, it is not enough to read the right books, books must also be read the right way.
There are two different ways one can approach a book: analytically or synthetically. Analysis takes things apart. It breaks them down into smaller and smaller and more discrete pieces and examines them separately. Synthesis combines things into a whole. It considers each new piece of knowledge as one piece of a larger puzzle and seeks to find its place within that ever more complete “big picture”.
On paper it seems like both approaches can help us to understand a book. But the differences between approaches are like the differences between eating a vitamin and a meal—meals taste good and create an appetite for more. Given mere information without context, we choke on it. But given knowledge in context it is more easily understood and we assimilate it joyfully. We connect with it and it ultimately becomes a part of us.
According to Charlotte Mason, one of the best ways to develop connections between what we learn and ourselves is to write narrations. Narration is the retelling in one’s own words of what one has learned. As the student progresses in this, he will begin to add his own impressions and opinions to his narrations. This connects him directly to the things that he is reading. It also promotes active learning, which helps the student to retain and to be formed by the things learned.
In our exams and essays, especially as students get older, our hope is to foster a synthetic understanding. We don’t want our students to know disconnected facts, we want them to have a view of the connected whole and their place in that whole. As you can imagine this is a difficult task! But by going through repeated historical and literature cycles (ancient, medieval, modern) and by keeping Christ at the center of all we learn and do we ground our students in a bigger picture, in the greater whole.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part III) - Living Books
“We owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.” -Charlotte Mason
To carry out the classical project of inculcating virtue and educating the whole person Charlotte Mason believed that students ought to read “Living Books.” What is a living book? Simply put, a living book is one that conveys living ideas and one that can be narrated by the student.
Books should be of the highest literary quality and should engage both the mind and the heart of the reader. This is important because our students do not read books for the mere acquisition of information. Instead, they read to be connected with heroes, ideas, and examples of truth, goodness, and beauty. These great works fire the moral imagination and show students that virtue is not only right, but it is also beautiful and praiseworthy, something worth seeking, something worth sacrificing to obtain and protect.
Charlotte Mason worried that divorcing ideas from their context causes them to lose their vitality and makes education boring. Education must be vital if they are to shape and form the entire person. Students should not read books merely to check off a list or to be able to say they have read them. They ought to read to grow as persons, to know more that they may understand more, and ultimately to act according to their greater wisdom. For this reason Charlotte Mason rejected any book wherein living ideas have been reduced to mere information, as well as compilations of facts which contain no life in the first place.
As children read living books they will not only be exposed to virtuous examples, but also be exposed to noble language that will naturally help them to learn to communicate clearly, persuasively, and winsomely. As Erasmus of Rotterdam, a famous classical educator put it, “It is not by learning rules that we acquire the power of speaking a language, but by daily intercourse with those accustomed to express themselves with exactness and refinement, and by the copious reading of the best authors.” While our students do learn grammatical rules, they don’t merely learn rules. They are also exposed to great works wherein they see good writing in context.
Finally, living books are valuable in their breadth. Because the goal of education is the formation of a wise and just person, an education that simply focuses on the “Three Rs” is inadequate. Charlotte Mason believed that children should be exposed to a wide range of ideas and interests, for the wider the ranger, “the more intelligent is the apprehension of each.” Living books always contain a wide range of ideas and interests.
This is again a place where we follow Charlotte Mason. We select living books that are broad in their scope, well-written, and that encourage and motivate our students to grow in goodness and virtue.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part II) - The Whole Child
“The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things—not merely industrious, but to love industry—not merely learned, but to love knowledge—not merely pure, but to love purity—not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.” -John Ruskin
While we moderns are often prone to see education as only molding and training the intellect, classical educators like Charlotte Mason believed that the education of our intellect serves the greater purpose of informing our conduct. We learn to know in order that we may know how to act rightly, not merely to perform well on tests.
The Greeks believed that the goal of education was to pass on a Paideia, a culture. To use contemporary language, the Greeks would say that education creates a meta-narrative (or worldview) for children which helps them understand the world and live rightly within it.
This worldview, this Paideia, must touch on every aspect of their lives. How should we use our free time? (This was actually the focal point of education for Aristotle.) How should we spend our money? What does the wise care of our bodies look like? How does one act as a good friend? We don’t think of schools being built around answering these types of questions, but our ancestors did. They thought that schools must pass on a comprehensive view of the world that helps children find their places in it and gives them guidance as to how they ought to act in any and every situation that they find themselves. This is how they would have viewed educating the “whole child.”
Before Christ, teachers used to look to “ideal” men and women, people like Achilles and Socrates. These teachers all agreed that we should be shaping our children in the mode of ideal people, but they couldn’t agree as to what that ideal looked like. It wasn’t until Christ came that the ideal was realized and schools (as they Christianized) began to set Him up as their model.
The key virtue of Christ that all students must have, according to Charlotte Mason, is humility. It is a valuable thing to be able to approach every person or object or book with the view of learning something from them. What might be learned from an infant? Or from a tree? What does a worm have to teach us, or a homeless man in the street? This we will never find out, unless we place ourselves in that attitude of teachableness which makes learning possible.
At Charis we desire that our children grow in knowledge—we want them to score well on exams and gain admittance to selective colleges. But we also know that they are more than their intellect and that there is more to education than teaching them to understand, analyze, and reproduce information. More than knowledge we want them to grow in wisdom and virtue. The books we select, the essays they write, the discussions they have—in all of these we want to help them to grow in wisdom and apply wisdom in all areas of their lives. The end goal is a student educated in the whole of life, a student that knows how to apply wisdom and live virtuously no matter what situation or challenge he finds himself in.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part I)
As you all know Charlotte Mason is a significant influence on our school. However, her ideas are not widely understood. Over the next four weeks I plan to write about a few of Charlotte Mason’s ideas and how we incorporate them.
The first thing to recognize about Charlotte Mason is that she is not separate from the classical tradition. Charlotte Mason was a classical educator and reformer. She believed that classical education had strayed from its roots and she wanted to restore it to its original scheme and goals.
How had classical education strayed in her lifetime?
Schools were no longer seeking to inculcate virtue in their students.
Classical educators have always believed that right understanding should lead to right action. As the student’s mind learns what is good and right the student’s will should be trained to do and even to love what is good and right. Classical educators believe that the goal of knowledge, the goal of education, is virtue.
Schools in Charlotte Mason’s time had lost sight of this goal. They retained classical rigor without retaining the purpose and goal of classical education. This made them miserable places that children hated.
A lot of us played sports when we were young. If you played sports you remember the long days of practice and conditioning—the sprinting, weight-lifting, the repetitive drills, etc. You didn’t do these things for their sake, you did them to prepare for games. Imagine signing up to play basketball or soccer and doing sprints, pushups, squats, and ball handling drills and never playing a game, never even having a scrimmage. As miserable as those drills are, they would be even more miserable without the goal of a game. This is basically what schools had become in Charlotte Mason’s day: wind sprints without games. The difficult and rigorous aspects of classical education were retained, but without anything that makes school enjoyable and the pain worthwhile.
A related problem, according to Charlotte Mason, was that these schools relied too much on reason. Reasons has two functions: to provide logical demonstrations of mathematical truths (in which case it may be trusted) and to provide logical reasons for ideas which we have already chosen to accept. Charlotte Mason worried that a reliance on reason in the second sense deceives us. Once we admit an idea our minds naturally look for, and find, reasons to support that idea. For that reason we cannot trust our reason to determine what is right and wrong. In Charlotte Mason’s words “For this reason it is well that we should make children perceive at a very early age that a man's reason is the servant of his own will, and is not necessarily an independent authority within him in the service of truth. This is one of the by-lessons of history which quite a young child is able to understand,—how a good man can, as we say, persuade himself that wrong opinions and wrong actions are reasonable and right. Not that he does persuade himself, but that his reason appears to act in an independent way, and brings forward arguments in favor of a conclusion which he has already unconsciously accepted.” According to Charlotte Mason, we must judge things by some other, higher standard.
Charlotte Mason’s reforms were extensive, but they had this in common: she believed classical education had gone off track and she wanted to restore it. She believed that schools need not be places of misery and that difficulty should serve a higher end, virtue. She also believed that pursuing virtue requires us to humbly distrust our reason as the final answer and instead consult a higher authority.
These are two conclusions that we as a school accept. We have rejected the “eat your gruel and learn to like it” approach that dominated the schools of Charlotte Mason’s time (and is still found in some schools today). We want school to be enjoyable—that is why we have classes like Joyful Discovery! To the extent that education is difficult we want it to be a necessary means to our students’ growth in virtue; we reject rigor for its own sake. While we teach formal logic and want our students to be able to think clearly, we too do not believe that man’s intellect is the judge of what is right and wrong. These beliefs, taken together, lead to us to want to education the “whole child”, which I will write about next week.
What Are the Liberal Arts and How Do We Teach Them? (7) - Music
Of all the Liberal Arts music seems to be the oddest inclusion. Educated people should be able to read, calculate, and communicate effectively . . . but do they really need to know how to play the lyre? Why did ancient and medieval educators put a premium on music?
First off, music is beautiful! Ancient and medieval men and women valued beauty far more than we do. Visit any museum and you will see mosaics and pottery that graced the homes of regular families; go into any gothic cathedral and you will be able to view masterworks of art made by common folk. By contrast, we moderns tend to be more utilitarian in the way we make things. Consider, for example, our interstate highway system. We designed it to help us travel quickly and efficiently, not to please the eye. While there is a place for utilitarian calculation, this way of thinking has arguably contaminated our thinking about education. Whereas our forbearers would have said: is it true, good, or beautiful? If so, pursue it! We ask: what can you do with that and what type of pay do you think you can make with that degree? We often do not see the value of music because we view it in strictly economic terms; our ancestors would have said that they studied it because it is beautiful and no further justification is needed.
Our ancestors also studied music because music is, for most of us, the most transcendent art form. Music, more than painting or sculpture, has the ability to impact our moods and emotions and take us out of ourselves and into something higher and greater. For that reason music has long been used to worship God.
Lastly, our ancestor believed that an education that trains the mind alone is no education at all. For them moral education constituted a huge part of a student’s training. But what does moral training have to do with music? Classical educators would have said, in a word, everything. A key component of music is harmony. Harmony, balance, and proportion help in mathematical training, but more than that, classical educators believed that harmony can help to train the soul. As Damon of Athens, wrote, “let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” Music, because it is beautiful, helps a person to learn how to recognize beauty, which will hopefully lead them to come to love it. Men like Aristotle thought that a child trained to love aesthetic beauty would more easily come to love moral beauty and that men and women who loved moral beauty would naturally build families, communities, and nations of beauty—places of justice, courage, and kindness.
We teach music for similar reasons. Yes, we want our students to learn how to read music and sing on key, but more than that we want to expose them to beautiful music! We are committed to partnering with you to inculcate Godly character in your sons and daughters. Music is a way, albeit a small way, of training them to recognize what is beautiful and to love it. We are under no illusions that every child who hears Bach will see how it reflects God’s beauty and come to love Him, but neither can we deny that there will be a fundamental difference in character between the child that is trained to know and love Bach and the child that is trained to know and love Black Sabbath.
This concludes my messages on the Seven Liberal Arts; next week I will begin a short series on Charlotte Mason.
What Are the Liberal Arts and How Do We Teach Them? (6) - Astronomy
At first glance it seems odd that astronomy makes the seven Liberal Arts. Science makes sense, by why just astronomy? Why not chemistry or physics?
The short answer is that astronomy was the only mature science in the pre-modern world. The study of physics was limited to mechanics and knowledge necessary for engineering—it was not a speculative science in its own right. In similar fashion, the study of chemistry was completely non-scientific in the ancient and medieval worlds. To the extent that our ancestors had anything resembling chemistry it was what we would call to alchemy and it was often infused with magic. While the experiments of alchemists did yield results that were used by later scientists, their pursuits and study were by no means scientific.
Still, what about other sciences? What about biology, botany, zoology, and human anatomy? Plants and animals were indeed studied, but these pursuits were not considered scientific. The study of plants and animals requires the close observation of the physical world and for this reason it was lumped in with philosophy—those that studied the natural world were called natural philosophers. Philosophy as a separate, speculative pursuit detached from the physical world is a modern development. Human anatomy was not studied in scientific fashion until the modern era because both Christians and pagans alike had an aversion to dissecting dead human beings. It was only within the past few centuries that people overcame this taboo and we grew in our knowledge of the body.
Astronomy, then, was the only mature science in the ancient and medieval eras. This is not to say that our ideas of the cosmos have not changed, they have, though not as greatly as most people think. Why did astronomy develop first? Knowledge of the stars was essential for transportation, but also for accurate calendars. Accurate calendars were essential for knowing the right day to plant and harvest as well as the correct dates for religious festivals (and religious timing was very important for pagans). The development of astronomy was simply a matter of survival.
Outside of an introduction in grammar school, we at Charis don’t teach astronomy as an independent subject. Students do study some astronomy, but as a subset of physics. Our goal in teaching astronomy, physics, and science in general is that students would learn about God’s order and design in the universe. Science should be about understanding the world, but it should not end there. Someone that only sees patterns and structures and order and design sees things incompletely. God made all and so everything, in some way and to some degree, reflects God’s glory. Science is a great way to understand what God has made and, in so doing, recognize His power, wisdom, and glory.