Category Archives: Teaching

I’ve Surfaced Again!

Le_Morte_d__Arthur_by_ThorleifrTwo months to the day since I last blogged, here I am again.  After beginning the year with so many challenging goals, reality is creeping in, which brings the realization that some adjustments are in order.  I’m currently thinking through what those adjustments will look like.

So, in the last two months, I’ve taken on another composition and literature class.  We’re reading Le Morte D’ Arthur, which I hadn’t even read before, much less taught it.  In one way, it’s kind of difficult to connect with knighthood, the age of chivalry, and the quest paradigm.  However, Malory is forthright about the failures of both Arthur and the knights.  The Round Table is a community that aspires to live a virtuous life.  The inability of the knights to live up to their ideals doesn’t invalidate the ideals.  Rather, it shows that these are worthy of striving for.  I’m also teaching journalistic writing, which is something I’ve never done before.  I’m enjoying both the content and the students very much!

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Catechism of the Catholic Church

catechism-of-the-catholic-church-200I woke up thinking through Plato’s view of the human body today.  This will come up next week when I teach Books IV and V of the Republic.  Expecting some associations with and attempted slanders of the Roman Catholic view of marriage and physical relations in marriage, I read up in The Catechism of the Catholic Church  on marriage and the expression of marital love to confirm that the Roman Church is not Neo-Platonic in her conception of the physical body.  The degree in which the Catechism is not Neo-Platonic in its view of the human body, marital love, and the gift of children is rather astonishing. Plus, I experienced the added bonus of reaching the beautifully written and theologically informative document that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is.   If only we had something like this as Protestants!
We do have the Westminster Larger Catechism, Baxter’s A Christian Directory, and the 1559 edition of Calvin’s Institutes that are somewhat comparable in scope.  However, the Reformers wrote catechisms for every generation and even sometimes the faithful in their own churches.  Alas, I think it was David Wells who said, “our is not a creed-making age”.  If this is an accurate observation it makes the Catechism of the Catholic Church an even more amazing achievement. It seems to me that this is the one theological work of the 20th century that future generations will see as a “classic.”
The Catechism covers not only issues of personal belief and conduct, but also social issues such as just war, birth control, abortion, etc.  and is so beautifully written.  I probably should put it on the reading list for this summer.
The structure of the Catechism is the same as most Reformation era catechisms.  The first part contains “what we are to believe concerning God.”  The second part contains “what duties God requires of us.”  Another way to summarize the Catechism is that it has three sections:  The Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.  All of the Reformation catechisms except the Westminster are organized around these three symbols of the faith:  what to believe, how to live, and how to pray.
I haven’t been able to read much in it.  But from what I’ve read, I highly recommend it for both Protestants and Catholics.  Protestants will find much more common ground with our separated brethren than many would expect, and where there are differences, It behooves both Protestants and Catholics to be informed about what those differences are and be able to accurately understand and express those differences.
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Latin iii, Depth of Teaching, and Shared Inquiry

One of my maxims is that “good teaching comes out of depth.”  If a teacher knows his subject deeply and the particulars that he wants to teach for the day, he can make it interesting, provocative, connect it with other areas of the lives of his students.  In other words, if I’ve read Plato’s Republic eight or nine times, I’m able to teach it out of the depth that comes along with that experience, as well as what I’ve gained from reading other things about Plato and the republic.  It’s helpful, even indispensable to be able to see how the parts relate to the whole and the whole to the parts, and how the Republic relates to later works of philosophy.  To the contrary, if a teacher is still trying to master his subject, his teaching is going to be the source of a great amount of confusion.  Last night, I was thinking about this in relation to the shared inquiry approach to teaching.
This tends to be the traditional approach to teaching.  How does shared inquiry fit into this, when a teacher is a learner along with the students.  The teacher is a facilitator, guiding the students through the discipline of study, asking questions and engaging the material. For example, I’m learning Latin III right along with my students.  I’m far from being sure that this is the idea method, but it does have its strengths.  I’m able to identify with their roadblocks and weaknesses.  I get the joy of discovery along with my students.  The students end up doing most of the work in the class instead of the teacher.
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In terms of colleges, St; John’s College is exclusively devoted to shared inquiry as well as a handful of of others.  A poetry specialist might be teaching Newton’s Pricnicipia Matehatica, or science person may teach Aristotle’s Politics.So, while I’m not on shaky ground since others do this, I’n trying to figure out what the advantages are, if any.  However, to provide an education better than the one I received,  I have to branch out and challenge myself to be able to teach it in a worthwhile manner.
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Schtick

Having taken over teaching two classes in the middle of the school year, I’ve been thinking a lot about schtick lately, both in writing and in teaching. What I mean by this the individuality or persona a person brings to their craft and how they practice it.  I don’t mean this in the sense of being a poseur, but it’s second nature to incorporate some aspect of our repertoire of content, body language, personality, humor, communication style, vocabulary, depth of engagement with audience, and delivery, and leave others out for any given audience,  “Schtick” may not be the exact word, but it’s in the semantic range.  I’ve known that for the classes I’ve taught this entire school year, my schtick seems to work well most of the time.   But in taking over two new classes, I m wary of assuming that past results will predict future outcomes.

My theory is the same goes for developing a writing voice.  It seems that you sort of “fake it ’till you make it.  A writer continues to expand his repertoire, hone his style, and venture out into new territory until he gets an idea of what seems to work, and then proceeds to future hone his craft.  It’s interesting that as I listen to writers speak about their craft, they don’t seem to find that their eighth or tenth book is any easier than the first book.  One still must do the research, writing, revising, and editing under a deadline, and hopefully, work to the point of diminishing returns rather than beyond it.

What thoughts do you have about “schtick”?  How have you been able to personalize your schtick to become an effective communicator?

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Philosophical Method, Plato, and St. Thomas Aquinas

I introduced my tenth graders to Plato’s Republic on Monday.  The Republic dives right into a demonstration of philosophical method that can be hard to follow for the uninitiated.  So today, we did a class exercise in philosophical method and attempted to define justice, attempting to give them the experience of engaging in and experiencing a philosophical discussion.  Our exercise was a success in both Western Thought classes today.  I have two more sections of that class tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.
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Plato (or Socrates) tends to ask questions and not arrive at a final answer.  So in preparation for this exercise, I read just a  tiny bit of St. Thomas Aquinas on justice in Summa Theologica, II:II, Q. 58, A. 1.  My daughter gave me Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa for Christmas last year, and over this past summer, I was able to make some headway in it.
 St. Thomas makes me remember that  “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  The Summa is an intellectual tour de force.  From what I can tell, the Summa may be the high water mark of the Christian church in both philosophy and theology.  I feel a little bit of a guilty pleasure in writing this, because I’m a convinced Protestant.
The reason why I find St. Thomas so beautiful and edifying is his philosophical method.  St. Thomas begins to form a definition of a concept by assembling the best points of the arguments of his ideological opponents, interprets theses arguments in the most charitable and best light toward his opponents to build an ideological fortress that looks unassailable.  And in every article that I’ve read of the Summa, he demolishes the ideological fortress of the ideas of his opponents to build his definition
 The style, the majesty, the meticulous thinking of St. Thomas, and his humility shine through to make the Summa a beautiful thing.  I’ll have to read Lombard’s Sentences, which was Thomas’ model, to see how much they are alike.  But talk about “copyrighting your faults”!  Here is this ponderous, methodical style that Thomas has, which many people would believe to be a great liability (I’m not sure about back in his day, but it certainly is in ours!).  Yet, Thomas trademarked it, and became the “Dr. Angelicus” of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, in many ways, of all of Christendom.  
The Summa is theological manual, a catechetical tool, to instruct people in the faith.  But above all, I see its beauty.  The beauty of expressing complex ideas in methodical way, of closing off all of the possible doors and windows that Thomas’ ideological opponents may be able to escape through, and doing this so modestly, without a hint of pompousness or unctuousness.  The beauty of breaking down complex ideas and making them simple is the gift of the teacher.  Every time I read in the Summa, I marvel at what a gifted teacher God has given the Church in St. Thomas, and how much can be learned from him.  
What have you read lately that has given you a new appreciation for the beauty of words aptly spoken?  I’d love to hear from you!
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Copyright Your Faults

It fascinates me to listen to people who are good at their craft and passionate about it.  I’ve posted about Dan Carlin and Hardmainpic_hh-1core History before.  His interview on The Tim Ferriss Show is an excellent conversation that really gets at the intersection his passion for his craft and his proficiency at it. Dan Carlin is a podcaster who has excellent content and practically flawless delivery.  One of points that I took away from this conversation is his line, “copyright your faults.”  In other words, don’t spend all your time trying to fix your weaknesses but be yourself, and use the actual weakness into a strength.

I found it interesting that he didn’t say, “work on flawless delivery,” and even goes into some flaws that have been pointed out to him with his delivery.  Rather than trying to change those, they have become a part of who he is, and given him a distinctive voice.

The phrase “copyright your faults” really captures the idea of not trying to conquer your weaknesses but  to strengthen your strengths and make your weaknesses part of your individuality better than anything else I’ve heard.  Rather than flat out imitating someone who have been an influence on me, I’ll be more effective in the long run by building on my skills and abilities and cultivating my own style.

In my own setting, as a teacher, there are probably as many ways to bring about good learning outcomes as there are teachers.  If I care about what I’m teaching enough and I care about the material enough, I can usually find a way to connect students with the material.  There’s usually a human interest element that may be behind or beyond the text that we are studying.  I really want to connect this to my students to broaden their interests and to continue the process that was begun with me in high school, when I first encountered teachers who were passionate about their craft and good at it.

What are you learning about being passionate about your craft and being proficient at it?  I’d love to hear from you!

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Organic Growth and Development in Writing

I was listening to an episode of a podcast called “The Tim Ferriss Show” last week  Tim was interviewing Dan Carlin of “Hardcore History.”  The excellence of Dan’s preparation, delivery, and subject matter is fascinating.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you check this podcast out.  He explores the “why’s and the “what ifs” in a way that really grabs you and provokes you to think.  He’s also terrific at making connections with different events and movements taking place at the same time, as well as events and movements that preceded and influence each story he covers.
What interests me about the segment that I heard though, was his theory of how our work and art evolves and becomes what it is over time..  An example he used was “Seinfeld.”  Mr. Carlin said, “go back and watch the first five episodes of Seinfeld.”  He goes on to talk about how the “Seinfeldness” of “Seinfeld” evolved over the course of the show.  The quirkiness and uniqueness of Seinfeld wasn’t a given at the start of the show.  There was organic development within the cast, the writers, and the audience that made “Seinfeld” distinctive.  He went on to apply this insight to any long-term artistic project.
My takeaway from this is that with any long-term creative project, we must have a key concept and a plan. But we must also expect the project to organically incorporate elements that we do not foresee, and once momentum is created, to taken on a life of its own.
This gives me a great deal of encouragement in teaching, writing, and in my pastoral role in the church.  I’m blessed to have been providentially dumped into a great organization that has allowed me to make the most of my abilities and given me the freedom to do this and enjoy it.  Once I’d been at Providence Extension Program for a while, it felt like I should have been doing this all along.  Yet, my teaching eight years down the road has organically grown as I’ve achieved greater command my subject matter to teach out of depth rather than last-minute preparation.  I’ve grown in my ability to create classes as learning communities, in such a way that even if I teach the same prep four times in a week, that each experience of that material is remarkably different.
My hope is that I will persevere in my writing, in such a way that the same kind of organic development will happen, that I will be able to develop discrete concepts within the unity of personality and interests, and express them in an inviting and compelling way.
What examples of organic growth and development have you seen in your writing?  I’d love to hear from you!
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Plato, Politics, and Families

This is a follow-up on my previous post on Plato’s Republic and his proposal to redefine the family.  I’ve already argued my view that this is an ironic proposal rather than a straightforward proposal.  In reflecting on this, though, I thought about the influence of families on American politics.  Consider this — our Constitution is designed to make political office as free of ancestral or titled constraints as possible.  The idea behind this, even if it has not been consistently carried out, is that the people most suitable to govern will be placed in positions to govern.  However, even with this structure in place, in periods of American history, a few families have exercised enormous influence.  This is not a conspiracy theory, but a statement of fact on the undeniable influence of families in government, even in a republic which has been designed to remove barriers of ancestry.

Think of the following.  Since 1988, the office of President of the United States has been occupied by three families:  Bush, Clinton, and Obama.  According to current wisdom, the front runners for the presidential nomination for 2016 for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, are Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush, making it likely that we will have another President from either the Bush or the Clinton families.  However, this is nothing new.

If we look further back at American history, other families have been elected to high office and exercised extraordinary influence.  The Kennedys the Roosevelts, the Tafts (with William Howard as President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Robert Taft as Senate Majority Leader), the Gores (Albert Gore Sr. as longtime Tennessee senator and Al Gore as Senator and Vice -President), and John and John Quincy Adams who both occupied the White House.  More obscurely, both John Marshall Harlan and John Marshall Harlan II served on the US Supreme Court.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.  In the providence of God, families will arise who have unique abilities, opportunities, and resources.  Families will arise who have a heritage of relationships, connections, and experience in governing will be entrusted with the task of governing.  The difficulty here is not with this process, but with the corruptibility of the persons holding high office, and the temptation to enrich their personal circumstances through governing.

Plato attempts to insulate the philosopher-king from corruptibility, yet seems to believe in corruptibility of human nature and illustrates this reality in Book VIII of the Republic, when he writes of the inevitable degeneration of good government.

Does the historical pre-eminence of a few families exercising enormous power and influence detract from the Constitutional design protecting individual liberties?  Does this reality hinder what would be the best possible government that America would be able to have?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Platonic Irony

I’m continuing to think about Plato’s Republic and how I’m coming to believe that there is a good deal of irony behind Plato’s “political prescription.”  Yesterday, I posted on communal marriage in the Republic and how it casts a shadow of a doubt on any rigid interpretation concerning whether Plato writing exclusively about what is best for the individual human soul, or the community.  This got me thinking about a couple of issues.

First, Plato may have viewed communal marriage as the lesser of two evils between not having a mate for live vs. the fierce jealousies and political rivalries that marriage was inevitably a part of in his day.  I can almost see him thinking out loud with his friends over a glass of wine, “what’s a little casual sex compared to the destruction that Oath of Tyndarus and the Trojan War brought about?”

However, I think that line of thought ultimately fails for a number of reasons:

 I don’t think Plato thought that people would be reading his works 2400 years into the future from when he wrote them.  In other words, he didn’t write the Republic to us or for us.

I’m more of an interested reader than an expert on this, but the more I think about it, the more inconceivable it is to completely remove the family from any kind of government, anywhere, anytime, in the centuries before Christ.  Again, I’m no expert on classical Greek social structures, but if they were anything like their Roman counterparts, the paterfamilias was the chief social unit.  These were essentially extended families led by a patriarch.  For the upper classes, these units were the building blocks of society and the units who kept society stable.  This resulted in each city-state having an oligarchy who maintained power and influence.

Essentially, the change that Athenian democracy made was that it expanded the oligarchy.  There was nothing like universal male suffrage extended to the citizens of Athens.  Plato’s “democracy” was nothing like the democracy that we know today.

Also, the proposed government of the Republic lacked the tools for social control that later revolutionary governments would have.  In the 400’s BC, there was no means of constant state surveillance such as what we find in George Orwell’s 1984.  And there is no thought of pacifying the proletariat with medication or meaningless activities like we find in Brave New World.  Apart from constant state surveillance, mass communication of propaganda, and the possibilities for social control that technology brings, it doesn’t seem that Plato’s Republic is feasible.

Finally, Plato leaves many essentials for human flourishing out of the Republic.  In place of faith, he proposes a religion subservient to the needs of the state.  He redefines marriage and family, which have traditionally been the social units of human flourishing.  Then, there is the whole question of being an individual within a community.  Both individuality and community are essential for the good life.  Yet, Plato subsumes each individual as merely a part of the community, while 21st century urban society tends to make individuality the ultimate priority to the exclusion of the flourishing of the community.

I think what Plato wants to do is to engage us in these questions rather than providing answers for us.  I’m not sure he really tells us what he thinks, but instead, intends to provoke us so that we will think about what is necessary for the good life.  If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you!

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Learning

“We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning how to do” (Aristotle.  Ethics ii.1).

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