By MINDY STANLEY
What? No grades? But my child is a straight A student! How will I know her progress?
As classical educators, these are the questions we’ve had to work through over the past several months as we’ve moved from a modern, progressive grading system to the more traditional narrative assessment.
If you were to look up narrative grading online, you may find a Wikipedia page describing it as, “a form of performance measurement and feedback which can be used as an alternative or supplement to grading. Narrative evaluations generally consist of several paragraphs of written text about a student’s individual performance and course study.”
By SHANE ARTRIP
“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” (Pythagoras 582 BC – 497 BC)
Teaching mathematics in a classical manner encompasses so much more than addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. Recitation of fact families can be heard in many younger grade-level classrooms across the world. However, are these children awakened to the true beauty of the many patterns naturally present in creation? A classical approach to mathematics ignites the natural wonder and imagination of students to recognize and look for patterns. An example of a fascinating numerical property found in nature is known as the Fibonacci Sequence. The sequence follows the form: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89,… Note that the third term is the sum of the first two, the fourth the sum of the second and third, and so on. These numbers are found in the spiral arrangements of petals, pine cones, pineapples, and sunflowers as well as in the genealogy of the male bee just to name a few instances.
To my great joy and gratitude, I joined the Covenant School faculty this year as an upper school humanities teacher. I would like to introduce myself and my role by saying a few things about what the humanities are and why we care about them at Covenant.
The study of the humanities, at least as we understand it today, arose in the Renaissance era (mid 14th – mid 16thcenturies). Fueled by the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman classics, Renaissance humanists looked to the distinctly human fields of history, languages, literatures, cultures, the arts, and philosophy to cast a vision for a healthier, more holistic society. In doing so, they dwelled on those questions that get to the heart of what it means to live well as a person: What are goodness and beauty? What are truth and justice? What is the good life? Still today, the humanities are a key means by which we reflect on these important questions as we seek to grow in wisdom and virtue.
With the rise and influence of modernism, the humanities have fallen on hard times. In a variety of ways, universities and high schools are shrinking their humanities programs, if not altogether eliminating them. Administrators frequently refer to the “need” to give students “21stcentury skills for 21stcentury jobs” as a reason for the cuts. Such an explanation, however well-intended, is the fruit of modernist thinking. Modernism’s worship of the twin gods of Control and Progress in the Temple of the Tyrannical Now sends the humanities straight into exile. The humanities are simply too committed to the past, too inexact and inefficient, too caught in the nebulous gray to rank in modernism’s priorities.
Please do not hear me say that modernism is entirely bad; indeed, much good has come from it. (I, for one, prefer modern medicine to any alternative.) My point is simply that Covenant School’s high regard for the humanities is not a given in today’s educational climate. And this raises the question, Why does Covenant School care about them?
In On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) identifies three kinds of things in the world: things to use, things to enjoy, and things both to use and to enjoy. No one stands in awe over the intrinsic goodness of hammers and paintbrushes; we just use them to produce things we enjoy. For Augustine, the only “thing” that exists purely for enjoyment is the Holy Trinity (see Ps 16:11 and the Westminster Catechism Q/A 1). The humanities fall into the hybrid third category, things we use and enjoy, and recognizing this helps us put words to why we value them.
We know from experience that great literature, great art, and the force and delicacy of a symphony can be objects of enjoyment, even wonder. My favorite novel is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The plot revolves around the relationships between a deadbeat father and his three sons, all very different from each other. The Brothers Karamazov never fails to acknowledge brokenness (Dostoyevsky understood it well), yet the light of redemption does shine through, sometimes brighter and sometimes dimmer, but never extinguished. It is a book to be wrestled with and savored. That is to say, it is very enjoyable. Yet, The Brothers Karamazov is not the ultimate joy, nor by any means is Dostoyevsky the Great Artist. The novel is rather a signpost that points in various ways toward the supreme Creator and his perfect glory. The novel invites its readers to reflect on their own contributions to brokenness and redemption. It offers itself as a tool for sanctification. Accordingly, the novel may be enjoyed for its intrinsic goodness, but is also a means of growing in wisdom, virtue, and holiness. Thus it is with the humanities in general.
But what about works of art, literature, and philosophy that are not particularly godly? What place do these have in a classical Christian school? I can illustrate the tension directly from our European humanities course. For the last several weeks, we have been reading Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513), which, to say the least, will not appear on anyone’s list of best Christian books. It is a manual on how to get and keep power by almost any expedient. How do students grow in wisdom, virtue, and holiness by reading such a book?
Often, the best way to learn virtue is by looking vice in the face. By reading books like The Prince, we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect critically on their values – values that are widespread in our world. As we engage such works, we must identify not only what we disagree with, but also why. In the process, we refine our own value systems, always looking to Christ as our teacher and authority. Discussing The Prince, students discover that the evil in Machiavelli’s work is not power as such, for God himself has power; indeed, God is power. Machiavelli’s evil lies in the violent and selfish ways in which he obtains and uses power. Christians will note that Christ himself is a Prince. How does He gain authority? What does He do with power? Even The Prince, replete as it is with folly, vice, and sacrilege, can be cultivated for fruitful growth in wisdom, virtue, and holiness.
To circle back to the question, Covenant School cares about the humanities because we care about humans. By critically and carefully studying the humanities we can become more fully human, both individually and collectively. Let me say it more Christianly: We care about the humanities because they are a means of sanctification and re-creation. They are a way in which, by the Holy Spirit’s illumination, we grow more like Christ, who is himself what all humans were created to be: the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15; cf. Gen 1:27).
Dr. Wylie is the Upper School Humanities teacher at Covenant School. He has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to his doctoral program, he studied Ancient Languages and Biblical Archaeology at Wheaton College. He has served as a lecturer in the Department of Hebrew at the University of the Free State in South Africa since 2016, teaching ancient Hebrew, Syriac, and Ugaritic. He has spent many of his summers excavating in Israel, and is an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. When he’s not teaching or excavating, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Meghan, while also hiking and running.
Imagine that you are entering a classroom for the first time. What do you see? What are your first impressions? What images are speaking to your soul? Many of us naturally adjust to our daily surroundings and therefore become numb to the messages they send. Because the messages conveyed can be both clear and hidden, we must take a fresh look at our classroom environment.
Charlotte Mason, a favored educator of the 19th century, pioneered a return to the ancient methods of education. She believed that education was more than just stacks of textbooks, large cold classrooms and academic bureaucracy. She argued that education is upheld by three pillars: education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. The first pillar, education as an atmosphere, will be the focus of this article.
By CRAIG HEFNER, PH.D.
What is the purpose of education?
Every educational system and every school has an implicit answer to this question, whether it’s consciously stated or not. Some have proposed that education is solely for the acquisition of knowledge. Others suggest that the purpose of education is for equipping one for a successful career or for specialized training in a particular vocation.
While knowledge and skills for success are good things, they should not be education’s final end. Instead, classical Christian schools like Covenant are recovering the old idea that the formation of virtue ought to be the primary purpose of education.
After all, knowledge itself without virtue can be pernicious or even evil. Knowledge of medicine, for instance, might seem like a good thing, but such knowledge is evil if employed to produce chemical weapons with the goal of the mass destruction of human life. And training in a specialized vocation might help one secure a job in the short-term, but it has often left graduates without a sense of meaningful direction and purpose to their lives.
If we believe instead that the formation of virtue should be the purpose of education, then it’s worth reflecting further and defining the nature of virtue.
In the classical tradition, virtues are the habits that dispose an agent toward its proper purpose. So then we must ask ourselves, ‘what is the proper purpose of a human being?’ The human being is made in the image of God and endowed by God with a rational mind, heart, and soul. A virtuous human being, then, is one who habitually acts according to its purpose and who is perfecting proper habits of the mind, heart, and soul.
And this brings us to an often misunderstood point on the nature of virtue: Virtue is more than morality. In other words, virtues are not only actions of the heart, but include habits of the mind and soul. On such an understanding we could even make a distinction between three kinds of virtues: (1) Intellectual, (2) Moral, and (3) Spiritual. Therefore, a virtuous person is not only good in the moral sense but also in an intellectual and spiritual sense.
Here, then, is an incomplete list of these virtues, which defines more precisely the kind of student we strive to form at Covenant School. These definitions are partially my own, but I have also borrowed elements from the school handbook of our friends at Veritas School and from Karen Prior’s On Reading Well:
I. Intellectual Virtues
- Love of Learning—demonstrates an eagerness and passion for learning through engagement in class discussion and unprompted learning outside of class.
- Wonder—finds delight in mysteries of God’s creation and a joy in learning truth. Has a natural curiosity toward learning.
- Imaginative—engages creatively with the world around them
- Attentiveness—attends to classroom discussion and practices self-control in thought, word, and deed.
- Orderliness—produces neat work that reflects the best of their ability
- Teachable spirit—open to instruction and correction without defensiveness and makes intentional application of lessons to future assignments or situations.