I met the most amazing young woman last week. She is a graduate of Baylor’s Honors College, specifically the Great Texts program, and is two years into her teaching career at Live Oak Classical School in Waco, Texas. It is not uncommon for classical educators to meet at conferences in the summer, but coronavirus has cancelled any such opportunities for the summer of 2020. Fortunately, this young lady is the niece of a Trinitas parent and was present at a social gathering to which I had been invited.
The amazing thing about her is that, young as she is, she really understands the classical Christian education project well. She has not set her sights on making sure her students understand Dante in a way that enables them to pass an AP exam—though they likely will. No, she is aiming at a higher goal. She understands that Dante or any other great text she teaches provides an opportunity to form the souls of eternal beings—her students—for good or for evil.
This young teacher wanted to be sure her students understood this important principle that would guide her teaching, so she began the school year with a most creative lesson. Dressed as the Grim Reaper, she solemnly permitted her eighth-graders entry to her dimly lit classroom on the first day of school. Once seated, she began to tell about the things they would read and study during the year and to expound the differences between what she called “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”
This young teacher did not invent the notion of the two kinds of virtues. Author and columnist David Brooks coined the terms in his 2015 book of essays The Road to Character. The idea is pretty straightforward: resume virtues are those that move us ahead in life if we are chasing the “American Dream.” Brooks says they are the “skills we bring to the marketplace.” The eulogy virtues, however, are the qualities of character that will be remarked on at our funerals. In short, they are the virtues that define a quality human being and allow one to live a good and meaningful life.
To return to our young teacher in Texas, what she recognized is that contemplating the Great Books, the Great Texts, the Classics, if you will, and asking the right questions of her students helped to form eulogy virtues in them. She wanted them to know that and to know that was exactly what she was going for. Oh, they would pick up resume virtues along the way, certainly, but those are extraneous to the main goal.
The ways great literature cultivates virtue, especially eulogy virtues, in those who drink deeply of it is a subject about which much has been written. One way classic literature cultivates virtue is through the reestablishment of “norms.” And by norm I do not mean how the average man behaves. I am talking about something more permanent and enduring in human society, “an enduring standard” as Russel Kirk puts it in Enemies of the Permanent Things. “It is a law of nature which we ignore at our peril,” he goes on to say. These norms describe the way civilization has learned to conduct itself through triumph and suffering over millennia. To ignore all that work that established a thriving human society before any of us ever existed is insane.
The great texts that have stood the test of time retell the story of all that work, the failures and successes, the shame and the joy. They truly teach us what it means to be human, not in a vacuum, but connected to all of humanity for all of time. Kirk does not give an exhaustive list of norms that can be taught through great literature, but he gives examples: charity, justice, freedom, duty, fortitude. Those sound like eulogy virtues to me. And I would add that there are more as well: faith, hope, self-control, and the list goes on. All these we can learn if we listen to the great stories of the past and imitate the best characters.
I believe Russell Kirk and others who have wrote about the norms that come through the contemplation of great literature are on to something. And I believe the young teacher from Texas is too. It is not our resume or the highlight reel of our lives as posted on social media that defines who we are. The mark of what kind of people we become is what will be said about us at our funerals. The role great literature can play in giving our eulogists something to talk about should not be underestimated. Let us not be blinded by the pride of modernity. We do not have it all figured out. Let us humble ourselves, turn our eyes and ears to the past, and take advantage of the knowledge gained by those who suffered before us…and let’s do it before the Grim Reaper shows up!