The topic of discussion for Parent Traditio this evening will be “Raising Readers: Cultivating a Love of Literature in the Home.” One facet of this conversation will be the importance of good literature in the forming of a child’s moral imagination. To illustrate this point, consider the scene from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair (from the Chronicles of Narnia), where one of my favorite Narnian characters – a marshwiggle – bolding declares his commitment to the truth.
As a father of five, I am greatly concerned with the cultivation of virtue in the hearts of my children. Frequent thought and active parenting has been invested in training my children in honesty, diligence, self-control, and respect. The lack of these virtues is tough to disguise. When children are disrespectful and lazy, succumbing to every desire of their flesh, they create what my mother would refer to as “a scene.” Yet behind the more common virtues, lies one that receives precious little airtime – Piety.
The pursuit of wisdom consists of basic things: reading boni libris, competing with a charitable heart on the field, turning in commonplace books, parsing Latin and Greek, working out complex Calculus problems, reciting poetry, memorizing Scripture, crafting essays, exercising your vocal cords in choir, and submitting your best art (even if you don’t think you’re much of an artist). Well, maybe it is better to say that these are the concrete ways you will pursue those lofty aims advocated by Aristotle, namely phronesis and techne. Both of them are arts aimed at the cultivation of the soul, phronesis meaning moral virtue, and techne meaning skilled virtue. Morals and skills. Or to use Paul’s language, “by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2).
Thank you so much for that kind introduction. Before we begin, I would like to express my sincerest thanks to the administration and to all the senior class parents for providing me the opportunity to speak to these graduating seniors before you all tonight. And I would be terribly amiss if I did not congratulate you, seniors, on the many accomplishments that have brought you to this very place on this momentous evening. My purpose this evening is two-fold and somewhat paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, my job is to remind you that all of this evening is about you. On the other hand, my job is to remind you that none of this is about you, at all. Like I said, somewhat paradoxical. But there is a method to this madness, and I hope to demonstrate as much over the course of the next few minutes. There are many things I could say to you this evening; in truth, there are many things that ought to be said to you this evening, but that’s what all these good people are for. Lord knows I’ll need the backup. Yes, there are many paths we could tread, but I thought it best to stick to one rather familiar to you, and to me as well. Our progression this evening will follow a sort of timeline: First, we’ll revisit the past, taking great pains to put a very fine point on just what it is that you have been doing here at Trinitas for the past 6, 8, 10—and for some of you—13 years of your life; next, we’ll pause and ponder the precise precipice upon which you are perched, at present; and finally, we’ll look to the future, daring, even, to prescribe what must be next. So, let’s roll back the clock.
When the world measures the outcomes of a K-12 education, it most frequently does so in terms of grades, test scores, and college scholarships. That is the vernacular. When the conversation turns to what kind of schooling produces the best of those outcomes, the world naturally assumes prestigious college preparatory schools are best. But that simply is not true. To push back even further, it might be said that the world is measuring the outcomes of education all wrong. What if I told you there is now definitive proof schools that measure outcomes in terms of soul formation also produce the best grades, test scores, and college scholarships?
One of the biggest shocks of my parenting life came nearly two decades ago when a wise, gray-haired teacher confessed to me that she did not care about my son’s grade. The conversation was about his grade in some grammar school subject that was just low enough to prevent his earning an academic award if something did not change soon. I swooned at her remark. All I could think of was my child’s future. How would he get into a good college and then on to a good career if he couldn’t get all A’s in second grade?
Like many in the Trinitas community, lately, I have been reading Joshua Gibbs’s first book How to be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue. (Actually, I have been listening to it, which isn’t quite the same thing as reading it, but that is a discussion for another day.) Gibbs uses The Consolation of Philosophy and his years in the classroom (several of them at Trinitas) to approach the subject of pursuing virtue through classical education. Pursuing virtue is an educational activity we allude to from time to time, a catchphrase we hold up as an important goal of classical education, even a claim with which we sprinkle our marketing brochures, but really, what does it mean to pursue virtue? And why only pursue it? Do any of our students ever actually catch up with it?