Thursday, May 24, 2018

Advice to Myself: An Examination of Conscience


When considering the causes of your actions, first consider their type so that you may consider more finely their nature.

Did you act by nature, doing what anyone would have done in the situation? Did you do what you usually do? Or perhaps did you do what a certain type of person would do?

Did you act according to habit, doing something simply because it was done before? Does the habit do more good than harm?

Did you act by compulsion, that is, were your desire and reason overcome by emotion?

Did you act to feed an appetite? Are you keeping it temperately controlled, or by either starving or gorging it are you provoking extreme responses?

Did you act by reason, trying to bring about a fixed, particular purpose?

Did you act merely by chance? Perhaps you made a hasty decision without consideration, inclination, or purpose. Do not use this explanation too often or easily.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part II



From the introduction to Paideia, by Werner Jaeger:

Education in any human community (be it a family, a social class, a profession, or some wider complex such as a race or a state) is the direct expression of its active awareness of an ideal. . . .
And, since the basis  of education is a general consciousness of the values which govern human life, its history is affected by changes in the values current within the community. When these values are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes inoperative. This occurs whenever tradition is violently overthrown or suffers internal collapse. Nevertheless, stability is not a sure symptom of health in education. Educational ideals are often extremely stable in the epoch of senile conservatism which marks the end of a civilization—
I cannot say whether the chaos in education is the cause or effect of our society's lack of ideals, although I do finger both the left-wing rebellion from and assault on Western values and conservative pusillanimity and senility as red-handed culprits, but the issue is more complex than that. One could come up with as many explanations of our society's ills as we could reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire.

More important to our discussion is the fact that in a stable society (not static, but stable, and thus including healthfully growing societies) one would not have to think, or think so deeply, about culture and the fundamental guiding principles of life. One would inherit them, live by them, and since the society is healthy and since change is slow or modest, those ideals would guide you throughout your life as they guided your parents.

In contrast consider the conundrum of modern society, in which people's hopes of a good and stable life are foiled in one of two ways. Liberal and open people are fed, or more likely over-fed, a diet of fads, balderdash that changes every decade, or nowadays every year. They bounce from trend-to-trend until the wreckage of their hopes is visible in the rear-view mirror. Conservative types are handed down ideals that are or will become alien to society and which will alienate their adherents from society.

On the conservative side, consider the change within the life of J. R. R. Tolkien, in whose birth year of 1892 Queen Victoria rules the British Empire at its height, Brahms and Dvorak are composing symphonies, John Singer Sargent paints Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, and Kipling publishes Gunga Din.  In the year of Tolkien's death, 1973, the UK enters the proto-European Union, Pink Floyd releases The Dark Side of the Moon, Warhol paints Chairman Mao, and Americans are sending up stations into orbit. It is small wonder that Tolkien crafted the world of the Shire, where change comes slowly, if at all.

What does it mean to speak of ideals amid such swift change? In such rapidly evolving societies, and also in unhealthy ones and ones highly pluralistic that offer a multitude of visions of life, one must consider ideals most carefully, whether conservative or liberal. For the former, the values of yesteryear will set you apart, for better and worse. For liberals, the values of the day won't necessarily be around long enough to get you through life, nor have they been tested and found to be capable of such even if they did stick around. So consideration, to say the least, is a prerequisite of modernity.

In considering whether today's prevailing vision of life is good, some families find that it is not and so choose a new vision, often one rooted in things valued by earlier generations. That's why homeschooling families look odd to modern families, who often describe homeschoolers as Amish, or some such, by which they mean we look disconnected from the culture. Quite right, and quite good, if wisely disconnected—I would perhaps say the ideal is prudently independent. The family should have a somewhat unique and certainly a good vision of life that animates its members, although it should not, of course, become so odd and insular that it becomes a cult. On the other hand, the more debased the culture, the more radical anyone pursuing the good will seem.

If you have no particular vision of life, though, then the appalling popular culture of the present is your vision, whether or not you realize it. Popular culture (by which I mean vulgar culture and the ignorance of high culture and tradition) and what I will gloss over as "modern" trends in education are entangled in schools to such a degree as to form an impenetrable thicket so dense that someone reared within its thorny grasp will find it a long struggle to find his way out to the light, and when he finds his way out, he will not be the same.

I have a chip on my shoulder from the journey, which in some ways is that of a convert and marked by the same self-righteous devotion—often insecure possessiveness—for the old orthodoxy. In a time of greater stability (specifically, cultural stability, or perhaps we should say philosophical stability, or perhaps social consensus of purpose) I would have even with my conservative disposition enjoyed the liberty of dabbling in new trends, but in uncertain times new things, as they were for the old Roman, are the stuff of revolution.

My challenge, though, will be to give my children a traditional upbringing without poisoning their learning with my animus toward the present culture (and my insecurity about my position in it.) They will need to travel confidently and joyfully in larger and more varied circles than I, even though they carry more of the past with them than their peers. I will also need to take extra measure to educate them in the unique goods and opportunities of the present and in the grave ills of the past so that my preferences and partialities do not become their dogmas. Such restraint of my ego and purifying of my purpose—essential aspects of conservatism and education—is impossible save by the example of my wife's temperance and the counsel of her good judgment.

The challenge for those stuck in the briar patch, though, is not simply to get out. (I certainly don't recommend being so at-odds with the world as I am.) If spending a  decade finding the way back to the good things is your path, so be it, but don't jump on the traditionalist or homeschooling bandwagon as a fashion statement, on a whim, or for some purpose other than that it seems a necessary thing. And certainly don't drag anyone unwilling along with you. What to do, then?



If people took honest stock of their own education, particularly its limits, they would stumble, however crookedly, toward some ideal that they would want to reach for and with their children. You probably won't find all of society (or nearly all of it) appalling the way I do, but even from the briefest glances inward and outward I imagine any parents would take charge of some portion of their child's education that they feel they can better provide or that they ought to provide.

Starting from the premise not just that you and your life can be better, but better in ways you cannot yet imagine, expose yourself to some traditional ideas. Some will receive such ideas more readily by their aesthetic sense, others in philosophy of varying degrees of depth and complexity, still more by an innate religiosity, a sense of being bound to something. Some need a personal touch, that is, the guidance of a mentor.

Then from those ideas, develop a vision of life and measure it against what you see in yourself and around you. This doesn't mean to jump from one ideological bandwagon to the next, but in understanding of the many options open to you to develop an authentic self and way of living. One might simply say: since our society has not educated you, you need to educate yourself.

That is a burden of life in evolving, pluralistic and unhealthy societies. (Another is to learn to live in harmony with the many other very different people around you.) Even a cursory evaluation of oneself will reveal some incongruity between an ideal and what you witness in yourself, your life, and your family. The process of that self-reflection begins, it seems to me, in humility and courage.

For my part, I am aware that my knowledge and experience are most terribly limited and that many unforeseen obstacles wait in the path of educating my children, but such a realization does not make any school or program of which I know the slightest bit more attractive. I trust my ability to change more than I trust the situation of education and society to improve. Moreover, my fear of erring does not dissuade me from trying. I'm not so afraid of teaching my kids that I'm going to sentence them to twenty years of misinformation, oppressive workloads, and asking to go to the bathroom. Also, I'm not going to give up my time with them any more than I must, i.e. either to support them or to give them the space they need to grow and flourish.

I often feel that I don't have anything better to do than educate my children. If I had no children then I might, just might, take up some crusade to make the world a better place. (Although I think a lot of people who are on such crusades are really just hedonists, but that's a topic for another article.) Maybe if I didn't value education, or if I thought I would do more harm than good by educating them, I would send them off to school and go about my own affairs. But I think I can do good for them by teaching them and that we will grow best together, so why not try?

It is not intelligence, but humility that gives confidence. Not intelligence but the humble admission of weakness and the courage to improve are the stuff of learning. In one of his letters (7.26), the Younger Pliny, reminded by the illness of a friend, reflects that we are best when we are weak (infirmus.) When sick, he says, we ignore passions, temptations, and gossip, and mindful of our mortality we remember God. He concludes that we ought to live when we are well as we promise we will live when sick. Similarly St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, (2nd Letter, Ch. 12, v. 10) "I please (placeo) myself in my infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ; for when I am weak then I am powerful." The Catholic Church's Catechism, too, affirms the need of recognizing one's own weakness when guiding our children:

Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery—the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the "material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones." Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them. (CCC 2223) (original italics, boldface added)
The responsibility and rewards of familial moral, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment are, to me, inspiring. Family education sounds like a grand, vigorous adventure that will never end. Do you know what sounds awful, though? Twenty years of Sparto-Prussian "education" by threats of failure, Pavlovian bells, lines for lunch, lines for the bathroom, endless evaluations, aka putting your kids through perdition, all while two parents furiously and flustered flap around trying to tape up their house of cards. You don't need to have a spiritual awakening to say foohey! to that.