The Creative Historian: The Role of the Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past

By Christopher Zehnder


Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian

The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.

Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.

Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past?


J.R.R. Tolkien, age 24

If what we say here is true of Tolkien’s sub-creation, it is equally true of those less radical creative departures from the so-called “real world” – those works that go by the name of the roman or novel? Such works, historical in character as they are for the most part (insofar as they generally speak of past events) and set in the “real world,” usually contain their dose of error or even (dare we say it?) lies. For who reads, for instance, Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Richard III and thinks he is getting the straight dope on the events proceeding and following the Wars of the Roses? Shakespeare at times frankly distorts the past for purposes of his own – purposes quite other from those of the historian. And not only Shakespeare is guilty of falsifying the past; one can point to countless other writers who, with their creative imagination, recast past events and personalities for their own arcane intentions and purposes.

If we expect poets and novelists to be liars, we count on historians to tell the truth. “The facts, mam, the facts, and nothing but the facts” – this is what the historian is after. The historian narrates, or at least tries to narrate, what actually occurred at some defined time and place, without addition or subtraction. If the historian is an artist, it is only in how he narrates the facts, not in the facts themselves, or so we think. Indeed, we would describe the historian as “scientific” rather than artistic or “creative.” The novelist may play fast and loose with the events of the past; the historian is tightly constrained within the parameters of a demanding discipline.

Thus, it seems I have confirmed the suspicions of at least many of you – that I am some sort of intellectual heretic for even suggesting that an historian may be creative. Yet, before you sick the hounds of the Inquisition on me, I would beg you to hear my case. For despite my protestations to the contrary, I maintain that the creative imagination has a role, a very central and important role, to play in the exploration of history, and the telling and teaching of it. I pray this august assembly to hear me for my cause, and only then, pass judgment upon me. When I have had done, if need be, you may denounce me to the authorities. Continue reading

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Jacques Barzun on Reading the “Classics”

Many readers will be familiar with Jacques Barzun from his monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, which he completed at age 93. (Barzun died in 2012 at the ripe old age of 104!) Among his many interests was education, which he first addressed in his 1945 work The Teacher in America. The following excerpt is taken from his essay “Of What Use are the Classics?” from Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. (1987)

“Because a classic is thick and full, and because it arose out of a past situation, it is hard to read. The mental attitude and attention that are good enough for reading the newspaper and most books will not work. We read ordinary matter by running the eye over the print at a steady rate, rarely stopping to think or wonder.Barzun BeginHere

“But why, after all, learn to read differently by tackling the classics?  The answer is simple: in order to live in a wider world. Wider than what?  Wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines — Psychology Today, House and Garden, Sports Illustrated; wider also than friends’ and neighbors’ plans and gossip; wider especially than one’s business or profession. …The great works do not yield their cargo on demand; but if one reads them with concentration, the effort gives us possession of a vast store of vicarious (indirect) experience; we come face to face with the whole range of perception that mankind has attained and that is denied by our unavoidably artificial (manufactured) existence.

“…I have said that the classics cannot be read like a magazine article. It takes some form of compulsion to get started, and often the eager starter bogs down in difficulties. To give help, therefore, and to apply the steady pressure, coaching is necessary. Hence the classics must be met and conquered at latest in college.
At latest: the really appropriate time would be the last two years of high school, when the onset of maturing stirs feelings and thoughts about the meaning of life and the nature of society. Our obtuse (slow-witted) educational experts would be astonished to see how passionately a group of perfectly average fifteen-year-olds can be brought to discuss Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ or the ‘Confessions of St. Augustine.’  But the opportunity is missed, and college offers the last chance of initiating the habit of reading and enjoying solid books.”


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Homer, Zeus and Destiny

“Is there a right answer?” a student interrupted our discussion of Book XVI of the Iliad to ask me tonight. I really hate that question, which is usually a sign that students are tired of thinking. But tonight, the student was serious, and the conversation had been serious. But the topic was hard, “What is the relation between Zeus and destiny?” and he needed me to assure him that I knew there was a right answer.

The amazing thing was that he cared that much. In fact, the whole seminar seemed deeply interested in the question. Seven or eight gathered with me and another tutor after our two hour class discussion to pursue it for another 45 minutes. “I need to know!” said one young woman.

Now why would a group of college freshmen mostly from serious Catholic families “need to know” how Homer, a pagan author dealing with bloody, glory-seeking semi-barbarians, portrayed Zeus and destiny?

One reason could be that they had seen his story didn’t fit with the tidy picture they had of the Greeks, who thought fate was over everything.  Or did they? “And the will of Zeus was accomplished,” opens the epic. Later  Zeus tells Hera that Hektor and Patroklos and his own son, Sarpedon, will all die because he promised Achilles’ mother that he would bring honor to Achilles.  Yet Zeus laments that Sarpedon is destined to die. He seriously considers saving him until Hera talks him out of it, and then weeps “tears of blood” as he leaves Sarpedon to his destiny.

The surprise element must be a big factor. But I also raised the question of whether this mattered to the story. Is the Zeus/destiny question really important or just a matter for maddening or scholarly curiosity? They thought it deeply important, for if Zeus were in charge of all, then he could give reasons for why he let terrible things happen even to those he loved. And maybe he could be supplicated, and could change his mind. But if Zeus is simply subject to destiny, then no reason can be given for why Patroklos, who wins our sympathy through the tears of pity he sheds on behalf of his fellow Achaians, must die. Another senseless death.

Patroklos goes to his death because he succumbs to the rage and fury that success in battle breeds. “Besotted!” Can battle really do this to a man? It seems so. But Homer continues, “But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man’s mind.” Do men feel that, when they are overcome by passion in the moment that something divine is driving them? Is it a god? The God? Can it have a purpose even when it leads to disaster?

These are deeply human questions. As Catholics, we are blessed to have all the answers. But having all the answers from the time of your youth often means you never really face the questions. I hope that in part my students’ fascination came from seeing how marvelously Homer shows his world, a world for which the questions are deeply real, and is fueled by the hope that his “answer’ – murky, delicate, profoundly suggestive – might offer a window of wonder opening on the mysterious God whom they love and serve.

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Cultivate wonder at the divine mystery

Great advice that extends beyond sacred theology.

As this school year begins try to cultivate wonder at the divine mystery, and be patient with the struggles of reading and discussing difficult texts, trying to catch the taste of the divine Truth. A great help to cultivating wonder is the rich liturgical life of the ITI: the treasures of the Roman and Byzantine liturgies, which are so full of reverence, awe and wonder at the greatness of God, who created us to know Himself.

From Sancrucensis.

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Preparing and Leading a Discussion on Mary and Martha

On a number of occasions, I have led seminars with teachers on the stories in Luke’s and John’s Gospels that feature Mary and Martha. These include Luke 10:38-42, John 11, and John 12:1-10. Luke’s story is among the iconic stories of the Scriptures. The Church has long seen Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus as a type of the contemplative religious life, and Jesus’ rebuke of Martha as His elevation of that life above that of the majority of Christians — lay, clerical and religious – marked by active service.

Those who indulge in serious reading of original texts find that interesting details are often lost when ideas and stories become iconic. In fact, vanity will rear its ugly head, leading Great Bookers to delight in correcting anyone who repeats the common wisdom about an author or text. In spite of this temptation, I have found that I usually get fresh, deeper looks when I pay close attention to the original sources of iconic stories. The Mary and Martha story intrigued me particularly the longer I lived with my wife. Was it really Our Lord’s intention to make her and many admirable women like her feel that their concerns about the details of child-rearing and family life are simply a distraction from what is really important? I felt something was missing – the glory of Martha story.

This puzzle floated in and out of my consciousness for some years, until one day, probably during the Lenten season when Catholics get to revel in John’s wonderful, lavishly detailed (at least according to Gospel standards) stories like the Woman at the Well, the Man Born Blind and the Raising of Lazarus, I was struck by Martha’s prominence in the Lazarus Martha speaks to Jesusstory. She along with Mary is said to be loved by Jesus; she left the house to meet Jesus outside the village; and amazingly, she kept her hope for Lazarus even though he was four days dead. Her act of faith in this moment – “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” – is unbelievable. Who else in the Gospels had faith that Jesus could raise a man from the dead? Mary also looks different in John’s story. In fact, it almost looks as though John wanted to compare Mary and Martha in such a way that Martha looks better. Mary stayed home when Martha went to meet Jesus; Mary did not express the faith that Martha did; Mary’s weeping moved Jesus to tears, though Martha is not said to weep at all.

These considerations led me to think these two readings would make for a good seminar discussion, which I led for the first time during a workshop for teachers at a Catholic classical school in upstate New York. I did not think I fully understood the stories by any means, but I did think that what I had seen about Martha and Mary in John’s Gospel, which I continued to ponder regularly, would be new to most readers as it had been for me, and was very much worth discussing. Where it would go, how rich the conversation might be, I did not know. This kept me in a state of some trepidation, but I had enough confidence to push forward. John’s story is full of lots of other oddities that I could turn to if my main topic lagged – Jesus’s decision not to come right away, His weeping, and the story about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet that begins Chapter 12.

I have now had two discussions of these texts, most recently at the Catholic Classical Schools Conference in July. Both went very well. The CCSC group included about 18 teachers and administrators of all levels of experience. Some had Great Books backgrounds; most did not.

What did I hope would happen during this conversation? Of course, I had the general goals that I have in most conversations: To have a lively discussion with broad participation that excites wonder, to build a sense of common excitement about learning, and hopefully to provoke questions that would lead to continued thought, wonder and discussion after the end of the seminar. I don’t want lively discussion for its own sake. Someone once commented disparagingly about a discussion I enjoyed, “This shows we could talk for hours about a local telephone book.” I disagreed with him; I thought that we had such a lively discussion was prima facie evidence that it was worth talking about. Still, sometimes people are participants in discussions seem to be in it just for the excitement of the moment, leaving with no particular memory of what they talked about and not really wanting them to effect any lasting change in themselves. But usually a lively discussions come from a serious passion to understand difficult and worthwhile matters.

I also hoped that many would see in the readings what I thought I had seen. When I first led the discussion, I probably thought about it as, “Martha is pretty good, better than Mary in some ways.” Still, I didn’t want to push this too hard. Focusing too much on getting participants to see my point of view has often kept me from seeing other things that they were seeing. So I was determined not to press it too hard. I usually learn a lot myself if I pay careful attention to the conversation.

Whether the participants agreed with my point of view, or whether I would change my view through the conversation, I hoped that, by asking the right questions, participants would pay more attention to the story than they ever had before. They would notice some of the puzzling passages that I had seen, which would lead them to look at it more closely, become conscious of and wary of their own assumptions about it, and see it with new eyes, like Chesterton’s Mooreeffoc. Close attention to a text as rich as that of St. John, fostering a lingering wonder about it, could not help but produce good fruits.

With these goals in mind, I had to choose a good question to start off the conversation. I usually try to find a question that I think will quickly raise more questions as participants offer different answers. A good opening question is one we will usually return to throughout the conversation to see how we have gotten at providing satisfactory answers. On the other hand, the question can be one that I expect will lead to larger questions, the latter of which I expect to become the real locus of the conversation.

In this case, I decided to propose two questions and let the participants decide which to pursue. One was fairly general, “How do Mary and Martha compare with one another in the two stories?” This was an indeterminate version of the question which motivated me to CCSC 2015 Mary and Martha discussionchoose these readings in the first place. The second was more particular, more immediately puzzling, and also one concerning which I only suspected an answer: “Why does John (11:2) identify Mary as the one who anointed Jesus in the chapter before he tells the anointing story?” This was a strange thing I had noticed about the story in preparing for this discussion; it might have been my fourth or fifth careful reading. A riskier question, but I thought it would drive us to consider why Mary would do such a thing, and what the Lazarus’ story might reveal about her action.

No one spoke at first. After a half a minute, one participant addressed the first question by suggesting that the two sisters looked different in the two stories, and that John presented Martha in a better light than Luke. In Luke she looked like the Elder brother in the Prodigal Son story, but she was much more connected to Jesus in John. Others joined this line of thought, and developed many of my own ideas about how Martha looked better than Mary in John. They suggested that Mary almost seemed to be in despair over Lazarus. At this point, some who had not spoken reacted very strongly. Why were people thinking that Mary was in despair? Why did they think she was presented in a light inferior to that of Martha?

Up to this point, I had intervened only occasionally, and mostly with “method” comments. I frequently ask those arguing a position if they have support from the text we are discussing. I then ask them to tell us where it is, give others time to find it, read it aloud and then tell us what they think is significant about it. That way everyone keeps looking back at the precise words of the author, often seeing much they had overlooked in their own reading. I ask participants to repeat their points if I thought they were unclear, or perhaps others didn’t seem to appreciate the significance of what was said. If someone goes on at length, I might ask them to give us the short version. I interrupt more active speakers to less forceful ones get into the conversation. I also point out where I think speakers are disagreeing, something they do not always see themselves. This is not to provoke a fight, but so that each can begin to consider whether they should modify their positions, or begin to give reasons why they think they should hold their ground.

In the Mary and Martha conversation, everyone realized there was disagreement. So I asked those who thought Martha looked better in John to go over their evidence. Among that group they pointed to:

  • Martha’s expression of faith in Jesus, which culminated in a statement very like Peter’s in Matthew’s Gospel: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
  • Mary speaks to Jesus with the same words as Martha, but omits an expression of faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
  • These differences in faith connect with the reason Jesus gave for letting Lazarus die in the first place: “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
  • Mary stayed at home when Martha went to meet Jesus. She didn’t come till Martha returned and told her Jesus was asking for her.
  • Mary was weeping when she spoke to Jesus, and Jesus wept when he saw her and the Jews weeping.

The other side then responded to most of the points. Some they thought were overreadings of little portions of text. Did John really intend us to connect Martha’s expression with Peter’s? Was he really trying to draw our attention to Mary’s omission? Mary stayed home because there were guests. One participant said that many of these texts could be showing us that Mary was more docile to Jesus than Martha. She didn’t go out until she was called; she didn’t make any demand on Jesus to raise Lazarus.

At one point I asked whether we thought John meant to call our attention to these differences by the details and wording of the story. I thought it would help our discussion, but it is also an important premise of most Great Bookers – great authors are very careful with their words, and so it pays us to take every word very seriously. One participant denied this strongly, suggesting that it is easy for readers to make up grand interpretations which the original author never considered. But most seemed to think John’s words at least very significant, though they disagreed on their meaning.

Mary anointing JesusThe debate continued, and more details were brought into consideration.

  • Luke refers to the house as “Martha’s house”.
  • Mary is often at the feet of Jesus – in the house, when she went weeping to him, when she anointed him.
  • When Mary anoints Jesus, Martha is again serving, but this time she does not complain about her sister, though Judas does.
  • Was this anointing a second one, unconnected with the repentant woman? Was this Mary, Mary Magdalene? Was she repenting in John’s Gospel, or simply preparing his body for death?

I finally ended the conversation. We did not reach a common agreement, but still I was very satisfied. We certainly had had a lively discussion that came from paying greater and greater attention to the details of the Gospel authors. Everyone in the group participated at some point – I thought I was going to have to call two people to express their opinion, but they finally entered of their own accord (and with some passion). I was confident that most would continue to think about the questions we raised for a long time, which was confirmed by subsequent lengthy conversations with several of the participants.

Was I disappointed that we did not come to an agreement at the end? No. I have found that most questions worth discussing are ones that need to be thought about for a long time, in different contexts, and even in different periods of our lives. I thought they were in a good position to do that. They had formed, developed and defended their own opinions, but they also knew the stories contained much more that they would need to account for before they could be sure.

Most of what I had noticed before the discussion came out, and I noticed a number of details for the first time (such as the connection between Martha and Peter, and Martha’s serving without complaining in John 12). I also began to think more deeply about Mary and Martha as types of the contemplative and active lives. Perhaps John’s story was pointing out the strengths and limitations of both types of life, so that we can see why the Church needs both. One thing I regretted – I thought but did not suggest that Mary might have been angry with Jesus for not coming rather than in despair over his powers. That idea, which I had before the conversation, did not come up. When I mentioned it to some after the discussion, they thought it very helpful.

The conversation had what was to me a beautiful epilogue. The next day was the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The texts used in Morning and Evening Prayer and in the readings for Mass reverberated with themes from our discussion, arousing in me a greater excitement in celebrating her feast than I had ever known.

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Great Books in the Classroom — Dante’s entry to Paradise

I am beginning to get a feel for using Dante to help arouse wonder about Moral Theology.   This is my second time leading discussions on it with groups of 30 or so juniors and seniors to complement the Didache series textbook, along with Mere Christianity and an excellent work on prayer for the laity, This Tremendous Lover. 

This week we followed Dante as he enters the earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain of Purgatory.  As he is about to enter, Virgil tells Dante, “You are now morally free! Do whatever  you want to do.”  I asked the students, “What does Dante do with his freedom?  Would you do that?”  We saw that he “lingered”, slowly wandering as he absorbed the beauty of tree and grass, birds and breeze.  He sees a woman across a stream picking flowers, listens to her song, then slowly wanders with her along opposite sides of the stream.  Is this what the process of moral purification should lead to?

The woman tells Dante that the stream is called Lethe, the stream of forgetfulness according to Greek mythology.  He is told that by drinking of it he will lose all memory of his sins, after which he can drink of Eunoe, which will cause him to remember all his good deeds more strongly.  Several students thought it would be wrong to forget one’s sins.  Why?  Because we need them to remind us of our guilt, to remind us how weak we are.  Does Dante think that when you become spiritually free, you no longer need to remember your guilt?   I told them it made me think of Matthew’s account of the  Last Judgement, where Our Lord points out to those on his right all the times they are served Him without realizing it, but made no mention at all of the times they had failed.  “Blessed are those who sins are covered” Dante hears Matilda sing.

But before Dante can drink of the stream, Beatrice arrives (in rock star style, by the way!).  She sternly reproaches him with his greatest sin, one he has yet to repent for.  Her reprimand leads him to weep for his sins for the first and only time in the Comedy.  “Have you ever wept for your sins?” I asked them.  Next discussion, we will look more deeply into Dante’s sin — what does she say that causes the ice in his heart to melt and pour out in tears?  I think they answer will surprise and challenge them.

These are examples of the many questions raised by encountering Dante’s literary creation go to the heart of students’ assumptions about their moral journey and the teaching of the Church, questions that will rarely come out of reading textbooks, no matter how faithful.

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Why Should Dioceses Impose State Requirements on Catholic Schools?

We work with a number of diocesan schools that suffer from a diocesan-mandated imposition of state requirements.  This post from the weekly newsletter of Jason Adams, Headmaster of Lumen Christi Catholic School in Indianapolis, gives many excellent reasons why Catholic schools should be free from such requirements, so that their life of faith can fully permeate their communities and their work. Jason has contributed to the Institute’s newsletter, and has attended our Academic Retreat and our Catholic Classical Schools Conference.

I had the privilege of testifying at a senate committee hearing on state standardized testing policy yesterday. I had the opportunity to touch base with one of our advisory council members Heather Crossin (Co-founder of Hoosiers Against Common Core) and a host of parents and grandparents from around the state who support independent education. I was able to tell Lumen Christi’s story, why we value our independence, and why all schools could use a little more independence from state regulation. We have offered Terra Nova testing in the 5th and 8th grade for at least the last few years (8th grade only last year), as simply another measure of student progress. Our students do quite well on those tests, but I am grateful we have no reporting obligation to the state. I am doubly grateful that we do not subject our children to the state testing regimen, which seems to have become an obsession for the state educational bureaucracy of late.

State standardized testing is only a part (a big part) of state regulation of schools. As an educator and administrator, I cannot overstate the value of self-regulation. I have long wondered why private schools willingly contract out their curriculum to secular bodies who do not understand their mission. I have been part of multiple secular accrediting bodies, none of which provided adequate opportunity to integrate religious goals into ongoing professional development and continuous improvement goals.

Our students study everything from the ABCs to advanced Latin, simple addition to Calculus, and story books to the classical and sacred texts: the Holy Bible, Church Fathers, Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Chaucer, to name a few. We have our bases more than covered. Every day, I see teachers holding discussions on texts and ideas that would not be seen in secularly regulated schools, especially those concerned with state grading systems and testing-based teacher evaluations. We have the freedom to fully integrate our academic and religious missions so that we have one mission to pursue the wisdom of God in all subjects.

We have a mixture of credentialed and non-credentialed teachers, and they are all exceptionally talented and caring professionals who embrace the evangelistic nature of their calling. While our credentialed teachers should be proud of their educational and professional accomplishments, all of our teachers excel in the classroom. Some of this community’s most cherished teachers would not be with us if we marched in lockstep with state accreditation requirements. In the other schools in which I’ve taught, those most regulated by state and secular accreditation standards, many a qualified teaching candidate could not be considered because they did not meet state credentialing requirements. More than once, hiring committees on which I sat, were frustrated that the candidate they really wanted had to be removed from consideration.

Here we have the freedom to hire our best fit from among available candidates. We have the freedom to implement content and methods that best fit our Catholic mission, the personalized needs of our classes, and the skills and interests of our teachers. We have the freedom to assess students on an individual basis, knowing the full gamut of our students’ strengths and development needs in close consultation with parents. There is infinitely more value in a teacher who knows his students well, contacting a parent to work together on a particular student’s need, than there is in any of the popular standardized tests. I’ve seen this at work in my own family’s interactions here, and I’ve never seen that level of dedication and intervention anywhere else.

Free from the growing compliance demands required by state regulation and secular accreditation, we can operate a lean administration. Bigger, more regulated schools, are increasingly in need of administrative positions (even whole departments) responsible for planning tests, running student test preparation, and administering multiple assessments at numerous grade levels. Add to this the compliance monitoring and reporting associated with a host of big-school operations:

  • State content standards and funding ∙
  • Managing athletic schedules, coaching personnel, athletic funding and student athletic eligibility (IHSAA, etc.) ∙
  • School lunch funding and lunch requirements ∙
  • Voucher regulations ∙
  • Transportation regulations ∙
  • FERPA guidelines ∙
  • Special education departments who manage literally tens and hundreds of IEPs ∙
  • Intricate IT and technology infrastructures ∙
  • Management of large, complex facilities ∙
  • Complicated budgets ∙
  • Managing and funding counseling departments, school health clinics, childcare before and after school, and even before and after school meals.

These are only a portion of the managerial tasks facing the increasing complexity of the modern, state-regulated school. It is easy to see how students would become numbers, and how the educational mission of the school could get lost in the shuffle. It is easy to see how teacher collaboration on curriculum would disappear in favor of state formulas.

Lumen Christi abides by a deliberate simplicity so that we can keep our integrated faith and academic mission front and center. Teachers can collaborate with each other and with administration easily, and so we see a high level of co-planning and sharing of ideas. We have a high level of collegiality among teachers. Our teachers know their students well and can adjust their teaching and curricular emphases to meet individual needs.

Our operation is inexpensive and consists primarily in paying teachers, buying supplies, and paying rent on a humble facility. All of our employees make less than employment market value, from top to bottom. They don’t talk about unions, benefits packages, or pay scales because they knew when they came here that they were trading some of those things for a teaching experience that cannot be matched elsewhere. That’s what brought me here: it wasn’t money or authority— it was the chance to serve a school (one of the few schools) that has not lost sight of what’s important in Catholic education.

Today’s school administrators are like mayors of small cities because schools have become the new nucleus of the culture. We believe something different here, namely, that FAMILY remains the essential and natural nucleus of culture. Since our faith formation efforts are an overt extension of family faith formation, our families understand that the school’s Catholicity rests more in faithful Catholic homes than school programs. As a result, our families are motivated Catholics who are on the same page when it comes to vision. They come here because it’s a sanctuary of Catholic fidelity and common-sense academic development.

Families come here knowing who we are, and so we attract families that are excited about our unique identity. We do not aspire to be everything to everybody, and we do not wish to imitate schools that have watered down their identity to appeal to the least common denominator. We have a lot of different lifestyles among our families, but we are unified in our commitment to the Creed and to traditional educational values.

Our school offers activities, and may offer a few more in the future, but Lumen Christi’s philosophy has always treated sports and extra-curricular activities as secondary to the faith, academic, and family priorities that created and have sustained our school until now. It would be an easy mistake to make (and many schools make it) to over-pursue extra activities, such that they take on a life of their own. When this happens, schools take their eye off the ball, and the environment becomes more about manufacturing an exciting social scene than about learning.

Friendships and camaraderie are organic. They develop naturally from bringing people together who share beliefs and have a common desire to serve one another.

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Infancy Narratives Seminar

I love leading seminar discussions on great texts.  Not only do I love helping others to see more deeply into works that have formed our faith, but I almost always come away seeing much more deeply into them myself.  And nothing is more gratifying than discussing the Holy Scriptures.

This was very true yesterday, when I led the Institute’s first on-line seminar with a group of a dozen teachers and friends of Catholic education from around the country.  We discussed the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, along with the opening of John and TS Eliot’s, “The Journey of the Magi”.  We began by considering why Gabriel responds so differently to the similar sounding questions of Zechariah and Mary.  This led us to look more closely at Zechariah’s righteousness as compared with Mary, and then with Simeon, and finally Joseph. Zechariah follows God’s revealed commandments but has renounced hope in His blessings and promises, while Simeon is righteous in “looking for the consolation of Israel”.  Joseph is just in a way that looks to mercy, while Our Lady manifests perfect humility and a readiness to “believe that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  Through all of this, we saw how the Gospel authors skillfully suggest questions that reward careful and prayerful comparison and reflection.

This was only a part of a fruitful hour and a half discussion, which ended by looking at the Wise Men through both Matthew and TS Eliot’s nostalgic poem.  Thanks to the wonders of technology and the work of our new Programs Assistant, Chris Weir, you can enjoy listening to the conversation.  Be careful, though — you might keep finding yourself wanting to jump in.

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Plato, Christianity, Augustine, Spinoza

Robert Royal, in a recent article on The Catholic Thing, puts beautifully an idea central to our Catholic tradition:

There is some mysterious way in which that unique ancient Greek rationality and clarity, worked up by many minds over centuries, was intended to be mixed with – and transformed by – the light of revelation that passed through the Hebrew Scriptures.

This hit home for me this week as I have been leading discussions on authors who take fundamentally opposed views about this topic.  Benedict Spinoza, the 17th century father of modern methods of Scripture interpretation, mocked the medieval tradition of finding in it deep mysteries about the nature of God:

For if you inquire what mysteries they see hiding in Scripture, you will in fact find nothing besides the comments of Aristotle or Plato or another like them, which any Idiot could often dream up more  easily than the most literate could investigate from Scripture.

I love my faith, especially the beautiful treasures of its intellectual tradition.  So the arrogant mocking of modern authors like Spinoza angers and depresses me.  But I was triumphantly comforted by discovering with my theology students the beautiful way in which St. Augustine, in Book XI of The City of God, suggests that the Greek philosophers pointed to images and traces of the Holy  Trinity.  Their investigations of nature, reason and goodness were a response to the natural drives for existence, understanding and love written by the Creator into His image, and led them to glimpse the Triune vestiges throughout creation.  For God, as Plato saw, is “the cause of existence, the ground of understanding and the pattern for leading one’s life.”  The Greek philosophers helped St. Augustine become aware of the Trinitarian language built into the first verses of Genesis — “And God said, Let there be Light….And God saw that it was Good.”

Dr. Royal suggests that The Catholic Thing will be helping us to explore more deeply the Providential union of ancient Greek culture and Christianity in the future.  I encourage you to join me in receiving their regular essays.

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throwing something before something


Happy Days in the Public Schools

I have been ecstatically and enthusiastically happy about being a school teacher for my entire professional life. I have been gifted the extraordinary insight to know who it is that has been sitting in front of me for the last 23 years. Never once has the thought of advancement, or administrative ladder climbing ever entered my head or my heart. When I have closed my door every school day for the last several decades, it is just me, a room full souls made in the image and

Myths, Fairy Tales, Poems and Songs!

Myths, Fairy Tales, Poems and Songs!

likeness of God, a mountain of odious and unused curricular materials, and what I have used without apology since the beginning, the myths, the fairy tales, Bible stories, epic poets, philosophers, the great mathematicians all to great effect and all unmeasurable by the great eye of the state overseers.

I have known for a long time that there was something dreadfully wrong with modern methods of education; I understand now that it has been the ideologues in the universities who began to treat the human students as a scientific algorithm and with self-professed genius came up with a stupid scheme like “outcomes based education” in an attempt to mine human potential with about as much chance of success as harvesting gold from a hay bail.

The nails in the coffin of my teaching career in the public schools was my 24 days of intensive training in the Common Core last year. If ever the empress was revealed to be naked, it was there in that intensive training. I don’t possess the talent or the vocabulary to adequately articulate what a farce the Common Core really is or how incredibly devoid of humanity it is in comparison with an authentic education. I make the bold claim that with the Common Core, there is no baby to throw out with the bath water.

Houdini may not have made as seamless an escape from his fetters as I did from the public saved_by_the_eaglesschools. Two months into my new teaching position at Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta, I feel like my family and I were swept away by a clan of giant eagles, as Tolkien would have wished for us. It was in the nick of time because this coming year was the year of full implementation of the mind-numbing curriculum we developed based on the idiotic standards proffered by the Common Core inventors and I am afraid I would have lost my remaining threads of cover and been exposed for the subversive that I am.

In my 23 years, I was never shy about expressing my opinion against the odious outcomes based education, however, my words were never received well by my bosses. I enjoyed labels, names and slanders to my reputation that really made no difference in the grand scheme of things, but all that prepared me for what I experienced this last Wednesday, September 24th, 2014, in Milledgeville, Georgia, during the House Study Committee on the Role of Federal Government in Education meeting.


On the steps of the governor’s mansion.

It was my honor to prepare remarks concerning the state of modern education over the last 40 years and to speak truthfully about the incompetence of the entire Common Core agenda and to try to explain why. It was an extraordinary experience speaking before the committee, and I must admit that I was not prepared at all for this kind of venue. I am used to a very open, inquisitive and forgiving audience. All the details about who was there and what transpired can be accessed here. Suffice it to say I was a little fish in a big pond, but I did it anyway.

One of the most jarring things about that experience is that I should have realized that I  ought not to have tried to explain the philosophical errors that undergird modern education. And though it is clear the committee understood my overarching points, like the assertion that the modern schools have failed for generations, and that the Common Core is not the answer, it was clear by the questions and answers following my presentation that some on the panel did not follow my explanation. We were in fact not speaking the same language.


It took me 20 minutes to read my remarks and then I was questioned for 20 minutes more. I felt so overwhelmed by the experience that I thought I had trouble responding to the questions. I also felt that there was hostility. However, memory influenced by sentiment makes a poor historian. When I watched the video footage this morning I learned that I didn’t handle myself as poorly as I had remembered, and that the panel was not as hostile as I had thought, at least it appeared that way on the video.

If anyone is interested the entire meeting is on video with the posted link at the bottom under “video archive” and remarkable statements were made by the likes of Joy Pullman, Sandra Stotsky, James Milgram, and Richard Innes. Then there were a few concerned parents who gave heartfelt and sensible remarks, and at the end, there were two college professors from the Georgia College and state university college of education who gave self-serving testimony. My portion begins around 5 hours and 30 minutes and goes for about 40 minutes.

I am glad I was able to speak, but in the end I don’t know that it was to good effect. In the final analysis, some on the panel were not interested in asking whether what was said was true or false but interested in discrediting the witnesses. With them, there was no real dialogue, just a probing to see if there were any chinks in the armor so that words of truth can be ignored by an overemphasis on an apparent discrepancy. In my case, a particularly obtuse parent tried to suggest that because I worked for a private school, even though I just began, that I may not be in touch with the nature of public schools. In the end this may be an exercise in futility. But still, I would rather have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.


My daughter Kenya had my back!

The personal upside to this is that I got to work with the APP, to meet some very good folks. Maybe not all was in vain, because after the proceedings, one representative of the House approached me and said he appreciated my comments. He gave me his card and told me to stay in touch. He confided in me that he supports the classical model of education. Also, my daughter Kenya came with me to witness the proceedings. It was an education for her as it was for me and our class was enjoyable as we discussed it in detail on the two hour car ride.

In delusions of grandeur, I thought I would enter the House Committee and speak noble words capable of turning the hearts and minds of ardent supporters of the Common Core. In a summary of retrospect, where the view backwards yields far more sobriety, I would say that not only did I use the wrong words, I failed to understand the terms of the debate.

The problem with the entire Common Core debate is that it is taking place on the wrong grounds. An authentic education cannot be reduced to a series of political and empirically scientific arguments, as has the debate about public education in the past decades and the Common Core today. The nature of human learning concerning the development of the human person and for the common good ought to take place in at least the realm of natural law and the philosophical tradition.

The simple truth is that the proponents of Common Core have reduced the terms to the

material dialectic where the arbitrary measurable outcome becomes the summum bonum. This reduction takes the human and turns him into an animal to be trained.

What is required to resolve this educational fiasco is to wrest the debate from the death grip of the political ideologues and to take it from the playing field of materialism and return it to the sphere of natural law, where the family is truly the building block of civilization and the education of the children returns to being the transmission of civilization in the process of cultivating the virtues. The philosophy of the Common core is antithetical to this. I hope for more opportunities to try to persuade the policy makers, who I know want the best for our children and our society as we all do, that we are headed down the very wrong path.

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