In recent months, we’ve offered a few posts here in our Scholar’s Forum having to do with the impact and opportunity of Petra Academy’s particular brand of classical Christian education.
In January, we introduced you to Petra senior Valerie Lewis and the significant impact that her time at Petra has had on her life (Educational Freedom). In February, I recounted a conversation with a mom weary of the cultural tension she felt in sending her kids to a classical Christian school (Preaching What We Need to Hear).
As we open up enrollment and finish the month of March, I’d like to combine an interesting 2017 study by the Barna Research Group (What Parents Look for in Christian Schools) with a few takeaways from Association of Classical and Christian School president, David Goodwin. Whether you’re a current or prospective Petra parent, I trust you’ll find yourself somewhere in the study.
THE GOALS OF EDUCATION
One question we always ask parents (current and prospective) during enrollment season is, “What are your education goals for your kids?” Barna posed a similar question and received familiar answers:
When it comes to what they consider to be the goals or ultimate purpose of education, parents of both current ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International) students and prospective students want more for their children than a list of accomplishments or path to wealth. Parents clearly think of schools as meeting a complex range of student and family needs. Of course, that includes academic subjects. It also includes other ways of developing and nurturing children.
Barna asked these parents to choose the top five purposes of education. For both groups of parents, the most selected goal of education is to instill strong principles and values (current: 69%, prospective: 53%).”
While it may seem there are differences between prospective and current parents’ views, they are not so much qualitative as quantitative ones; both sets of parents want similar things, but the ordering and value of their priorities is not the same. For instance:
Prospective parents are more focused on objectives related to personal achievement and social skills like ‘practical life skills’ (51% compared to 31%), ‘increased opportunities in life’ (45% compared to 29%), and a ‘fulfilling career’ (38% compared to 22%). On the other hand, parents of current students place a higher priority on spiritual goals and a lower value on personal achievement…In addition to instilling strong principles and values, a majority of parents of current students place a high priority on five goals that include ‘love for God and other people’ (65% compared to 33%), the ‘ability to apply their knowledge’ (referred to as wisdom) (60% compared to 47%), ‘faithfulness and obedience to God’ (54% compared to 21%) and ‘leadership skills’ (52% compared to 46%).
Some parents may be vocal about STEM, sports, or AP electives. And some may care about these things. But, we should not take our eyes off what they really want the most.”
WHAT PARENTS WANT WHEN CHOOSING A SCHOOL
It’s no surprise that what Barna learned about what parents most want when choosing a school had to do with safety and staff:
Most parents are looking for a school that aligns with their general ideas about education—what a school should do. However, parents’ specific priorities when it comes to choosing a school seem to reveal another side to what they value in an education—what a school should be like.
Safety’s first. Next come quality teachers, academic excellence, and character development. Barna asked parents to rate 23 characteristics of a school from ‘essential’ to ‘nice to have’ to ‘not necessary.'”
Safety is at the top. This could be physical (building security). But, these days, it’s often the safety of their child’s feelings within the community…And genuine love cares for the souls of the students; it’s not simply a synonym for niceness. Parents can perceive the genuine love of a school as they interact with it.
There’s no substitute for good teachers. If your school values caring teachers who are accessible, it will be noticed.”
Regardless of whether you’re a current or prospective Petra parent, do these findings resonate with you? Are these some of the reasons you’re at Petra…or are thinking about being so? I’d love to hear your thoughts and interact with you if you’d care to email me.
In my next post, I’ll share some revealing findings from a survey conducted among our 7th-12th graders just before Spring Break. I think you’ll find it encouraging from a student point of view.
A “dramaturg” is someone whose expertise is in the literary composition and thematic elements of a play. This person works closely with the director to help in understanding the context and the major themes of the play, ensuring that the director’s vision doesn’t lose any of the author’s intention. Here is some dramaturgical insight from Humanities teacher, Ginny Owens, who teaches A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of our 8th grade curriculum:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an easy play to enjoy: between the young lovers striving for satisfactory marriages, the fairies who intervene (benevolently intended, though comically enacted), the hilarious play-within-a-play, and the play’s smart and self-conscious pivot between fantasy and reality, it offers just about everything we look for in a good comedy. Its title derives from a common legend that a young woman could dream, on midsummer’s night, of the man she would marry.
While the collision between the human world and the fairy world offers whimsy unique in the Shakespearean canon, its treatment of love – its struggles, its power, its danger, its elusiveness, its changeability – is a tale told time and time again. Because really, at its core, this play examines love, specifically why we love.
Shakespeare alerts us to this focus in the opening scene, where characters talk of marriage, love, and the moon, known for its nightly transformations, its inconstant phases, and its mythical ability to inspire lunacy. And so this play, funny and innocent at first glance, is after something deeper: it explores the fickleness of the human heart, how easily our hearts are led by what we see, how easily our love is directed by physical attraction.
Human love is, after all, vulnerable. We think that because it’s love, it’s supposed to be firm, and of course no one enters into love expecting his or her heart to change. And yet Shakespeare pulls back the veil and lets us see how prone to change our affections truly can be. The play’s fascination with the line between fantasy and reality (maximized by the uproariously obtuse Mechanicals) comes to a point in Theseus’ insightful line, “The madman, the poet, and the lover are of imagination all compact,” because they all see what isn’t there, but act as if what they see is real. Love sometimes makes no sense, but is it supposed to? Without this capacity, how would married love weather the decades following the glow of youthful beauty?
And so the play’s fascination with dream constantly forces us to ask what is real. How do we know? Can we trust our senses? Is love anchored in the eyes or, as Helena suggests, in the mind? The play’s interest in the moon’s changeability seems to suggest that love that alters each night can’t possibly be real – even if what is perceived through the eyes and thought to be beautifully attractive inspires seemingly eternal love.
Of course, this kind of intermittently committed affection might recall to us the fair-weather relationships that can so often characterize high school relationships – hence the setting of our play, Athens Academy, a space that brilliantly illuminates the tenuousness of the romantic affection and loyalty we see in Shakespeare’s characters. High schoolers that are avidly messaging each other and “into each other” in September, when the year is fresh and spirits are high, might have cooled by December, and suddenly what was once attractive is commonplace or even undesired.
Oberon’s vindictive prank on Titania unwittingly reveals the potential shallowness of young love: how easily young people can assign their love based on appearance and then abandon previously supposedly stalwart affection and relocate that affection onto a new recipient, how easily their loyalty can shift, and with it their “undying affection,” based on what – or whom – they see. And Shakespeare does not allow us to blame just the magical intervention for this altered affection: we must remember that prior to the action’s start, Demetrius and Helena had been a couple; he had pursued her just as ardently as he is now pursuing Hermia.
But lest we think that Shakespeare is indicting only adolescent love, we must realize that the only character who seems to see most clearly through the love-sight-transformation is Bottom, the most ridiculously myopic, fatuous character on the stage. Perhaps the truth is plain, but adults just aren’t often very good at recognizing it. Because this is what Shakespeare is good at: taking plain truth about the human condition and packaging it so that it can’t be ignored. That’s why we still read him and bring his plays to life on countless stages across the globe (ha ha) 400 years later.
Shakespeare’s work is relatably powerful because it pinpoints irreducible elements of humanity that characterize life, no matter the century or country in which one lives. People are the same, really, whether they lived in the 1590s or the 1900s or the 2000s. (And this play was funny and relatable in 1595 even without social media, Tinder, The Bachelor – how much more now?). We like to think that we outgrow the shallowness of stereotypical teenage love, but Shakespeare seems to suggest otherwise.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the adults are as willing as the young people to accept the rapidly transformed love that concludes the action. The question is, are we?
(Purchase tickets now for one of four performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7 p.m., March 28-30, and also on that Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.)
A few months ago, a Petra mom and I were discussing this article about classical education and the home when she started to tear up. When I asked her what was wrong, her response was genuine and heartfelt:
“I read that article and thought, ‘Great! Here are just more ways I’m failing as a parent,'” she shared. “As if what we do with our kids at Petra isn’t weird enough. It feels like we’re preparing them for a world that isn’t going to want them, and then what?”
Handing her a box of Kleenex, I asked a few more questions. Did something happen in her kids’ classes? Were her children struggling with what they were learning? She reassured me her concern was cultural, not academic.
“I know my kids are getting the best education at Petra, no question,” she said. “But the more we hold to the tenets of classical Christian education, the wider the gap seems to get between us and the world in which we have to live. I’m just weary of the tension.”
I could relate to her feelings of uncertainty, as very few of us at Petra (including your friendly neighborhood Headmaster) were educated classically. But somewhere along the line, we happened to taste this particular educational elixir, determined it to be good, true, and beautiful, and are attempting to drink the classical Kool-Aid to the dregs.
It would probably be a whole lot easier if we didn’t. But (and this was the question I eventually posed to the mom), what’s the alternative? Homeschooling? Perhaps for some, but not many do it well in breadth and depth. Unschooling? Depends on your definition (as well as your threshold for ambiguity). Online? Maybe for the information, but there’s little real relationship that goes beyond the screen. Government schooling? For many (and for many different reasons), that dog just won’t hunt.
We both agreed: nothing compares to a classical Christian education as the third institution alongside family and Church to form a child’s mental and moral frame. But if done well, nothing’s as challenging either, which is why we often begin to have doubts, particularly if left alone with them.
Maybe, like the mom mentioned above, you’re tired…or afraid…or both. Maybe all of this is new to you, and you want reassurance from other parents further down the road that the path you (and they) are on is for your kids’ best.
Or maybe you’re married to the mom mentioned above, and you’re wondering how to counsel…or console…or both. Maybe all this is new to you as well, and you’re wondering if what’s best for your kids (and your spouse) is worth it or might be found somewhere else.
As we continue through the school year to the beginning of re-enrollment, now is as good a time as any for our upcoming Adventure Awaits celebration. We – all of us – need to be encouraged, inspired, and reassured in a way that reminds us why, at some point in the past, we thought the history and tradition of a classical and Christian education made the most sense for our kids.
We need to rub shoulders with others who are a few steps further down the road than we are in their decision. We need to welcome potential new parents who are a few steps behind where we might be and need to hear from us. After all, as the itinerant Irish preacher Bono says, “Sometimes you preach what you need to hear.” Indeed, for their sake…and for ours.
If you’ve yet to purchase tickets for yourself and others you would invite, please do so even this week. Spots are going fast and we don’t want you or anyone you might want to invite to miss this opportunity. I promise you three things about Adventure Awaits: 1) it will be fun; 2) it will be inspiring; and 3) you’ll be glad you came.
And, during these cold February days, if you’re feeling at all like the Petra mom above, please reach out as she did, either to a fellow parent, a teacher, a staff member, or even me. What we’re trying to do as a counter-cultural educational movement is not hard; it’s impossible! The saving grace is that we have the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and each other, all of whom I believe will make the difference – for the good of our kids and the desperate world into which we’ll send them.
See you Thursday, February 28, from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Adventure Awaits!
With over a hundred million sets of eyes making up its viewership, one could argue that the Super Bowl wins the Lombardi Trophy as the sports event champion of commercialization. But is there more to the spectacle than meets the eyes?
In his book, Desiring the Kingdom (as well as its more user-friendly version, You Are What You Love), Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith has written much about the significance of modern cultural liturgies, including those of professional American football.
In his commentary for The Washington Post in 2017, Smith wrote about the “spectacular display of America’s ‘God and country’ obsession,” identifying so many of the liturgies within a game of the National Football League (NFL) for what they truly are: worship.
I recalled Smith’s observations last night while watching the second half of the Super Bowl. In the cathedral of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the devoted disciples practiced their faith, with all the sights and rites, smells and bells of a worldwide religion.
There were signs, symbols, and sacraments that all had their place in this praise of the pigskin. Historical narratives – incorporating heroes of the past and the miracles they performed – were told and retold in an oral tradition of talent’s tale.
The pre-game and halftime shows set the stage for the eventual procession of the Lombardi Trophy through rows of parishioners to the altar, as carried by its priests, Vince Wilfork, Emmitt Smith (note the sacramental gloves), and Joe Namath.
After a brief presentation from Roger Goodell, Nuncio of the NFL, the evening finally culminated in the communion of the saints (minus the Saints), with the Brady one himself taking his place as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) as prophesied:
The GOAT charged furiously at the ram and struck him, breaking off both his horns. Now the ram was helpless, and the GOAT knocked him down and trampled him. No one could rescue the ram from the GOAT’s power.” (Daniel 8:7, NLT)
Okay, okay, so the Scripture reference to Brady is definitely tongue-in-cheek, but it’s not hard to see the elements of worship in the rest, is it? Some critics might suggest a “reading into” of these elements that just happen to make up the biggest game of the year, but two questions we should ask are: 1) Why do these elements happen to make up the biggest game of the year? and 2) What does that mean?
Teaching and training students to ask and answer questions like these are at the heart of what we are trying to do at Petra. Even as we consider the NFL and those who worship at its altar on Sundays, we want to help students go deeper in understanding their own loves as well, learning to rightly evaluate and order them as St. Augustine exhorts us to do:
…living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.” (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
But helping students do this requires thinking differently. As Smith wrote in You Are What You Love,
What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire?” (pg. 7)
The Super Bowl as just another football game?
Tell that to someone who loves it.
(Valerie Lewis is a senior at Petra Academy and recently spoke at a capitol briefing in Helena as part of National School Choice Week, January 21-25, 2019. The following is the manuscript of her message.)
When I first began attending Petra Academy, I was an angry eleven-year-old determined not to like her new school. I was infuriated at my mom for forcing me to leave my friends and move away from the small town I had lived in for my entire life. The thought of going to a school where I had to wear a uniform, recite long paragraphs, and study Latin made me utterly disgusted. And, being the dramatic sixth grader that I was, I constantly told my mom that she was “ruining my life,” that I would “never forgive her,” and that, “as soon as I became a high schooler, I would go to public school like a normal kid.”
Standing here today, I cannot be more happy to admit how wrong I was six-and-a-half years ago. I cannot express how grateful I am that my mom chose to send me to the school that she did and how hard she worked in order to make this happen, but I can confidently say that I am a better person because of the education I have received.
One of the reasons I began to enjoy my school was that I did not feel like a statistic or another face in the crowd. I have personally witnessed that every student is listened to, and has a chance to speak and contribute to class discussions. I know all of the seventh through twelfth graders by name, and students in the older grades are encouraged to talk to and become friends with those who are younger. It has truly been a welcoming environment that I have not been able to find anywhere else.
Beyond the benefits of its environment, my school has given me an education many can only dream of. I have read and now own an entire bookshelf of western classics and have been taught by some of the most brilliant and caring teachers I wish everyone had the opportunity to know. My teachers have challenged me daily and have taught me many things that still, and always will, amaze me. They are willing to help and answer questions no matter how busy they are, which is something I appreciate more than words can say.
My education has helped me to have a new outlook on the world, and has given me a desire to learn more. I now truly understand how incredibly fortunate I am to have been given all of these opportunities.
I could continue talking about the benefits I have experienced through my education at a private school; however, I cannot ignore the fact that for most families, attending one is a financial impossibility. This reality could not be more true for my family. My mom has certainly never had, nor now has the means to pay for my full tuition. But, for almost seven years, I have been incredibly blessed to receive financial aid. Every year I have received two scholarships, one from my school directly, and one from ACE Scholarships. These have significantly decreased the amount my mom has had to pay and have ultimately made private school a possibility for me.
As I mentioned before, my time at Petra has changed me more than I could ever have imagined. When I first began, I did not want to be there, but by the end of every year, attending another school the following fall was no longer a thought in my mind. However, at the end of my sophomore year, a few weeks before finals, my mom and I were incredibly worried that I would not be able to return. After my mom had filled out the financial information needed to apply for a scholarship, there was a mistake. Somehow her income was recorded to be almost $20,000 more than what it actually was, and she was sent an email that I would not be receiving the previous scholarship amount from my school.
The night that she opened this email, I was working late on a Biology lab report. I remember walking into the kitchen to find my mom crying. She explained to me that we had not received enough scholarship money and that I might not be able to finish my last two years of high school at Petra. I remember lying awake the entire night and going to school the next day constantly on the verge of tears. I could not imagine the possibility of leaving and did not know what I would do if I had to. Thankfully, my mom was able to find the problem in the processing of the application and everything was sorted out.
As I start my last semester of high school, and begin to prepare for college and my future professional career, I want to express how important I now believe it is that parents be able to send their children to the school of their choice. I do not know what my life would be like if I had not been able to attend a private school, but I am fairly certain that I would not be as motivated, hardworking, and goal-oriented as Petra has taught me to be. Petra Academy is an incredibly challenging school, but it has helped me to think critically and wisely about everything.
I believe that all kids should be allowed to have the same opportunities that I have had, regardless of their financial or family background. I am sure that there are countless parents who are just like my mom – parents who desire to send their children to a school like Petra, but simply cannot afford to do so. I wonder how life might be different for the children of these parents if they could have the opportunity and the freedom of attending the school and education of their choice. I sincerely hope that more will be done to aid parents who seek to provide their children with the type of education they feel best meet the needs of their children and family, and I hope that in the future, more and more kids will be able to experience all that I have.
Late last week, one of our Elementary teachers told me of a conversation she had with a student struggling to come back to school after Christmas break. The end of their discussion had gone like this:
Teacher: “I don’t always feel like coming to school, either, but this is what God has called me to do. I want to obey, so this is why I come to school.”
Student: “So I should obey and come to school because this is what God has called me to do?”
Teacher: “That’s right. For now, this is your work.”
Student: “Hmmm. Makes sense, I guess. Where do you work?”
I had to laugh – somehow it had never occurred to the student that what his teacher did with him all day was “work”. While I’m not sure how he would exactly describe it, I bet this phrase from our mission does: “…to awaken love and wonder in our students…”
Thanks be to God for teachers who make “work” look like anything but! And thanks for your prayers, that love and wonder awaken in our students – no matter their age – at Petra.
“You have to sacrifice yourself to the college gods.”
This quote comes from this article in the September 17, 2018, issue of The Bozeman Daily Chronicle. In it, the writer interviewed local high school students describing the pressure they felt to prepare for post-secondary education. The quote was the students’ solution, as well as The Chronicle’s above-the-fold headline.
No question: success requires sacrifice. But do the “college gods” (whoever and wherever they are) really hold that kind of power for a student’s ultimate success? If so, how did we let that happen? And if not, why do nearly all the students interviewed for the article believe they do?
This coming May, Petra Academy will graduate 11 seniors with a class ACT average of 25.7 (3.5 points higher than the composite score of 22.2 of all Montana AA schools). More importantly (and in line with our Portrait of a Graduate), we are working to see them graduate with virtue and mature character, a solid faith and sound reason, masterful eloquence, vision and skills of a competent and passionate culture-maker, literacy through broad and deep reading, and an aesthetic wisdom about the world in which they live.
Most will go to college; some will take a year off to work; none will sacrifice themselves to the “college gods,” because they know good grades and resumes (both of which they have) only go so far. Their credentials are who they are as Christians, what they’ve learned, and how they’ve been taught to love and redeem a broken world.
But we need your financial help to continue to teach and train students in this way. Did you know:
– the average cost to educate a Petra student is only half of what it costs Montana public schools?
– our average teacher salary is 18% lower than the average Bozeman public school teacher salary? Our teachers love what they do, but we are committed to closing that gap.
– one-third of our student body (61 of 184 total students) receive some form of financial assistance?
We need to raise $30,000 by December 31, 2018, and another $100,000 by July 31, 2019, to meet our 2018-19 budget and fulfill commitments to our families, teachers, and students. As you consider your year-end giving, would you prayerfully consider a donation to Petra Academy? We’ve made it easier than ever to give!
Thanks for helping students avoid the altar of the “college gods.” And thanks in advance for considering a tax-deductible gift to Petra Academy as part of your year-end giving.
On behalf of everyone at Petra Academy, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Craig Dunham Sarah Storebo
Headmaster Chair of the Board of Directors
Highlights so far from the 2018-2019 school year:
- Enrolled 184 Pre-K through 12th-grade students
- Expanded third year of Orchestra, now up to 18 students from 6 in 2016
- Focused third year of 7th-12 grade Lyceum talks on variety, ideas, and melody in classical music
- Enrolled 20 students in Computer Science I & II who will also receive college credit from Gallatin College/Montana State University
- Celebrated with senior Hannah Kempf as she won the National Center for Women & Information Technology’s computing award
- Continued second year of math tracking (standard/advanced) for 7th-12th math classes
- Hired qualified new art teacher Krista Baziak
- Sold out both performances of second annual fall play, The Servant of Two Masters
- Hosted Shakespeare Festival with Shakespeare in the Schools’ performance of Julius Caesar
- Hosted evening Schola Cantorum concert featuring 4th-8th choir and orchestra performances
- Hired passionate new athletic director/physical education teacher Clete Seyle
- Enjoyed second year of successful JV co-ed soccer (record 11-3)
- Made first appearance in Montana Christian Athletic Association state volleyball tournament
- Fielded four levels (5th-6th, 7th-8th, JV, varsity) of girls volleyball and boys basketball teams
- Strengthened relationships among the grades within our 7th-12th-grade house system
- Continued monthly (Pre-K through 6th) and quarterly (7th through 12th) recitations
- Launched monthly “Follow-Up Fridays” for parents to connect with Headmaster and Board Chair
- Scheduled record facility rental use to share our campus with the Bozeman community
- Served as a leader in our local Christian community, modeling healthy relationships that transcend denominational lines of families from over 35 churches in the Gallatin Valley
- Served as a leading school within the Association of Classical and Christian Schools nationally, and specifically within the northwest
- Exceeded $25,000 Spell-a-thon goal by raising $25,924 in operational/capital funds
- Launched new gym and sports field banner sponsorship program (10 banners so far at $1,300 each; space still available – call 406-582-8165 if interested in advertising your business)
- Led invigorating staff training with a corporate reading/discussion of The Liberal Arts Tradition
We appreciate your support of Petra Academy. If you haven’t yet (or haven’t recently), we hope you’ll stop by for a tour, recitation, concert, play, or game!
At last week’s Schola Cantorum concert, I thanked those younger students not yet in one of our programs for the good attention they showed their older siblings who were performing. “If you want to show someone you love them,” I said, “you listen to them.” I was surprised by how many parents came up to me afterward to voice their approval of that sentiment.
Now that we have four Petra basketball teams competing each week, I’d like to offer a corollary for the court: “If you want to show someone you love them, you cheer for them and watch them play.”
If you’ve been to a game, you may have seen me occasionally ask students (ours or others) to refrain from grabbing a basketball at halftime or between games to head out on the court to shoot. My goal in doing this is not to be mean, but to encourage students to respect and support team members who have put in the hard work to wear the uniform.
As we pursue excellence in the classroom, I want to see us do the same in our competitions and the way we think about what a Petra athletic event is and should be. I want to raise the profile of what it takes to participate in athletics and honor the effort of those who give themselves to a sport in addition to their studies.
Our uber-informal Bozeman culture, coupled with an overly child-centric American parenting view, can work against us in terms of teaching kids delayed gratification and the value of earning a spot on a team. Setting aside the court (or sports field) for those who have fulfilled the requirements to be there is a small push back against the entitlement mentality that teaches kids they can do what they want by just showing up.
Thank you for teaching and helping your young ones understand that, on game days, the court is reserved for the athletes playing the games. One day, your aspiring athlete will get his or her turn, and we will show them we love them by being there to cheer for them and watch them play.
After last month’s Elementary Recitation, an uncle of one of our students found me afterward in the Atrium. After brief introductions (and with his niece’s not-quite-school-aged sibling riding on his shoulders), he told me how much he enjoyed seeing our young students recite what they were learning and how impressed he was with our school.
“When I think of my own schooling years, I shake my head,” he said, doing exactly what he described. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “But I see the progress of humanity here.”
I recently thought about his observation while reading two books. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is a succinct analysis of three “untruths” running rampant on many college campuses today:
– the untruth of fragility (what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker)
– the untruth of emotional reasoning (always trust your feelings)
– the untruth of “us versus them” (life is a battle between good people and evil people)
The authors examine how these untruths have played out at universities in the past five years, leading to campuses and students increasingly marked by intimidation, violence, witch hunts, polarization, anxiety, and depression. Some of this, they say, is due to paranoid parenting and a decline of child’s play at younger ages; some has to do with a “bureaucracy of safetyism” and an unhealthy pursuit of justice without proper proportionality. Whatever the combination, the result is all too familiar:
In 2017, 58% of college students said it is ‘important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.’ This statement was endorsed by 63% of very liberal students, but it’s a view that is not confined to the left; almost half of very conservative students (45%) endorsed that statement, too. (pgs. 48-49)
After a multitude of case studies and insights to convincingly illustrate their points, the authors offer practical suggestions for kids, universities, and societies to try to deal with and address the untruths. They recommend letting kids take more risks, as well as learn the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy so they can rightly deal with poor self-esteem; they call colleges and universities to endorse the Chicago Statement on free speech and academic freedom and to establish a practice of not responding to public outrage when pressure hits the fan; they suggest societies hold social media companies’ feet to the flames by tweaking algorithms to contribute less to echo chambering and lessen the negative effects of device use.
While these are needed conduits for change, if there are missing pieces from the authors’ solution, they are agency and content. This is where The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Nebraska senator Ben Sasse is to be commended, in particular the excellent chapters on education (“More School Isn’t Enough”) and reading (“Build a Bookshelf”). He writes:
I think the problem is that we already overmanage the lives of young adults rather than that we are not offering them enough bubble wrap. I take issue with the notion that young adults are incapable of making choices or acting independently. It is clearly true that they aren’t very good at it, but that is because we failed to help them learn how to seize the reins and do it themselves much earlier – in primary and middle school – and doesn’t mean that we should still be choosing and acting for them after high school.” (pg. 76)
But what specifically should students choose and act upon? Sasse understands the need for ancient wisdom to inform modern what-to-dos, invoking Dorothy Sayers, a matron saint of classical Christian education in America:
In arguably the most important essay on education written in the last century, English author Dorothy Sayers railed against the power of educational ‘specialists’ who act like the rest of us couldn’t or shouldn’t fully own our own process of learning. Education, she argued in 1948 in ‘The Lost Tools of Learning,’ is inherently about the goals of lives well lived; it is about the good, the true, and the beautiful.” (pg. 78)
Sasse then channels writings of the Greeks, Puritans, and Founding Fathers for a better way forward, elaborating on what the aforementioned transcendentals translate to:
America…was founded deliberately, by people with strong ideas about heaven and hell, about rights and responsibilities, about public and private – and about the kind of society that would promote virtuous living and serious thinking…The correctly American answer has always been for the state to stand down, for people to pursue their dreams and to seek ultimate meaning outside of politics, and for citizens to sort through their arguments and debates in a liberal, open public square by persuasion, not by either forced or prohibited speech.” (pgs. 207-208; 223-224)
To get at these strong ideas, students have to accept the challenge to read and discuss them. This is why our Petra reading list in the hands of our capable teachers is second to none when it comes to promoting virtuous living and serious thinking. And this is why our students win supposed “non-humanities” competitions and awards; if people are involved, the humanities pertain!
I don’t know all that our student’s uncle was thinking when he claimed to see “the progress of humanity” at Petra. I’m guessing he caught a glimpse of how young students learning to handle prose and poetry in a monthly recitation might, across the years, prepare those same students to stand before (and sometimes against) one another in healthy dialogue and debate as to the greater good later. Since that’s rarely done much anymore, perhaps I better understand his wistful surprise.
As the folk saying goes, “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
Surely this is what “the progress of humanity” requires…and always has.
(The following homily was given at Petra Academy’s All Saints’ Feast.)
All Saints’ Day is a holy day that the Orthodox church traces back to church father John Chrysostom in the 4th century as a recognition of saints – many of whom were martyrs – celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Parthenon at Rome to Mary and the martyrs, initiated the practice in the Catholic church in 609 A.D. before Pope Gregory III officially established the holy day on November 1 in the mid-eighth century.
Historically, Catholic churches have thought of “saints” as those officially canonized or “made” saints by the church, but in the Orthodox church, as well as in many Protestant denominations today, All Saints’ Day is celebrated as a remembrance of departed Christians from any time and place – those whom Hebrews 12:1 calls a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding the Church universal. Thus, All Saints’ Day is a day on which we honor faithful believers who have died, but also those by whom we are sitting even now.
I wonder, though, if we really believe this – that we are sitting next to saints? I know that I struggle with the idea, not so much because I know all of you but because I know me. I’m much more likely to think of myself as a sinner saved by grace than a saint who sins.
How do you think about yourself? As someone who usually messes up but miraculously gets it right every now and then? Or as someone who is loved and cherished even (and especially) when he messes up? Does it matter? I think it does.
Let me tell you a Little Mr. Dunham story.
When Little Mr. Dunham was in 7th grade, he played basketball on a really good school team. Little Mr. Dunham wasn’t the best player on the team, but he was a perfectionist and often got down on himself pretty easily if he didn’t play up to his standards. One night, after a particularly bad game, Little Mr. Dunham came home, threw his duffel bag in the corner of his room, sat down at his desk, and carved into the wood a question: “Why does Little Mr. Dunham play basketball?” And then, in the throes of true teenage angst, he carved the answer: “No apparent reason.”
Little Mr. Dunham’s coach noticed his tendency to get down on himself and made the comment to Little Mr. Dunham’s parents that he was going to die at the age of 14 from beating himself up over his perfectionistic ways. Little Mr. Dunham’s parents told him this, which made him feel even worse…until his parents told him what the coach had also said: “But he’s the smartest player I’ve ever coached.”
This was what Little Mr. Dunham needed. He knew he would never be the fastest player or the best rebounder or the top scorer, so he tried to play up to what the coach had said about him being the smartest player. Someone else loved him enough to believe in him, and that made all the difference for Little Mr. Dunham and his team for the next six years. He no longer thought of himself as a bad player who only rarely and miraculously got things right; instead, he learned (and it was a process) to think of himself as a smart player who, yes, sometimes missed the mark, but was loved and trusted by his coach and his teammates anyway.
It’s true that you and I are sinners – ones who miss the mark of God’s commanded perfection. It’s also true that, if we trust in the work Jesus has done for us on the cross, we are sinners saved by grace – by a love we never deserved, but were given anyway. It is only by this undeserved love any of us can call ourselves Christians.
But God thinks of those who are Christians much more as saints who sin instead of merely sinners saved by grace. There are plenty of passages from the Psalms (among other books) that tell us this (see Psalm 16:3; 30:4; 31:23; 34:9; 37:28; 85:8; 97:10; 116:15; 132:9; 132:16; 145:10; 148:14).
It feels good and means a lot to hear God call us his saints, but I wish we were better at thinking of each other in this way. Sometimes we don’t treat each other like saints at all. We talk poorly about one another; we do mean things to one another; we think of ourselves as being better than one another.
You know where we most often see this happen at school? On the playground, in the garment rooms, in the hallways, in the gymnasium, in the bathrooms in the parking lot – places where we think no adult is watching or listening closely, but God always is.
C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and so many other great books you’ll read at Petra, writes in his book, The Weight of Glory, about how he, too, wished we could see each other more as God sees us because of Jesus. Listen to what he wrote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
We are called to see our fellow Christians the way God sees us – not just as sinners saved by grace (though we are), but also as saints who sin (because we do).
What would it look like if we thought of and spoke to and played with one another in ways that saw the good in one another rather than only the not-so-good? What if we believed – really believed – that when others sin against us and hurt our feelings, we should forgive them because they are saints who sometimes sin rather than dirty, rotten sinners saved by grace and a real pain in the neck? What if we ourselves experienced this kind of forgiveness when we hurt others but were treated as saints who sometimes sinned rather than sinners saved by grace?
As we celebrate All Saints’ Day and think about those who have gone before us, let’s remember to honor those saints we see everyday – at Petra and elsewhere. Let’s believe the best in one another, stand shoulder to shoulder with one another, and talk to and not about one another. And while we can all heartily affirm that, indeed, we are sinners saved by grace, let us also pray for courage for one another to live not just as ordinary people or mere mortals, but as saints – yes, who sin – but as saints nevertheless because of Jesus, who died on the cross to make us so.
This truth (and our unity as saints surrounding them) is what we celebrate today, just as those before us celebrated as well.