reading and literature

The Rigorous Training of the Mind: A Compelling Reason for Education

I recently read an article by Pastor John Piper in which he argues for providing rigorous training of our children’s minds so that they will be able to read the Bible with understanding. He presents his case with such eloquence that I decided to share it with you. Pastor Piper does not mention classical Christian education directly, but he doesn’t have to.

I was reading and meditating on the book of Hebrews recently, when it hit me forcefully that a basic and compelling reason for education—the rigorous training of the mind—is so that a person can read the Bible with understanding.

This sounds too obvious to be useful or compelling. But that‘s just because we take the preciousness of reading so for granted; or, even more, because we appreciate so little the kind of thinking that a complex Bible passage requires of us.

The book of Hebrews, for example, is an intellectually challenging argument from Old Testament texts. The points that the author makes hang on biblical observations that come only from rigorous reading, not light skimming. And the understanding of these Old Testament interpretations in the text of Hebrews requires rigorous thought and mental effort. The same could be said for the extended argumentation of Romans and Galatians and the other books of the Bible.

This is an overwhelming argument for giving our children a disciplined and rigorous training in how to think an author‘s thoughts after him from a text—especially a biblical text. An alphabet must be learned, as well as vocabulary, grammar, syntax, the rudiments of logic, and the way meaning is imparted through sustained connections of sentences and paragraphs.

The reason Christians have always planted schools where they have planted churches is because we are a people of THE BOOK. It is true that THE BOOK will never have its proper effect without prayer and the Holy Spirit. It is not a textbook to be debated; it is a fountain for spiritual thirst, and food for the soul, and a revelation of God, and a living power, and a two-edged sword. But none of this changes the fact: apart from the discipline of reading, the Bible is as powerless as paper. Someone might have to read it for you; but without reading, the meaning and the power of it are locked up.

Is it not remarkable how often Jesus settled great issues with a reference to reading? For example, in the issue of the Sabbath he said, “Have you not read what David did?” (Matthew 12:3). In the issue of divorce and remarriage he said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matthew 19:4). In the issue of true worship and praise he said, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (Matthew 21:16). In the issue of the resurrection he said, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’?” (Matthew 21:42). And to the lawyer who queried him about eternal life he said, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” (Luke 10:26).

The apostle Paul also gave reading a great place in the life of the church. For example, he said to the Corinthians, “We write nothing else to you than what you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the end” (2 Corinthians 1:13). To the Ephesians he said, “When you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:3). To the Colossians he said, “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). Reading the letters of Paul was so important that he commands it with an oath: “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren” (1 Thessalonians 5:27).

The ability to read does not come intuitively. It must be taught. And learning to read with understanding is a life-long labor. The implications for Christians are immense. Education of the mind in the rigorous discipline of thoughtful reading is a primary goal of school. The church of Jesus is debilitated when his people are lulled into thinking that it is humble or democratic or relevant to give a merely practical education that does not involve the rigorous training of the mind to think hard and to construe meaning from difficult texts.

The issue of earning a living is not nearly so important as whether the next generation has direct access to the meaning of the Word of God. We need an education that puts the highest premium under God on knowing the meaning of God‘s Book, and growing in the abilities that will unlock its riches for a lifetime. It would be better to starve for lack of food than to fail to grasp the meaning of the book of Romans. Lord, let us not fail the next generation!

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One more poem

From a student that I am quite proud of:

Pleasant Sounds

The chatter of over fifty people,

Squirrels running over dead leaves in the fall.

Birds chirping in the trees

And oven buttons clicking on Saturday morning.

The car starting when my family goes on trips,

And the sound of people screaming at a football game.

Leaves falling to the ground

And the sound of people battling with swords.

When people jump into a pool and the squishy sound of people stepping in mud.

The sound of my little brother and cousin crying.

A dragonfly buzzing right past you

And the sound of a zipper zipping on a cold winter morning.

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My Poets

Sharing poetry with my students is a goal that I have for the year.  I have the poems which I have collected from numerous sources printed on overhead transparencies.  Three times a week I display the poems on the board for all to see.  I usually read the poem once and then call on a male voice and female voice to read during the week.  Each day we try to unfold some new aspect of the poem discussing the vocabulary, syllable form, style and flavor of each poem and poet.

We recently read John Clare’s Pleasant Sounds and I asked my students to brainstorm some of their favorite sounds.  The lights were off and some of my students’ pencils couldn’t stop scrawling across their page.  The next day I handed my students the task of composing a poem of their own favorite or pleasant sounds.  I was most pleased with their work and would like to share a poem or two with you.

Pleasant Sound

The chirping of birds in the distance,

Trickling of water down the stream,

Laughter of children on the playground,

Shouts of joy for my team.

Rain hitting on my window,

Creatures scampering about,

Horses hooves in the fields,

The honk of a mailman on his route.

Dad cheering for the Aggies,

Knives hitting the plate,

Ladies sipping their tea,

The speeches in debate.

composed by Annaleigh

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Literature Comes to Life in the Fifth Grade

The Regents fifth grade class celebrated their reading of the literature title The Witch of Blackbird Pond on Monday with costumes and presentations about the American colonial period.

Students dressed as characters from the novel and prepared presentation boards. The fifth graders were inspired and led by their teacher, Miss Ruth Hoffmann.

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Taste, Swallow, Chew, Digest

Our culture seems to have a love-hate relationship with reading. Book-selling is big business, but the entertainment industry is bigger. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that American adults watch 2.8 hours of TV per day, while the Kaiser Family Foundation documents an average of only 25 minutes spent reading daily. The BLS also reports that in 2009 “individuals ages 15 to 19 read for an average of 5 minutes per weekend day while spending 1 hour playing games or using a computer for leisure.” I venture to say that most children could more readily identify SpongeBob than Mark Twain. I hope I’m wrong.

I once saw a sign that said, “If you can read this thank a teacher.” Parents of Regents Academy students in particular should thank their children’s teachers. Regents teachers are preparing their students to read, and read well. Reading instruction takes place in phonics, spelling, literature, science, history, Omnibus – indeed, across the curriculum. And this is a wonderful gift. Reading well is essential for a well-educated mind and indispensable for a life lived well. As Mortimer Adler wrote, “Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.”

One key training ground for readers in grades 2-12 is the Regents Reading Program, in which
students read one book on their own each quarter. These books are high quality literature that challenges them and, Lord willing, fosters a love for reading. Teachers lead students to choose books that they will enjoy and that will kindle their imaginations. Reading a good book is its own reward, but I hope that our students are being rewarded in other ways as well, as they sense the accomplishment and excitement that comes from reading.

English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon said this of reading: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

Taste, swallow, chew, digest. There is a book for every purpose. Our job is to set the table and whet the appetite. With the guidance of excellent teachers, the enthusiasm of parents, the diligence of students, and the strength of the Lord, together we can create a culture that values and inspires reading and that cultivates “weighing and considering.” I would encourage you, parents, to read good books yourself, read aloud to your children, be involved in the books your children are reading, and donate good books to our school library.

Then go find a teacher and say thank you.

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A Compelling Reason for Rigorous Training of the Mind

I love Pastor John Piper’s exhortation to rigorous training of the mind.

A basic and compelling reason for education—the rigorous training of the mind—is so that a person can read the Bible with understanding.

That is so obvious that it is utterly profound.

I am reminded that this is one of the great reasons we are engaged in the labor of classical Christian education. A mind that is shaped and nurtured to read the Bible well is a mind that is not easily taken in by the lies and half-lies of a thousand bankrupt philosophies and worldviews but is instead prepared to live in truth and wisdom, to the glory of God.

Read on!

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An 18-Year-Old in K-Prep?

One of the things I love about Regents Academy is the way our students live together as a family. It is a  unique element of our school’s culture. Recently the seniors went down the hall to read aloud to the grammar school  students — and they all loved it.

Here is a clip featuring Parker Andrews reading to the 4-year-olds in the K-Prep class. One of the benefits (among many) of sending your 4-year-old to Regents is the way she will be cared for, not just by a loving teacher, but by dozens of big sisters and brothers. And one of the benefits of sending your high schooler to Regents is the way he is encouraged to be a leader among his fellows students. I am truly thankful to the Lord and proud of our students.

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Student Spotlight: A Refutation of Despair

Bragging about one’s own children has always seemed to me to be in poor taste. So I won’t do that. Instead, I will brag about my students.

I am finishing up my first year at Regents Academy, and I have been consistently pleased with the work my juniors and seniors produce. Like any teacher who grades many papers, I find some papers to be thematically uninspired or stylistically flat. Yet there are many papers that fulfill the promise of their author. Sloppy prose or quotidian thoughts don’t obscure their ideas; rather, lucid prose and vivid writing open their ideas to the clear light of genuine understanding.

Let me share a student’s paper with you. First a bit of explanation. The 11th-12 grade Omnibus class recently read Book 1 of the great Christian epic The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. A masterpiece of 16th century allegory, Spenser’s epic follows the journeys and travails of the Redcross Knight, who is on a quest to free the beautiful lady Una’s kingdom from oppression by a dragon. Spenser pictures the struggles of every Christian to live a life of holiness. In a key episode the Redcross Knight meets the dread character Despair, who attempts to convince him to give up hope and commit suicide.

The assignment for the students was to choose one of Despair’s arguments, show its contemporary relevance, and then refute it using a Christian worldview. And here is where the bragging begins. I received many admirable papers with genuinely profound insights. One in particular was that of 11th grader Adrienne Duke. Adrienne wrote what I am sure you will agree to be a powerful statement of Christian hope. It is my pleasure to spotlight it here. Please read on and compliment her the next time you see her. More than that, find inspiration in her prose.

Reasoning with God: A Refutation of Despair

by Adrienne Duke

“What justice ever other judgment taught, but he should die, who merits not to live?” This question is posed to the Redcross Knight in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene by what is perhaps his most formidable enemy, Despair. In his allegory, Spenser uses the character Despair to explore the rationale for suicide. Two of Despair’s arguments closely resemble the mindset behind teen suicide; he persuades Redcross that suicide ends suffering and allows the individual to take control of his own fate. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that approximately 395,000 people with self-inflicted injuries are treated in emergency departments each year. Why do so many succumb to the arguments of despair? The answer lies in the faulty reasoning of suicidal thoughts. Despair’s appeal to Redcross in The Faerie Queene is an example of how depression can consume individuals who lack the emotional and spiritual maturity to refute it. The refutation of despair is aided by common sense and virtue with the support of Scripture.

One of Despair’s more convincing arguments is that death ends all suffering. He says to Redcross, “Death is the end of woes; die soon, O faerie’s son.” All people experience trials throughout their lives. It has been said that “adversity introduces a man to himself.” In fact, God uses suffering as a way to teach His people. C.S. Lewis wrote, “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Suffering serves a purpose. Just as physical pain alerts the mind to an injury in the body, emotional pain alerts the mind to a problem in the soul. Even the ancients recognized the importance of overcoming despair. Aristotle said, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.” Christians, however, have the ultimate comfort. But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour…” (Isaiah 43:1-3a NKJV)

Suicide, then, can not only be viewed as impractical and unreasonable, but selfish. Some would argue that suicide impacts only one person. However, a 2007 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports, “Many people are exposed to another person’s suicide which may affect them psychologically. One estimate was that approximately 7% of the U.S. population knew someone who died of suicide during the past 12 months.”  Thus, if an individual takes his own life, it will affect his family, friends, and perhaps others who knew him. In C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape writes several letters to his demon-in-training nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape advises him on ways to thwart a certain human in his path towards God (who Screwtape refers to as “the Enemy”). In one such correspondence, he writes to Wormwood about despair: “There is, of course, always the chance, not of chloroforming the shame, but of aggravating it and producing Despair. This would be a great triumph. It would show that he had believed in, and accepted, the Enemy’s forgiveness of his other sins only because he himself did not fully feel their sinfulness—that in respect of the one vice which he really understands in its full depth of dishonour he cannot seek, nor credit, the Mercy. But I fear you have already let him get too far in the Enemy’s school, and he knows that Despair is a greater sin than any of the sins which provoke it.” Screwtape recognizes that Wormwood’s human understands the “vice” of mercy, and knows that despair is unreasonable in light of it. Oftentimes, the immature reasoning of suicidal teens causes them to despair because they see no other option. The human character in The Screwtape Letters seems to have more maturity in this area, providing a contrast between the immaturity of suicidal reasoning and the spiritual growth that occurs in all Christians. This spiritual maturity comes from an understanding of what the Bible teaches. Psalm 103:8 provides one example: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” (NKJV). The Christian worldview teaches that despair can be selfish and sinful because it demonstrates an ignorance of what God’s Word tells everyone—that mercy is available to all who believe in Him.

Another reason people, especially teens, commit suicide is because of control issues. Most people wish to have control over their lives, and they view suicide as the ultimate expression of autonomy. In The Faerie Queene, Despair tells Redcross that death is a way to end suffering. The Christian knight responds, “‘The term of life is limited, nor may a man prolong, nor shorten it; the soldier may not move from watchful stead, nor leave his stand, until his Captain bid.’” Redcross knows that God controls his fate, but Despair persists. Does Redcross wish to be a mere soldier, or will he be the captain of his fate? Rebellious teens as well as adults resist the authority of God to maintain an illusion of control over their lives. “A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9, NKJV). God determines the fate of each man; therefore suicide is the ultimate expression of ignorance, not autonomy.

Thus, despair can be refuted with common sense, virtue, and a willingness to submit to God’s authority. Suicide does not end suffering, but shows a rejection of the usefulness of suffering in human life. Nor does suicide affect only one individual. It demonstrates selfishness and a rejection of virtue. Finally, suicide does not show control, but ignorant rebellion. Isaiah 1:18 says, “’Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD,  ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” Christians, then, should reject the arguments of Despair and reason with God, ultimately accepting His great gift—mercy and everlasting life in Christ.

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Jewel proclaims as he enters the real Narnia,

I have come home at last!  This is my real country!  I belong here.  This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.  The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.  Bree-hee-hee!  Come further up, come further in!

And it was at this passage that my voice cracked while I was reading the last few pages of  C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle aloud to my sixth graders.  I tried valiantly to remain unmoved by the thoughts of how delightful Heaven is, but even my best efforts were of no use by the time I had rounded the corner to the last remaining page of the book.  When I read of the hope that sprang up into Jill and Eustace’s heart when they thought they might not have to leave Narnia again and then I went on to read of Aslan confirming that there had indeed been an accident in England and that they were dead and would certainly be able to stay in the real Narnia forever, I could hold back the tears no more.  My sixth graders were thrown off a bit as they adjusted to the new choking sound my voice possessed.  I’m not sure what actually caused the tears, possibly the thought of how wonderful Heaven is or maybe I imagined what it must be like for my own mother who lives there now or maybe I was moved because I have a student who recently lost her mother as well and I understand the pain of loss.  Whatever the reason, I’m not ashamed that I was brought to tears while reading a great classic in front of the sixth graders that I adore!  As I love and instruct my students  in Latin, History and Math, I’m with the Unicorn as he proclaims, “Bree-hee-hee!  Come further up, come further in!”  Is your child’s teacher proclaiming the same?

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From Comics to Classics

It was a gratifying conversation.

I was visiting with a parent of a Regents student a few days back. She described her son’s reading habits which had, until recently at least, included mostly comic books. Regents began a reading program this year that requires our students to read one book per quarter on their own. These books are significant works of literature and essential reading material for a well-educated, thinking Christian. Many of the books – like those of P.G. Wodehouse or Mark Twain – are just plain fun. But all of them have real literary merit and power to inspire, entertain, inform, and transport.

This parent shared with me that she had begun to see her son find real joy in reading, a desire and a delight that had not been there before. I see it in her son. He is a bright boy who loves sports – but who now has also begun to love to read.

I am reminded that these small victories are what teachers and parents strive for. Not every student makes a dramatic or instantaneous turn-around. But students make small strides every day. God has called Christian educators and parents to have a vision for small steps toward the eventual goal of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

I am reminded that loving books and ideas and the printed and spoken word are at the heart of true education. Classical education is, if anything, a passion for and delight in the word, both spoken and printed. To see that delight cultivated in a young man is a thrill.

I am reminded also that Christian education is intensely personal. Sticking this young man at a table with a book might not accomplish anything, but modeling a love for books and nurturing that love through guiding him toward good books is powerful.  Education is essentially relational.

I am reminded also that Christians are people of the word. St. John teaches us that Christ is the Word, and He has called His people to be people of the word. Classical Christian education propels us toward this vision. I am so thankful to see it in action.

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