Inspiration from Alcuin

We live at the crossroads: a time of great pains and anxiety, a time of great hope and possibility. It is a time of international tension and international commerce, a time of technological tyrannies and informational delights. It is a time of national distrust, imperial loneliness, and meaning crises; and it is a time of artistic creation, community formation, and personal renewal. In short, it is a great time, like all times are, to invest ourselves in firming the bulwark, countervailing the ills, and extending the capabilities of civilization and rejuvenating the heart of culture.

In 793, the Vikings first made landfall in Northumbria, Britain. It was the first of 250 years of Viking raids. In that same year, Baghdad became the chief financial center of the world, connecting the Arabic speaking world to China, using paper promissory notes. While the civilized worlds of Baghdad and China connected themselves to each other, the small glimmers of high literacy in Ireland, Britain, and Italy were threatened by a black dawn of incessant raids in both the Mediterranean and northern seas. The legacy of the Roman Empire was scattered about in error-ridden, half-readable, near-rotting texts. A ‘big’ library boasted 100 books. The copying practices were so bad that the next generation of books would be nearly useless.

In France, one warlord, Charlemagne, was creating a vast Frankish empire out of military might, but although his political accomplishment was short-lived, he left behind an important cultural legacy: the preservation of knowledge and an end to the heedless destruction and abandonment of texts which characterized the previous 400 years (Mulhall). There is no text that we know was around in 793 in Western Europe, that cannot still be read today. Literate civilization did not backslide any further. To what can we attribute this ancient accomplishment, this new foothold on solid ground from which European civilization would one day leap? It was the monk of York, Alcuin. Alcuin, and the monks of Charlemagne’s court, who reformed the clergy, refined texts, created textbooks, and both taught and inspired a new generation, a generation who in turn taught another generation, passing on the skills of administration, counsel, and moral formation to the next cohort, until a more civilized world could be born.

 This process is not over. This process has only just begun, and it is ours to treasure. In Alcuin’s day a most important task was preserving and transmitting information so that individuals and society would not lose sight of their purpose and potential. In today’s world, another most important task is to sort, structure, manage, and marshal information, so that individuals and society will not lose sight of their purpose and potential. But our task is deeper than that. It is not a matter of mere ‘information’ storage and retrieval mechanisms. It is a matter of maintaining a sacred contract to see to it that the next generations do not fall into tyranny, viciousness, destruction, and obliteration and that they equip themselves with those values, skills, and relationships that identify and promote what is good and make life a wonderful adventure. This sacred interpersonal contract, written in the stones of what we choose to build, determines the future.

Letter on Culture and Context

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nilay,

You asked about “Context is that which is scarce.”

In our last conversation you expressed mild shock when I said that none of my students and almost none of their parents know what a private equity market is. So, consider this example: I want to explain to a high school student what an equity market is. The student’s parents and family neither run businesses nor engage in any active investing, nor do their parents’ friends. From the student’s perspective there are jobs which pay money and there are places to which one goes to spend that money, and that little model, for them, is the economy. Notions like a funding round, shares, ownership, ROI, and public versus private markets are foreign concepts. But more importantly, even if they are explained, they are quickly forgotten because the concepts do not map onto the student’s experience of reality. To bring a student from ignorance to starting see how this works would require knowing one or several people whose picture of reality is formed by this other context. Such a personal network would then be adjacent to their own, and they could quickly add any new information I provided to their map of reality.

If I want to convince a student that starting their own business is something to seriously consider, their soul must grasp how this could work, but the soul can only with difficulty grasp what the senses haven’t experienced.

Consider another example found in “communities of practice.” What is the best way to become good at creating software back-end architecture? Reading a book? Certainly not, for a book cannot span all eventualities and quirks. For the most part, it seems, the best way to become good at something is to work on a problem and find people who have run into the same issues as you and talk with them or read their chats. Then, when you engage in conversation, they understand the context, or the context is shared enough that they grok the problem you describe.

A community engaged in similar practices encounters similar problems, but one cannot understand the problems or their possible solutions if one lacks the context to understand the problem in the first place.

When I dip into a work of philosophy, I can become gripped and absorbed into the text when the author is exploring a series of questions that I myself have contemplated. My “philosophical literacy” helps me see the point quickly about why a particular argument or line of inquiry matters. When I know what matters I am able to gain understanding. One needs cultural literacy to grasp the significance of any fact.

The point here is that knowledge is not a set of statements outside the mind but understanding within our intelligence about what matters and why.

We live in the information age, but it’s context that is scarce.

Here’s a trivial example. Let’s say I have had a fever for a few days, I text you, “I feel like Raskolnikov.” The information contained in that statement can only be unlocked if one has the cultural passkey, knowledge of Crime and Punishment. The most difficult part of this idea that the scarcity of context is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice the phenomenon, except by example or the experience of total confusion.

If I had to explain to my mom what I have been thinking about recently, it would take many hours of discussion before we were on the same page. The implication is that it is very hard to induct people into one’s own thought and problems unless they already share significant amounts of context with you. Nonetheless, my mother and I share other things, and so can connect on those.

There is a tragic loneliness in the scarcity of context. If I have something great to offer others, but they can’t understand it, then I will languish in obscurity. Sometimes I think about the people, the websites, the communities that I would love, that I know exist out there, but that I cannot find. I could wait for someone to link me there. But the human person is not a passive receptacle of experience, but rather a creator of context, a crafter of relationships and worlds. And so whenever we interact and build something together, we are creating context.

I hope some of that makes sense.

Yours sincerely,

A Curriculum Story

When I enrolled at Wabash College, the faculty had just voted on retiring the Cultures and Traditions course, a two semester sophomore seminar on the great texts of ancient and modern history. Such a course was meant, I presume, to serve as an introduction to at least some of the foundational texts of civilization. Arranged mostly chronologically the texts would be an introduction to some of the big ideas of humanity. But intellectual balkanization took the day, and the course was replaced with a freshman second semester course called Enduring Questions.

With all due apologies to the chief architect behind the course, Dean of the College Gary Philips, who, despite being an excellent professor for my section, fathered this disaster. EQ was a smorgasbord, The product of many kooky cooks in one claustrophobic kitchen. Some of the items on the menu were not even food. It was as though a gaggle of drunk undergrads were appointed to the curriculum committee on a Saturday night and immediately proclaimed, “For dinner we will be having strawberry gravy over Hot Wheels cars with a side of Papa John’s Red Pepper Flakes. As an aperitif, gentlemen, indulge yourself with this fine wine from an origami sippy-cup.” The course consisted of all the greats, that is, one sexist page from Aristotle, a bit of a book on freedom by an educational philosopher, In Defense of Dolphins arguing for the personhood of these ocean tricksters, a good Black experience novel, several movies (Bladerunner, Orlando, City of God), some holocaust literature, and The Power and the Glory. Despite, Gary’s heroic attempts to create a single thread holding this course together, the entire college suffered severe intellectual indigestion.

My soured relationship with Gary (would it weren’t so! He and I really should have been friends, but I spent half my college career trying to overthrow the administration, i.e. Gary and the President) met its ultimate end at an EQ course section reunion dinner three years later during senior year. As we circled around each other in conversation, looking to slide the rhetorical stiletto into each other, another student committed a terrible and crass faux pas. He ended our soft barbs with a cannon blast, a direct insult on the Dean. How could he not know to whom he was speaking? Could a senior have really been so ignorant that he did not know that Gary designed the EQ course? Did he not realize we were at that moment eating delicious vegetarian cuisine in our host’s vegetarian Victorian home? Maybe it was the light sparring that Gary and I engaged in that egged this student on? Or yet perhaps a desire to be noticed for having formed a wise and considered opinion after years of liberal arts reflection? Whatever the cause, heavenly compulsion or earthen desire, he managed to cruelly insult our host. Silence would have been golden, but instead: “Do you all remember In Defense of Dolphins?” he asked. Then continued, “Yeah, that was a really stupid book. I didn’t get it. Why did we have to read that?” So shocked was I, that I had to look at Gary and give him the reassuring I-swear-I-didn’t-put-him-up-to-saying-that.-He’s-obviously-just-really-sincere-and-heedless-of-the-fights-that-have-been-going-on-the-last-three-years look.

In any case, a course which lacks coherence will neither be absorbed nor respected by the student years hence. And that is the lesson of EQ: courses are better when are topical, coherent, and lead somewhere.

It is possible to error in the other direction, but I hesitate to even bring it up, since our schools are so far away from making this error. Nonetheless, for the sake of symmetry problem do arise when one only reads the great seminal texts. My mentor in bibliophilia Mike Martel, a Thomas Aquinas College graduate, and the most nurturing text lover I have ever met, always advocates for reading the texts themselves before the scholarship. But in our back and forth for seven years, we have moved closer to one another in the proportion of scholarship to primary texts on should read.

Insight in Context

I have been meditating a lot recently on “Context is what is scarce.” The amazing and ironic thing about this statement is that it is extremely low context and yet offers a gateway into a whole view of reality. Consider this passage from Bernard Lonergan’s Insight:

A single book may be written from a moving viewpoint, and then it will contain, not a single set of coherent statements, but a sequence of related sets of coherent statements. Moreover, as is clear, a book designed to aid a development must be written from a moving viewpoint. It cannot begin by presupposing that a reader can assimilate at a stroke what can be attained only at the term of a prolonged and arduous effort. On the contrary, it must begin from a minimal viewpoint and a minimal context; it will exploit that minimum to raise a further question that enlarges the viewpoint and the context; it will proceed with the enlarged viewpoint and context only as long as is necessary to raise still deeper issues that again transform the basis and the terms of reference of the inquiry; and clearly, this device can be repeated not merely once or twice but as often as may be required to reach the universal viewpoint and the completely concrete context that embraces every aspect of reality.


He gets the context issue. Of course, this doesn’t only apply to books, but to networks of people. Networks create context. Movement along the network to subcategories or adjacent networks creates new insights out of new context, and importantly the person retains an ability to engage with the old context, while inculturating himself to a broader view.

Build your adjacent context and they will come.

What Life is Like in the Hybrid Model

If you want to guarantee different outcomes, create a model which can’t reproduce the same errors. The hybrid model transforms education – three days at school, two at home. This one drastic change creates many unique consequences.

Class time is not wasted by long videos that can be watched at home, or by loading up dozens of computers on to the same app, teachers burning time, or other administrative interruptions. Teachers guide the student and her classmates through a lesson, teach new skills, and prepare students to accomplish a new task at home the next day. Everyone – teachers and students- work together to understand their mission for their upcoming home-day assignments. Working with classmates throughout the day, a shared sense of purpose and joy builds lasting friendships. When the day ends, students depart with their assignments in their planner and their books and notes.

On the home day, they budget their time to read, write, reflect, practice, and create. They have a job to do, and all tools they need to complete it. Parents oversee that they are being responsible, and teachers are available by email and phone. Over time students become the master of their studies and have skills in college that other freshmen have yet to even begin learning – namely the ability to be independent and learn on their own.

Is the Hybrid Model Good in itself?

What if the hybrid model forms on average more independent and dependable students?

What if the hybrid model provides the right balance of family and peer socialization?

What if the hybrid model wastes the least of amount of students’ time?

What if the hybrid model offers the same educational value as the best traditional schools at 60% the cost?

What if the hybrid model is best model of education for 50% of the school age population?

What if the hybrid model offers the optimum amount of flexibility and accountability for the average student?

What if the hybrid model is the model of education most fit for what the future will bring?

If even two of these are true, then the Hybrid Model is a great good.

Over 100 families have already chosen the hybrid model. It serves them well.

Judging By Courses Taught

If I were placed in history entirely by what courses I taught each year I would be a different person. Consider the courses that this teacher marshaled on the field of battle last year: Latin, Geometry, Church History, Medieval History, Writing, Logic, Rhetoric. Why wasn’t I wearing one of these?

Sounds like a Late Medieval University Professor. I should have worn a robe and cap like so…
The different hats represent current grades – hair-net wearing ones being the ‘A students.’

This next year I am either moving into further into the future or deeper into the past. With Ancient History, Latin, Geometry, Morality, and Economics, I would think one of two things must be true. Either this person is a juggler fit for the circus, or he is literally from the school of Stoics.

Now the stoics had a great porch-game.
If I had a porch like this, darn right, I would have a lot of philosophical followers. We would play table tennis, offer libations, discuss the intricacies of corn-hole, and then test our theories with libations in one hand and a bag of potential life-giving seeds in the other. All in accord with the Logos.

But perhaps I am actually reenacting the life of someone at the other end of history, an Adam Smith who wrote on morality and economics and certainly knew his ancient history, or a statesman like John Stuart Mill, whose father forced him to learn Greek by age 12 and carved out from ancient philosophy and personal experience modern theories of liberty, economy, and ethics.
The Greek language was contained in that bump on his head. Greek is like that.

To follow in the footsteps of these greats is good, but to pass on the best that I have discovered in my own life to others is an honor. Perhaps laboring in the human flourishing mines is the best one can do.
“I loaded 16 tons of enriched Geometry, and what did I get?”

I get a lot out of it.

Why Economics and Probability Should be Part of Classical Education

Discussing prudence, St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Isidore of Seville, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.” Economics is the modern term for this ancient prudence, for the principles of economics allow us to foretell the likely consequences of an action, event, or law and then decide whether the prior action is desirable. Prudence, then, is our goal in such a class. This intellectual virtue empowers moral virtue to fulfill its ends.

When I was a kid, I had no interest in economics or money (except that one could use it to get things). I thought econ was for people obsessed with superficial stuff. By the time I was in high school, I had renounced superficial stuff and was trying to attain whatever high school me thought was wisdom, which turned out to be an exclusive focus on literature, poetry, and religion.

I was converted into an interest in economics when I learned about how incentives influence people’s behavior, and that people’s seemingly bad actions are more often unfortunate economic effects rather than deliberate maliciousness. People do what they think is good for themselves and those they care about by following incentives. In short, I learned not to jump to blaming individuals for the way things are and instead to think through what dynamics made things become the way they are. This study, just as the literature I love, reveals much about the tragedy of the human condition.

An economist as an economist studies how these games of exchange and choice work and how changes in the rules or environment will change behaviors of the players in the game. The ideal economist can foretell the effects of different actions, events, or laws with a high probability of being right.

The Armenian economist Alchian wrote, “What the economist can do with economic analysis is to deduce some of the consequences of a proposed act, presumably more accurately than a noneconomist. But to assess and appraise whether the consequences of the action are good or bad is, to the economist, forbidden fruit. Yet, like Adam, many economists eat of it.”

I have greatly enjoyed Alchian’s beautiful book Universal Economics from which I took this quotation, but no one is only an economist, and as sons and daughters of Adam, we need to learn how to appraise the likely consequences of an action AND judge whether the consequences are good or bad, for distinguishing good from evil is the most important thing for living a good life. I don’t know to what extent prudence can be taught, but I do know that the study of probability and economics lays the groundwork for wise decision making in personal, business, and political life.

If a classical education wishes to carry the torch of those liberal arts, which liberate people to know what is true and do what is good, then, strange as it may sound, the principles of economics and probability is not optional.

Wisdom from the West

How St. Benedict is a Model for Civilizational Catholicism

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict two aspects struck me as especially important for civilization. First, Benedict’s injunction to abbots to take council with all the members of the society whenever making a large decision. “Hear even what the youngest has to say” clearly indicates that the distribution of valuable input throughout the monastery is not uniform. Wisdom can come from the mouths of the youth, just as from the learned. Thus, the wise person will seek input from the community before making decisions.

As a teacher and administrator  it is so useful getting feedback from students about things that do and do not work, certainly learning at a graduation party that some aspect of one’s teaching does not work is far too late. We must be upfront about providing useful feedback and soliciting it too. Constant improvement is a part of the Christian journey to Holy Wisdom. Hence the examination of conscience, hence St. Benedict’s injunction to the abbot to always seek counsel even in small matters.

To promote wisdom at JPII, we have the house system. The house system provides students the opportunity to be leaders, to organize activities, promote virtue, and provide feedback. Any student with something to offer becomes a participant in the school culture as opposed to passive recipients of it.

Parents, as well, craft our school culture. Feedback and active participation from parents is the bedrock of a hybrid school. The privileged position of parents as first educators and facilitators 2 days each week means that they know things about their students that teachers and administration might not know. This goes both ways, and thus communication is not only necessary for our function but is the beginning of our wisdom.

The second bit of wisdom I gleaned this week from the Rule of St. Benedict was his emphasis upon the equality of the monks with regard to things of the world. Wealth, rank, and honor from the previous life count for nothing in the life of this community, only virtue distinguishes monks from each other. The fundamental Christian dignity shared by all monks alike is enforced by the Rule. This might seem a small thing, but the belief in equal dignity of people before the Rule is a fundamental principle of Western society, which now is based on equality before the law.

The Rule sets out to supply a model of monastic society that closely approximates the true city of God. It is a real constitution for a model Christian society. There is no doubt that Benedictine monasteries, and monasteries based on the same principles, spread throughout all of Europe and saved its civilization in the early Middle Ages. Would there be any “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal” without these monasteries enculturating this “self-evident” truth for millennia? Certainly, much more also had to happen, but nonetheless, it can honestly be proclaimed, that without St. Benedict’s constitution, we would not have had the necessary model for a community of equal citizens which gives modern law its moral force.

For us the lesson of St. Benedict could be that even a small community can one day be a cornerstone of civilization. “Let us build our school community on the same foundations, for civilization may depend on it!”

But that conclusion, would be too easy and would ignore a complicated dynamic. There is a tension between the Rule of St. Benedict and what Benedictine Monasteries came to represent. Their purpose is the life of prayer and poverty, not civilization building. The fact that they became something more than a human attempt at the City of God and became so many centers serving the needs of man, the needs of literacy and manuscripts, of food and even at times defense, indicates a drift in the plan towards fulfilling the needs of the moment. The question of conformity then arises. Who is conforming to whom? In the 13th century Benedictine monasteries no longer had a role as the centers of learning, they were superseded by the great medieval universities. But nevertheless, Benedictine orders, and other religious orders, and the culture that sustains such things, continues to produce consequential scholars and scientists, technicians and inventors through to 2020. The culture of Catholic religious orders is astonishingly capable of maintaining that tension between holy purpose and worldly service over millennia.

In the novel The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) Father Jacobus is a great Benedictine monk and statesman at the same time, serving both the functions of international diplomacy in a life dedicated to that higher purpose. Even when the Order serves the world, it receives its nourishment and direction from faith, and so it is merely looking for a practical way to apply a few centuries of acquired wisdom. The true lesson, I think, is about the relationship between high culture and the needs of civilization. Decoupled they both become dangerous to each other.

Arrested Development: Costs of Distance Learning on the Future

With schools around the country examining their options on how to educate despite the ongoing pandemic, it is critical to take a clear look at the potential impact of moving to distance learning. The effects of distance learning on the local community will be measured in decades not years. The returns on education are cumulative over the course of a person’s lifetime and impact far more than the individual alone. One might suspect that the sudden reorganization of our schooling infrastructure into distance learning will not yield the same level of quality as years previous. But what can current research tell us about this achievement gap between the students who will distance learn this year and the counterfactual brick-and-mortar schooling they would otherwise receive?

A 2011 paper by Raj Chetty suggests a good elementary teacher can increase a student’s lifetime earnings by up to 1% each year, because good teachers help students strengthen their social skills and character traits, in addition to teaching the material. Over the course of a career, that difference can spiral into hundreds of thousands of dollars of lifetime earnings, which in turn can be the difference between a community attracting investment or stagnating and backsliding.

Can these non-cognitive skills be passed on remotely? Can a teacher bring two students together to resolve conflict when there is extraordinarily little social interaction happening under her eye? Can a remote school provide good examples and a sense of belonging through civil rites? The answer seems obviously to be no. So, the value of good elementary teachers as leaders of civic virtue will be lost for distance learners this year, and 2020 will initiate the first catastrophic step backward in education in this country’s history.

Socialization effects are one thing, but what can we expect from academics? Unfortunately, the picture there inspires little hope. Graduation rates at virtual charter schools hover around 50% compared to the public-school average of 84%, according to a 2019 analysis from the National Education Policy Center. While the defenders of virtual charter schools say they are helping disadvantaged students, their detractors point out that virtual schools are enrolling a lower rate of low-income students than national brick-and-mortar schools. There is no reason to adjudicate this dispute now, but it is possible that students who enroll in virtual charters for some reason were having a hard time “making it” in a brick and mortar environment, regardless of their socioeconomic status, say because of behavioral issues or a teen pregnancy. Perhaps, but this defense still points to the importance of the social dynamics of school which coerce otherwise failed students to hand in those three missing assignments that will allow them to skirt by with a ‘D.’ Maybe the difference between these two hypothetical students is only social, not academic. But the academic and communal aspects of school are linked, and having the right social environment makes learning Algebra possible.

Consequently, we should expect distance learners to have achievement levels closer to virtual charter schools than to the public-school average. And hence the academic losses will be severe. The National Education Policy Center’s 2019 report on virtual schools cites a half-dozen statewide reports each revealing lower achievement on statewide tests for reading and especially mathematics. A similar deficit seems highly likely for 2020-2021, a year in which Spring quarter came to a screeching halt, summer offered few remedial educational programs, and Fall will return many students to distance learning without all the added benefits of three quarters of rapport and camaraderie within the classroom as happened last year. Digital truancy and absenteeism have already proven hard to stop and remedial help harder to provide.

If these deficiencies are not addressed before graduation, graduation rates will fall. According to Lochner and Moretti’s 2004 study the societal benefit of a 1% increase in male graduation rates is worth more than $2 billion. With graduation rates poised to go other direction, we may see devastating long-term effects on the local community. Opportunities for continued education and better jobs will shrivel up as the achievement gap among students becomes palpable. The second order effects will include poorer families, increased criminality, and a decrease in ability to adapt and contribute to our complex society.

However, this gloomy picture is not our fate. Online charters typically have high student-teacher ratios and low engagement. Since teachers are teaching their normal group of students, teacher-student ratios will not become worse. Schools still have many resources to bring to students’ neighborhoods. Remedial help might be offered in person. Perhaps, some social capital from years previous will carry over and mitigate the losses. And many of the students in these classes will know each other and will certainly be spending their afternoons playing together. Already many schools, like Macomb Illinois Public School, are bussing food to families twice a day. All these things could help, but parents will be stressed, supervision scarce, and the many cracks in our systems threaten to become fateful chasms.

There is still hope that schools will find ways to test and trace, that lockdowns will become dynamic and based on community spread of the virus, that a daily testing regime will surface allowing us to measure whether individuals are infectious, and that districts will support remedial help for those who quite literally need their hands held. For years, staunch public-school advocates have declared the irreplaceability of the traditional model, given its better educational outcomes than distance learning, especially for disadvantaged students, and teachers have been building their pedagogies on social-emotional learning which requires in-person interaction to be most effective. Now is a good time to try to maximize the public schools’ capacity to provide quality education, despite necessary restrictions.

At the same time, this unfortunate disruption opens new opportunities for us as a society to experiment and build better educational models (in the full sense of that word: ‘educational’) and to work with our local communities to make systems which suit them. In the future, we will see far more hybrid schools which blend brick-and-mortar instruction with at-home practice, microschools which gather students into small educational groups with a professional facilitator, homeschooling pods and co-ops as thousands of people have already joined Facebook groups with the intent to homeschool in the past few months. Both parents and educators will be iterating over these models, fashioning them from the ground up to rebuild civil society, improve academic accomplishment, and prepare the way for greater social flourishing. The wreckage in education might be severe, but resolute communities who find a way to educate anyway will become the new leaders in America.