Like many in the Trinitas community, lately, I have been reading Joshua Gibbs’s first book How to be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue. (Actually, I have been listening to it, which isn’t quite the same thing as reading it, but that is a discussion for another day.) Gibbs uses The Consolation of Philosophy and his years in the classroom (several of them at Trinitas) to approach the subject of pursuing virtue through classical education. Pursuing virtue is an educational activity we allude to from time to time, a catchphrase we hold up as an important goal of classical education, even a claim with which we sprinkle our marketing brochures, but really, what does it mean to pursue virtue? And why only pursue it? Do any of our students ever actually catch up with it?
Gibbs is speaking at the Trinitas Christian School graduation ceremony later this week. I think he will address this idea of pursuing virtue in the classroom. Gibbs is also speaking at the school Saturday morning after the Friday night graduation and will be signing books there as well. I bet the pursuit of virtue will be a common topic in the Q&A time between his speaking and book signing. I am confident we will all understand better what it means to pursue virtue in the classroom after our time with Joshua Gibbs.
In the meantime, let me share a short story with you about what happens when students not only pursue but actually catch up with a little virtue. It creates for them a perspective that cannot be gotten otherwise—it helps them get outside themselves. This story begins with the current Trinitas seniors. I have been interviewing each of them over the past month or so as they prepare to close this chapter of their lives and move on to the next. One of the questions I have asked is Upon leaving Trinitas, what advice do you have for those students you are leaving behind? The answers they gave showed maturity, a maturity that has come through reading the literature, history, and theology that has shaped the world since the beginning of time. And not only reading it but being guided through it by someone wise who knows how the world’s greatest old books help us see ourselves aright when Scripture is used as the ultimate straight edge to expose everything that is crooked—not only in the books but also in us. That is part of pursuing virtue.
The seniors I interviewed demonstrated the virtue of love in their answers. They freely shared the wisdom they have gleaned in their pursuit of virtue, hoping it might benefit those they are leaving behind. Plain to see in their answers is the perspective they have—they are able to reflect on their own experience from a place that seems outside themselves and then give that to others. Here are a few of their answers:
- Be content with this gift you’ve been given; this education is awesome; you get to read what the smartest people in the world have written, and you even get to argue with them if you don’t agree.
- Do not procrastinate! Give your best effort to everything you do for the glory of God and not just for yourself.
- Enjoy the little moments every day—ice cream lunches with friends, field trips, and this atmosphere because this is a family, not just a school.
- Pay careful attention in class, take excellent notes, and do your homework as soon as you get out of school in the afternoon.
- Read Dante soon and then Boethius.
- Don’t take anything for granted.
- It is too easy to just complain about the way things are; sure, life is hard, but don’t dwell on it until it beats you.
- Stop rebelling! No one here is against you.
- The teachers are not out to get you, so don’t hide little things—confess early before it gets out of hand.
- Obey the simple rules because they are necessary for a healthy community.
Now for the second part of the story. I went to a graduation ceremony at a mega-high school downstate last week. I listened to one valedictorian speech, two salutatorian speeches, and a couple of class officer speeches. With little exception, the speeches were self-serving and self-promoting, reminiscent of speeches given by celebrities accepting awards on some televised academy of something-or-other award show—complete with wardrobe malfunctions. Far from giving loving advice to underclassmen, these speeches were filled with “we made it” and “twelve years can you believe it” and “my dudes”. I do not mean to disparage the young people giving the speeches. I have no reason to think they aren’t nice people, and they seemed sincere. But their perspective is very different from that of a student who has been steeped in the great books. Their perspective is skewed because they have not been led to see beyond themselves. They have nothing to measure themselves by because they are their own straight edge. They have been busy chasing college and career, checking boxes, following their hearts. They have not been pursuing virtue in the classroom, discovering the good life, becoming more human.
Classical education is in large part about nurturing virtuous human beings. Our curricula and classrooms are aimed at that. One way we work at it is by showing students that there is nothing new under the sun. While much of the world disdains anything that happened as far back in history as last Tuesday, classical students get a steady diet of the good, old stuff. It creates for them a healthy perspective, helps them see beyond themselves so that the importance of becoming a better human actually begins to come into focus, appear desirable, and even seem attainable…my dudes.
Mr. Ron Gilley