Lessons of the Great Flood
Lessons of The Great Flood
The following is a guest post by Brian Daigle, headmaster of Sequitur Classical Academy, the classical Christian school in Baton Rouge. As I wrote last week, from the beginning of the flood, Brian has been in action to help flooded-out families from Sequitur, and others. (And not only Brian: Thomas Achord, head of the rhetoric school at Sequitur and teacher of ancient Greek, took his bass boat out as part of the Cajun Navy, and rescued people from their rooftops.) Brian has led a team of boys from the school in mucking out people’s houses. They were even present to save the life of a Sequitur mom, who was overcome by a heat stroke while they were mucking out her house. The team used ice to help keep her cool, while some of them took a boat across the floodwaters to pick up paramedics, and ferried the paramedics with their patient back across the water to the ambulance. She survived.
My sons were part of that group. St. Benedict, in his Rule, calls the monastery “a school for the Lord’s service.” In our time, I believe that classical Christian schools, at their best, serve this same purpose. I knew that by sending my kids to Sequitur, they would not only be getting a good education per se, they would also be getting a good education in virtue. I could not have known that the first lesson of the year would be so vivid.
If we’re looking for “a new — and quite different” — St. Benedict for our age, as Alasdair MacIntyre said we should be, I suggest that we look to folks like Brian Daigle and others in the classical Christian school movement. As I’ve found in my research for the Benedict Option book, classical Christian schools are leading the way forward through this new Dark Age, often dragging local churches and Christian families along in their wake. Something very important is happening in this country in the classical Christian school movement. If you’re looking for a Benedict Option, there it is!
Here’s Brian Daigle’s essay:
Over the past four months, Baton Rouge has seen its fair share of storms, social and natural. First, there was the Alton Sterling shooting. Then there were the protests which set the stage for the fatal police shootings. After that came water. Lots of it. If this were a well-written classic, water would mean what water always means: rebirth. There is an Author to this all; we need to watch the kind of cleansing that will occur from this historic flood. Still, all this loss, tension, and disaster has made me reflect more deeply on my work as a classical Christian educator, a proponent of great literature and the resurrection of curricula long since forgotten.
Of course, you have the practical questions: when do we go back to school? How many of our families were affected by the floods and how greatly affected? Then you have the philosophical questions: should our students be studying right now or serving hot meals to refugees? In a community with this much need, what is the purpose of a great education? While tearing out dry wall from a flooded home, I got to thinking: classical Christian education is one of the only places in our society where students will truly be equipped to deal with these kinds of disasters, to be a calm in the manic and an able and willing hand in the reconstruction of the city, both literally and metaphorically, locally and nationally.
Consider for a moment those institutions in our society. Consider even the “religious” ones. Not one of them, including our academic institutions, have the moral fabric, rigorous demands, and goals required to raise future men and women, truly matured from adolescence and able to serve something greater than themselves. Our modern youth group model doesn’t challenge students to think well, communicate clearly, or work hard, despite the extemporaneous and helpful service projects done a few times a year. Think for a moment of our present definitions and modes of shaping masculinity, shaping future men who love, understand, and pursue courage. It’s gone, flooded and crumbled worse than any house here in South Louisiana.
Many people ask if classical Christian education is practical. “It sure is philosophical and heady,” they say after looking at a little less than half the curricula. There is no better test for the practicality of this kind of education than to see how classical Christian education is building a generation of men and women who will be best equipped as leaders and workers in the most practical situations.
I am not at present using this flood as an opportunity to ax grind, to find yet another crease we may pry open and say, “Aha! Classical Christian Education. Told ya!” My goal here is to make some very important connections between what our communities need at various times and how classical Christian academic institutions are some of the only institutions poised to provide for those needs:
Defining tragedy and disaster. In learning logic and rhetoric, our students are taught to think clearly through all topics. This doesn’t go out the window when the ant hill is kicked. That is, when a society goes into panic mode, thinking clearly is needed more than ever. As Rudyard Kipling said, “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” Requiring our students to think and hear well in all their courses means we train them to consider a proportionate emotional response in all situations, arguments, and relationships, and not just the emotional response required of them by their neighbor or the media, or even the circumstances. This means they can see beyond the immediate frenzy. They know the police shootings are difficult; they know the flood damage is hard and painful. They also know these events are neither tragic nor “Mother nature’s wrath,” because our students know history, and they should know the difference between a tragedy and a comedy. They know what man has gone through before and the context of these events to all others. By studying widely and deeply, they have a wide view of society and our place in the human story. Our students can then consider the right words to describe the current events, without simply repeating what the news anchor or politician says.
Rigor. True learning is difficult. It is enjoyable. It is natural, but it is not easy. I often tell my students, especially Rhetoric School students, “It’s easy to look smart; it’s hard work to be smart.” Schools who get education right will not shy away from mental sweat, late study hours, or academic stress. We want men and women with a work ethic, and that means a child’s studies ought to build a proper and rigorous work ethic into them each and every week. As was once said, not all rigor is mortis.
Love your neighbor. From sexual identity to choosing literature, the twittery academic trends right now all point to the glorification and affirmation of the individual student. These are the times, and these are the prevailing winds in our age. Nearly every institution our children visit, from Sunday School to Pre-school and Kindergarten to College, tell them one loud creed: you are the most important being in the universe. This is the exact opposite of what a classical Christian education teaches both explicitly and by its pedagogical choices. “You are far less important than you think,” we say. “We don’t quite care about you expressing yourself; we want you to beautifully express the truth,” we teach. A true education will teach the student that proper and right studies are not for beefing college transcripts or proving one’s intellectual worth but rather for serving one’s neighbor. When that is instilled on a weekly basis and in every class, something as practical as disaster relief becomes yet another extension of the academy.
Communicating and problem solving. One thing disasters teach is that intelligent and wise people are needed in all vocations—law enforcement, first responders, mothers at home, carpenters, etc. When we give our children a great general education, they may walk into any number of vocations and be prepared mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to use their gifts to the glory of God and service to their neighbor.
Those who mourn with hope. A distinctly Christian worldview, as encompassed in the Psalms, has no room for stoics. It likewise has no room for pessimists. The balance in the Psalms is lamentation in hope. If that is not instilled when there is no disaster surrounding our children, it will not be available when there is disaster. If we raise our children as God has called us to, we will find a generation who are truly human yet truly redeemed. They may weep with their neighbor over the loss of all earthly belongings, but they will say in the same breath, “Yes, but you will be having Christmas dinner again in this home before you know it.” Or to put it more theologically, “You may have lost all material goods, but God incarnate will soon be celebrated again in this brick and mortar.” Along this same vein is the incessant joy and value for humor provided by a classical Christian education. Laughter and joking trivialities are only reasonable in a world God declares good; we may then haul sewage-soaked insulation to the curb while singing a ditty and not a dirge.
Academic work by nature is contemplative work. It likewise is the kind of work which gives our children a mind to understand, eyes to see, and a heart to love. So, what do we do when we see so many practical needs around us? Hear Chesterton: “There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.” (What’s Wrong with the World, pg. 19)
Sequitur goes back to school today, just one week after the floods hit our city, and our goal is to raise a whole bunch of unpractical men and women, but not because we don’t think our kids should be a part of meeting our city’s needs. Quite the opposite. My colleague Thomas Achord recently reminded me of an excellent essay by C.S. Lewis. Without giving too much of the backstory, World War II hit England and many of the professors at Oxford were debating the question, “What hath Athens to do with Germany?” Should students continue their studies during war time or not? Should we fiddle while Rome burns? England declared war on Germany the 3rd of September, 1939; Lewis preached a sermon entitled “Learning in War-Time” on the 22nd of October of that same year. In order to answer the question whether or not we should tinker with learning while our city or country is on the brink of destruction, Lewis goes broader:
“[The Christian] must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such contemplative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.”
The whole essay is worth reading over and again. Its applications to our own situation in Louisiana are important:
1) We must think upon something other than the flood, and that means we must continue to be human while avoiding a kind of localism. As Lewis says, often times the closer we get to the front lines, the less we talk about the war. Intellectual and aesthetic activity will not sink, even with trillions of gallons of water.
2) If we don’t continue to have our children read good books and think rationally during these times, they will read bad books and think irrationally.
3) Our children must not surrender themselves to temporal claims “of a nation, or a party, or a class,” or a flood. We must offer all we do to God, no matter what we do. This is the difference between those working for good and working against good in this flood, whether or not you serve ten-thousand meals or no meals. To appropriate what Lewis says, if our parents have sent us to school and “our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.”
4) Most schools will return this week in vain, but that is because their work has always been in vain. They return this week or next week or next month in vain because their academic work has always been about their own glory. In that sense, flood or not, they are wrong to return to school. As Lewis states, “An appetite for [seeking knowledge and beauty] exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so…The intellectual life is not the only road to god, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge — our knowing — more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.” If we return to a school which seeks neither truth nor beauty, we are not returning to any worthy education; we are not returning to education at all.
5) By returning to school, our students may not let their “nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is.” Baton Rouge is a disaster zone right now, but so is the whole world each day. Our communities each day are ravished by the floodwaters of unbelief and sin. We are simply seeing now, more locally, the manifestation of what is a daily spiritual reality apart from Christ.
6) We return to our studies with societal sympathy. Because Sequitur is a half-day academy four days a week, we will severely limit our homework load in the coming weeks, encouraging our students to spend the afternoon in the community. Their morning will be devoted mainly to their studies, and their afternoons devoted largely to helping in the community. In this way, we recognize our studies are not obsolete in this kind of climate and we recognize there is likewise a need.
I type this as I sit in a CC’s Coffee Shop, right before I head out to another house with a team of students and parents to move rotten furniture, tear out dry wall, and pull insulation. At the table next to me sits a young man whose face is plastered to his phone. He’s playing a racing game. I don’t know if he will be doing work later, but I do know he is currently an all-too-familiar image, the image of a generation self-absorbed in their incessant demand for self-pleasure and entertainment while their community crumbles around them. This is all too often the pursuit of our schools, of college and career readiness, of standardized tests, of pedagogy and learning in general. When we raise that kind of generation, when our schools raise those kinds of men and women, we shouldn’t expect them to be able and willing to help in times of disaster. If we don’t daily do the work in our schools, our homes, and our churches, we can’t possibly expect to reap the fruit of a mature and Godly generation, especially in the most obvious times of need.
As Lewis states, “The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable.”
Classical Christian schools are among those few institutions daily doing the work to raise a mature and Godly generation. May our gratitude be shown by our ongoing work in and support of these institutions, even if the conditions are unfavorable. Let’s get to work.
— Brian G. Daigle, headmaster, Sequitur Classical Academy
I hope you will re-read Brian’s essay, contemplate it, and send it on to your friends. This is what classical Christian education is, at its best. I have a chapter in my forthcoming Benedict Option book dedicated to education, and integrating it into a fully Christian life, in the Benedictine sense. I hope that chapter expresses this vision even a fraction as well as Brian has done.
Not all education occurs in the classroom. Not all education helps you get into Harvard. All education, if it is truly education, forms not only the mind, but the heart. We are so lucky to have that in Sequitur. And I should say here that we are grateful to the Istrouma Baptist Church for letting our school use its empty classrooms during the week. Sequitur is five years old now, and still has no permanent building. The good people at Istrouma Baptist are an integral part of building our school community. This is how it works.
Finally, Brian Daigle sent out a letter Saturday night to Sequitur parents. Looks like for the foreseeable future, service to those suffering from the flood will be part of the educational experience at Sequitur. The school does not have its own building, and meets in classrooms donated by Istrouma Baptist Church. Well, Istrouma, which is a very large church, will be from now till the crisis is over a distribution hub for supplies for flood victims. This means Sequitur will be moving to upstairs classrooms there. It also means that Sequitur’s leadership has decided that students will bring a change of clothes every day from now on, and after classes end at midday, will take off their uniforms, put on their work clothes, and go downstairs with their class to do whatever relief work Istrouma has for them to do.
I deeply love this. Hands-on service as part of the classical Christian educational experience. Part of the formation of the students’ character. I am so grateful that my children are part of this school!
Incidentally, readers, someone in the classical Christian school movement set up a Go Fund Me to aid Sequitur families who lost everything in the flood. We’re all throwing in together to replace school uniforms and books, but also to help beyond that. The need is enormous. The donations are not for Sequitur itself, but only for the direct aid of the families who lost things in the flood. We estimate that one-third of our students were profoundly affected by the flood. If you would like to help our community, please do.
Reprinted with permission, www.theamericanconservative.com, copyright 2016.