Transcript for SS# 52: Philosophy for Mommies (with Eric Hall!)
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Brandy: You’re listening to Scholé Sisters, episode number 52.
Welcome to Scholé Sisters, the podcast for the classical homeschooling mama who seeks to learn and grow while she’s helping her children learn and grow. Scholé Sisters is a casual conversation about topics that matter to those of us in the trenches of classical homeschooling, who yearn for something more than just checking boxes and getting it all done. I’m your host, Brandy Vencel. You can find me at Afterthoughts, that’s my main blog. You can hear more from me on my other podcast, Aftercast. My co-host today is Misty Winckler. Misty is a second-generation homeschooler with five kids and too many projects. She writes about practical, classical homeschooling, and organizing attitudes at Simply Convivial. Eric Hall is back on the show with us today. We had rave reviews when he appeared in episode 29, called “I’m Not the Holy Spirit.” Many of you wanted to hear more from him but let me introduce him real quick in case you missed that episode: Eric Hall is an adjunct professor of English at Bakersfield College where he teaches writing and literature. Eric has a BA in English from the Master’s College, followed by graduate studies in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and studies in rhetoric and philosophy at Clemson University. In keeping with his diverse interests in literature, theology, and philosophy, Eric aspires to integrate learning within the humanities to develop a deeper appreciation of how God may be encountered diversely in everything that is. In his spare time, Eric likes to rock climb and read St. Thomas Aquinas. This episode is sponsored by Scholé Sisters’ Spring Training Sessions. Eric Hall will be leading us in these amazing three sessions that will help YOU walk firmly in classical Christian education by thinking deeply about philosophy. These sessions take place the first three Monday evenings of May  (and yes, replays will be available). The first session answers the question Why Education? I mean, why do our children need to be educated in the first place? The second session answers the question Why Classical? What really makes classical education distinct from modern education? And the third session answers the question Why Christian? This last session is designed to help you think deeply about the integration of faith and learning. Registration is now open so head on over to ScholeSisters.com/Spring to sign up … unless, of course, you are a Sistership Premier member. If that is the case, your registration is included in Premier and you will receive an email shortly that explains how to attend the session. For the rest of you, I repeat, to register for these amazing Spring Training sessions just go to ScholeSisters.com/Spring.
Today’s conversation with Eric is perfect if you plan to attend his sessions, yes, but also perfect if you ever plan to read a book on educational philosophy. Mystie and I talk with him about what philosophy really is and what are some of the best practices when it comes to studying it. I think you’ll love this. And so, without further ado let’s get to it.
[00:03:35] Scholé Everyday
Brandy: Let’s start off with our Scholé Everyday. And, Mystie, I’ll let you go first so you can give us an amazing example of how this is done. No pressure.
Mystie: I’ll try to be simple and direct.
Brandy: Oh, okay.
Mystie: That’s the talk that I’m reading. So, I’m reading right now, Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun. He also wrote From Dawn to Decadence, which is a history book, and he’s an amazing author—just so good with words. And this book is about writing. And it would actually be the perfect book to go through with a high schooler. I’m reading this book feeling like, ‘Oh my goodness. Where have you been all my life?’
Brandy: Oh really?
Mystie: It is so good. Every chapter has a few principles and they’re called out that way. There’s principle one and it’s a very simple and direct statement about what makes good writing. And he has examples of good writing, but he also has a whole bunch of examples that he has pulled from newspapers and student papers of bad writing and he calls out what makes it confusing or why it’s not clear.
Brandy: Oh, that’s helpful.
Mystie: It is so helpful. Because that’s the real trouble a lot of times trying to help our students with their writing is looking at it and saying this doesn’t sound good but that’s not a helpful thing to say. So, he actually has a whole bunch of examples throughout of bad writing and explains what’s making them bad in such a way that you could then use those as writing tips of your own.
Brandy: Oh, nice.
Mystie: I feel he’s teaching you how to self-edit.
Brandy: Well, that excites me because I bought it (because of you) but I thought I need one more writing book because we haven’t done 12th grade yet. And anyway, so that’s going to be our 12th grade book.
Mystie: Perfect. It’ll be perfect.
Brandy: I’m excited about it. I had something on my shelf, I can’t even know what it was called, but after looking at it, I felt like it would be really redundant after doing On Writing Well (and I can’t remember another one, there’s something else we did), then we did Lively Art of Writing and it just felt like the one I had was repeating too much of what we’ve already studied. I needed something different. You had said you like this.
Mystie: Well, this would even be a great one for going back to things you’ve previously written and going through it with some of these ideas or concepts and looking for them in your own writing and then revising.
Brandy: Oh, that’s an interesting idea.
Mystie: That’s one of the thoughts I had while reading this as a great way to use it.
Brandy: I do have seven years of written narrations. [Laughter]
Mystie: Time to put those to use.
Brandy: So, we have a few things to do next year, I guess (poor kid, he never saw this coming).
Mystie: “Revise your writing from when you were 10.”
Brandy: Really. “Critique your 10-year-old self.” But better than critiquing your 10-year-old brother—that could be crushing. Eric, what about you? What are you reading these days?
Eric: I have a few projects. One of the books I’ve been reading that’s been keeping me interested is a book called, The Idol of Our Age by Daniel Mahoney. I heard about it on First Things actually and I decided to read it because it was talking about Russian literature, which is a favorite of mine, but the topic of the book has been really fascinating because it deals with how the secular order, the secular world, has co-opted a lot of Christian concepts and notions of goodness and humanity and justice, and perverted them in some very subtle ways. He’s kind of going about it as a literary study. I’m working through Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, some of these great Russian writers, but you kind of see how applicable it is to our kind of ordinary conversations with people in the world and how they judge things to be good. They very sincerely believe certain things to be good. Like, it’s kind to excuse people’s self-destructive behavior. It’s kind to tolerate these kinds of differences in our society that destroy the common good rather than build it and we can’t get involved and justice is, basically, saying I’ll do my thing, you do your thing. That sounds really nice in their heads and when they speak about it, they mean it very sincerely, but what he’s showing is how these concepts don’t really belong to the atheistic worldview as much as people think they do. They’ve been co-opted from Christianity and put to use in these very destructive ways. And so, you know, it sounds virtuous on the television and in public appearances and over the internet, but in reality, the ethical foundation for it is very flimsy because it doesn’t really belong there. And so, it’s kind of a political book, it’s a philosophical book, it’s a literary book. I bought it because it had Dostoevsky in it, but I’ve been learning a lot more about it. And it’s, I think, a very aggressive book politically …
Eric: … from a Christian perspective, of course, but it definitely makes you think. I’m not sure if I’d recommend to everybody. You just have to be up for a challenge but, if those kind of things interest you and the kind of relationship between Christianity and the polite left, polite progressives of today, is something that you care about, I think that book would definitely be helpful in structuring your concepts and your understanding that conversation. Maybe even think a little bit about where it’s going in the future.
Brandy: Interesting. Would someone need to have read a lot of Russian literature to get the book?
Eric: Good question. Not necessarily. I think he’s pretty good at summarizing and retelling the things that are relevant to his thesis. One of the chapters deals with a Russian Theologian, Orthodox Theologian named Soloviev, who was a friend of Dostoevsky’s, but he wrote this book called The Antichrist (which is not related to Nietzsche or anything like that) but though it talks about Nietzsche, I suppose. I haven’t read the book. I haven’t read Soloviev actually, but I learned a lot about him from the chapter. So, I think the summaries are really helpful. And if you haven’t read a lot of Russian literature, there’s no need to wait, you know, you don’t need to finish The Brothers Karamazov, or The Gulag Archipelago before you pick this book up. Because you won’t—that’ll take ten years.
Brandy: [chuckles] Right!
Eric: So, I would read this book right away. Definitely read Russian literature, but that’s a separate conversation.
Brandy: You know, I went through a stage, in my twenties, where I read a lot of Russian literature and I haven’t read any for a long time other than A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but that was super short. I mean, it’s a short story for the Russians. Americans, we call it a book. [laughter]
Eric: I assigned that book to my college students and they thought it was a really significant novel, substantial. “Ah, sorry guys.” This is the most literature I know I can get you guys to read in a semester but keep this in perspective.
Mystie: “This is a booklet.”
Brandy: You’d have to bring a copy of Brothers K or something and sit it next to it so they can see what substantial really means.
Brandy: I guess I can only read one type of long book at a time and I keep reading Dickens and I have a half-finished copy of Les Mis. That’s a whole other topic.
Mystie: I like to do those by audio just because I’m getting my money’s worth out of my Audible credit on those ones.
Brandy: Yes you are.
Mystie: How many hours?
Brandy: 35 hours.
Mystie: The Russian novels are great value. [laughter]
Brandy: I really never thought of audiobooks in terms of cents per hour. But wow.
Mystie: Why do you think I chose City of God? [laughter]
Brandy: Oh, I go about these things all wrong, I think. [laughter] Okay. Well my Scholé Everyday, is Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People by Esther Meek. I heard about this, I think from Karen Glass—we had her on the show, and she mentioned reading a book by Esther Meek. Esther Meek has three or four books that she’s written on epistemology. And the one Karen’s reading is—talk about substantial—it is much more substantial than the one I picked out. So, I actually did go in and look at the page counts, I was trying to decide which one I was buying because I knew that the one that she was reading was more of a time investment that I wanted to make. Anyway, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m an ordinary person and I have been interested in epistemology off and on for quite a long time,’ so I grabbed it as my airplane book for my flight next week. I haven’t cracked it open yet because I always save those for once we settle down. The only thing is I’m flying with a number of children with me. So, my ability to read—I may be overestimating. But I’m pretty excited about it. It has great things on the back from people like David Wells, who I have enjoyed in the past. I just flipped through it when it came and I actually found myself wondering if this could even be something that I do with my younger kids when they’re in high school because it’s written almost like little thoughts of the day with even some discussion things at the end. So, it’s not meant to be these long thoughtful chapters and I thought, Well, that might even be something I could do just right after Bible time in the mornings or something. They’d have to be a little older but could be interesting. So, I’m kind of reading it or planning to read it with an eye toward whether or not I can do this out loud with them in a few years. So we’ll see.
Mystie: That sounds cool.
[00:14:15] Topical Discussion:
Philosophy for Mommies
Brandy: Well, maybe. We’ll see. Anyway, we should probably transition to our topical discussion, and I put down that our topic was philosophy or educational philosophy as a genre, that actually isn’t a catchy title. So, we’ll have to think of a catchy title for this. But, Eric, we are having you (and we’ll have you talk about this at the end), but we’re having you on to teach these spring training courses in May (we’re doing three Monday nights in a row) and so I thought as preparation for that we’d have you on and have you talk about—I mean you’re talking about a specific subject, but I thought why don’t we back up and look at that subject as—if you’re talking educational philosophy then seeing it as a branch of philosophy, which is even bigger, but then also thinking about it in terms of, as we approach your class or as we approach the books that we are reading together or anything like that, how do we approach this whole subject area, I guess, is really what I’m getting at. So, I thought I’d start off with the biggest question, which really is what’s a philosophy? So, no pressure you have.
Eric: That’s not a small question.
Brandy: You can be really general. It’s totally fine.
Eric: Well, philosophy is general by its nature.
Eric: So, at least I have that advantage. When we talk about philosophy, sometimes it can be somewhat confusing especially if you go to a university or something you want to take a philosophy class. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re going to get into because people mean a lot of different things by it and especially when we get into the issue of philosophy of something, it gets even more squirrely—the conversation does. And so, it is helpful to define what is philosophy and what does it mean to say there’s a philosophy of something? Like, education or a philosophy of government or philosophy of music or something specific and practical like that. I think the most general way to describe all of that at once, if it’s possible, is to say that philosophy is as wisdom, philosophy’s a pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom is mostly concerned with, as Aristotle said, ordering things and governing things. So philosophy, in its highest form, looks at the order of the universe and the government of the universe. And if you’re a pagan, like Aristotle, you think in Pagan terms and if you’re a Christian you look at that a little differently, obviously. But it has to do with what we call first principles and with self-evident truths and the highest things one can think about. The causes of everything. But as we work our way down from that height, we start to get closer to the practical elements, the practical areas of human life, which is where it’s more appropriate to talk about philosophy of something. You know, somebody like Plato’s not terribly interested in what does philosophy have to do with Batman or your favorite TV show? Like people talk about that today like a philosophy in Marvel comic books or something. That’s not really what they’re talking about. But they are admitting—Plato and Aristotle both—admit that there’s a way to philosophically approach almost anything in human life. Both of them, of course, were very interested in philosophies of government and philosophies of education. So, I think the same pattern applies. We’re talking about philosophy in general, we’re talking about the ordering and the governing of the universe, the causes, what makes it to be what it is. And as we look down stream of that we look into things like education, we’re still asking the same sorts of questions. We’re asking what is this directed to education? What causes it to be what it is? And how can it be governed practically to achieve its end? It’s end goal. So, we’re asking the same sorts of questions. You could apply those questions to governments: why does human government exist? What makes it to be what it is? How is it organized and ordered, and as the philosopher always thinks about, how should it be ordered? How should we be ordering our civil life and our communal life with one another? What’s its goal? And different philosophers, of course, have different ways of answering those questions, which is where all the fun comes in. But I think anyone who’s truly looking philosophically at those sorts of things is asking those questions. So education, of course, is a prime subject matter for this kind of philosophy—philosophy of something—something practical. So, we look at it as wisdom. There’s a certain wisdom that goes along with education and we’re asking what that is. What it means to be wise in that way? So that’s how I would explain the approach what it means to say philosophy of education. And of course, we all know that the diversity within that field is quite great, and very contentious, but I don’t think you can get away from the basics of what philosophy is.
Brandy: So, what do you see as the big diversion points? Where do the contentions and educational philosophy come from?
Eric: This is something I definitely want to say more about in the training sessions. But one of the things that I think is very apparent is different philosophies of education have a different notion of what a human being is. This concerns the goal of education. So, we all agree education has a purpose, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. But the purpose of education is very much determined by how you think of a human person, a human being. And so, the biggest divide between more classical types of education and more modern types of education is the question of whether or not human beings have a soul. That sounds elementary to some of us like, how would you doubt that? Of course, there’s a lot of atheists who don’t believe in the soul, a lot of professional philosophers don’t believe in the soul, but that plays out in major ways in your education system. Whatever your methods are, are you educating a human being who is a unity of body and soul, who has a material existence and a spiritual existence that are united, that can’t be easily divorced? Or are you educating a very sophisticated, subtle, and somewhat devious animal that …
Brandy: Is this a trick question?
Eric: In other words, by animal I mean, basically, like you might train a dog or …
Mystie: Some more behavioralism.
Brandy: Okay, I was thinking of elementary school boys—getting confused for a second there.
Mystie: Well, have you met my nine-year-old?
Brandy: You’re like, “Devious? Huh.”
Eric: Devious, in a way that animals can be devious, that they respond merely to pleasure and pain and that whatever you do has to be some kind of measure of both. Then your goal really is not to educate the soul, or to instill virtue or habits in the soul, or to provide an opportunity for that soul to become wise or more like God in some way, your agenda is to make that the most productive unit of the animal kingdom that it can be for whatever goal that might be that the state has decided. But if human beings don’t have a soul then you can legitimize a whole range of methods for educating children. You would treat them in the way that modern psychology treats them—as biological phenomenon, chemical phenomenon, that can be manipulated and compelled to act in certain ways according to their biology. So, it changes everything because it changes the goal. If human beings don’t have a soul, then education is nothing to do with making them more virtuous or better human beings because God gave you a purpose and your purpose is to be a good human being or whatever that means. The goal of education now is to bring the maximum amount of pleasure to that person’s life and the life of the overall citizenry and avoid the maximum amount of pain. So, it’s like feelings management that point with the goal of getting a good career and owning enough stuff to keep you from being miserable. These kinds of ways of looking at reality, not that there’s anything wrong with having a good career or having enough stuff to keep you from being miserable because nobody wants their kids to be miserable.
Eric: But what is that for? Like why? Why do we want to have a good career? Why do we want our children to be well off enough to avoid grinding poverty? That’s because, I hope, we think there’s something God-given in them that by virtue of being a human person God has something for them to do and to become that goes beyond the material order. It goes beyond the material realm, there’s some spiritual side of that too. So that’s one divide, and I’ve probably gone on quite a bit about that. I’ll go on a bit more about that when we go through our sessions, but that’s one thing and there’s a lot that flows out of that.
Brandy: It’s interesting to me that you started with that because I remember, oh goodness, was it James K. A. Smith, Misty?
Brandy: Okay. Who said that every …
Brandy: Every pedagogy starts with a philosophical …
Mystie/Brandy: … anthropology.
Brandy: That’s right.
Brandy: So that would make sense.
Mystie: Well, it reminds me of when my oldest—it was probably almost 10 years ago now actually—but we were just starting to homeschool, and so I was reading a whole bunch of books about homeschooling and education and getting into it and I remember hearing about a friend’s friend, who’s ten year old son died in a freak home accident, just a bike accident. It was completely unexpected and out of the blue and it really brought home to me thinking about the why we were doing this because one of my first thoughts as I thought about being in that situation was that’s five years of pouring yourself into this education that’s now for nothing, and having to step back and say, okay, how is it for nothing? It’s only for nothing if the whole reason you were doing it was for them to live a certain kind of life here on earth only. But if it’s directed toward their soul then if they die they are still eternal. It still is worth something to them.
Eric: It goes beyond enjoying this life to something in the next. And I mean the relationship between our education in our eternal state is obviously not a one-to-one [**inaudible**].
Mystie: No, no.
Eric: But there’s something to it. It’s not to say that people who have no education or bad education are going to be subpar in eternity. [Laughter] That’s not true at all. Those people, of course, can grow in virtue in different ways. And maybe God gives grace for these things, but there is something to being responsible with the time we have to be educated if we can. If we can avail ourselves of those means and to educate others. It does have an impact on the soul in some ways and I don’t think that just disappears because it has something to do with human person, not a human body, not a human biology or chemistry or anything like that, it’s the human person. And the person and the soul endure death in some way. And so however long we live and however much we are educated those things do matter and that’s also a reason why I think you don’t want to do education badly. Or you don’t want to allow the wrong kinds of people or things to educate us or our children because those influences, they make an impact, they make a difference. Not that we should be paranoid we’re going to be corrupted but it’s something to take seriously because it is more serious than our bodily life in some ways.
Mystie: It’s the line that has continued to come back to me after that incident is just a line from one of the verses in Away in a Manger but it’s “and fit us for heaven to live with you there.” And that always comes back to mine as one of the goals and what everything is geared toward here and that’s shaped what we’ve chosen to emphasize like in Morning Time or whatever, but that it isn’t just about this life only. It’s about becoming worshipers in this life because that is something we can do in this life and will continue doing and being in the next life. So that’s of enduring value.
Brandy: Well, we’re going to be having you teach these, I think of them as 101 level courses, right? So it’s your very basic educational philosophy with some theology mixed in, so I’m thinking as we’re talking about the person who’s going to come to your class or the person is going to pick up a book on educational philosophy, if they want to study it, tell us what they’re really looking for. One thing. I think I’ve noticed over the last 10 years or so is increasing inability, and I’m not sure exactly what causes it, but just to think truly philosophically. I even feel like it happens to me even though I’ve been reading it, it’s something about our culture that can be painfully practical at times and encourage that disposition, and so, I’m wondering if we’re going to pick up a book or we’re going to come to your class what are we supposed to be looking for? How are we supposed to read it or listen to it? Or how do we study this? What are some basics?
[00:29:00 ] Basics to Thinking Philosophically
Eric: That’s good—painfully practical is a good way to put it. I find my students, when I teach at the college, are very painfully practical. And it’s somewhat painful to go through the long process that it takes to get out of that way of looking at things because I think these are really more of a question about habits and intellectual habits that we have. And by intellectual habit, I mean, like any other sort of habit we have, it’s a very stable disposition that we have. A stable way of looking at things that we’ve kind of adopted over a long period of time and we’ve kind of hardened in it, good habits, bad habits, they all work as that way. And the practical habit or the way of looking at something in a habitually practical way is pretty common because it appears to be easier on the face of it and when you want to look at something philosophically it’s easy to be put off by the difficulty of that because philosophy is also a habit. It’s a habit of the mind—thinking about things in a philosophical way, asking questions about why does this exist? How does this particular activity direct itself towards the goal? What is the goal? What is causing the need for education? And these kinds of things are hard to think about and applying them is even harder. So, when we approach philosophy, and talking about philosophy of education, we really need to set aside the practical habit of doing things and end up with a philosophical one. So, what I mean by that is we have to be more contemplatively and more content to not know exactly how to apply things right away. You have to hold back a little bit from the practical questions and allow speculation and contemplation to have its place. So really, I think, the only thing you need to be concerned about at first when you start talking about philosophy of something is just trying to understand it. Just trying to make sure you have a good grasp of what education is. What’s its goal? What’s its natural God-given goal? What’s the material that makes up a good education? What is a human being? How can we influence other human beings? Questions about what is truth? What is wisdom? All these kinds of things. Just think about them for their own sake first and learn to have a philosophical habit of mind without worrying about the step-by-step process, which will generate the results you want. When you do that, I think the practical wisdom will come more naturally and readily to people.
[00:31:49] The Virtue of Prudence
And I think there’s something to be said here for the virtue of prudence. In my experience with teaching freshman composition at college level, we sit down to write a research paper, which is really intimidating for any first year college student naturally, and the first thing the students want is the steps. They just want all the steps—tell me what steps I need to take to generate an A paper and I will do those steps without fail and we’ll be done with it. And I try and resist that as much as possible because I don’t really care that the students just follow a list of steps to do what I want them to do. I want my students to have the kind of good judgment, in the good sense, to write a good paper in its own right for its own sake. For their sakes too because they need that skill. They need the ability to make good judgments in the future about their writing, about their communication, and their research. And they’re not going to have that if they just have the practical, brutally practical, approach of just following the set of instructions. So, it’s really the virtue of prudence I think we also have to have to remember here that plays a role. We sometimes like lists of things because we don’t have to worry about whether or not this is the right judgment or the wrong judgment. We don’t have to worry about being unsure because we can trust ourselves to the list—the To Do List. And that’s fine for some things. You don’t really want to cook that way all the time where you just kind of make good judgments because sometimes …
Brandy: Yeah Mystie!
Eric: … it’s nice to have a list of recipes step by step.
Brandy: Sometimes people don’t follow …
Eric: To be honest I don’t follow those; I’m not saying that that’s a good thing. There’s some parts of life where you want the instructions and that’s totally fine.
Eric: But we all know that to be a great chef means that you don’t need a recipe. You don’t need …
Eric: … to follow their instructions. You have it internally within yourself and perform it as you go. Now, we’re not all trying to be great chefs, and that’s fine. But I think if we want to be good educators, we have to think carefully about philosophy of education and we have to be willing to be unsure about how to apply this and we have to be willing to accept that maybe this isn’t going to guarantee the outcomes that I want. And we have to we have to make good judgment calls and I don’t think that’s avoidable. I think you, at some point, have to do that as an educator because of the kinds of beings that we’re trying to educate—they’re fundamentally uncertain, uncontrolled, uncontrollable. In the modern way of educating people we like to control them because modern education doesn’t want to have to make good judgments, they just want the mechanistic To Do List—if I pull these levers and push these buttons will I get ‘X result’? And they spend a lot of money, employ a lot of social scientists to figure this out. But I don’t think that has very much to do with good education because if we’re trying to teach our students virtue, we also have to be virtuous as well. So, the virtue of prudence, you know, making good judgments—if we want our students to have that I think we need to show them how to have that even in the course of giving them a good education.
Brandy: This is so interesting to me because we think we want to be good as home schooling moms at teaching our children. And so, we look for lists, like To Do Lists. We look for these extensive lists of what to do and how to do it, and so it might be do this and then you find the list of exactly the steps to follow to do that thing or whatever. So it’s list upon list upon list. And yet, what I’m hearing you say is when we skip the philosophy, the pondering part of this, and jump straight to application we’re actually missing the exact step that makes us possibly not need the list like you talked about the great chef not needing the recipe. So, not that there’s never a time to say, “Well, this is how you do the science experiment,” or whatever, but the idea that we’re attracted to the list because we want to be good at what we do and yet we’re skipping the exact step that truly would make us good at what we do.
Eric: Right. You have to use the list kind of like a ladder really, and when you climb up to the next level, you can kick it away. It wasn’t really necessary. It’s not essential. It’s helpful. It can be very helpful, especially if you’re just getting started. You need to learn some of the basics, but never forget that that list serves a purpose. And that the purpose is what you need to consider, the purpose of it, and you really need to ask hard questions about it: is this really fitting to my goal as an educator? Is this method, this list of things to do, really fitting for my student? And be willing to make adaptations and changes to those things is really important. And if we don’t have the skill or the virtue of prudence to make those kind of decisions then we’re going to be really handicapped. Because education is a very uncertain business. You can spend a lot of time and a lot of money and have great expectations for your students and it doesn’t always turn out the way you think and it may not be something you’ll know the answer to right away, but I think we’ll be better equipped to handle that kind of situation, to handle the variety and the diversity that we encounter in educating, if we think of more about purposes than practicality. Practicality is okay. I’m not trying to say that never be a list maker. We can all benefit from that. But it’s really just one piece of the puzzle and it’s probably the least important piece of the puzzle, I would say, compared to some of the other things that we’re going to talk about in the [spring] sessions.
[00:38:01] How Do I Get Prudence?
Brandy: So how does someone get that prudence that you’re talking about?
Eric: Practice. Prudence is a funny virtue because it requires a number of different things to make it work. To be good in that way, requires a lot of things. It requires a good memory—you have to remember things; you have to remember the past pretty well if you want to make good judgments about the future. So having a grasp of your experience, your personal experience, and a grasp of historical experience, experience beyond yourself can be really helpful for making good judgment calls in the future. So, memory’s helpful. Having good counsel, of course, is really important for that too. You want to have the right resources and the right friends. It’s valuable. If you want to be good in this way, if you want to have prudence, those things are essential. So that’s something you can do on your own, I suppose, but it’s much better and much easier with friends, good friends, to bounce ideas off of them and to draw upon their experience and to get good counsel. And books can do this for us as well.
Brandy: I need to be clear. We didn’t pay you to say this. [laughter] I feel like our entire existence was embodied in what you just said!
Eric: Good. That was not a paid advertisement. But I think anybody who takes education seriously is going to naturally gravitate to something, some kind of counsel, some kind of advice, an advisor, because it’s just what we need. We can’t go very far without it. So, the third thing is courage. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to be prudent because it’s easy to look at the right thing to do or is easy to look at a hard thing to do, sometimes prudence, you know, making a good judgment actually means that you have to do something that sounds really hard and it takes a little bit of courage to act on that and I think there’s not very much of that in our culture anymore. There’s not a lot of prudence for one and there’s not a lot of courage that we look at hard things and things that cost and things that take a lot of time and effort and energy and money that may not pay out in the end and we think I’d rather not do that. That doesn’t seem like a good payout. So why would I make that investment? And that’s how people approach things today and education is like planting a giant sequoia. Wendell Berry uses this analogy somewhere in his writings that, you know, we have to learn to plant Sequoias knowing that we won’t see the great tree that it will become. And we have to be okay with that and we have to go through the hard work of planting it and watering it and caring for it. Not because we’re going see it and we’re going to get the payout but because somebody else will get the payout. Somebody else will benefit from it and that requires some courage and some sacrifice. So, I hope to encourage some homeschoolers who are making that kind of sacrifice and doing so diligently because it’s valuable in the end, whether we know it or not. I think there’s going to be some value to it. We can’t measure everything based on what immediate value and practical result it’s going to have. Now we have to be willing to just press on even when we don’t see that so that would be helpful if one is trying to grow in that virtue, I think.
[00:41:28] A good starting place for reading
Mystie: Well, I assume for learning about the why and the what behind education and all of this that it’s going to take reading. What kind of reading would you recommend starting with? There are just so many things that could be read. What would be a good starting place for delving into this?
Eric: There’s loads of people who have very well-formed philosophies of education out there. I’m sure most of your listeners are very familiar with them. I would actually, this is maybe my own bent, but I’d take a step back from philosophy of education per se and think more along the lines of just philosophy in general and then allow that to inform your philosophy of education. And the reason I say that for a couple of reasons. One, I think, the better we are at studying philosophy in general, some major questions, like what are human beings? What are they for? What’s their purpose? What makes them what they are? Those things like I said are very important when it comes to founding informing a philosophy of education. So we need to be well informed about those. Two, I think it can sometimes be very difficult to judge between the different approaches out there when it comes to education. There are lots. Lots of people have lots of opinions, lots of different methods. Even if you just restrict yourself to the classical education world, there’s a number of schools of thought out there and it’s not surprising because of the nature of education, but if we want to wade into that and make good interpretations and good judgments about it, I think we need to be able to step back from it and not get involved in the internal debates there as much as be able to take a broad look at all of these different approaches and realize what is good about one and what is not good about another. For example, you would want to be able to ask question, does this approach to classical education take into account the nature of a human being? Or have a good account of what it means to be a human being? Or is this modern atheistic education, you know in a new form, for conservative homeschoolers? That stuff is out there too. So, where you wade into the debates on what makes good classical education, I don’t know if that really matters, not in my mind anyway. But I think to have the ability to judge between them is the most important part, to kind of adjudicate that debate and that decision, and have some confidence that you’re making a good judgment. So rather than, say, starting with one writer and moving on to the next and the next and the next and immersing yourself in the conversation, you could easily get lost and it becomes very factional, which that’s something we human beings do. I create little camps and tribes and then that’s understandable from one perspective. But I think if we want to be able to make a good call on some of the stuff we need to have the bigger question settled. We have to have better insight into some of these things like what is a human being and how is the soul informed by education? What’s the task of education? So there’s questions that get thrown in there, too, about human sinfulness. How does that impact education? I mean it impacts education every day, you say that to your kids, and you’re like struggling with them in all these things…
Brandy: Hence, my confusion over the word devious. [laughter]
Eric: We have to encounter that, too, and I don’t know, in my experience, I don’t know if every philosophy of education out there does a good job with that. They could overdo it or they could ignore it. And I think we have to have some good thoughts about what it means to be a sinful human being, a very small sinful human being, who’s not very old but it is in great need of an education and in practice and training and virtue and challenge. I think we need to have those philosophical things nailed down first.
Mystie: So it’s like philosophy and that includes theology?
Mystie: That that’s going be a big part of interpreting all that, and a lot of people are super frustrated about classical education because of the factional—it’s like, I just want the answer, the one right way and that doesn’t exist in the classical education world. So, therefore, what use is it to me and what’s the value that’s there?
Eric: It can be really debilitating to get involved in some of these debates and then you lose your hopefulness in it. Plato talks about this in one of his dialogues. He says there’s people out there that hate philosophy. They hate philosophy because they look at the world and they see like a thousand different philosophers arguing and they get into it with high hopes and enthusiasm and they end in despair because they see no way out and they just see no right answer. I think that’s true in a lot of realms, a lot of human realms. Like we can do that with education—just get involved in all the debates and we get isolated in our camp and we dig our trenches and then we get worn out by it and we lose a sense of why we’re even talking about this. And this happens in other places. It happens in a philosophy department at a university. People who study literature of theology we can be more about the debates than Truth. And Truth is hard to find but we have to keep our orientation there, I think, if we’re not going to lose hope. Or just make a hasty judgment and say this is the right way and I’m not going to ever ask this question again. This is the end of the conversation. This is what I’m doing for the rest of my life. There are people like that, too, and they might be more content, but they won’t necessarily have a better or truer understanding of what they’re doing.
Mystie: I think that fits so well with our—we didn’t even plan it necessarily—but that fits so well with our theme this season on division and controversy and all that. That it really is not about coming up with the right formula to get the right answer but in the discussion coming to a greater and greater understanding which really happens in the process of disagreeing or defining terms and it is a process that really takes time and effort and …
Eric: … and it requires a certain amount of hope. You can’t give up hope that you’re going to have a better understanding at one point than you did before. It’s easy to give up on that when you get too involved in the debate, but it’s rewarding in the end, I think.
[00:48:43] Spring Training Sessions
Brandy: Well Eric, we’re going to be having you do three sessions for Spring Training. And I think maybe this is a good time to just have you try to briefly explain a little bit about those three sessions and what you’re going to try to accomplish and all the multitude of promises, where they’re going to come away with a list of things to do— [laughter]
Eric: So I’ve broken down the sessions into three. The first one we’re going to deal with kind of the most broad topic which is why education? Why education at all? Why is this necessary? Why is this important? Why has this become so integral to modern society and to human life? And so, I ask some philosophical questions and theological questions. A lot of the things I mentioned today fall in that category—why education? Why is this important? So, we’ll spend time talking about that. And then the second session I want to talk about why classical education? And I’m really going to try and deal with that in broad terms and not get into one particular interpretation of classical but look at more why classical versus the modern approach to education? So, we’ll be applying some things that we talked about in session one about philosophy and theology to that question. And then the third session I want to talk about why Christian? What does it mean to say an education is Christian? That’s something that is also a very contentious topic. Different people have different ideas about that. So, I want to think carefully about what it means to apply the Christian worldview and Christian theology to education. And that’ll be a little bit more practical as well. What sort of things ought we to include in a curriculum? How should we handle moral questions, moral issues in education? Should we allow our students to encounter sin and evil in the literature they read, in the philosophy they read? How do we relate to pagans and the secularists in the world who write very important books that maybe our children will need to read at some point in their life? How do we prepare them for that in some way? So, thinking about some of the moral and theological consequences for being a Christian educator, really, so that will be our third and final topic.
Brandy: Well, I’m really excited about that.
Mystie: It’s good stuff.
Brandy: I think I’m going to take your class. The reason why we asked you to do this is because you taught two or three sessions at my church and they were just so good, Eric, to be honest. I was sitting there I was like, he knows what he’s talking about.
Eric: I hope so.
Brandy: So exciting. But hearing how you’ve refined all this over the last, because it’s been a few years since I heard …
Eric: It has been.
Brandy: So hearing how you’ve refined all of that and I’m excited for you to share all of this with our listeners and for us to get a chance to take that step back and I think this time of the year where we’re wrapping up the year anyway, and there’s not a whole lot of to-do lists coming up, it’s a great time to step back and take a chance to do the more philosophical thinking before we start planning next year…
Brandy: … and all the list of things to do. Remember really what we’re about. I’m especially excited about your last one just because thinking about what makes us distinct as Christian educators because I feel like that gets so muddled sometimes and you know, we have Christian schools here where what makes it distinct is that there’s a Bible class but it’s not really a peculiar education. It’s just this additional subject that is tacked on to the list of subjects. So, I’m excited to hear what you have to say about that (and I don’t really want to ask any questions about that because I want to wait until May). But anyway, Mystie is there anything else that we should discuss before we’re done?
Mystie: I don’t think so. I think this is good. And I’m looking forward to the sessions for that bigger picture and that overview that it isn’t about a particular camp and doing a particular method. It is a way of thinking and approaching life and truth and education or some of those things, I think, will fall into place a bit more when we have that bigger picture.
Brandy: Well, thanks you guys for joining me today. It’s been great.
Eric: Thanks for having me.
Mystie: Thanks, Eric.
Brandy: I’m really glad you could be here. We will see you, Eric, in May.
Eric: Sounds good.
[00:53:55] In Closing
Brandy: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening and being a part of the Sisterhood of the podcast. Don’t forget to register for the Scholé Sisters’ Spring Training Event with Eric Hall by visiting ScholeSisters.com/Spring. Next episode, Mystie and I are chatting about C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves, specifically concerning what Lewis says about friendship. We chat about what makes a friendship, how they are technically unnecessary, and even discover a bit of advice from Lewis on how to make friends. Until then, we want to remind you once again, that homeschooling is a marathon you needn’t run alone, so open up your eyes, and look around you, find your sisters!