talk given at Geneva Classical Academy's donor banquet in Monroe, LA
My talk this evening is entitled "Raising Hell: Confessions of a Classical Christian Teacher"
There I sat. The room was dim. My desk was cold. I leaned back in my chair, propping against a thinly painted cinder block wall, face pressed into two palms freshly lathered with hand sanitizer. I couldn’t remove my hands from my face. I didn’t want to. The alternative was a room stenched full of middle-school arm pit. To move my hands from my face was to look around and realize what I had become. The children had just left for lunch. These were my few minutes of quiet in a busy teaching schedule. My story appeared tragic. Worse than Achilles in his rage or Oedipus in his blindness, I had become a male teacher.
I never thought I’d be a teacher, much more writing and speaking on education. After high school, I left Birmingham, Alabama wide-eyed and hopeful that I would set out on greater trails, that my career path would be higher than the educators. Why? Male teachers are sissies. They drive faded Easter-yellow, two-door sedans and are only here because they have nothing better to do, which does not mean the classroom gig is the best out there for them. It only means if there is better, they have neither the courage nor skills to do it. In fact, male teachers are the ones who were probably picked last for kickball during their playground days, which is why they are the first to stick up for those kinds of kids today. And if we dig deep enough we will find male teachers either mask a pseudo masculinity with a tie, bolster an anorexic masculinity with erratically harsh classroom rules and procedures, or showcase an ill-defined masculinity with large muscles and prideful athleticism. These are the male teachers in our generation. They are here to stay.
When as a child I thought of male teachers, I thought of two realities – and I say realities because I have come to see that they are often the case. Growing up, I believed male teachers were one of two kinds of men: coaches who had to justify their salary, so they were stuck in a History class or Bible class, or men who couldn’t hack it in Engineering, so they sheepishly went to their college counselor to see what degree would allow them to lose the fewest credits. Let’s call this second guy Cameron.
Cameron was a wannabe mechanical engineer whose sophomore class in fluid-dynamics was more rigid than he expected. He couldn’t get past it. Plus, his girlfriend required a lot of attention. So Cameron went to the counselor at the university and transferred his collected credits to the most convenient degree, something that would get him out of here on time and economically in one piece. “How about education?” the college counselor asks with a warm voice as she thinks about her middle school music teacher. “It really is a great opportunity to shape the next generation,” she says. “Plus, you look pretty athletic. I’m sure you’d get snatched up real quick to coach.” Foolishly, Cameron believed her. “Congratulations, Cameron! The College of Education will accept all of your credits,” says the student-worker whose desk sits positioned in front of a large motivational poster which reads, “Teachers are the hope of the next generation!” Cameron changed his major that day and spent the rest of his life being financially unstable and emotionally unreliable. He would grade papers in the evening and turn out to be a pretty swell guy.
I had known a few Camerons in my day. I didn’t want to be Cameron. I didn’t want to be a swell guy. And I didn’t want to grade papers in the evening. All my teachers growing up were women, except when I got to high school. Then, if I had a teacher who wasn’t a woman, he was a coach. Sad existence, I thought: handle snot-nosed kids in the day, covering my room with apples and clouds, leaving my evenings for either grading papers or grading athletic prowess. No, thanks.
All this is what I thought about male teachers for the majority of my life. My upbringing, being that of a typical American kid, took its cues from pop culture, television, public education, locker-room dialogue, and whatever else found its way on a young and budding world wide web. My maternal grandfather was a teacher and so was his wife. Other than that, most in my family were in the medical profession. I knew teachers from afar and always had a feeling they were pawns in a greater scheme. As it turns out, I was not too far from the truth in most cases. Nonetheless, I had higher hopes as a kid.
I left high school and did the nobler thing: I avoided education. And when I found out my older sister was going into education, “Good, for her,” I thought. I went into the college of Architecture and Design. I didn’t want to carry a canvas teacher bag replete with embroidered butterflies and worms, and I definitely didn’t want to spend my life making minimum salary and working up a maximum grump.
I am now a male teacher, and nothing I have said so far, except maybe the part about driving a faded Easter-yellow, two-door sedan, is remotely true. I have been able to avoid becoming the stereotype I had of male teachers, though the stereotype has some serious and concerning truths within it. I have avoided the stereotype because one important gift: God’s providence in bringing me first to the foot of his cross and then to the door of classical Christian education.
In my time as a teacher and Headmaster in classical Christian education, I have, like all thoughtful men and women in this field, wrestled with our purpose, our goal, our telos or end. And in short it has boiled down to one jarring command: raise hell. The general duty of the classical Christian educator, the general duty of the well-dressed donor at a nice banquet, the general duty of the Christian parent and the pastor, are all the same: raise hell. This talk is titled “Raising Hell: Confessions of a Classical Christian Teacher,” so a few confessions are in order as well as an explanation as to what raising hell is all about. Raising hell for the classical Christian educator means four things. (give four main points and then begin.)
Raising Hell in Me
My first confession is I am a sinful man. For orthodox Christians, this is plain enough. Through my years of teaching, in as much as I find this education giving our students eyes to see, a heart to know, and ears to hear, it has done the same for me. I am a father, an imperfect father. I am a husband, an imperfect husband. I am a son, a brother, a church member, a shopper, a scholar, and I am imperfect in all my ways. This education not only reminds me daily of that deficiency, but it requires me to hold our classroom and our academy to a standard that then permeates my own soul, my own home, and my own church.
“Gentlemen,” we tell our male students, “obey quickly and joyfully. Carry your academic work load with joy and thanksgiving.” “Ladies,” we tell our female students, “speak kindly of and to one another. Build one another up in love.” With each passing year, these principles sink deeper into my own heart. My affections for good things grow as I encourage the same in our students.
Raising hell in me includes taking that warped view I once had of male teachers and baptizing it in Christ and in the Western academic tradition, where men are called to have fit minds and not just fit bodies. Raising hell in me means my hope for a man cave is overshadowed by my hope for a home library, that a Saturday or a Sunday might be spent in prayer and study rather than watching hours upon hours of American football.
Imitation is the most important principle in education. Always and at any age. Our students and our children will become like us, for better or for worse. Therefore, raising hell for a classical Christian educator means first raising hell in me.
Raising Hell in my Students
If my first confession is that I am a sinful man, my second confession is that I am the Headmaster of a school full of sinful children. I am saying nothing profound here but only what is the most basic truth about each of our sweet little Christian academies. To say our students are sinful is to say they, like us, long for lesser goods, and the world will tell them they deserve those lesser good. Our students will long for fame, money, popularity, sexual immorality, civic recognition, and little kingdoms where they rule.
To say our students long for lesser goods is to say that our students, in and of themselves, long for hell. Our students, like each of us, are born with an appetite for hell. If the proverbial hell-bound handbasket actually existed, we would see it was quite insufficient for the market demands. We would make it a trolley. And because the trolley wouldn’t satisfy, but for the grace of God, we would make it a high-speed monorail. When this wouldn’t satisfy, the legions of Screwtapes would demand more, and we wouldn’t stop until everyone prayed the prayer “Our Father, which art in hell, hallowed be thy name. Thy dark kingdom come, thy fiendish will be done on earth as it is in hell.” Yes, it’s true that we are not all as bad as we could be. But it is equally true that we are not as bad as we want to be. Again, what we are born with is an appetite for hell. What we are not born with is an appetite for heaven. This must be given to us by God.
And one of the means by which we come to have an appetite for heaven is by being educated in heavenly things. Because our students in themselves have an appetite for hellish things, classical Christian education then becomes an opportunity to raise hell in our students. While our modern counterparts tell their students to express themselves, we should tell our students to express God’s everlasting and eternal truth. While our modern counterparts say we ought to tell our children they can become anything they want to be, we should tell our children they should avoid most things they want to be. While our modern academic counterparts tell their children that one’s self-esteem ought never be brought low, we should tell our children that one’s self-esteem is always far too high.
Raising hell in our students means first recognizing that hell is actually in our students, and then doing the work God has called us to as Christian churches, Christian schools, and Christian parents to ultimately raise hell out of our students, to baptize, teach, and love the hell out of our children.
Raising Hell in the World
If my first confession is that I am sinful, and my second confession is that our children are sinful, then my third confession will stick with the general them of pointing away from anyone in this room: the world is sinful.
One of the great redeeming qualities of modern classical Christian education is that it upsets our world. Here what I mean by raising hell is in the more recognizable sense of causing problems, making trouble. Like Socrates, a faithful classical Christian academy in modern times will be a gadfly on the back of its city. It will prick, prod, and agitate our modern sentiments. It will cause trouble, the good kind. It will make city leaders in Monroe consider the old ways. It will make professors at ULM think. It will ask pastors, priests, and Parish officials to look anew at their own education, their children’s education, and the general trajectory of this nation. A classical Christian school that is doing things right will make enemies. And when it does, because those within a classical Christian school are called to be faithful Christians, they will seek to reconcile those enemies to Christ and his bride, the Church.
In another sense, raising hell in our world means not only causing trouble. It also means being the Holy Spirit’s instruments of redemption for the present Kingdom of God. Raising hell in ourselves and our students will result in raising hell in our world: baptizing, teaching, and loving the hell out of our public policies, social sentiments, and cultural artifacts.
Raising Hell in You
My final confession, if it is a confession at all, is a confession on your behalf. It is really an exhortation. It will hit closer to home. This education is not just for your children or grandchildren or your neighbor’s children. This education is for you. It may seem odd that I would stoop to such a level as to say you should be learning what your thirteen year-old daughter is learning. But do you know what a thirteen year old is learning at a classical Christian school? It would raise hell in you, if only you would really buy into it, perhaps with your wallets but especially with your intellect and affections.
A few years back I decided to challenge some of our fathers in a unique way. I sent out an email encouraging them to choose one book per semester to read with their student. A few took me up on the offer. Of those few, one story has stood out. Rod Dreher was the father of a 9th grade student, a young man named Matthew. Rod decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, a book he shamefully confessed he had not read. Here is how Rod recounts it all:
What kind of chump has a mid-life crisis?
Well, for one, a 46-year-old chump like me—and I didn’t see it coming. Happy marriage? Check. Great kids? Check. Good job, good church, good health? Check, check, and (mostly) check. True, my only sibling died in 2011, but that event turned into an occasion of grace, one that brought me the unexpected blessing of returning to my hometown after a lifetime of wandering. And the book I wrote about that journey had for the first time given me financial security. What’s not to like?
Yet last summer I was mired in despair.
I was lost, but lost in a familiar way. When I was 17, as a restless, anxious teenager, I wandered unawares into the Gothic cathedral at Chartres. The wonder and beauty of that medieval masterpiece made me realize that life was far more filled with joy, with possibility, with adventure and romance than I had imagined. I did not walk out of the cathedral that day a Christian, but I did leave as a pilgrim who was onto something.
“I need to see Chartres again,” I recently wrote to a friend. What I meant was that I needed my vision renewed, my spirit revived, my world re-enchanted by what I perceived there in 1984 as a world-weary American teenager who thought he had seen it all, but who in truth had no idea how blind he was until he beheld the most beautiful church in the world.
And then, killing time in a Barnes & Noble one hot south Louisiana afternoon, I opened a copy of Dante’s Inferno, the first of his Divine Comedy trilogy, and read these words (the translation I cite in this essay is by Robert and Jean Hollander):
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.
I read on in that first canto, or chapter, and stood with Dante the pilgrim as wild beasts—allegories of sin—cut off all routes out of the terrifying wood. Then, to the frightened Dante’s aid, comes the Roman poet Virgil:
‘It is another path that you must follow,’
he answered, when he saw me weeping,
‘if you would flee this wild and savage place.’
So Dante follows Virgil—and I followed Dante. I did not know it in that moment, but those were the first steps of a journey that would lead me through this incomparable 14th-century poem—all 14,233 lines in 100 cantos—through the pits of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, beyond space and time to the zenith of Paradise—and out of my own dark wood of depression.
Rod went onto write a book called How Dante Saved My Life. He bought into an important principle in Christian parenting: parents, far above school administrators, pastors, and teachers, are the primary models for their children. If our children are going to mature intellectually and spiritually, we as parents must mature intellectually and spiritually. Raise hell in yourself before you expect to see it raised in your child.
Raised to What?
One final question remains. With all this hell raising, to what are we, our children, and our cities raised? Once hell is raised in our students, to what are our students then raised? The oddity about today’s rising secular education is not that in its rebellion it avoids God’s spoken reality, but that it attempts to work within it so as to avoid it. Educators of all stripes want to raise things in their students, and want to raise their students to things, but what is it that ultimately must be raised and to what are we raising our students? When we ask secular educators why we raise taxes for our education budget and what they want to raise in their students, the answers come flowing out: ACT scores, National Merit numbers, funding, job placement, the national ranking of Louisiana schools, GPA, salaries, a love for research, self-expression. The list goes on ad infinitum. Classical Christian education, faithful education which works in the direction God has given us and in the way God has given us, trusts the Holy Spirit to do a work in us, in our students, in our churches, in our cities, in our law books, in our libraries, in our universities, and in our homes so that we may be raised to our greatest good: the Triune God. Donations and capital campaigns do not ultimately raise money in order to raise scaffolding, or grade point averages, or scholarship opportunities, or local awareness of the school’s prominence. For the faithful classical Christian school, the final end of raising money, of raising hell in our children and in our cities, is so that together, and by the power and ministry of the Holy Spirit, we may be raised with Christ, on earth as it is in heaven.