Unfortunately, this not only describes this popular gameshow, one which I have personally never found enjoyable to watch, it also describes how many teachers approach the end of the semester, something else I have personally never found enjoyable to watch, even in myself. Frantic. Manic. Fast. More. Furious. The end-of-semester fury can appear to be like an Iliad battle scene of heroic aristeia (battle glory): the teacher-warrior, with unbridled intention, slicing her way through the curriculum, through testing, through homework, to ensure a certain amount of ground is covered, that enough propositional bodies are slain before the semester sun sets, before the warriors sit for a holiday meal. But what she doesn’t realize is that it is not the curriculum that is slain, it is her students, their heads, which she worked so hard to fill throughout the semester, now roll between her rickety chariot wheels. But all this can be avoided, if we remember and employ those principles that are peculiar to classical Christian education.
We should affirm again that education is not the filling of a bucket. It is not a slow pour from one container to another until you realize the clock is running out and you have so much more left in your bucket to give. It is not a data dump, a production line, a timed athletic event. Education is none of these, and so the semester is none of these. The semester is not a race. There is no last leg of it. It is also not a sporting event, where the teacher-athlete must exert a flurry of tact and overwhelming effort to overcome her opponent and ensure victory. If education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, the enculturation of a whole person into the good life, then I’d rather think of the semester not as a race or a competition or a ladder but as a classical oration, a movement of well-ordered parts which culminate in persuasion. If this is so, then the final few weeks of the semester are something of a peroratio. There are then some important aspects each classical teacher should incorporate into their work in the coming weeks.
Like a good peroriatio, the final few weeks of the semester will occur at the end of the discourse, of the semester discussion. If your class has been a dialogue between you and the students—and not just dialogical but a conversation and mutual “discussion” toward the true, the good, and the beautiful—then that dialogue shouldn’t just fall off. It shouldn’t just end in a holiday phone call which pulls you away from the table. There should be a wholeness to the end of the semester and its relationship to what has come before it. The liturgy ought to come to an incorporated close. There should be closure to the ground covered thus far, as well as an anticipation of meeting again after the Christmas break, to continue the dialogue. While you cannot help but end the fall semester in medias res, a funeral should occur, like we see in Homer’s two great epics, at the end of the first poem. Your semester, the first poem, should end in a kind of burial, a completion of action, a finality of labor. Let the children rest.
Like a good peroriatio, the final few weeks of the semester will summarize the proofs and arguments sustained throughout the semester. In John Milton Gregory’s work The Seven Laws of Teaching, he calls this the Law of the Review. “No time in teaching is spent more profitably than that spent in reviewing. Other things being equal, he is the ablest and most successful teacher who secures from his pupils the most frequent, thorough, and interesting reviews.” Milton continues through some helpful insight for us: “A review is something more than a repetition. A machine may repeat a process, but only an intelligent agent can review it. The repetition done by a machine is a second movement precisely like the first; a repletion by the mind is the re-thinking of a thought. It is necessarily a review. It is more: it involves fresh conceptions and new associations, and brings an increase of facility and power. Reviews are of different grades of completeness and thoroughness, from a mere repetition of the words of by-gone lessons, or a rapid glance thrown back to some fact or phrase, to the most careful resurvey of the whole field—the occupancy in full force of the ground of which the first study was only a reconnaissance. The first and simplest reviews are mostly repetitions; the final and complete reviews should be thorough re-studies of the lessons.” Gregory’s chapter on review ought to be read again by your faculty, especially the portion at the end titled “Practical Rules for Teachers,” and “Violations and Mistakes.”
Like a good peroriatio, the final few weeks of the semester will refresh the student’s memory. Memory, as has been affirmed time and again in classical education, is necessary to paideia. Without memory, there is no education. The greatest gift you can give your students at the end of the semester is an opportunity to remember, to re-consider, to re-view. For what does it tell your students about the value of what they’ve done if it is so quickly left behind? Why should we be surprised if they forget in a year what we encouraged them to forget in just a few months? Use these next few weeks to refresh your student’s memory. This does not mean cramming it all into a comprehensive final exam, though that may occur. As the Rhetorica Ad Herennium counsels, “…since what has been said last is easily committed to memory, it is useful, when ceasing to speak, to leave some very strong argument fresh in the hearer’s mind. This arrangement of topics in speaking, like the arraying of soldiers in battle, can readily bring victory.” (Readings in Classical Rhetoric, 195). The Christmas break is when the teacher is asked to stop speaking, and this means what is said last, and how it is said, will resound the loudest.
Like a good peroriatio, the final few weeks of the semester will not present any new information. This is the tendency of the teacher, for it is the tendency to ensure the curriculum is in step with what was planned. But how quickly this new information gets lost amidst students who are not encouraged to look back and yet are eagerly awaiting the Christmas break? Not only is this new material often untethered to the previous lessons—for crunch time doesn’t allow for that—but there is little preparation for holding it firm through a two-week holiday hiatus. At what point should there be no new information presented? Consider the point at which the main “arguments” or points have been properly covered, the “proofs” presented, and the “refutations” answered. There is wisdom to be found when that transition happens in a semester, which is a bit more fluid than an actual classical oration. But the divisions should still be there, and there should be a time when the students, like a good audience, are well aware that no new information will be presented.
Like a good peroriatio, the final few weeks of the semester will arouse in the student both indignation against opposition to the class and pity or sympathy toward the teacher and authors studied. There is great opportunity here for the students to internalize what has been said so far this semester in the class. This is indeed what happens to an audience, a final push of pathetic (in the best sense) and sympathetic response to the material covered. End-of-semester exams all-too-often leave students indifferent, logically cold, and unmoved by the course. The final few weeks should be a fork in the road for the students, where they must decide their position on the matter. If there were to encounter a cousin at Christmas dinner who opposed the class they were taking, would they have the posture and preparation to answer them? Over the two-week break of Christmas, when the students think of you and the class, will they have sympathy and affection for it, for the authors, for you, for what you’ve taught them, or will they be indifferent or cold? The final few weeks of a class, like the final portion of a great speech, will require that the audience to take a stance. If done well, they will move closer—in affinity, understanding, and submission—to the entirety of the “speech” and its claims upon them.
Finally, classically educate like classical Christians, not classical pagans. We cannot ignore that the final few weeks of the fall semester occur during Advent. This matters, for it provides one of the strongest human themes by which to close out your work for the semester. And it is one of the best ways to truly build in our students a Christian imagination, something many Christian schools neglect and something public schools do not have the freedom to practice. What a gift! Do not pass it by. Take it for granted, for it has been granted to us. How does the work you’ve been doing this semester anticipate the coming Christ? Not just liturgically but conceptually, philosophically, thematically? How are the questions raised throughout this long fall semester answered in Christ? How do the tests and quizzes and homework assignments prepare a child’s heart and mind to receive the mangered babe, the incarnate God, the sent Son, the revealed Redeemer, the condescending Christ, the long-awaited Lamb? More subtly, how does the celebration and incorporation of Advent build in our students a strong imagination for the Law of the Review, the law of looking back, of in-spection, of re-viewing.
If our classical Christian schools operate by different principles, then they must do so throughout the entirety of the school calendar. When the culture around us is steeped in a different pace, a different principle, even more so should we reach into those distinctions of classical Christian education and feel great joy in unhooking the wagon, in putting the car in neutral, or reverse, or fifth gear to turn around and revisit that thing we saw back there. And because there is no end-of-grade testing or government agent or modern curriculum constable breathing down our necks, we could make our aim as single- focused as a solitary star, as inglorious as an ancient infant. Do not throw away your scope and sequence, your curriculum plan you put together in July. But throw away the lie that getting through it marks a successful end to the semester.
Like any great speech, the semester, as a classical oration of sorts, is to move, to teach, and to delight. Make this your aim, especially in these final few weeks. Lead your students, but first yourself, in the daring work of simply gazing, of beholding. The Advent season is a contemplative one and provides the framework for the pace, peace, and principles by which we can avoid task-tumbling into the Christmas break. Stude beate.