My Study Leave 2008

Some folks have asked about my study leave, so I'm posting this late. If I had started this blog back in February, I would have posted it. And I would have exaperated my daughter even more, inasmuch as she has told me (see comments) in no uncertain terms that I had better shorten these posts if I intend for anyone to read them. So, in the spirit of Augustine: "Lord, give me brevity, but not yet."

My Study Leave
January 2008

I’m very thankful for the time the Board provides me for reading, study, writing, and renewal each year. I have not always been good about taking this time, and this year I had real doubts about the wisdom of taking it, what with serving as Upper School Director and having a more than usually full plate. But I’m glad that I took it. I needed the altitude, to regain the big picture, and to recharge for the last half of this marathon year.

I’m glad to share them with the Trinity community some of the things I studied and read and wrote, but I don’t really expect that many will want to read all about this. But I suppose that in a way what I do with my study leave is a public concern, and I want to be open about it. For what it’s worth, here is a summary of what I did.

I began with Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. Pink is the current rock star of the National Association of Independent Schools, and I have been hearing about him for a while. I thought it was high time I learned for myself what he was saying. Mainly, he was saying that we need to be less left-brained and more right-brained in our teaching and training of students; right-brainers will rule the world. Pink reminds me a lot of Thomas Friedman. He’s sort of a sequel to Friedman. It really irks me that neither he nor Friedman ever stop to ask whether and why we want to rule the world. Bill Gates knows why—that’s why he’s trying to buy Yahooo. But it is, I maintain, still a good question. Anyway, once I get past that major problem, Pink has a lot of good things to say. Trinity should listen, celebrate the ways we’re already very right-brained, make sure we don’t throw out the left-brained baby with Pink’s bathwater, and then roll up our sleeves and see how we can do some of the exciting things Pink talks about.

Pink led me, unexpectedly, to a book by Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope.. I’ve written a separate little piece on my search for that book, and I’ve reflected a lot on that book in my remarks for the Headmaster’s Dinner, so I don’t think I’ll say much here. Except to say that this was one of the most fruitful bunny trails I’ve taken in a long time. I didn’t really have time to read Delbanco, but now I know I didn’t have time not to read him. The great irony, I think, is that Pink, who put me on to him, seems to have missed his main point. Transcendence is not exactly Pink’s forte.

I had thought I might spend most of my time reading and rereading Augustine. So I brought home several volumes. And I found, early on, a slender but dense compendium called The Essential Augustine, edited by Vernon Bourke. I read a good bit of this, but never made it to the other things I brought home. I got sidetracked again.

After dabbling in Augustine, I decided I wanted to pursue a study I had started last January: chasing the ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty through the tradition of Western literature. This, of course, is a daunting quest, but it was made somewhat easier by Mortimer Adler. Back when the Great Books were published, Adler wrote an introduction to the dozens of ideas featured in that series, published as part of the series under the title of Synopticon. If you’ve never checked the Synopticon., it’s worth a look. You can find almost any interesting or important philosophical idea in the Western tradition there, with a helpful short article by Adler, and (more helpful still) a sort of annotated index in which various passages from the entire series are cited as pertinent to hundreds of sub-questions. So, I was able to find many references to the ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty, in the Great Books from Plato, through Aristotle, through Marcus Aurelius, through Augustine, through Aquinas. I didn’t get past Aquinas. Took me several days to get that far. Gave me a new appreciation for the synthesizing mind of the Dumb Ox who wrote the Summa. Plato can go on for pages and you’re not sure, at the end of Socrates’ dialogue, just what the point is. But with Aquinas you can get right to the issue, divide the question neatly, and see his reasoning at a glance. What a mind!

Adler also helped me by writing a book, which I hadn’t known about until this study break: The Six Great Ideas. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are three of those, and I found that book very helpful too. I’m collecting quite a bibliography on these three Great Transcendents, as they’re called. I am increasingly convinced that our post-modern culture is starved for a connection to what is real, to what the philosophers call Being. Being is first, but Truth is second, for without it Being would be to us as though it were not. And because Being is desirable, it implies also, immediately, the Good. And then there is Beauty, which is added as a sort of supererogatory grace. We can live without Beauty, thought not without Truth or Goodness, I think. But who would want to? (I’ve just paraphrased Etienne Gilson’s The Arts of the Beautiful, which was the most important book I read last year on my study leave.). Anyway, I think that this is one of the most important advantages which Trinity has, our connection to these three, especially when we realize that it is in Christ that all these are founded and perfected.

Just for fun, I read Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare. (Thanks, Peter Feaver, for the recommendation.) It’s a book about what we actually know about Shakespeare, and it’s pretty slender for that reason. It would be slenderer still, if Bryson didn’t spend so much time debunking what those who think they know more than can be known. But it’s always in Bryson’s inimitably funny voice. Great read. My only criticism: He goes on and on against the anti-Stratfordians (Bravo!), but seems really to have no clue what makes these people propose such preposterous theories. I have a hard time believing that he really doesn’t know. It’s so clear. It’s the same thing that fuels Bryson’s book: the bard is so amazingly good that we have to account for him one way or another. Bryon seems to be baffled by the “no one could be that good” sentiment, but, really, no one could be. Except a genius. And, of course, he’s right that genius is no respecter of pedigrees. I listened to this one on tape, and I’ve put the CDs in the Trinity library if you’re interested.

The most surprising thing I read was Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Relin. My daughter, Jenny, handed me this one midway through my leave and said, “Here, Dad, since you’re on study leave, you’ve got time for this. It’s great.” Well, I didn’t have time. I’m a slow reader, and I have a long list of books. But interruptions are sometimes the most important things, and I have to say that Mortenson’s story captured my imagination in a unique way. I had a hard time putting it down and getting back to the Great Books. I’ll be talking more about the impact of this book at the Headmaster’s Dinner. It’s a story of a man who goes to Pakistan to climb K-2 and ends up finding his calling to build schools for impoverished Pakistani villages.

And then there was the math course I took. Yep, that’s right. I ordered a couple of math courses from the Teaching Company, whose audio courses I’ve enjoyed before. This one was a video course, on the Joy of Math. A great refresher course for me on basic concepts in the various math disciplines. Also, a great inspiration for teachers who teach math: how fascinating, wondrous, beautiful, and enjoyable the study of numbers can be. There are a lot of great ideas in there on how to enrich math education. The professor, Arthur Benjamin, is fabulous and a good model for us all. I haven’t quite finished those courses, but when I do I’ll put those DVDs in the library too.

My biggest disappointment is that I didn’t get to Sally Shaywitz’s Overcoming Dyslexia. This is a great book on the latest science of reading disorders. The percentage of children who struggle with this is significant, and it impacts our work here so directly. Besides, I think we’ll learn a lot about how the rest of us think and read by paying attention to the ones who struggle.

Finally, I attempted The Count of Monte Christo. I chose the unabridged text, and I got interrupted, so I’ve got a lot to look forward to. I’m glad that my reading doesn’t stop with the end of my study break.

Glad to be back, but collecting already a stack for my next leave!


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