Tethered to the Mast
One topic that I routinely hear in conversation, whether at conferences or in parent-teacher meetings as the Scholé Academy principal, revolves around training our students in their scholarship skills: note-taking, diligence, organization, and other such student virtues. The challenge of developing these skills is an issue that unites parents, teachers, and students alike, especially as we move through a new academic year.
Both parents and teachers have told me that their students struggle with disorganization (physically organizing their books, papers, and desks as well as taking clear, relevant notes), meeting deadlines, identifying key concepts in reading selections, understanding the differences between homework assignments and studying, meeting the challenge of developing study plans and identifying priorities, and considering the interpretation of grades. These educators share with me that the thought of training their students to be mindful of these practices can often create frustration, apathy, and lack of engagement in their students.
We all have a role to play in shaping these scholarship skills, or student virtues—those “soft skills” that aren’t content-based and can’t be taught by following a textbook or particular curriculum. These soft skills and virtues are practices that can’t be memorized by rote; nor are they a fixed set of legalistic checklists (do exactly this; avoid exactly that). Their cultivation requires supervisory discernment to balance the long-term developmental needs of each student within each short-term, immediate assignment or project. Because these skills are therefore a nebulous area, this only makes it more challenging to help students accurately and consistently apply them.
A key part of developing these student virtues also means that we are able to recognize their true points of origin: spiritual virtues. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we will find “disorganization” among a list of spiritual vices or “good note-taking” among a list of spiritual virtues. But there is a connection between the cultivation of spiritual virtues and the behaviors we see in people.
The thought of cultivating spiritual virtues in these future adults is a task that can easily become overwhelming, especially when their behaviors demand our attention. So often we want to curb bad behaviors rather than consider what might be fueling them. As parents and teachers, our focus needs to be tweaked. Our priority should be discipleship, not disciplining behaviors. Each student has a need for the cultivation of four key spiritual virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. In The Four Cardinal Virtues, Josef Pieper writes that these basic virtues “can enable a man to attain the furthest potentialities of his nature.”
So, what do the four cardinal virtues have to do with student virtues and student scholarship? And how can we cultivate them in our students? Pieper writes a great deal regarding each, cautioning us to avoid boiling them down into succinct definitions. The potential for us to misunderstand the breadth and depth of each virtue increases the more we try to refine the definitions into bite-sized chunks. But, for the sake of brevity and clarity here, I’d like to share an introductory definition to each so we can see their connection to the areas of student virtue.
- We see prudence in a student’s ability to make right decisions, such as in his work, thoughts, actions, and relationships. This will in turn begin to cultivate in him the other three virtues of temperance, fortitude, and justice.
- Temperance in action is prudence worked out in the inner self. We encounter temperance in our internal dialogue—the essence of who we are and our being rightly related (correctly oriented) to Christ Himself. We often refer to this simply as “attitude,” or that which informs how each of us executes relationships and actions.
- We further see prudence in fortitude, typically defined as bravery, determination, or courage. The development of a student’s integrity and determination to pursue prudence (right decision-making) are obvious connections here. Will the student do what’s right in both the small things (making choices about priorities) and in the larger things (making moral decisions)?
- Last but not least, we see prudence at work in the cultivation of justice, most commonly in the relationships a student has with others (peers, teachers, parents, etc.) How does a student learn to accept authority, respect others, be obedient in his tasks, and respond to others with compassion? These are evidences of justice being worked out.
Thus far, we’ve discussed what scholarship skills and student virtues are, as well as how we see them play out in our students. Now that we also understand how spiritual virtues are the genesis of student behaviors, we can address our next question: How can we practically cultivate these virtues in our students and ultimately develop their scholarship skills?
I’ve been teaching teenagers since 1999. And while the world may have changed a lot in the last nineteen years, teenagers haven’t. Yes, they wear different clothes and different hairstyles. But overall, teenagers still struggle with many of the same scholarship issues today that they did back in 1999. If I look back further still and consider my own teenage experience, I can honestly say that the kinds of scholarship issues my Gen Xer friends and I wrestled with were, in large part, identical to the issues of the modern teenager. In fact, I bet we could go all the way back to antiquity and find examples of the same kinds of struggles manifesting themselves. (Did Aristotle’s famous student, Alexander the Great, complete all of his assignments on time? I’m wagering he did not!)
Understanding that history can often shed light on the present isn’t a novel idea. In fact, it’s largely why we continue to appreciate the lessons from Aristotle, the Apostle Paul, and others; it’s why their words resonate with us today. Man, as a species, hasn’t found a way to conquer the struggles presented in one generation and prevent those struggles from reemerging in successive generations. Man seems to be fighting the same wars and struggling against the same selfish desires, regardless of historical era. So, we continue to return to the voices of the past, considering how their responses might hold valuable lessons for us.
When we go searching for answers to the scholarship challenges facing the twenty-first-century teenager, I think we might benefit from looking back at some of the lessons afforded to us by history and literature, which provide us with a window to the past. And where better to look than Homer? After all, Homer’s works are riddled with the worst temptations, vices, and snares the world has ever known! Surely there are some nuggets of wisdom tucked away in these early works.
One story in particular that I found to be a helpful allegory when considering how to foster student virtues lies in Book 12 of Homer’s The Odyssey. Odysseus and his men are on their way home and make a quick stop to talk with Queen Circe. Odysseus explains to her that he has plans to include a perilous detour in their travels: He wants to hear the sounds of the sirens, the mythical temptresses said to lure men to their deaths with their beautiful voices. Despite this threat, Odysseus wants to sail by them on his way back home, in order to hear their haunting, enchanting song. Knowing that his own fate could be sealed in attempting this dangerous mission, he asks Queen Circe for her insight.
Circe gives him detailed instructions, explaining where to go, what to avoid, and how to defeat the mythical creatures along the way. She advises Odysseus to plug his men’s ears with wax so that no man will hear the irresistible songs and be tempted to steer the ship off course. Circe also says that Odysseus can tie himself to the mast so that he can safely listen to the sirens’ sweet songs—as long as his men are able to ignore his pleas to be set free.
As the story goes, Odysseus’s crew sets sail and carefully follows Circe’s instructions. Odysseus breaks a large, round chunk of wax into small bits, then kneads them in his fingers. “Once I’d plugged my comrades’ ears with wax, they tied me hand and foot onto the ship, so I stood upright hard against the mast. They lashed the rope ends to the mast as well, then sat and struck the gray sea with their oars” (lines 226–230).
The sirens sing to Odysseus about his victory in Troy and their knowledge of the world. He pleads with his men to untie him, but they obey his original orders and tie him more tightly to the mast. They all pass the enchanting island unscathed.
Success for Odysseus in this undertaking was threefold. First, although he was an experienced journeyman, he sought wise counsel to devise a plan for success. Second, he identified an area of weakness and placed restrictions on himself. He knew he was not strong enough to withstand temptation and would need to be tied to the mast of the ship. And lastly, he relied on others who wouldn’t be tempted in the same ways that he would be. The crewmen had placed softened wax in their ears and thus were immune to the temptation of the sirens.
As you help to train and develop your student’s virtues and scholarship skills this school year, perhaps you, too, can take a lesson from The Odyssey. Consider consulting wise counsel to determine what scholarship skills need to be tackled this year. Use this insight to devise a realistic plan to help set the right guidelines in place for your student, even if it means doing things differently than in previous years. Discuss with your student what restrictions they may need to consider placing on themselves to cultivate these virtues and skills. Work together to devise the accountability plan your student needs as he or she forms new scholarship habits this year.
It’s important to remember that students should not feel they need to rely entirely on themselves to banish bad habits and overcome their struggles. Despite what they may say, they will require the wise crewman to ignore their pleas and keep them “tethered to the mast.”