Monday, June 7, 2010

Graduation Address: The Audacity of Homeschooling

My husband, Glenn Marsch, Professor of Physics at Grove City College, delivered the following speech on Saturday at the graduation celebration we had for our third child and second daughter, Betsy. Her own brief speech follows in another post.

The Audacity of Homeschooling
Principal’s Reflections to Celebrate the Graduation of
Elisabeth Grace Marsch
5th June 2010


Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…oops, wrong occasion and wrong speech. At least this is a better occasion, even if the speech won’t be as good as Mark Antony’s (or, as the case may be, Will Shakespeare’s).

People always worry about something. The historian and journalist Paul Johnson has written that people all have a worry space in their psyche, and that if one worry is eliminated, then they’ll insert some other angst in their consciousness.

On the other hand, there are real things to be fearful of. I think you could argue that there are real worries today, with an economy in the tank, an insolvent federal government, and a global war against the terrorists that seems as if it will never come to an end. And that doesn’t even include the usual ailments of sickness and alienation that people often have; we live in this mortal coil but for a while, though this veil of tears.

Wow, this isn’t very encouraging so far, is it? But hold on! In this celebration of the graduation of Betsy Marsch, I want to emphasize that she represents something audacious. And this audacity is manifested in at least four ways.

First, the audacity of raising children. We rejoiced when Betsy came into the world seventeen years ago, and we have continued to give thanks to God for her presence in this world ever since. In her birth, we did not just add another mouth to feed, but rather, God brought another eternal soul into existence. For, as C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, there is no such thing as a mere mortal; we are created to be immortal.

Over the years, quite a few people have looked askance at us because of our retinue of four children, and many have not held back their distaste at us for our audacity (they might think of it as our irresponsibility and recklessness) of having four children.

But Betsy is a resource. Those who know her know she is resourceful, and creative. She is not just another mouth to feed and a drain on our planet, but an eternal soul who creates and who, if allowed to prosper, will make more than she could ever consume.

The late economist Julian Simon realized that if people were left to be free, they didn’t just devour resources, but rather created them. Indeed, to Simon, the human mind is the planet’s greatest resource; as he called it, the ultimate resource. He was an orthodox Jew, and I believe he recognized the truth that we are made imago Dei, in the image of God. And as God creates, so do we.

So he made a bet with Paul Ehrlich, who with his wife Anne wrote an environmental manifesto titled The Population Bomb, in which he predicted that in a few decades, there would be global famines and the prices of commodities would skyrocket. Choose five commodities, said Simon to Ehrlich, and I will bet you that in a decade they will be cheaper, not more expensive. Because humans will find better ways to find and manufacture these commodities, which happened to be metals.

But around the developed world, most people have all the amenities of life, and yet still aren’t having children; birth rates are well below replacement level. Over the years, I have heard many reasons why couples didn’t want to have children. Perhaps it is due to the guilt of adding to the environmental degradation of the planet, or perhaps because life is too hard and they won’t want to bring children in to the world to suffer. Or perhaps it is rank hedonism; children ARE after all inconvenient; ironically, no one knows that more than homeschoolers, who must expend much spiritual blood and real treasure to homeschool.

Secondly, the audacity of classical learning. Even the best of the typical schools of America lack focus on the things that matter most—they don’t think very hard about ethics, except that they’d rather not have Christian ones.

Schools pretty much are utilitarian about their purpose. If they can teach students basic skills, they’re doing pretty well. While there is nothing at fault about teaching good job skills, that can’t be the only reason for a school’s existence. For if we do not teach the whole child, we cannot translate good skill sets to good citizenship. We have, to the best of our very limited ability, been God’s proxies to teach Betsy to be the best person she can be. And that means we want her to excel academically and spiritually; so she can truly be liberally taught, in the best sense of that word.

Then there is the issue of the meaning of it all. Why read Dante and Virgil, or Jane Austen for that matter, in a utilitarian age? And why should we bother amidst the sturm und drang of a fear-riddled world, in which there are wars and rumors of wars? In his sermon Learning in War Time, C.S. Lewis again defended higher learning in a period of existential struggle, the outbreak of World War Two.

Quote: Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the Nineteenth Century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, and emergencies.

Now I don’t wish to equate our present struggles with the serious calamity of World War Two, but it is obvious from any news report that we live in a dangerous world. And it has never been so important to teach our children well, for they must learn how to negotiate well the swirling eddies and ravaging currents of our culture and the world around us. It is my contention that classical Christian learning best accomplishes this.

Thirdly (and you knew this was coming) the audacity of hope. The source of this quote should be pretty obvious to you, and while I am not a proponent of President Obama’s politics, I understand that he and Mrs. Obama are excellent parents, and I would like to believe that whatever our differences in political philosophy, they would appreciate what I am going to say here.

A culture of hope is not always a given; going though this vale of tears can extract hope from the most bubbly of optimists – and I am not a bubbly optimist, as anyone who knows me can attest. For example, in Greek myth, it was Hephaestos (or as the Latins called him, Vulcan), who created Pandora at the behest of the other Olympian gods. But while beautiful, she was not designed to be a fount of happiness to Man, but rather a curse. When she opened a little box that she had, all the evils of the world poured out, and became a curse to man. But there was one thing left that was good, and that was Hope. Except - that many ancient Greek commentators thought that even this was an evil, because hope is not really a good thing, and is merely self-delusion. It was not in the myth of the ancient Greeks and Romans to have the kind of hope that the Apostle enjoins us to possess.

The world is uncertain, but we should still rejoice in the graduation of our children. Martin Luther said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” By analogy, our children are these apple trees, our tokens that God is sovereign in a troubled world. Even better – that for all its shams, this is still God’s world and effectively a good world.

Finally, the audacity of excellence. Most of us who know Betsy know that she is a highly accomplished student, and she is a National Merit Scholar. She graduated valedictorian of her class. By any standard, Betsy has excelled in her studies. Her mother and I recognize that the most important thing is godliness, not achievements, yet pursuit of excellence is critical. Let’s consider the idea of excellence.

On the one hand, some evangelicals reject this kind of excellence, thinking it not to be spiritual (CS Lewis hated the term “spiritual”) Far too few have godly ambition to attend college and professional school. But we are to be the preservatives in society; if Christians aren’t willing to do the tough intellectual work in society, then others will, to our culture’s detriment.

So, Betsy, be humble about the gifts God has given you – for you are only the stewards of those gifts – but at the same time, don’t apologize to those who wonder why you want to be an artist and excel at the highest levels in that profession.

On the other hand, also remember that most of us don’t necessarily accomplish all that we might want. There will be disappointments in life. I hope you will create art for the ages, and that it will be recognized as such. But there is a high probability that some who hate our Lord will not want you to excel and will try to erect insuperable barriers to prevent this, especially in an art world that has forgotten the concept of true beauty. But no matter where you end up, God is sovereign and you will do His will, wherever that is. God will smile and the angels will rejoice at the art you create. And that is enough.

Thank you for your attention, ladies and gentlemen.

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