As of today, I have been blogging for The CiRCE Institute for one decade. My first article (“Are Democratic Ideals Compatible with Classical Education?”) was published on November 21, 2013, less than three weeks after I met Andrew Kern under a concrete gray sky in Grand Rapids. At that time I still considered myself a short story writer—I studied fiction in college and have written several hundred short stories since high school—and yet I had a few things I wanted to say about the classroom and Andrew graciously invited me to make a submission. That submission was accepted. It was shared on social media. Thirteen people liked it on Facebook.
I found it exhilarating to have an audience again, something I hadn’t had in five years. From 2002-2008, I kept a blog that a few friends read, but the feedback I got on CiRCE articles came from strangers, which made it more like the short fiction workshops I took in college. Around eight months after I started blogging for CiRCE, I finally published an article that was really well received. “The Personalism of Peter Leithart” was liked more than five hundred times on Facebook and I got my first taste of what I might ambitiously call “fame,” albeit in the smallest possible amount. I immediately understood why the article went over well. First, it was about a living person, not a book. And second, more importantly, the article was subtly critical of the sort of intellectual theologian-entertainers who intentionally play into the cult of personality by talking incessantly of themselves. Articles which are critical of someone or something will always be more widely read than articles about this-interesting-thing-I-noticed-about-Socrates-yesterday. My critiques had been subtle, though, and I never called anyone out by name, so I avoided getting any blowback.
As soon as a blogger recognizes this, he will be forever tempted to only write the sort of articles that will be widely read or generate buzz. In the earliest stage of my blogging career, I wasn’t all that tempted to become a firebrand because I couldn’t handle the stress of getting yelled at in the comments section (and I couldn’t keep from looking). I got yelled at a few times between 2014-2017, it was always inadvertently earned, I lost sleep over it, and resolved to be more careful in the future.
But sometime in 2018, I came to the realization that only ever saying the kind of things that a small number of people would agree with was gutless and pointless. Perhaps the publication of How To Be Unlucky gave me the confidence I never had before. Perhaps I heard one too many mothers talk about how special her son was. Perhaps the stories my own children were telling me about their classmates finally crossed a line. Whatever it was, around five years ago, I found myself more regularly sitting down to write the sort of articles that would make teachers say, “Finally, somebody said it.” I wanted to write articles that would give good teachers more leverage to do their work well. I wanted to make space for talented teachers, even if it meant telling a few administrators and tuition paying families to back off.
And yet, I was also aware of what became of writers who only ever aimed to provoke, which is one of the reasons this column has been so indiscriminately themed over the last five years. Were someone to ask me, “What do you write about?” I am not sure I could give a concise, accurate answer. I have written quite a lot about pedagogy and childrearing, but the longest piece of original work I have published in this column is, I believe, a review of John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus The Volcano. I have also written about Renaissance art, the celebration of Christmas, Peter Gabriel, pumpkin spice lattes…To all my longtime readers, thank you for your indulgence.
Given the occasion, I have decided to compile a list of the ten articles published here in which I take the greatest satisfaction. What follows will probably only be of interest to longtime readers, and yet I delight in hearing my own favorite writers comment on their work, if only to see whether my impressions were correct.
10. A Guide To Dating In High School: The experiment which prompted this article is something every liberal arts teacher should do once.
9. Interview With A Falsely Imprisoned Theologian: A Short Story: This story was a ten year process. I sat on the idea for around five years, wrote the first half of it in 2016, and then mulled it over another four years before figuring out it should end. In terms of personal satisfaction with my own work, I count this as one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve spoken with exactly one person who read it.
8. Should Students With Smart Phones Pay Higher Tuition? This one was originally three times longer and got pretty dark before the end. It’s probably for the best I scaled it back. Probably.
7. How To Keep the Classical Christian Movement from Falling Apart: You might be surprised by the list of people who have told me they liked this one.
6. Why We Need Frog and Toad More Than Ever: I lingered a long time on this one before finally hitting the “publish” button. I worried it was too confrontational. Turned out to be the most popular thing I’ve ever written by a long shot.
5. I Am Banning Water Bottles from My Classroom: I still get hate mail over this one, but pretty much none of it comes from teachers. There’s no hate mail like wellness hate mail, though.
4. Why I Bought My Teenage Son an Invisibility Cloak: This satirical look at the insane excuses Christian parents give for buying their kids smart phones was one of the first really “on the nose” things I ever wrote. While I think this article stands on its own, I’ll admit the smirking header image of Emma Watson dancing in the club does a lot of the argument’s heavy lifting.
3. My Child Is A Theoflect: 6 Things You Need To Know: My favorite response to this article came from a psychiatrist who shared it on Twitter and said something like, “I can’t tell if this is real or not, but even if it isn’t, I still think it’s helpful.”
2. On Human Beauty: I wrote this for no other reason than I wanted to read it. It might also be an homage to Billy Wilder.
1. Too Catholic: A Classical Odyssey: Originally written from a state of despair (and with an ending I didn’t understand or else didn’t agree with), this one has ultimately come to give me hope. It behooves a writer to attempt—perhaps every five or ten years or so—to say all that he’s got to say in as few words as possible. This was the last time I attempted to “take everything I knew” into a single conceit. I can’t say I’ll ever attempt it again.