Around ten years ago, David Bentley Hart maintained a column at First Things wherein every Friday, he wrote about some issue which had little to do with his more well-known interests (patristics, philosophy) and more or less constituted a diversion, a flight of fancy, wherein some relatively trivial or mundane matter was discussed with a good deal of sophistication, but also with a very light touch. The typical Hart essay made known his thoughts on Origen or St. Gregory of Nyssa, but on Fridays, Hart commented on The Little Prince, The Matrix, or Renee Fleming.
In the earliest years of my career, I often opened class on Fridays by reading whatever Hart had lately published. The Friday essays were typically little more than a thousand words long, could be breezed through in about ten minutes. Sometimes discussion afterward would occupy the entire period, or we might quickly gloss our thoughts on the essay and then go back to Dante or what have you.
For quite some time now, I have advocated that teachers of classic literature keep a three-word lesson plan for most of their classes: read and discuss. Generally speaking, class should be predictable, and the reading of classic literature should occupy most of the school year. However, from time to time, a brief diversion can (paradoxically) help narrow everyone’s attention on the subject at hand. I don’t hand out lately published books, but I do read lately published essays from time to time.
If there is a day for diversion, it is almost certainly Friday, for students are far more squirrely and distractible on Fridays than any other day of the week. A properly selected, well-placed essay on some random, oddball subject can do wonders for discussions of Dante or Virgil. So much of an intellectual’s work involves reconciling seemingly disparate topics, incorporating apples with oranges, and mixing metaphors. If a teacher spends four honest days reading and arguing and lecturing and coaxing students into a love of Virgil, spending twenty minutes on Friday reading about baseball, action films, French restaurants, or UK drill can become an invitation for students to judge new things in a deeper, more erudite manner than these things are typically discussed at the lunch table. Overly formal teachers never allow for such conversations, but overly familiar teachers encourage such discussions at every turn. A prudent teacher gives such things a place, but not a prominent place, because there are far more important matters.
Over the last two or three years, I have largely used this column to discuss pedagogy, class management, school rules, and the recovery of tradition and good taste, although from time to time I still post something which I really intend to be used as an oddball Friday afternoon diversion. Given how often my own contemporary writing heroes (David Hart, Peter Leithart, Anthony Lane) have bailed me out on Fridays, I hope to return something to classical teachers in need of short essays written from a classical perspective which will prompt and provoke students on sluggish days. In some sense, I wrote How To Be Unlucky as a series of autobiographical narratives which could be easily lifted from the book, divorced of context, and used for the same purpose. I feel for the tired teacher who feels up a creek.
Last month, I wrote my 400th article for this blog, and as a brief look back, I would like to commend the following selections of my work to any teacher out there who needs a bailout— something short and sufficiently classical which can be printed off and read in a pinch. For best results, take on a Friday.
Why I Bought My Teenage Son An Invisibility Cloak: A thinly-veiled investigation of giving young men smart phones. Read it to your class, then ask, “What was this really about?” Or skip the matter of cell phones altogether and see how many students think the defense of invisibility cloaks ought to be taken seriously.
VidAngel: The Down Side To Cleaning Up Movies: Cleaner movies is something all Christians want, right? What could possibly be wrong with taking out the cursing and violence and sex? Quite a bit, actually.
On Human Beauty: Concern for physical beauty is often quickly written off as shallow and immature, but such glib dismissals fail to encounter the humility which comes naturally when we encounter another human being who is beautiful.
Bread and Water: A brief reflection on the most basic edible, potable substances there are, and why they are not actually basic. Have your students write similar reflections on the food and drink of their choosing. I stole all this from Robert Farrar Capon.
Jesus Hung Out With Prostitutes: Too Cool For Private School: There are just certain students who need to be put on notice every now and again. Let me help you out with that.
Interview With A Damned Man: Make Hell Banal Again.
Field Recording: A little piece of fiction which drafts on classical Christian prejudices. This is a very sparse narrative. If you need a fun writing assignment, have your students choose a scene and tease it out into two pages of dialogue.
Mankind: A Christmas Story: Don’t tell them who wrote it. Have them do a worldview analysis. Let me know if I’m a Christian or not. Bonus: Send me the most critical response you get to this story and I will personally pen your student a response.