Welcome to the Arena

If we truly want to build character in our students, we must choose the right pedagogical metaphors

by Andrew Barber | English Faculty


When I was a child, I yearned for adventure with an intensity that was borderline unhealthy. Every stick was a sword, every hole in the ground a portal to another realm, every noise in the dark a demonic invader. Night lights didn’t just get me to the bathroom without bruising my shin, they kept all the forces of Satan’s army at bay. Life was like Macbeth with Star Wars pajamas.    

My bedtime prayers usually featured  a plea for adventure. “Father, thank you for my dog and my family and food and also, if it seems good to you, please send me on a fantasy adventure wherein I can fight dragons. Amen.” In my day-dreams, my friends and I were constantly faced with opportunities to act meaningfully and virtuously. We were confronted by the sublime and driven to wonder. We were prudent, courageous, temperate, and always stood up to the goblins . . . even, on the rare occasion, when the goblins won.    

This, of course, did not last. My teachers taught me that my books were just stories and I was just a collection of atoms. The novels and poems about courage and valiant heroism were seen as childish and unworthy of any real study next to the “heroes” of modern realism. My first pastors taught me that I was just a soul waiting to escape this crummy rock and that it was in my best interest, if at all possible, to avoid hell. I only wanted Heaven because of the vivid terrors of the alternative. In fact, outside of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, every other adult seemed determined to strip me of my conviction that the world was greater than simple material. The “real world” turned out to be devastatingly disappointing.    

It was years later, as I taught my first poetry unit at The Stony Brook School, that I would find a comparable experience described in W.H. Auden’s poem “Atlantis”:

And if in some bar a tart,
As she strokes your hair, should say
‘This is Atlantis, dearie,’
Listen with attentiveness
To her life-story: unless
You become acquainted now
With each refuge that tries to
Counterfeit Atlantis, how
Will you recognise the true?

My education system and spiritual mentors were the tart in the bar, stroking my hair, telling me that the earth was a cold place from which I should be trying to escape. My sense of a divinely-infused natural world had become something for which I needed to apologize, not celebrate.  

I believe that there is an alternative to this storyline, and that I could have gone off to school and found a different message entirely. I could have had a copy of Beowulf or The Divine Comedy pressed into my hands with confidence. Instead of debunking the Christian parts or attacking Dante’s cosmology, they could have just told me that my sense about the world was correct. They could have told me that my prayer for adventure was actually a longing for Eden. They could have told me that the world itself is a place bursting with significance and opportunities for heroism.    

cinderella 3 tas
Into the Woods, The Stony Brook School’s Theatrical Arts Society, 2018

By the time 10th grade students walk into my English class, much of the damage has been done. Their wonder has been beaten out of them by the cynicism of dark comedies and the humanism of their past teachers and their dominating drive for success. This, then, is the educator’s charge: to re-enchant the world.

Re-Enchantment is a different thing from conversion, and the distinction is important.  Tell a Protestant teacher to “teach like a Christian” and conversion is usually the first aim; it doesn’t take much for this mindset to slip into a kind of political, tribal expansion. But re-enchantment is an invitational approach that offers students a way into a breathing, fully-orbed Christianity. Re-Enchantment doesn’t justify an interest in mathematics by sticking a cross on it because it is comfortable enough with the Father of mathematics not to apologize for his handiwork. Re-Enchantment takes it seriously that Adam and Eve must have been doing something before there were people to convert.

The classroom can get us to re-enchantment, but along the way we will be confronted by a desire for convenience from both the student and the teacher. They take different forms, but both manifestations ultimately stop the education process short of the highest aims.  

The Student’s Desire: The Movie Theater

Going to the movies is a mostly passive experience (as a parent of three children under four, this probably explains why I love going so much). You get your ticket, buy your popcorn, kick back, and enjoy the show. If the current statistics on time devoted to Netflix are any indication, this is also the default position for many of our students. On their worst days, they do the work out of a sense of utility, and then reward themselves with a few hours of Netflix.

This isn’t the worst thing, but it isn’t the best thing either. Some educators have even caved to the idea of making utility and entertainment the primary goal of the educator. But a great education is like a great meal: it nourishes us, gives us joy, and makes us want to celebrate its creator. A great education doesn’t just make you better at tests, it invites you to love science and math and history and the arts. As Christian writer Rod Dreher states, this is the difference between the idol and the icon. The idol says, like Auden’s tart, “there is nothing else, stay here,” while the icon says “the world is far grander than you could have ever realized.” The icon pushes me towards the author of the world itself.  So does a great education.

But before the “rigorous demands of love,” as philosopher Dr. Rebecca DeYoung would put it, many of our students retreat into the safety of the movie theater. We don’t care about reality because reality is uninteresting.  It doesn’t point to anything beyond, it just points to itself. So why not find the most pleasurable experiences and experience them without questioning their value? Why should we care about who we can become if we can feel pleasure? This is the ultimate triumph of emotivism (and why my students often mistake Brave New World for a utopia). We went looking for Atlantis and got stuck in the theater. It is the educator’s responsibility not to let them stay there.    

Bulletin Promos 2018-LPP-1896

The Teacher’s Desire: The Weight Room

But the teacher’s preference is typically not much better. We want a simulation that turns full-bodied, complex humans into easily digestible, academic currency. We want college resumes, not virtuous warriors. And so we turn our classroom into a weight room. A bunch of individuals in the same space working on their max bench press. It doesn’t really matter to Student A if Student B is failing; all Student A cares about is their own GPA.    

In some ways the weight room isn’t so bad. People do get stronger. We can encourage one another. There are easy ways to evaluate one’s worth (“That student benches 175, that one 130, etc.”). But the problem is that the weight room is meant to push us towards something greater. If we aren’t lifting for the big game or our ability to serve others, we are most likely doing it for the sake of narcissism. We want that glance into the weight room mirror to be a little less painful.  

As C.S. Lewis notes concerning the character Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, the fallen angel “has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in the whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan . . . [himself].” Everything with which he comes into contact reminds him of “his position.” When we turn our classrooms into weight rooms, we are taking students through all of God’s marvelous creation and humanity’s artistic and scientific brilliance and asking them to only think on their position. Case in point: what percentage of students’ questions is about the content itself? What percentage is about their grade? As Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith puts it, “Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.When has this remotely described most classrooms?

The weight room’s inherent artificiality and vanity is why students always ask the question: “how is this preparing me for real life?” They sense (rightly) that the weight room is not enough.    

Bulletin Promos 2018-LPP-1968

Welcome to the Arena

The true place for re-enchantment lies beyond the theater and the weight room. The true place for re-enchantment lies in the arena.

Here is an example of an arena at SBS. Every year, our students put on a theater production for the community and the school. Given the time we have, the size of our student body, and the faculty resources available, these projects are always remarkably ambitious. The students work harder than they ever have before and they frequently have to put their resume goals on hold as they make their costumes, build the sets, do the makeup, learn the lines, and then put on a high-stakes performance in front of a large community for three consecutive nights.  

And they love it. They sign up for it every year. They come back for more. They miss it when it’s over. And, even though this work will only in rare cases prepare them for their desired profession, they never ask “how is this preparing me for real life?” Why is that? Why do they ask this question of school all the time, and never ask it of sports or plays or Mock Trial? Why is it that sports and extra-curricular clubs feel more pragmatic and equipping than class?

Ultimately, it is because these extra-curricular activities are more like real life. Class is, unfortunately, more frequently the simulation of what is untrue. The students have stepped into the arena; an exhilarating, fascinating place with true stakes and true victories and true losses. In comparison, the weight room is just a game you play to get into college to eventually get money to eventually get some long-awaited and unpromised pleasure. Students haven’t bought in, and so they often skip the activities in class that actually could be virtue-forming—like studying.The arena may not be teaching the student how to do math they will use in their jobs, but it is doing a better job of creating space for meaningful action. Our world is changing so fast that preparing high school students for the actual skills they will be using is a fool’s errand anyways. But teaching them how to work, develop virtue, and pursue the good within the context of a meaningful universe are pragmatic, life-altering skills.

One of our young actresses once told me about an organic, sincere group prayer before the first performance of a play. How many thoughtless prayers have been silently ignored at our school lunches and chapel programs? How many sermons have been slept through? And yet here were the students, both religious and non-religious, praying of their own accord, because they felt they needed it (I’ve heard this story recounted in other clubs and competitions as well). They did this because they were in the arena. Stuff mattered, and their sense that they mattered and existed in a meaningful universe was awakened. Their world had been re-enchanted.

As I understand it, the arena has  six concrete traits that are easily applied to any educational scenario with a little bit of extra thought (whether it be outdoors or in the classroom or elsewhere). All six aren’t always attainable in every circumstance, but most of the time a fair number of them are.

  • There is an authentic audience. The play isn’t just performed for teachers. The whole community is invited.  It’s a big deal and the students know it.
  • The skill, endurance, and work required is JUST beyond what students think they can accomplish. When you hand out the script or the offensive scheme or the syllabus, the students respond “Wow.  I don’t know if I can do this…”
  • Personal responsibility is encouraged. Supports exist, but no one is coming to the rescue. There are clear standards for success and failure.
  • The failure and success of the individual affects the entire group. There is little privacy. In normal classwork, David failing doesn’t matter very much to everyone else. If he isn’t working hard in the weight room, who cares? But if David doesn’t learn his lines, the whole play falls apart. This puts a good deal of pressure on the student, but it isn’t like the artificial pressure of the weight room. The pressure and consequences of failing (or succeeding) are a natural outflowing of the project itself.  This allows the work to be about the teacher and the student succeeding. Not the student succeeding against the teacher.  
  • Students need, and want, the help of mentors to succeed. And, it might be added, the mentors are doing work that is also challenging to them. They are anxious about the play as well.
  • Students require virtue (and the suppression of vice) to succeed. These are uncheatable assessments. If you watch someone in a play recite lines and sing their part, you know they had to learn it. They had to be courageous and persevere and maybe even act compassionately towards classmates on stage with them. The person who spends too much time watching Netflix and not memorizing their lines is slothful and fails.  
edited lights smoke tas
Into the Woods, The Stony Brook School’s Theatrical Arts Society, 2018

Re-Enchanting the world is not just something we do from the pulpit or in our chapel talks. It is something we can do everywhere, and something we must do in our schools. Students may say they want their classrooms to be theaters and teachers may turn their classes into weight rooms, but we need arenas. The arena is the place where virtue will grow and students will learn more about the natural laws that God has baked into the universe. It is the place where students who once loved Middle-Earth will see that the worlds of Tolkien weren’t an escape from, but an introduction to, the world in which they live.  

When we use arenas to expose students to this world, we are not inviting them to ponder their position. We are inviting them to delight in the things themselves. We are inviting them to meet the God who surveyed all of creation and said, “It is good.”


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