Why We Do What We Do

Why does Scriptorium teach from primary sources instead of from textbooks?

To quote an earlier blog post:

Textbooks tell what modern historians and literary critics say about the past. At Scriptorium, we read primary sources: documents written by people from the past about their own times. Unrestricted by twenty-first-century concerns, authors of the past described their observations on the human condition in their own ways. As C.S. Lewis wrote,

“Firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

Some works are more enjoyable or more complex than others, but all works read for Scriptorium courses contain important ideas for students to discover and debate.

While secondary sources are also vital for understanding the past, Scriptorium’s emphasis on primary sources comes from a concern to help students better understand the mindset of time-periods other than their own. As Lewis also recognized, our era has its own weaknesses and blindspots, but reading works written by people who had very different ways of viewing the world can give us insight into our own time if we have the humility to read those works, and if we allow ourselves the leisure for contemplation.

Why does Scriptorium emphasize writing?

Good writing communicates the writer’s ideas with absolute clarity – so that the reader understands exactly what the writer intends. This is not easy. In conversation, we rely on volume and tone of voice, facial expression and gesture to help us discern the meaning of what someone says. Written work – although it is the only form of communication that can express ideas verbally across thousands of years – uses none of those aids: the writer must choose exact words and arrange them so precisely that communication of even complex ideas can take place even across time and space. Explaining complex ideas with exact words precisely arranged takes a great deal of thought and practice. Modern culture does not encourage deep thought or repeated practice. Scriptorium emphasizes writing in all courses because writing develops habits of exact thought and careful expression. These are skills that allow individuals to flourish at any time of life. Hopefully the great ideas of Scriptorium students will be read in many places, even centuries from now!

Why does Scriptorium require semester projects to be hand-made, physical items?

For as long as humans have existed, they have created beautiful things because humans have been created by a creative and beautiful Creator. Until the very recent widespread use of machinery, these beautiful things have been made entirely by hand with tools also made entirely by hand. While there is nothing wrong with machine-made items, it is important that students take the time to enjoy making beautiful things with their own hands for four key reasons, two practical and two “useless” but important. First, making beautiful things by hand teaches patience; high-quality handmade items are rarely easy or fast to complete. Second, making beautiful things by hand shows students the complexity of making anything; in order to replicate a medieval helmet, for example, the head must be measured; the sheet metal cut, crimped, and riveted; the leather cut, softened, and glued. So many things we have today seem to have cost only the money in our pockets and the time spent driving to the store (or ordering them online) – but someone, somewhere, somehow, made and handled those items. How often do we consider their labor? Third, creating beautiful things offers deep and good pleasure; watching wood shavings fall away from a carved piece, watching the iron of a black-smithed piece square itself between the hammer and the anvil, watching the ink of an illuminated piece bind itself into the paper, taking in a completed work – these and similar actions give an increasingly unusual satisfaction in our digital age. Last, and most importantly, making beautiful handmade things allows us to imitate our creative and beautiful Creator – Who said, on forming man out of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7), that His creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

Why does Scriptorium end each semester with Defense Day?

There are four reasons for Defense Day: one practical, one historical, and two “useless” but very good. The practical reason for Defense Day is that it is vital for students to practice explaining their ideas to people who are unfamiliar with them. The historical reason for Defense Day is that medieval universities only allowed students to graduate after they had publicly proven their understanding of a subject by defending and answering questions about it – probably because, as mentioned above, this is such a vital skill! The first “useless” but very good reason for Defense Day is that the presentations and the questions asked about them always reveal the limits of knowledge; no one – not the tutor, not the students, not the parents, not the guests – has perfect understanding. That is something we all often forget but that we all should remember. The second “useless” but very good reason for Defense Day is that it is important to celebrate students’ achievements.

Why is Scriptorium not primarily concerned with getting students into the best colleges?

Many classical schools today are concerned to show that their graduates can compete with any other seniors heading for college. While college is important for students who need college degrees, and while Scriptorium does prepare students who desire to attend college to do well in that endeavor, Scriptorium acknowledges that college is not necessary for every student’s success or fulfillment. The painful experience of many in the year 2020 demonstrated that jobs are not permanent and even jobs held for long years do not guarantee happiness or financial stability. Although Scriptorium hopes that all its students will find enjoyable and fruitful work, Scriptorium cannot and does not claim that its students will succeed at anything in particular they may attempt. Scriptorium is concerned not merely to prepare college-bound students for college but to help prepare all students for all of life. Whether they will find themselves in college, at work, or at home, employed or unemployed, rich or poor – Scriptorium students will have received an education that directs them toward the true, the good, and the beautiful, the permanent things that enrich the soul. (For more on the subject of college, please see this previous blog post.)

Why does Scriptorium’s Senior Thesis program review the students’ prior learning instead of concentrating on developing new research?

With the above in mind, Scriptorium’s Senior Thesis program is based on students’ work throughout their time at Scriptorium because they have studied works of lasting importance. The works Scriptorium students study encourage them to contemplate the true, the good, and the beautiful – three permanent things that are increasingly denigrated in our current culture. The Senior Thesis program challenges students to wrestle with that conflict. Senior Thesis students are ultimately asked to respond to these questions: What have I learned about truth, goodness, and beauty? How has this knowledge shaped my thinking? Why are truth, goodness, and beauty important? Why are they so unpopular? How can and why should I uphold these principles when it is unpopular to do so? These are questions that students will face every day of their lives; Senior Thesis offers students an opportunity to consider them in depth and to steep themselves in the wonder of the permanent things they have learned.

Scriptorium does not oppose research; Scriptorium does require students to do research. However, the Senior Thesis program is based on the assumption that, while it is important to know how to do accurate research to discover the truth about a subject, it is even more important to know that accurate research is needed to pursue truth; that accurate research does not necessarily make you a good person; and that accurate research can be a thing of great beauty in itself or it can be a great destroyer of beauty. Knowing the truth is good, but simply knowing the truth does not make a person good; and while knowing the truth in itself is a beautiful thing, the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of everything and everyone else in life can lead to great evil.