Objective Virtue

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.


Andrew Kern, founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, wrote an article, You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You, discussing how to teach virtue to students. His method is not “scientific,” which may be hard to swallow for most modern audiences. Generations have been conditioned to believe that without a scientific method, or experts to stroll in, teaching anything—much less virtue—is next to impossible. In any case, many believe virtue is dead or relative to individuals. But virtue is not dead. People are just not taught to value virtue.

Some readers might disagree that we are not taught to value virtue. They value virtue; they would like all people not to cheat or steal from them. Most people desire their fellow man to be virtuous to them, but they value virtue only because it benefits them, not because of the inherent value of virtue.

People are also selective concerning which virtues they value. Plenty of virtues are not valued at all. Prime examples are chastity, purity, and forbearance. People will not need convincing that the first two virtues are not cherished; most would scoff at the mere idea of chastity or purity. Forbearance is simply the ability to resist instant gratification.

But people should not pick and choose virtues; to do so undercuts the whole point of what a virtue is. One hole in Kern’s article is that he did not define virtue. (In his defense, he was writing to a Christian audience and probably assumed they shared his definition of virtue.) I would define virtue as an objective human behavior or mindset that is favorable and pleasing in the sight of righteous men and God.

Most people would more or less agree with  my definition of virtue except for the part concerning objectivity. Kern claims that anyone can teach virtue, but I think teaching virtue is only possible if the concept of virtue is universally understood, or objective.

Why should the concept of virtue be objective and not subjective? Because ideas that are objective are indisputably part of reality. People cannot argue about the existence of something objective; they can only discuss the importance of that something. On the other hand, subjective ideas are passing fads. For example, “I like the color red” is a subjective statement that could change in time, whereas “The stop sign is red” is an objective claim of reality. Subjective concepts are created by man; objective concepts are discovered by man. Subjective concepts will fade with the passage of time, or else we would be still suffering from the fashion of 1970s. (If this is not proof of a merciful God, then I have no idea what is.) Objective concepts stand the test of time.

1970s fashions

Kern suggests teachers or parents can teach virtue simply by embodying it. If teachers spend time with their students while embodying virtue, then students will imitate the teachers. But how do people embody virtue? Kern looks to the Apostle Paul for support: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble… if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8-9). Everyone knows, or has at least experienced, what happens when you devote yourself to a subject, whether it be work, a hobby, or a project. You become its slave; you cannot help but embody whatever the subject is and exhibit it.

Sure, telling teachers to exhibit virtue is interesting, but why not tell the rest of us, too? Kern wrote his article with teachers and parents in mind. But while he is trying to convince parents and teachers that teaching virtue is possible, it is hard to believe that he would not apply the necessity to show virtue in one’s life to everyone. So then, I would change Kern’s original title from You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You to You Are What You Behold: And the World Is Beholding You because anyone can embody virtue.

But, again, how can we embody virtue? Doing so requires no method or system. Simply think about virtue until it shows in your actions. You do not have to do anything special; you just live life, go to work, and play sports while you live virtuously. That does not sound like it would make a big difference. However, this is when virtue being objective is important. Being virtuous in a world denying the objective existence of virtue will not go by unnoticed; it would be like trying to conceal a black dot on a white canvas. People will notice the very thing you are embodying, and they will imitate the virtue they see in you.


The Value of Maturity: Gutenberg’s Relevancy for Classical Students

Gutenberg College has everything you would expect to attract a classically educated high school graduate. As with classical education, Gutenberg’s highest goals are to teach its students the skills they need in order to learn, to help students assemble a truthful understanding of themselves and of existence, and to cultivate in its students a love of wisdom and learning. So imagine my surprise when I found out that Gutenberg, despite its kinship with classical education, has found it difficult to rouse the interest of classical high school graduates.

I had just started a job in classical education myself when I was talking with my father-in-law, who also happens to be Gutenberg College president and tutor David Crabtree. I asked David if Gutenberg students who had come from a classical background had found their education advantageous during their years at Gutenberg. I was shocked, then, when David replied that, actually, Gutenberg does not attract many classical students. “We have had a hard time sparking classical students’ interest in Gutenberg. Their thinking seems to be that they have already done Gutenberg because they have already read the books.”

I was baffled. As a Gutenberg graduate, formerly homeschooled and now a classical educator, it makes no sense to me that classical students would consistently pass up such a great opportunity. The fact that they do is either a gross misunderstanding or a travesty. Rather than thinking it unnecessary, classical students should consider Gutenberg a relevant and valuable option for their college educations.

The response of classical students to Gutenberg surprises and troubles me. I would have expected classical students to exhibit a greater sense of value for Gutenberg’s project. I have personally met many high school students who seem enthusiastic about maturity, skillful thinking, and other characteristics consonant with Gutenberg’s goals but who ultimately decide to attend another school. While I realize that there are many reasons to attend one school over another, it seems to me that this trend ultimately points to a lack of value for the education that Gutenberg offers. Gutenberg describes the goal of its education as “mature adults who know how to live well—people who have carefully crafted a sound worldview and have acquired the knowledge and skills to live productive and constructive lives.”[1] Maturity, a sound worldview—in short, wisdom—these are also the values which classical education attempts to cultivate in its students, which is why I suppose I expected classical students to be especially drawn to Gutenberg.

So why is it that more classical students do not see in Gutenberg College a superb opportunity for pursuing the “life-long education” that is the banner of their own pre-college education? There are several reasons, but I believe it boils down to what David pointed out: students feel that Gutenberg is unnecessary after a classical high school education because “they have already read the books.” And, of course, classical students have not just read great books; they have discussed and debated the books’ ideas, written papers on them, and learned relevant historical information. Furthermore, classical students (as I was) are probably used to hearing about how mature they are for their age and how well they will do when they get to college. Understandably, they feel mature enough to be launched into adult life, beginning with occupational training. By saying that they have “already read the books,” these students are really saying that they feel sufficiently mature to handle adult life in the real world. Maybe, they think, if I hadn’t had such a good education, Gutenberg would be the place to go—but I have. As a result, four years at Gutenberg do not seem as useful as four years of career training.

While I can understand this perspective, I believe it overlooks some important points. First and foremost, the perspective that Gutenberg is unnecessary for the classical high school graduate disregards the fact that the kind of maturity one needs to navigate adulthood as a thoughtful adult cannot be achieved by the time one graduates from high school. I hope everyone understands what I mean. Classical education in the pre-college years, along with good parenting, is absolutely capable of producing individuals who are thoughtful, intellectually adept, and mature for their years. However, it is preemptive to call a high school graduate an adult. The years after high school, when one leaves home and actually launches out into the world, are an incredibly formative time—and especially crucial in one’s process of developing into a mature adult.

I would argue that in our society, it is during these “college years”—not in high school—that a child finishes the process of becoming an adult. During the college years, children will either continue to learn the skills they need, or they won’t; regardless, they still need to gain more skills in order to reach the level of maturity they will need to navigate adult life. This is not a shortcoming of classical education, but merely an issue of timing. The college years provide, at an especially vital time, certain formative life experiences that one rarely gains in high school. This life experience works with one’s education to produce wisdom. Indeed, wisdom cannot happen without it. A high school graduate is therefore not quite yet a mature adult, as he or she lacks the life experience that gives content to the form.

So what makes a mature adult? Parents might be thinking, I’m a more mature adult now than I was in my twenties, or thirties, for that matter. Absolutely. But while maturity is an ongoing project, it is life’s way that one must reach a certain level of maturity before he or she can even see how to continue growing in maturity. It is this level of adult maturity that ought to be the project of the college years, and it is encouraging this level of maturity which Gutenberg has made its goal. Adult maturity requires many skills: for example, the ability to think clearly in the face of social and circumstantial pressures; to listen with an open and discerning mind to people with different beliefs; and to hold one’s own beliefs with humility, always ready to exchange them for ones that better line up with the truth. A student can begin to learn these skills in high school and earlier, but they are not fully available to one who has not yet practiced them in the context of adult life. It is therefore unrealistic to think that a high school student, who is as yet inexperienced in adult life, can possess these skills and others to the degree that he or she will need in order to navigate adult life successfully—no matter how good his or her prior education. The college years, on the other hand, provide the perfect opportunity to become adept at these skills.

While the process of developing adult maturity may begin in high school, college is in fact the more fitting time for this project. For one thing, the college student is older than his or her high school self. He or she is cognitively more developed and also has more life experience upon which to draw than when in high school. Furthermore, the types of life experiences one has in college are especially formative. Leaving home, for example, prompts a student either to take ownership of the ideas and values passed on from parents or to reject them.

It is important to truly appreciate how big a life change leaving home for the first time is. Young adults experience an unprecedented level of choice, freedom, and responsibility when they first step out from under their parents’ roof. This freedom means that one’s first several years away from home are his or her first real test in maturity. It is a student’s first opportunity to assess life for himself or herself, to ask the question, “Does what I learned from my parents actually make sense?” Horizons previously obscured now reveal themselves. In other words, the college-age student becomes aware of problems, complexities, and options of which he or she was totally unaware while in high school. This is the natural result of stepping out on any new stage of life. It is therefore preemptive to think that a high school student—even a classically educated one—is done laying a foundation of values and beliefs. High school graduates are lacking in years and in the kinds of life experiences that provide structure, definition, and content to one’s worldview.

I definitely saw this principle at work in myself when I began at Gutenberg at the age of eighteen. There were many books in the Gutenberg curriculum that I had not previously read, but there were also many with which I considered myself very familiar, having studied them in high school or earlier. I expected to do very well, to wow people with my knowledge and maturity. An interesting thing happened when I began at Gutenberg, however. I remember thinking: I feel like I’m back in kindergarten! I had expected to feel more confident, more knowledgeable, and more capable in a college environment whose project was so familiar to me. But time and again, I realized that I knew far less than I thought. While Gutenberg’s unique aspects—such as its tutors and the particular students with whom I attended—all contributed to making this go-around more challenging and more stimulating than before, the timing of it was at least as significant. I was more ready in college to grapple with the ideas in the great books than I was in high school, precisely because life was now throwing experiences at me—like being on my own for the first time—that showed me how vital it was to take this project seriously. I found college a time of intense challenging, honing and testing, and therefore also a time of unprecedented fruitfulness as I worked toward maturity.

I say all this not to argue that Gutenberg is the only place at which one can learn maturity but to point out that—at the very least—achieving a significant level of adult maturity ought to be a goal of the college years. In other words, I do not think it wise to focus solely on occupational training and expect maturity to simply come. It is especially unwise to think that one is already sufficiently mature. It does not matter how ready a student feels, nor how mature he or she is compared to peers; college will be a time of change and growth. College students will find themselves in a situation in which they have new questions for which they will seek answers. College will present horizons and options the high school student could not have anticipated. In other words, it will shake things up. Life experience, exposure to new people and ideas, and other elements of college life will expose gaps in a student’s worldview; no one can avoid this. And whether a student goes to Gutenberg or Harvard, Liberty University or UC Berkeley, someone will be offering to help the student fill the gaps in his or her worldview. To this end, choosing a college environment that can support and enhance one’s goals of truth-seeking ought to be a priority for the classical student who is headed for higher education.

In my opinion, it doesn’t get any better than Gutenberg for the person who values growth and maturity. Gutenberg’s exceptional curriculum, dedicated faculty, and unique student experience make it a truly outstanding place at which to develop the maturity one will need as an adult in our culture. Not only is Gutenberg’s curriculum supportive of the project of gaining wisdom in the college years, it is specifically designed to facilitate it. The tutors at Gutenberg have crafted a program that cannot fail to give earnest students the background and skills they need to successfully pursue truth for the rest of their lives.

The faculty themselves are another of Gutenberg’s outstanding features—arguably its most outstanding. I speak to you as a former Gutenberg student myself—one who was truly impacted by the care and dedication of the Gutenberg staff. Gutenberg tutors clearly do not do what they do for fame, money, or cultural respectability because Gutenberg has not brought them these things, and yet they continue to teach class after class with the same deep care they have had for twenty years now. I respect them immensely, and I believe that the love which Gutenberg’s tutors show daily to their students is Gutenberg’s greatest asset.

The last of Gutenberg’s outstanding features that I will mention is the relationship one develops with one’s classmates and other students. This is partly facilitated by Gutenberg’s curricular structure and partly by its small class sizes. Unlike at a large university, where one may be able to hide among the crowd, Gutenberg students sit around a table facing each other. Everyone has ample time to speak, and discussions center on the most personally affecting topics one can imagine. If disagreements do not arise in the first few weeks, you can bet they will before the term is out. Classes at Gutenberg cannot function, however, if no one can ever put aside differences, show some respect, and listen charitably. One of the greatest skills in which Gutenberg instructs its students is that of listening, and the greatest teachers in this department are one’s classmates. Through discussion, disappointment, frustration, and then reconciliation and increased appreciation, students come to have genuine respect for what God is doing in the lives of the people around them. The humility one gains through close interaction with one’s classmates is a major aspect of what makes Gutenberg such an outstanding and effective place for learning maturity.

Now let us face a common objection that has been lurking in the background:  “Gutenberg sounds great; I can see how I have more to learn. But what about job training? Won’t I waste my best years?” First, resist the pressure to discount how important focusing on maturity in your college years is. Sure, any college situation—any life situation, even an oppressive one—can be incredibly formative and enlightening to the one who chooses to see it as such. I do not encourage students to take a look at Gutenberg because it is absolutely the best situation for everyone. However, for those who have the option to attend college, and, furthermore, for those who see wisdom as a life-long goal, it is reasonable that the goals and aims of whatever college they choose would be in line with truth-seeking. Swimming upstream can be spiritually productive—no question about it. But when I think about the fact that one will be swimming up the stream of his or her culture for a lifetime, I believe it makes all kinds of sense to take four extra years to learn how to do so with integrity, especially as one steps into adult life for the first time. Again, while it would be wonderful if high school could adequately prepare one for the challenges of adult life, it simply is not the time of testing that college is, mainly because students have yet to experience what it means to take full responsibility for their lives. College, therefore, must not be overlooked as the peak time for helping students evaluate and assemble a coherent and truthful worldview; it must not be seen primarily as the peak time for career-building.

Second, don’t discount Gutenberg’s practical value. The skills that one needs in order to learn wisdom and gain maturity are the same skills that one needs to be a quick and effective learner in a job environment. The ability to learn new skills on the fly is extremely valuable in every workplace in every field—and this skill is one of many honed at Gutenberg. The Gutenberg tutors and some alumni have written extensively about the benefits of a Gutenberg education for one’s future career. Some articles are “Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities” by tutor Tim McIntosh; “Study Science at a Great Books College?” by tutor Dr. Charley Dewberry; and “Computer Passion and a Gutenberg Education” by alumnus James Simas.[2] These articles make the case that a liberal arts education is of immense practical value as an undergraduate degree for any field. Just look under the tag ‘Education’ on the Gutenberg blog for more.

Whether a classical student ends up choosing Gutenberg or not, it should be clear that outright dismissal of it and its project can only point to outright dismissal of the value of his or her own classical education. This, again, is because both classical education and Gutenberg value maturity and wisdom. Furthermore, adult maturity cannot begin to be mastered until one begins to experience adult life. This makes college, not high school, an even more crucial time for evaluating one’s values and beliefs. Maturity and wisdom, moreover, are never fully mastered; there is always more to learn, more strides one can make, more ways in which one’s thinking can be clarified and expanded. This is immediately evident in the nature of reading a book: every time through, one notices more. Details appear, themes emerge, and connections with other works, ideas, and one’s own life experience become clearer. It would be naïve, therefore, to think that in reading the great books in high school, one could have possibly sucked out all the marrow. In reality, an amazing amount of meat remains on the bones of all great books—that is why they are great. For life itself is a series of repeating lessons because we never learn the first time. I therefore beg students who do not choose Gutenberg to nonetheless resist attending school solely for occupational training. You have much more important things to learn during these years. While the maturity Gutenberg offers is not the final word, it is an incredible beginning that all students would do well to consider.

[1] “About Gutenberg,” last accessed 24 February 2014,

[2] McIntosh, Tim, “Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities,”
Dewberry, Charley, “Study Science at a Great Books College?”, Simas, James, “Computer Passion and a Gutenberg Education,”


Carina Crabtree graduated from Gutenberg in 2012. She is now a wife, mother, and the Classical Conversations Challenge A Director for Eugene and Springfield.



Common Core and Uncommon Gutenberg

A bit of a storm is blowing—no longer brewing but now blowing—across the country about the top-down education program known as “Common Core” that originated with the federal Department of Education and is now being implemented all across the country. Things got particularly hot last Friday (11/15) when Secretary Arne Duncan tried to downplay opposition to Common Core and marginalize detractors by saying that “white suburban moms” whose kids can’t meet the program standards are the ones leading the charge in opposition.



That prompted one of those moms, Ali Gordon, to write an open letter which found its way into a Washington Post blog. Both Duncan’s comments and Gordon’s letter illustrate much that is wrong with a government regulated approach to education which has large monetary strings attached. It is those national regulations and the attached strings that we at Gutenberg College struggle with all the time. Our national accreditation brings those things into play, but to avoid additional strings, we don’t take any federal money at all for scholarships or for any other reason.

Secretary Duncan’s response to the firestorm sets the table nicely for what is at issue. He says, “I have not been shy in letting the country know the enormous value of the state-led movement to prepare young people for college and careers.” What happened to “parent-led” or “school-district-led” or even “citywide”? The further that any government-type program gets from the individual and the local level, the more problematic it can be, as a “one size fits all” approach forces countless numbers of sizes and types into the same small box.

Gordon, the accused “white suburban housewife,” starts off by observing that she does not fit the profile of an anti-government conspiracy theorist. Rather, she characterizes herself as a “Progressive, bleeding heart liberal” who voted twice for President Obama, contributed to and volunteered for his campaign, and took her family to D.C. to celebrate both of the President’s inaugurations. Now that’s commitment!

After listing many more of her “credentials” for having good reason to speak out against Common Core, including her election to her local school district board, Gordon makes her first point. Stating that she does not necessarily oppose over arching standards, she does object to them being handed down from above and adopted locally primarily because of the large amounts of money that are conditioned upon adoption. And she further objects to standards that don’t necessarily adapt well to students with particular needs and concerns, like her fifth-grade epileptic daughter.

Gordon goes on to state that she objects very strongly to standards which force development of curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate. Another Washington Post blog post on the subject of Common Core from January of this year contains this quote from a childhood educator at the University of Hawaii: “The people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education.” So unless all children are as precocious as were mine and all of yours, that means that the early standards are quite unreachable for many, perhaps most kids.

Then Gordon raises the issue of excessive standardized testing that eats up the time and resources that would be better used in actually teaching—to say nothing of the well known practice of “teaching to the test” that too narrowly focuses what goes on in a classroom. A focus primarily on testing and results will likely end with an atmosphere where students (with their individual personalities, learning styles, and needs) will get lost in the educational shuffle.

Next Gordon makes this very telling critique: “I’m also opposed to the 1%—Bill Gates, et al—imposing a business model mentality on public schools.” There is a tendency in our society today to try to reduce all activities and practices to exercises in technical expertise or in the implementation of successful business principles. While we at Gutenberg are neither Luddites nor Occupiers, we recognize some of the limitations and problems with an approach that doesn’t necessarily take into account the uniqueness of our ethos, our biblical convictions, and our individual students (who certainly don’t come out of a cookie-cutter mold). Even in our little corner of the educational world, we run into any number of strings, overt or not, attached to money that might come our way.

There’s more in Gordon’s letter. That woman is one momma bear that I wouldn’t want to mess with. She goes on to talk about a number of specific ways that Common Core is being implemented and is not working out in the state of New York. But I think you get the point.

This issue gives me the chance to talk about many of the things that I appreciate so much about Gutenberg. I can’t imagine a college or university in which the individual student gets more individual attention and interest. Soon after admission, the tutors and staff have begun to truly know and understand the individual student and are thus better positioned to be able to help the student get the most out of his or her education—academically but also philosophically, morally, and spiritually.

And seldom have I been around a group of people more committed to doing what they believe is right. They will not compromise their principles regardless of where that request for compromise is coming from—national standards for higher education, monied interests, theological arbiters, or any other source. They will gently and humbly pursue that which they believe to be the calling of God in the way that things are done at Gutenberg.

Those are the things that have elicited from me a love for and commitment to Gutenberg College.


College and Faith

A fundamental mistake that parents make when it comes to Christian colleges is this: they do not take care to understand the distinction between sanctification and socialization (or enculturation). If other parents are like me, their main desire is for their child to come out the other end of his college education a genuine child of God, as one who genuinely believes the gospel and is committed to following Jesus. I want this because the stakes are high: Life or Death. And the greatest good I could wish for my child is a faith that results in eternal Life. But, alas, if I read my Bible correctly, the faith that leads to eternal Life is not the choice to remain a faithful member of Christian culture (whatever sub-culture of Christianity that might be). Rather, the faith that leads to Life is the deeply personal, entirely individualistic, profoundly existential choice to hope in the mercy of God and to follow and obey Jesus.

Since saving faith is such a personal, subjective matter, and since (as the Bible tells us) it is so alien to any of us if left to ourselves, the environment my child enters does not ultimately determine whether he will keep the faith or lose it. How he decides to respond to whatever environment in which he finds himself will determine whether he keeps or loses the faith—a decision he will make in his freedom. No environment, no matter how healthy, no matter how perfectly conducive to faith, can make him choose to believe. And yet, no environment, no matter how hostile to faith and destructive of it, can ultimately make him choose to reject the faith. As a responsible parent, I would of course never want my child to deliberately immerse himself in an environment destructive of faith, and yet, in the final analysis, by God’s grace, even in such an environment as that, my child will come to believe.

Christian parents are being naïve and ignorant if they send their children to Christian colleges under the belief that at a Christian college their children’s faith will be preserved. Not only are today’s Christian colleges increasingly hostile to faith, but even if one were to find the perfect Christian school, that school could not make my child freely embrace the gospel if he or she is destined not to. I know the fear of having a child reject the faith. But no wise decision is ever made out of fear in such matters.


[This edited excerpt is from “College and Losing One’s Faith” by Jack Crabtree. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


“Exorcist” Author Identifies What’s Demonic

OK, I admit it. I get distracted from time to time by the headlines that pop up on my screen. I’m sure that never happens to anyone else, but, to my eternal shame, it happens to me from time to time. So here it is Halloween morning, and the Washington Post publishes a story about William Peter Blatty who forty years ago wrote the Exorcist, a story about demon possession.

Now personally, I don’t do horror stories. And I absolutely, positively, definitively, and incontrovertibly don’t do horror movies. I am the proverbial scaredy-cat when it comes to horror movies. Never been to one and never plan to go to one. (Zombieland doesn’t count.) But you simply couldn’t have been alive forty years ago and over the age of eight and not have been aware of Blatty’s book and, a couple of years later, the movie by the same name. They defined a generation of horror.

So I admit it, I read the Washington Post article, and I found an interesting nugget at the end. Blatty graduated from Georgetown University but has taken issue with his alma mater because of its lurch into secularism. The university is ostensibly Catholic and, more particularly, Jesuit. I have often thought that if any long academic tradition aligns fairly closely with Gutenberg, it would be that of Jesuit colleges and universities. So I thought it interesting that they are having such a discussion.

The final straw for Blatty was Georgetown’s inviting Kathleen Sebelius to be a commencement speaker last year. Sebelius is an outspoken advocate of abortion, both personally and in her capacity as secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Affordable Care Act (more commonly known as “Obamacare”) with its requirement that even religious organizations must provide for abortions in their health insurance plans. Since the Catholic church opposes abortion, Blatty is suggesting that the church should either bring Georgetown back into conformity with Catholic teachings or cut its ties to the university. The Washington Post interviewer writes that Blatty, “his voice trembling,” described “in graphic detail” a particularly grisly abortion procedure and then said, “That’s demonic!”

We see again how far modern day academia has drifted from any moorings in helping students to understand and embrace a moral framework in concert with that of the Creator God of the universe. Secularism currently rules the day.


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