John Heaton challenges classical educators to make the case for education as a transformational experience.
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The other day I stopped briefly to read a stray blog post, where I can’t remember. I do remember that the post asserted forthrightly that there will never be another Johnny Cash. America will not produce an icon of this order for several reasons: cotton is no longer hand-picked; nobody rides trains across the country anymore; and stone-faced prisons are vanishing. For different reasons but similar logic it struck me that developing liberally educated, classically informed students is no longer possible either. I don’t mean to be too pessimistic at the outset; after all, I’ve given a significant chunk of my professional career to this educational endeavor, and I’ve always agreed with Chesterton that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

I do, however, wish to reckon honestly with where my students are culturally situated. So, perhaps, it is a dose of realism that leads me to confess that the cultural accidentals that would validate and reinforce nearly every aspect of a classical, Christian education are missing; worse, nearly everything else in a young scholar’s life is hostile to my effort and militates against my success, tilting the playing eld seriously against the effort.

Let’s begin with the two major pillars of the project: classical and Christian. Most parents who have concluded that a public or secular education is an unacceptable option may choose a classical, Christian school because it is Christian. Years of admissions interviewing leads me to believe that parents find a school acceptable if the Christian design of the school aligns closely enough with their own beliefs. It couldn’t be otherwise, of course; no ma er what disclaimers I may offer by way of qualification, an inquirer is more likely than not to project his religious commitments upon the institution. In other words, given the assumptions of an inquirer’s own religious background, “Christian School” is a term that is already defined in his mind, and I maintain little control over those settled perceptions.

Nor does it ma er which particular faith flavor is in play. A family associated with my school for several years expressed astonishment that a teacher would claim that materialist, macro- evolution was neither plausible nor compatible with the teaching of the Bible; they expressed fear that the school was infected with fundamentalism – hardly a danger for a school in the Anglican tradition. On the other hand, when a parent with long association with the school learned that the chaplain did not believe that the antichrist was on the verge of being revealed and that Left Behind was not good literature, more shock and amazement followed as a more fundamentalist assumption was met with disappointment. When it became known that my faculty yawned at Harry Potter, not perceiving him to be subversive of Christian faith and morals, those who saw him as a boogey man made their voices heard. Truth be told, the religious design of the school, other than obvious commitments to formal, orthodox dogma, is opaque to these kinds of parents.

If “Christian” is a term that others define and project on the institution, “classical” is a term that the institution defines and projects to families. Most people do not possess a nuanced appreciation for the liberal arts tradition in education, especially in grades K-12, nor are they themselves the products of an experience rooted in that tradition. Thus, for lack of common ground with such parents, classical education is what I say it is. This is communicated to parents with the usual short course in key concepts like the trivium, quadrivium, logic and rhetoric with more than a word or two about Latin and Greek. To the newly initiated, the philosophy appears to hang together, it’s comprehensive, and, most importantly, it can be articulated in a relatively short space of time. Cloaked in a campus that screams quality, even a careful inquirer has trouble being skeptical.

Weight bearing on the classical pillar, however, is o en as rickety as that of the Christian pillar. The school runs the risk of talking past a parent in spite of efforts to the contrary. Buy-in is achieved at a superficial level, but both sides– parents and school offcials–probably assume too much. The enthusiasm of new discovery by an inquirer should not be mistaken for a conviction that “takes” all the way down.

With so much misunderstanding between parties, one has to wonder what holds the educational partnership together. We needn’t look far. The school does an admirable job in the overall educational experience. Young students are safe, loved, challenged, disciplined, and they show clear signs of progress. Faith is nurtured, the arts are appreciated, and the sports program, with some notable exceptions, is respectable. In a perverse sort of way, even the struggling student validates the claim of the better way, if only because “better” is equated with “harder.” In the main, neither parents nor teachers claim perfection, but overall satisfaction with the program remains high on broad points.

But for the wrong reasons. Classical, Christian schools typically get high marks doing what ought to be standard for all schools of all types. Public educational systems are so bad that in some cases it is difficult to take them seriously. Parents intuitively know that, and if they have the means to exercise an alternative option they do so. Classical, Christian education easily separates itself from the pack and tacitly makes promises of a transformational nature.

So I think we have to be clear about what we’re doing, but about all that we are doing. A quick tour of my school conveys with absolute clarity that students are learning to read, add, subtract, multiply, divide, play the violin, paint, shoot baskets, and parse Latin verbs. The cognitive issues are not really in question; in fact, the results on this level are so superior that elevated praise for the institution at all levels is quite common and justifed.

The transfer of information, however, is not the only thing we’re about. Education is not simply the acquisition of data or related sets of data. To their credit, Christian educators of my generation have long realized that a young person’s worldview had to be shaped and informed by Scripture. Accomplishing that has meant more than the memorization of Bible verses and a thorough rehearsing of Bible stories, essential as those exercises are. Students have to be taught to think Christianly, with a self-conscious awareness that Christian faith has as much or more to say about ordering our present lives than that of the world to come. Moralizing has been a weak guarantee of purity in our teens, and certainly no substitute for thoroughgoing engagement with society and culture. Since the 1980’s the term “worldview” gained enough currency even in communities of faith that had for decades eschewed engagement with the world as, well, worldly. All of this is to be applauded.

We must reconcile ourselves, however, to the reductionist tendency in the concept of “worldview” to limit the scope of education to a set of ideas or right thinking about this or that issue. As a young graduate student, I remember many conversations with believers and unbelievers in which I made rational appeals to logic and the truth claims of the Christian faith. I was armed, like many others, with ammunition provided by C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and others, all defenders of an engaged Christian faith that offered a defense of faith and a compelling narrative for the human experience. In the conversations in my own young adulthood, one could still make progress against doubt by manning the rational defenses.

Over time, however, the earth moved. Our own culture moved from modernity to post- modernity in observable migration right before our eyes. In the normal course of cultural shifts, say, from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason, it takes historians and philosophers a long retrospect to name an epoch. One can’t objectify a time period without being situated historically downstream. Objectification is a reflexive action, unavailable to the current cultural actor. With post-modernity, however, it is as though everyone lost faith in modernity all at once, held hands, and woke up the next morning talking about being post-modern. In other words the shift has been self-conscious and immediately objectified by its own adherents.

Its chief characteristic has been a kind of relativism on steroids, a worldview that embraces truth-to-me as normal and which is as individuated as individuals themselves. It installs individual utility deep within as the controlling micro-chip of self-fulfillment. It is not too surprising to discover that students wired this way are not hostile to faith because they are no longer threatened by its exclusive truth claims. It simply doesn’t ma er that your truth claims con ict with mine. Yours are good if they work for you, now let me get back to my iPod, thank you. In fact, on most college campuses today, Christian faith in the rank and le is neither despised nor persecuted. Post-moderns really do mean to honor whatever works for you.

It is precisely this controlling attitude that is resistant to the older conventions of rationality and logic, the bedrock foundation of those who first coined the term “Christian worldview.” It’s not that Lewis’ arguments are not sound; it’s just that no one cares any longer. Culture has moved students deeper into the benign realm of the affections, well beneath the head. Success in this context will require us to lower our aim. We’ll still need to provide information in the classroom. We must adjust, however, to the fact that education is a process of formation, a task that is concerned with shaping a kind of person.

Such a process requires us to intrude into the realm of the imagination, the desires, the affections. A student will grow up to be what he wants to be. That is, he will likely obey his strongest desires. It might not be one overriding desire; it might be a complex of desires that modify or check one another inside him. The point is that we become what we love, and what we love is not shaped by mere cognition. I get very little traction telling my children to love each other. I repeat the command, but like me, every parent knows that the bonds of love are created by shared experiences, unique practices and routines that define your family. Eventually, children see themselves as a part of that fabric and their affections for others within that fabric become the unique thing we call family.

Culture, institutions, and families are not formed merely around shared ideas. As James K. A. Smith says in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, they are collections of “practices, rituals, and routines that inculcate a particular vision of the good life…by embodied practices.” My sense is that for a school to be successful beyond the cognitive tasks outlined by a curriculum it will have to intentionally create rituals and practices that tend to support those academic endeavors. A fifth-grade student who is learning his Latin might submit to the exercise with unquestioning compliance. Eventually, however, a student realizes that if nothing else in his experience validates the effort, he will not come to love it. A violin student limited to endless practices of finger positions, with nothing else to validate progress in performance, is not likely to love the instrument. The same is true for almost any discipline.

Which brings us back to Johnny Cash. He will live on in the collective cultural memory and will take on layers of attachments from generations who never saw him on TV or in concert. He will increasingly morph into a larger than life character, and the factors that contributed to who he was–especially the hardships–will be sanctified in the imagination of future fans, whose vicarious contact with those same hardships is pleasant and romantic. Those hardships, so formative of the person of Johnny Cash and his music, have zero formative effect on the masses, who are nothing more than consumers of his music.

The forces of consumption that shape the affections of youngsters in their churches and families have almost all capitulated to mimicking the powerful media and advertising cultures in broader culture. Large church narthexes resemble the mall, with convenient coffee bars, book shops, and playlands. Worship services take place in halls that are over-mediated to the point of distraction. None of these things are inherently bad, except that they have replaced so much of what is central to Christian religious experience, centered on a table and a crucified, risen Lord. The frenetic pace of family life militates against the schola (leisure) of an appropriately paced school program, and school activities o en become the tail wagging the dog. All of these pieces are formative of desire; they shape the affections and eventually compete with the transformational character proposed and inherent in classical, Christian education.

We cannot wonder, then, that parents often choose yet another option for education in the middle or high school years. The school has not made its case for a transformational experience, and as such is regarded by parents like Johnny Cash fans – a commodity for consumers who have little real appreciation for all that can and should be instantiated in youngsters. Judged this way, the commodity can be set aside when a better deal presents itself. Overcoming this cultural reality will require us to intentionally aim lower, focusing less on the head and more on the heart.

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