One of the most helpful ways to tackle the question of “spiritual formation” is to step back and ask very basic questions like, “What is the goal of education?” “What kind of person are we trying to form?” If we answer them well, the answers might help us to think through how all learning and studying ultimately serves a certain goal: the formation of a certain kind of person.
Educators tend to be idealists and dreamers. Many of us find ourselves drawn into independent schools, I suspect, because we want something for our children that we did not receive, and we want to experience a different type of education ourselves. There is something very compelling and attractive about being associated with a school that has a grand vision and that is actually accomplishing that vision, even partially.
Many Christian school leaders have been approached by parents concerned that the school’s curriculum or emphases are not “practical” enough, or that the school does not place enough emphasis on “spiritual formation.” This is a dicey question to which to respond. If one says that “spiritual formation” is not a key emphasis then one seems very, well, unspiritual. But if one says that math, English, literature, and science are all peripheral, and that the “real” goal is spiritual formation, one is falling into a different kind of error—where math, English, literature, and science have no ultimate relation to the mission of a school!
Probably the wiser path to follow is to try and tease out the unique way in which a school engages in “spiritual formation.” We may need to steal back the language of “spiritual formation” and think through what such a task looks like in a school setting. I have a hunch that when parents call for “spiritual formation” they are seeking a kind of direct Bible teaching time, prayer time, moral exhortation time, etc. And all of these are entirely appropriate.
As we have tried to hammer out a vision of Christian schooling in the classical tradition at Augustine School, we have tried to constantly ask the question, “To what end?” One of the strengths of an older understanding of education was that the key issue was often one of personal formation. As Christians wrestled with this, they o en construed education in terms of shaping a person who 1) could live a wise and virtuous life in the present, and 2) was being prepared for his or her ultimate destiny—the vision of God.
With that sort of goal in mind, we should ask how any aspect of our school or curriculum helps us form the kind of student we desire. Thus, we might point out that the simple practices of reading a book or translating a Latin sentence are character-forming activities (among other things, patience and fortitude are encouraged!). Having to engage in a debate and think on one’s feet is a wonderful “person-forming” exercise where a student is being trained to think and speak well under pressure. In short, everything we do in our schools should be person-forming endeavors. And when our larger goal is person formation, in the sense of molding students into being the people they are called by God to be, we are already engaged in “spiritual formation” of a certain type.
At the same time, if one of our goals is to develop students who can think “Christianly” about all disciplines, and can bring a Christian perspective to bear on all things, more must be said. Given the nature and shape of modern culture, I believe that we are shirking our duty if we think our students will just naturally make certain theological connections as they study and learn math, English, literature, science, etc. They need many prompts to begin to see the various connections and links-connections and links that are subtly and not so subtly denied by the dominant culture. That is, if we want our students to see the unity of all truth under God, we need to intentionally help our students to see these connections, and—in a fragmented culture that has such a dominant influence—this requires some basic teaching about God, man, and the world.
That means teaching and grounding in the basics of Scripture and theology. In short, if we want our students to really see the unity of all truth under God, in every discipline, we have to work with extra diligence, because we know that we are working upstream amidst a culture that so often discourages a coherent and united understanding of reality.
We need Hugh of St. Victor’s insight from his Didascalicon: “Learn everything; you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous.” We study and learn many things, trusting that we live in a world created, ordered, and governed by a good God, and that, ultimately, God might show us, over time, the unity and beauty of His world. He might show us how “nothing is superfluous.” Insight and wisdom take time, and schools, at their best, provide a place for them and some of that time.