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Cultivating the Affections

This article was originally published in The Journal, the magazine of the Society for Classical Learning.

Our job would be easy if all we had to do was transfer knowledge. If a student really were like an empty bucket that merely needed to be filled in order to be “educated”, then the hardest part of our task as teachers might be deciding what the most appropriate “filler” would be. The rest would just be an uncomplicated task of filling the bucket. But, of course, it isn’t so simple because the end of education is not knowledge retention or even thinking; it is acting based on what we know. In other words, we want our Christian classical schools to produce discerning, virtuous students who will act in accordance with the Good. This can only happen when we cultivate the affections of our students.

Jonathan Edwards defines affections as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul” (Edwards, 24). So when we are talking about cultivating the affections, we are talking about reaching the wills of our students as well as their minds. Thus, as David Hicks rightly states, “The noble intention of [the great teacher’s] teaching, like that of all great literature and art, is the antithesis of pornography: to move his students to will a moral act, as opposed to an immoral one” (Hicks, 73). The question is how do we do this? How can we move a student to will a moral act? There is, of course, no foolproof way to ensure that a student will act morally of his or her own volition, but if we are going to make any headway in this endeavor, then we must cultivate the affections; we do this by means of liturgy, love, and example.

We human beings are basically lovers, not knowledge receptacles. We are more apt to act on our affections than on our knowledge. We go with our gut. However, this does not mean that we are creatures that are entirely ruled by instinct. We are also creatures of habit. As James K. A. Smith has pointed out, we participate in various “cultural liturgies” that have the power to shape our desires. Smith has broadened the concept of liturgy to include any kind of formative practice in which we participate. To make this point in the introduction to his book, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith describes an outing to the mall in religious language as a form of a “cultural liturgy” in which many of us partake from time to time. He affirms the power of these kinds of liturgies in the following way:

Liturgies—whether “sacred” or “secular”—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. . . . In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person. Hence every liturgy is an education, and embedded in every liturgy is an implicit worldview or “understanding” of the world (Smith, 25).

Thus, our affections and desires are trained by our schedules and rituals. This is also affirmed by Hicks in Norms and Nobility when he says that “the purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows” (Hicks, 20). Education is not merely the vehicle for training the mind, but also the way in which we bridle the heart.

So then, the kinds of liturgies or rituals or habits in which we participate on a daily basis are important because they shape us in significant ways. Liturgies cultivate the affections. The ways we choose to spend our time shape our desires and affections. The liturgies we observe on a daily basis serve as a kind of practice or training for decision making and living. There are times that we know what to do because we have been trained to do it. For example, players on a basketball team know which lanes to fill on a fast break because they have done it in practice hundreds of times. Soldiers on the battlefield follow orders to put themselves in harm’s way because they have been intensively trained to overcome fear and press forward into certain danger. They don’t have to think about it or debate it, they know what to do, and they act in accordance with what they know.

If we want students who will be servant leaders, then we need to train them through a liturgy of servant leadership. We need to give them the opportunities to serve others. We need to find ways to help our students practice humility and instill a strong work ethic. We need to give students the chance to lead their peers in authentic ways. In order for students to act in accordance with what they know, they must be trained to know how to act. This involves the mind, but it also involves the will and the body. If our schools are only interested in training the minds of our students, then we are cheating them out of the most important facets of an education.

The second way in which we cultivate the affections of our students is by loving them. This love that we have for our students arises out of the task of mastering a body of knowledge together. This activity of learning provides a common ground of friendship for the teacher and the student while also accentuating their unequal status (Hicks, 40-41). The love that a teacher has for a student is personal and exhibits itself in genuine concern for the well-being and proper formation of the heart of the child.

This concept of love of a teacher for his or her students is almost incomprehensible to the modern person because of the frequent sensational stories of sexual scandals between teachers and students that are reported by the tabloid media. Most people in the age we live in are “unable to distinguish between the erotic and the pornographic, between the love that moves the spheres and enlightens men’s minds and a love kindled in the loins” (Hicks, 41). The proper love that a teacher has for his or her students is not sexual, but it is intimate because the concerns of classical scholarship are fundamentally human and normative concerns that touch people’s lives and prepare them to live more fully in all the domains of their lives—the individual, the social, the religious (Hicks, 41-42). Hicks describes the fitting progression of the relationship between the teacher and student in this way:

The pupil becomes a part of the teacher’s own studies, his intimate relationship with the schoolteacher making him, perforce, even more than an observer—an assistant and participant in the ongoing inquiry. A lively dialectic arises, educating both. In truth, such mutual learning is the unavoidable, happy consequence of a profound and intimate relationship between the teacher and his pupil (Hicks, 42).

The result of this relationship for the classroom is manifested in all students treating each other fairly and with respect. Students don’t put themselves or their own interests ahead of others, but they create an environment where people can flourish. Love engenders trust. If a student trusts his or her teacher then the teacher can be much more effective as a guide and a mentor to the will of a student.

Finally, we teach our students to will moral choices by being an example to them. If we profess to teach the knowledge that makes a person virtuous and wise, then our lives need to illuminate our teaching (Hicks, 41). Our students learn more from our actions than our words. The commander who leads his men into battle cultivates their affections much more deeply than the one who calls in a plan of attack over the radio. A teacher who embodies humility and self-sacrifice will always have attentive pupils.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis compares teachers educating children to grown birds teaching fledglings how to fly. The grown birds do this by example and by pushing the young birds out of the nest—beyond their comfort zone and beyond what they think they can handle. Lewis says that this kind of teaching is an act of “propagation.” It is the “transmitting of manhood to men” (Lewis, 23). This act of propagation is what gives shape and integrity to the “chest” or “middle element” between the cerebral man and the visceral man where the emotions are organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. He says that this middle element is where “man is man: for by his intellect he is merely spirit and by his appetite mere animal” (Lewis 24-25).

Cultivating the affections of a child by living as an example of virtue before him or her is propagating virtue in that child. It is teaching a child to will a moral choice instead of an immoral one. It is by this modeling and through the work of the Holy Spirit that the conscience is formed, and good choices are made.

As teachers in classical schools it is our job not only to harness the power of the intellect but also to bridle the heart. Through cultivation of the affections, we help our students steer their desires in the right direction. Our work is much more agricultural than industrial in its nature. We need to think much more like farmers than factory workers. We cultivate, we sow, we weed, and we tend. In this way we form, direct, nurture, and grow the affections of the children that we love.


Edwards, Jonathan. The Religious Affections. The Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, PA, printed by East Peoria, IL: Versa Press, reprint 2007, original publication 1746.

Hicks, David V. Norms and Nobility. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1999.

Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

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