This article was originally published in The Journal, the magazine of the Society for Classical Learning.
As the Hart panteth after the water-brooks,
so panteth my soul after Thee, Oh God.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook a picture of his high school aged daughter and some of her friends who attended a private school together. He mentioned how different these girls were from the ones he knew in his public school experience. It reminded me of an experience I had about ten years ago. I was leaving Boise, ID, where I had for five years the immeasurable joy of teaching a group of home school students in a Humane Letters tutorial.
We spent one year studying the Greeks, one year on the Romans, one year on Shakespeare, one year on the Middle Ages, mostly in Dante, and one year on American history beginning with the ancient Hebrews. A few of these students were with me for four years, a few more for three. They were unique students, impressively free and open with each other. Now they are unique and wonderful adults. Partly because I was able to spend so much time with them, teaching them may well be the highlight of my professional life.
Then one day my family and I decided to move to North Carolina. The Boise students and families gathered for an end of the year picnic that summer and I found myself in a conversation with one of the mothers of my students. I remember it going something like this:
Me: “I have never seen such amazing friendships among teenagers in my life. Is it because they had determined not to date while they were in high school?”
Mother: “That probably had something to do with it, but you played a role too. You fed their souls by discussing great books and great ideas with them. So their souls grew. A bigger soul makes one a better friend. So their friendships are deeper because you fed their souls.”
I’ve long cherished both my friendships with those students and these words from one of their mothers. They remind me, in turn, of the blessed Augustine’s words in his Confessions: “Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest dwell therein.”
My friend’s daughter and her friends were admirably different from those in a conventional school. My friends in Boise had richer friendships. St. Augustine became a habitation for the Spirit of God. Why? Because their souls were fed.
Even the best and noblest public schools operate within a system that works against the soul, if only because they do not deliberately and consciously nourish it. Unfortunately, most private schools learn to teach and drink at the same wadis as the secular schools. The result is what CS Lewis warned us about in his 1943 book, The Abolition of Man: a post-human world in which students souls are famished and unable to find the springs for which they yearn.
We do our students a disservice when we concern ourselves so much with the tangible, the “practical,” and the measurable that we neglect to attend to their souls. In fact, not only do we neglect to cultivate healthy affections, we actively cultivate disordered affections by teaching them on the naturalistic patterns of the conventional school. We must redirect our attention to the health of their souls.
This redirection changes everything, including how we teach, what we teach, and the atmosphere in which we teach.
It changes everything because what is good for the soul often conflicts with what is good for worldly gain, which is the object of conventional education. The body needs clothing, food, and drink. The soul needs what is true, just, noble, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, virtuous, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). These are the standards that guide us when we decide what to think about with our students.
How do we teach differently? I can think of no more concise and vivid description of the role of the Christian teacher than that provided by Charlotte Mason in the synopsis she wrote near the end of her long contemplation of education. She said that, because the child is a person, “we are limited to three educational instruments, ‘the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.'”
We don’t populate the atmosphere with twaddle or vacuous misrepresentations of Bible stories. Instead, we order it by and fill it with what is noble and praiseworthy.
We don’t indulge their appetites; instead, we discipline their habits through drills, narrations, copy work, carefully passionate discussions, and self-governed expression.
We don’t deluge them with meaningless, disconnected bits of information; instead, we arouse their minds to engage living ideas.
We also teach different matter. Who cares if Jane runs? I sure don’t. But everybody wants to know whether the ants should have fed the grasshopper, whether Caesar should have crossed the Rubicon, and whether Odysseus should have slaughtered the suitors. These things matter because they arouse the right questions. They help students clarify their thoughts about what is just and fair, what is wise and prudent, and what is noble and honorable. Classical teachers have found for centuries that children care deeply about these questions.
One of the most frequently taught and best loved books of the classical curriculum has long been Cicero’s On Friendship. It’s not academic and it isn’t particularly practical, unless, like your students, you think friendship is practical. But it is a soul-transforming, affection-refining book. I have a copy in which I preserve a rose two of my students gave me way back in 1995, when, for the first time, I read it with a class (I believe it is the only flower I have ever been given).
Together as a class we discussed words like these:
– Such is the pleasure I take in recalling our friendship, that I look upon my life as having been a happy one because I have spent it with Scipio.
– All I can do is to urge you to regard friendship as the greatest thing in the world; for there is nothing which so fits in with our nature, or is so exactly what we want in prosperity or adversity.
– Friendship can only exist between good men.
– Virtue… is the parent and preserver of friendship, and without it friendship cannot exist.
– Nature being incapable of change, it follows that genuine friendships are eternal.
– Another good rule in friendship is this: do not let an excessive affection hinder the higher interests of your friends.
What silly adult determined that children would be happier, not to mention better, reading inane stories about “relevant” issues? We become what we behold. Our duty as teachers is to give our students true and noble things to behold and to teach them how to behold those things.
The Psalm quoted at the top of this article refers to a “hart.” Not just any old deer, the hart is a small, hyperactive deer that continuously runs itself ragged and consequently needs to stay near the water brooks. What a perfect description of our students’ souls. How can we neglect to take them to the fountain that flows and the many cisterns that hold the true, the good, and the beautiful? How can we train them to be satisfied with the inconsistent wadis and the mud puddles of conventional schooling?
Here’s a stream I like to drink from:
“One piece of advice on parting. Make up your minds to this. Virtue (without which friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is friendship.”