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Of Big Ideas and Tiny Practicalities

We often confuse tiny practicalities with big ideas. This is a mistake, for practicalities are the servants of ideas, not the other way around.

Do you ever have those conversations that rankle in your memory? Several months ago a fellow homeschool mom inquired about my writing. I told her how much I enjoyed writing and that I was looking forward to some projects approaching. She replied, “Well, that sounds nice. Maybe you will soon have time to develop into a more practical writer that can actually help people. I just want somebody to tell me what to do.”

Well then.

After stumbling through the remainder of the conversation, I promptly spiralled into agonies of self-doubt. Perhaps she is right, I lamented. Perhaps we should all stop glorifying the big ideas and focus on where to find the best deal on pencils. After all, we all know the anxiety and disillusionment that results from the distance between expectations and reality. What is the bridge between the two? Maybe I should stop quoting Homer and Charlotte Mason and just instruct teachers how to lesson plan more like me.

Upon further reflection, I decided firmly against it.

The good news is that the keepers of the great tradition through the ages have laid a path through self-doubt, disillusionment, and resistance. The hard news is that that path is not what we cry for in our moments of anxiety. When we demand how-to strategies to resolve our fears and fix our mistakes, the great tradition reorients us by offering us what we fell in love with about it in the first place: rich and meaningful ideas. Charlotte Mason wrote, “For the soul is nourished by only one kind of food; it lives, grows, and is nourished upon ideas only.” Good, true, and beautiful ideas are the beating heart of classical education, not only for our students, but for ourselves.

Classical education is not about curriculum choices, teaching methods, book lists, or strategic plans. It is about learning to love what is worth loving.

Instead of demanding immediate strategies to manage the stress of our own expectations, teachers and parents can do for ourselves what we ask of our students: pursue wisdom and virtue through immersing ourselves in, first, worship and, second, the rich ideas that populate the great tradition we preserve through classical education. This is harder than it sounds. It is easier for homeschooling moms to feverishly rearrange their kids’ daily schedules (again) a la the latest popular Charlotte Mason blog post than to set aside regular moments in our busy days to savor a peaceful, prayerful read through Charlotte Mason’s Towards A Philosophy of Education. It feels more productive to fire off an angry email to the 10th-grade teacher who chose to teach the “wrong” translation of The Odyssey according to the podcast you heard than to purchase the one you love yourself and read it aloud after dinner to your family along with meaningful family discussions. Yet these are the ways we cultivate the benefits of a classical education.

Without immersing ourselves in the meaningful ideas we embrace as classical educators, we will not accomplish the meaningful work of a classical education. If classical education becomes merely a pursuit of methodology with the goal of aligning our classrooms according to the books we read, or the conferences we attend, or the homeschooling families we admire, then classical education in our hands degenerates into just another utilitarian model.

More insidiously, for most of us, it also becomes an additional arena in which to feel anxious and afraid, for now we are victims of comparison rather than pilgrims on a purposeful journey. Take courage. Classical education is not at heart about curriculum choices, teaching methods, book lists, or strategic plans. It is about learning to love what is worth loving. Our souls were created to love ideas, not methods.

What does all of this mean for those of us who believe in the big ideas but wonder how to apply them? In a conversation with Cindy Rollins, she reminded me of the value of “tiny practicalities,” or the little ways in which we practice the great ideas. The phrase she coined is a masterful one because it orients us to the truth that ideas are immense, but practices are individual.

In other words, reading Great Books is a universal aspect of classical education, but whether we read them aloud or alone, in a classroom or curled up in an armchair, with highlighters or commonplace books, are choices we each make on an individual basis. Classical students should indeed study Latin, but whether they begin in third grade or seventh grade and with this curriculum or that one are optional matters. These are the tiny practicalities. Of course, we have opinions on many of them, but opinions are not absolutes. The danger of classical educators is that we often confuse tiny practicalities with big ideas. This is a mistake, for practicalities are the servants of ideas, not the other way around.

Certainly the practices of classical education matter. Knowledge and action belong together always. They are two sides of the same coin. When classical educators request help, we should offer practical strategies that serve the great ideas in our vocation, while always remembering that tiny practicalities are not great ideas. They are different kinds of things. Practicalities matter because they do the work, but ideas nourish the soul.

When we encounter the inevitable angst of teaching, classical educators must remember that the work of education is the nourishment of souls, our own included. Though we may clamor for somebody to tell us what to do, what we truly long for are the ideas that promote flourishing, which for most of us are what originally enchanted us about classical education in the first place. When we need refreshment, teachers can cultivate a mind and heart overflowing with rich and meaningful ideas. To bridge the gap between idea and practice, remember that big ideas are put into practice by tiny practicalities. Ideas are universal; practicalities are individual, based on the needs and limits of each classroom and family.

Above all, however, the goal of our instruction is love, and love flourishes in inner lives nourished by God’s goodness, truth, and beauty, for teachers as well as students.

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