“Watch me. Now you try.” These five words are constantly repeated by parents to their children. But they are for people of every age. We are mimetic creatures who learn by imitation. Every good baseball coach teaches a batting stance by modeling one for the athlete. Preachers provide examples and illustrations so their congregants can apply theological truths. Parents read stories and fables to their children which provide models for emulation. Because we learn by imitation, teaching is inescapably mimetic.
Mimesis is fundamental to education because learning is not limited to content or facts. Students are not educated when they merely know what is true, but when they love and practice the truth. Augustine revolutionized politics (and education) by locating evil in the human will and its loves. His Confessions record the breakthrough of supernatural grace that delivered him from the chains of his own making. Augustine had intellectually assented to the truth of Christianity before his conversion in the garden but lacked the will to embrace its necessary habits. Augustine teaches us that we do what we do because of what we love. Thus, a full education nourishes the whole person, shaping people who know, love, and act rightly.
We become habituated into the proper order of love by repeated practice. Instead of talking about art, you give students opportunities to contemplate beautiful works and produce their own imitations. Rather than only explaining the distributive property or order of operations, you let students play with equations and try to explain the principle at work. The book of Hebrews distinguishes the mature by their practice discerning good from evil (5:14). Students train their loves through repeated exercise because we learn by habit.
In order to teach well, instructors provide students with examples to embody a concept or idea. When teaching addition, the base ten blocks are used to visibly communicate an abstract concept. When communicating skills like reading, research, or writing, the instructor models the skill, presents types, and then the students imitate the action. The teacher then observes the students and provides additional types in order to correct misunderstandings. By providing the right example at the right time, the teacher prompts the student to do the work of learning. The best teaching does not drown students in buckets of facts but leads them to reproduce the lesson in their own mind through sequential and provocative examples.
This kind of mimetic teaching moves beyond the facts and details to universals and principles. Why did the deaths of Augustus, Constantine, Justinian, Charlemagne, or Henry V provoke the collapse of their empires? Why do nations seem to cycle between growth and consolidation and then decay and disintegration? Contemplating these examples trains us to identify a unifying principle among these events: succession is difficult. In order for students to develop this ability, they must see enough types and practice abstracting ideas from them. These isolated historical events are unified by the idea(s) they embody. A rich education will not rest content with “just the facts” but will constantly weave these various threads into a rich tapestry of wisdom.
Students long for this sort of education because teaching needs a soul. Eustace Clarence Scrubb loved to memorize exports, imports, governments, and drains, but what he needed was dragons. Miraz’s history books were nothing but true facts, but they were false in a soul-atrophying sort of way because they had no spirit. It is possible to lie through truths. A false sort of history might reduce all actors to products of their material conditions, but students need heroes and villains. They don’t just need to know bare facts but to love the good and hate evil.
Imitation does not only apply to texts or lessons. Teachers themselves are living books. They are the curriculum. Jesus says that students will be like their teacher (Matt 10:24). Teachers demonstrate what it means to think and reason and present well, but above all, to live well. They are providing a model for the student to imitate. Common advice in higher education is “choose a faculty, not a school; choose the teacher, not the class.” Students learn more than the information pumped through their ears. They begin to pattern themselves after the mannerisms, procedures, interests, and loves of their teacher(s).
I have spent many nights in horror wondering if a student’s impatience, critical spirit, or superficial approach to study were habits I encouraged. Perhaps it is because I was a lazy, disinterested student that I often observe the same attitudes reflected in my students. Like one’s own children, students are often mirrors that reveal the teacher’s nature and disposition. Maybe our students are bored because we are bored. As Augustine reminds us, “love in one person is infectious in kindling it in another.” So what is it that delights us most in the classroom? High grades or high effort? Good work or humble service? Our intellectual quibbles or the gospel of Jesus Christ? Students aren’t only learning by what is said, but also by what is loved.
Because of the nature of learning through mimesis, school staff should remember the influence of positive example. Teachers should display and praise models of good student work as well as exemplify excellence in their own. Instructors should be making strides in the arts they teach and practice the same habits and disciplines students are expected to be developing. Schools ought to examine their unseen instruction and consciously plan how to cultivate virtue through habit. Teachers are the living books that demonstrate what it is to live a good life.
Teaching, as with life, is inescapably mimetic. We not only learn skills or concepts but also receive our very habits of life second-hand. Because education is not only concerned with the transfer of information but is also directed towards character formation, we ought to reflect on our goals and methods. The question to ask is not “what do our students know?” but “what do our students love?”