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Education and the Departure from the Cave

Tracy Lee Simmons notes that it was little more than a century ago that the word “classical” did not need to modify the word “education.” While it is true that all schooling was itself classical, it also true that we can too easily assume its basic meaning, for we breathe, all of us, the amnesiac air of the Modern world. And when the realities of college applications, SAT scores, transcripts, and college recommendations begin to bear down, it is easy, even for classical institutions, to lose their way. Before we can begin to define what Classical Christian Educationmeans, let us remember what education itself means.

In light of this, every school year I try to remind my new students what the purpose of education really is. I begin with a simple question: “Why are you here?” Most of them respond cynically: “Because our parents make us,” or “Because we have to.” We laugh. Then I ask again, barring the obvious compulsory answer. The majority of my students, if they are honest with themselves respond after this fashion, “We go to school to go to college.” When I ask them why go to college, which is not compulsory, they respond, “To get a good job.” I press them further, asking why. They answer, “To make money.” And when I ask why money is important, it is at this point that they usually conclude, “To buy things.” By this time most of my high school students, even the seniors, are in uncharted waters, never having asked themselves the serious questions about their own education. Then I sum things up. “It seems most of you think that you give the better part of your time and energy for at least 12 years simply to get a job to make money so that you can buy things. So, in other words, you exist in order to…buy things.” By this time, they’re listening.

Now, we can’t blame my students too much. This kind of reasoning is what much of America has come to think about education and life in general. The sad fact is that today many adults, and even educators, would find themselves inexorably coming to the same conclusions as my students. The philosopher Josef Pieper notes that one of the aims of modernity is to turn us all into proletarians, a devoted servant of the state whose sole value is found in his job and in the usefulness it affords to public need.[1] If this is true, then surely modern education is the agency by which this objective is transmitted to society at large. We might add to Pieper’s insight, therefore, that the aim of modern education is to turn students into consumers. And when I question my students about why they come to school, it is this fact which is exposed, ultimately revealing a very weak and misguided philosophy of education. Most of them know that human existence ought not to be measured merely by what we consume, especially if those students are Christians. To remedy all this, I tell them we must start from the beginning.

The catechism says that the chief end of man is to “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” God has made the world, and Solomon tells us that in this regard “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter.” But he does not leave it there. “It is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” In other words, part of glorifying God is knowing God, and knowing God means knowing about His world, which itself declares His glory. The Scriptures make it clear throughout that we have all inherited a world as a gift, and thus, we are ever on the adventure of “learning.”

But how are we to do this? Living in America means we answer this question in a particular way, that is, according to the tradition of the Western World (if that term still means anything). In other words, we can only think, because those before us have thought. Our words have meaning before we were born, and we inherit language as a gift. Again, when I ask my students why they come to school, their responses clearly illustrate a lack of understanding not merely of education but of the simple and precise meanings of words. “School” ought to be a privilege, for the very meaning of the word, schola in Latin, means “leisure.” At this point my students are shocked to say the least, for what we normally have in mind when we think of schooling is not what we normally have in mind when we thing of leisure. But here again we must remedy the amnesia of our age.

When Pieper said that leisure was “the basis of culture,” he did not have in mind a commitment to doing nothing. Or simply hanging out. Or going on Facebook. Or playing even. He meant it in the classical sense of the word. In the ancient world, most young boys and girls, whether or not they were not slaves, worked in some kind of manual labor. There were those few, however, who perhaps showed intellectual promise and were allowed to participate in an organized and collective pursuit of knowledge. The point is that people needed “time,” a time separate from the servile demands of the market economy. In other words, school, and in the proper sense leisure, was only for free men and women. And it was the slave who was trained only for a job, fitted for a task. An education freed the man intellectually and morally who was often already free socially and economically. In other words, education was not for the slave but to make the free free indeed. Veritas vos liberabit, says Jesus. Medieval Christianity improved upon the classical ideas of education over the centuries, until the advent of Modern educational revisionists. After all, this is what was once meant when one invoked the phrase, “The Liberal Arts.” Pieper knew that without leisure, schola, we cannot have a culture.

And here we come to the true meaning of education and its philosophical core. The purpose of an education is, as the word really means, “to lead out” of the cave of moral, spiritual, and intellectual darkness. But this is not Plato’s Cave merely. It is the Cave of Sin. It is also the Caves of Ignorance, of Foolishness, of Popular Culture. We want students to love what is lovely and hate what is hateful, to have the proper time to contemplate and reflect on their own lives, and to judge rightly the often unexamined assumptions of popular culture. After all, what good is education if it blindly accepts the claim that we exist only to work and buy things? In addition, we are also “lead out” of the Cave of Self. Teachers ought to liberate and lead their pupils out and away from what Augustine calls theincurvatus in se, the soul curved inward on itself. The teacher’s responsibility, therefore, is not merely to encourage “critical thinking” but to raise the thoughts of students above the vain things of the world and to the noble things of God. Ultimately, we do not want them to become Narcissus, who, having gazed too long at the shallow pond of Facebook, fell in love with himself. His cautionary tale illustrates the foolish, dull, and unproductive life, curved and infected inward upon itself; rather, we want education to exhort us outward toward a life lived for God and for others. By the end, my students have a good idea of why they go to school, or at least why they ought to go to school.

[1] Pieper, Josef. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998. 39.

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