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How to Move the World

Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever and I can move the world.”

The world has been moved.

The lever by which the world has been moved is an idea, and that idea is “nature.”

Two hundred some years ago, our forefathers founded on this continent a new nation, conceived in “the law of nature and of nature’s God.” Not very long ago, a prospective supreme court justice was more or less derided for having appealed to the natural law in earlier decisions.

The world has been moved.

In 1880, not as many people went to the American schools as go today, but many, many more received an education. Since then, the way people think about the nature of education has changed.

In 1840 the goal of education was to come to know the nature of things and to learn how to treat them appropriately. Now propriety stands as an obstacle to self-expression.

In 1789, our leaders generally believed that leadership required virtue and that the only way a republic could survive was through the virtue of its people. Now people either chuckle at your naiveté or look at you with bewilderment when you mention virtue.

In 1688, people argued about freedom and liberty, but they did so believing that liberty was the precondition for perfecting our natures. Now they believe it is the right to do whatever you want, sometimes with the qualification that you not harm others.

The world has been moved. People no longer believe that things have a nature and that the nature of things should hold up our “progress.”

Take children, for example. What is a child? What is the nature of childhood? In what way does the conventional school honor the nature of the child?

Take the curriculum for another example. What is the nature of a science or an art? Have you ever thought about that?

What is the nature of teaching or learning? What is the nature of marriage? Of government? Of the family? Of justice? Of nature itself?

The world has been moved.

Literally everything has been affected by this awesome change, one of the true revolutions in human history. John Dewey called it an “intellectual revolt.”

A revolt against what?

He goes on to explain that it is a revolt against the Christian classical tradition, a tradition whose error, he suggests, was in believing that things have a nature.

Lady MacBeth spoke nonsense when she said she was “unnnatured.”

The Psalmist spoke meaningless words when he asked, “What is man?’

In fact, if things don’t have a nature, they can’t be known, they can only be adapted to. Since there is nothing to be known, why teach children as if there were. All we can do is adapt to our environments in this ever moving world.

And if people don’t have a nature, what’s to limit the way you treat them? Human dignity? If there’s no human nature, there’s no human dignity.

The world has been moved.

If we are going to resist this revolt, if we are going to return from this fatal path, we must restore nature to its proper place at the heart of our thinking.

We can’t know right and wrong if we don’t know the nature of the thing we’re dealing with.

We can’t know how to read if we don’t know the nature of literature.

We won’t know how to think if we don’t know the nature of reality.

We won’t know how to act if we don’t know the nature of mankind.

We won’t know the place of the sciences if we don’t know the nature of the creation.

We don’t know how to teach, if we don’t know the nature of the child, the nature of learning, and the nature of the subject.

We addressed nature at the 2009 summer conference and it remains the most important theme any education conference has ever discussed – if only because any other theme is contained in it.

We took on an enormous challenge with this theme. We knew we weren’t up to it, but we also knew that we could not ignore it.

If I may be so bold, neither can you. It isn’t enough to accept the skeptical and even cynical assumptions about what teaching is, how a classroom should be arranged, what the goals of education are, and then call your school Christian classical because you follow a classical method.

After all, is there really a classical method, or is that idea itself part of the revolt against Christian classical education?

It’s a lot to think about, and glib answers won’t do. We need to reflect, discuss, and think hard about this or all is lost.

This post was originally written in 2009 while I was reflecting on the theme for our summer conference. I have only become more convinced of these words since then. Thus I repost it here. You can get a free copy of my opening talk from that summer by visiting our Free Audio Library.

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