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Promises That Can’t Be Kept

Why education rightly done is a path and not a method

At the 2015 CiRCE Conference, A Contemplation of Harmony, Andrew Kern and I led a breakout session called “Transcending Method: The Art of Classical Teaching”. What did we mean?

In the introduction to Raymond Larson’s translation of Plato’s Republic, Larson argues that the word method was understood in Plato’s day to describe a path to be pursued, that it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution — or thereabouts — that it took on the meaning of a mechanical process. And Charlotte Mason, in her writings, uses the word method positively, obviously denoting the earlier, Platonic understanding of the word.

Unfortunately, modern ears typically hear the word and think of a mechanical process.

When method is understood in its more mechanized sense and applied to education, it makes claims that cannot be fulfilled, promises it cannot keep. In a mechanical situation, processes are steps followed and procedures applied that lead to a predictable, consistent outcome. This is perfectly acceptable in that situation, where machines and inanimate, man-made objects are being constructed or utilized. Education, however, is not something done to machines or inanimate objects. Education is human, and it is humanizing.

For a teacher or parent to think of education as a series of methods or processes to be applied to a child is to think of that child as a machine. Do ‘A’ and get ‘B.’ Apply steps 1-4, and the child will be ready for step 5. These things are true of building a car or a computer, but they are not true of educating a child. A child is uniquely and wonderfully made; a fully human, complete individual with his own hopes, dreams, and desires; his own fears, weaknesses, and doubts. Do ‘A’ and you might get nothing. Do ‘A’ again and you might get ‘C.’ Do ‘A’ again and you might get ‘B.’ It makes no difference if ‘A’ got ‘B’ when the teacher in the class next door did it or when the homeschooling mom down the street did it or when you did it with your first child.

Education is a path, a path to be pursued. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells His followers to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and food and clothing will be provided. Imagine, however, pursuing the kingdom of God, thinking the whole time in your pursuit that God would owe you food and clothing. Seeking the kingdom of God is not a mechanical process that thereby guarantees the addition of food and clothing. It is a path pursued for its own sake. We seek the kingdom of God because it is right to seek the kingdom of God. God, though, is a faithful God, who loves His children, and has proved already, as we see in the case of Solomon, that those who seek the kingdom of God are blessed by Him with their other needs.

Education is a path to be pursued in this sense. We pursue education for its own sake, because it is right. We learn math because it is good. We study science because it is good. We play with language because it is good. When God created Biology, He looked at it and saw that it was good. So we study biology.

We pursue education because it is right and worthy, not because it guarantees anything. Only education that is being thought of as a mechanical process makes claims it cannot satisfy. Education is not a process that leads to higher SAT scores, a better college, a higher paying job, a bigger house, or a faster car. Education is a path worthy of pursuit, and in the pursuit of it, these other things might be added to us, but they are not the reason for it.

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