Often, when a conversation leads me to explain why I love teaching, I find myself saying something about the ways that my education shaped me, about the shaping power I believe education possesses, about the wondrous opportunity the classroom provides for shaping the lives of students. Only recently did a wry comment from my husband prompt me to probe the metaphor I’ve hitherto used so glibly: “Doesn’t say much about what shape they end up in,” he said.
I suppose the metaphor of educational shaping could be matched to a number of different sources; my mind runs quickly to the artistic ones—the artist shaping her sculpture, the potter shaping his clay. But the connection to our more quotidian use of the phrase “getting in shape” leads down some intriguing thought-roads.
As a self-confident, jovial, and ample-figured friend of mine used to declare, “I am in shape—round is a shape!” The comment plays with the overlooked ambiguity of the phrase “in shape,” whose literal meaning does not fit our intended one of “physically fit.” In the same way, might we be overlooking a subtle yet significant ambiguity when we exult in the “shaping power” of classical education? Does the student’s diet of a classical curriculum via classical pedagogy necessarily produce a fit soul?
Mere observation of a single class over the course of one year provides plentiful evidence to the contrary: classical education does not affect in the same way all who receive it; among the seniors who will “successfully” complete this stage of their classical educations and graduate from our schools will march both fit and unfit souls. And though this be a truth universally acknowledged, it is an ever-fresh grief to teachers and parents who have sought to nourish those in their care, yet only see the health of their souls decline.
But the metaphor of “getting in shape” reminds us of the complexity of the human body and the habits on which its health depends. Formal education seems to parallel diet—the intake of foods meant to sustain, strengthen, and heal the body. Just as a wholesome diet is an essential part of getting in shape, so the intake of wise and virtuous ideas through a classical education can provide a necessary, irreplaceable ingredient in the health of the soul. But just as diet alone cannot ensure health, so education alone cannot guarantee a fit soul. “Being in shape” depends also on lifestyle, exercise, genetic tendencies, environmental factors; and these, too, could be matched to parallels in the health of the soul.
What habits characterize the lifestyle surrounding one’s formal diet? Are sweets and junk foods sneaked in on the sly? Are harmful substances being abused? Is the body being denied its needed times of leisure, rest, and healing? Or—in terms of the soul—are foolish and vicious ideas being consumed through what the student chooses to take in outside of school hours and obligations? Are poisonous lies being injected via the voices of friends, media, and entertainment? Is the soul being bombarded with more sensory and intellectual stimulation than it is able to process?
Is exercise a regular part of one’s schedule? Without exercise, too much of even the most wholesome foods can lead to obesity; and the best diet in the world cannot build the muscles, stamina, and agility needed to be properly considered “in shape.” Likewise, the soul that constantly takes in noble ideas but does nothing with them will atrophy in vigor and action. Journalling about a fresh idea; crafting a poem; applying algebra to further a project in the kitchen or workshop; using insights gained from a story to counsel a friend; applying the lessons of biology class to sharpen observation while on a springtime walk; imitating the choices of a virtuous hero in one’s own moral dilemmas—these are the kinds of soulish exercise which take the nutrition received through one’s formal diet and translate it into enlivening energy. School assignments attempt to regiment at least some such exercise—this is a purpose of essay assignments, math problem sets, science labs—but, like the minimal exercise enforced in a P.E. class, it will have no lasting benefit unless it models for the student how to form habits of exercise voluntarily and independently.
And then come the genetic tendencies and environmental factors—hardest of all to discern, diagnose, and deliver care. As anyone knows who has struggled with allergies or autoimmune disease, bodies are mysterious things, and what nourishes one person’s health may destroy another’s. This mystery is encountered in the classroom, too: even when a uniform diet, lifestyle, and exercise can be enforced upon students, these will not affect them all in the same ways. Some students complete assignments decently, are fairly obedient at home, and seem like generally good kids, but never approach the zeal and love that, like the glow of health, are the marks of being truly fit in soul. Some students reject all we have sought to teach them, set out to discover the truth they think we’ve denied them, and then, like Chesterton discovering Britain, eventually learn in the only way they ever could have done that it was all true after all, and give to it their hard-won love.
From the uniqueness of every student’s soul flows the mystery and wonder of the teaching vocation; its unruly currents and unforeseen eddies often frustrate our best efforts to direct them in an even course, but to dredge and straighten the stream would be to kill its bubbling inner life. Only wisdom, patience, and prayer can finally aid the teacher who seeks the health of her students’ souls.
So, then, I might still tell people that I love teaching because of its “shaping power.” But, having considered the metaphor, I will say so with guarded humility. I would not teach if I did not believe it truly shapes souls, and yet my teaching would be vanity (and probably very short-lived) if I believed that it could shape them all on its own. To spread a table that nourishes those who sit to eat at it; to model and instruct the habits and exercise that will support life; to love and pray and counsel and wait for those whose ailments baffle my understanding—this is the calling set before us.