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School is the Real World

On empathy, ordo-amoris, and the end of education

I am going to make one of those statements that my wife, Laura, often appreciates with a roll of the eyes: as much as it may ruin the song, it is empathy, not love, that makes the world go ’round.

Why do I say this? Here comes another one: if God is Love, and we cannot be God in His glorious essence and nature, then the energy of God—His Grace that flows out from our hearts which we can partake in—is empathy. Empathy then is the energy of Love.

In each classroom you can find them: Students who, to varying degrees, betray that though present in the body, they are imprisoned in their minds. I can see the difference between an imprisoned mind and an absent one, between a mind confined by ego and a mind wandering in wonder. Apathetic, indifferent, blank, inarticulate, unaware, ubiquitous in personal expression, withdrawn, circular in their reasoning, conditioned by stimulation, coddled, neither hot nor cold, stubborn (when pressed), fearful of interaction and shame and of making any choice whatsoever. These are the characteristics of these young prisoners who are years behind in development than the children of other eras.

While some might respond with words and phrases such as “needing to provide student accommodations,” “creating an engaging class atmosphere,” “cognitive therapy,” “student-centric teaching,” “modes of learning,” “ADHD and learning difficulties,” and “use of technology in the classroom,” I would like to simply respond with “classroom participation.”

Participation in the classroom prepares the student for participation in the polis (state) which, in turn prepares them sacramentally for participation in the divine life.

Many parents, teachers, and administrators fall into the easy heresy of thinking about life as if it was a cumulative sentence in which each year or stage of life is joined to the rest like a series of train cars flatly going on and on until it doesn’t. Symptoms of this thinking can be seen in situations in which it is assumed that skipping grades, taking generic classes to fulfill requirements, and teaching to a test or for some mere employment opportunity are appropriate. Without knowing what it is all for (that is, what the proper end of life is) we run the risk of communicating to our students and children that school is just something to be endured and gotten through; that society is simply a place of forms and laws and documents to be turned in; and that eternity, if they think about it at all, is best prepared for by either doing the minimum in terms of religious obligations or, worst of all, by assuming that the Judge of all, like their teachers and parents and government officials before Him, will accommodate and excuse their issues and fatigue and syndrome-acronym-of-choice and orientation and boredom and preferred mode of instruction and assessment, etc.

“Who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions.” And yet God will reply: “These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes.”

Ordo-amoris is the classical belief that one cannot truly master or accomplish a task with excellence unless one is aiming for something of a higher order of worthiness; like doing an assignment, not just to complete it, but in view of the slightly higher good of an A+. While parents and teachers alike are good at pointing out “real world applications” and the instrumental utility of this or that skill or fact, the critical error is in assuming that school isn’t the real world—that right now these children are preparing to meet their God; that right now the way they respond to authority, to a test, to a class discussion, to a classmate, is the way they will respond and react when in the presence of their creator. Again, participation in the classroom prepares the student for participation in the state and, ultimately, the divine life.

This participation is not ubiquitous, a one-size-fits-all manner of interaction, but rather an exercise in empathy that moves us out from ourselves towards others and that counteracts the three largest fears that keep us from each other: the fear of suffering, the fear of poverty, and the fear of assessment or judgment.

Simply put, practicing participation with the Other is to engage in the empathic activity that lays aside the lusts and fears that so easily besets us, and allows us and our students to run the race who’s end and prize is the Incarnate Love Himself.

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