When studying the arts of argument and invention with my composition students, I like to show them an image of Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973) from the Tate Museum. It’s what appears to be a glass of water perched atop a shelf roughly eight feet off the ground, a simple installation accompanied by a printed interview with the artist himself. As a class, we read through the interview together—half puzzled, half amused. The text starts like this:
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size . . .
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.
A few students pick up here on the language of “substance” and “accidents,” the artist’s veiled reference to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Like the elements of the Eucharist, Craig-Martin’s art undergoes a kind of mysterious consecration, but with a postmodern twist. The water becomes an oak tree, Craig-Martin playfully claims, not by a work of the Spirit, but through artistic intention:
Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?
A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.
Q. Then intention causes the change?
A. I would say it precipitates the change.
After we read through the text as a class, I ask the students that burning question: Is this thing art? From here, the conversation goes in several different directions. Some of the rigorous STEM minds dismiss the work as nonsense; the bohemian types revel in the weirdness of it all. But invariably, someone defends An Oak Tree on the grounds of aesthetic relativism:
STUDENT 1: I absolutely think that this piece is art because anything can be art.
ME: Anything can be art?
STUDENT 1: Yeah. I think so, anyway.
ME: Ok, let’s swim downstream with this idea. If we say that anything can be art, what problems might come from this? What crazy ideas would we also have to embrace?
STUDENT 2: Well, we’d have to say that a lot of awful things might potentially be art. Murder, for instance.
ME: That’s a no-go, all right. I guess it’s back to the drawing board.
For my money, I do think that Craig-Martin’s work counts as art, but it’s art communicating a rather pernicious idea. If artists elevate intention above certain objective standards of beauty, then art will certainly become ugly, and it may even become evil. Over the last century, we’ve witnessed both kinds of entropy taking place in the art world. Just visit the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh. Or rather, don’t.
Here’s the connection to the topic of classical education: if we think about it, isn’t this problem of the “oak tree” a very fitting analogy for the predicament of the classical teacher or administrator? Craig-Martin’s audience comes to his work and gets smacked with the question “Is this art or is isn’t it?” That’s his intent. It’s a basic yet inescapable question of definition, and similar fundamental questions of definition likewise confront the Christian educator at every turn. As the years roll by, we encounter new course content, new publishers, new classroom technologies, new methodologies, and the question presents itself again: Is this a glass of water or an oak tree? Is this real or a joke? Is this learning or charlatanry? In other words, is this thing before me genuine education or isn’t it? In the small decisions—departmental policies, assigned readings—we must always come back to that fundamental question of what it is to educate in the first place.
Of course, just like my classroom, our world is full of competing claims on this point. There is the careerist definition of education: we “learn to earn.” Good schools get good students into good colleges which promise good jobs on the other side of four years’ labor. The purpose of education in this view is utilitarian. It ensures that my children or my students are eventually gainfully employed, that they don’t embrace some pitiable existence as a nightclub DJ, eking out their lives on supreme pizza and an Xbox One.
To be sure, it’s not a ridiculous perspective; it’s actually quite a noble aim. For one thing, there is nothing wrong with utility. Every night when we sit down for supper, we don’t just hope that the meal in front of us tastes good. We also trust that it is nutritious—that it fuels our bodies. Utility is a good. What is more, part of helping a student thrive is at least a modicum of care for that student’s material well-being. You remember St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 5 that those who don’t provide for their families are worse than unbelievers. Since the teacher often stands in loco parentis, since the teacher is commissioned by the family, it seems that educators ought to give earnest thought to the future and consider for how the student’s learning might bear practical fruit.
But there is a problem with the careerist theory: It’s amoral. Schools that wholeheartedly pursue the careerist ideal talk a lot about “success” and “dreams,” but they make no recommendations or prescriptions for the content of that vision. Just consider some of these major university slogans that I harvested from the internet: “Experience Amazing,” “#WeCanDoThat,” “Together We Can!”
Notice the elliptical grammar in these slogans: “Experience Amazing” (an adjective, but where’s the noun?), “We Can Do That” (demonstrative pronoun with no referent), “Together We Can” (modal verb without the main verb). Clearly the careerist model of education is missing something: what truly is amazing, we really is worth doing, what we might together discover and pursue—the Good itself. The point is that we need to bring careers into a proper hierarchy of concerns and loves.
Others support the civic definition of education: the view that school is for making us good citizens, that learning is for upholding the body politic. Of course, there are good reasons why this model is so attractive, especially in our current cultural moment. Presently, our discourse in the public square looks less and less like the American dream of democratic deliberation, a town hall meeting in a Normal Rockwell painting, and more and more like the all-out melee of a Jerry Springer episode (or maybe a WWE King of the Ring tournament). Not only do we not know how to deliberate about social questions; we don’t even care to. We’d rather watch the folding chairs fly on stage. Who wouldn’t want a little more civility? Who wouldn’t wish more young voters had a Christian and classical education?
Even so, our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world. As we pursue his peace and his glory and his righteousness, we won’t abandon our temporal loyalties, but we will transcend them. In the final analysis, we are citizens of two kingdoms, and that status as dual citizens invites us to both take on and lay aside the burdens of our present politics. In the Christian framework, we paradoxically strive less and harder in the realm of state. In the words of T.S. Eliot, we pray, “Teach us to care and not to care.”
Last, some support what I want to call the hyper-missional definition of education: the view that Christian schools prepare students to redeem culture. This one is obviously the best of the three because it at least acknowledges the transcendent, spiritual end of human life. There is a plotline that runs through time, we believe, and as Christ’s followers, Christian educators want to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the classroom.
That said, the hyper-missional institutions of Christian learning tend to drop those traditional areas of study which don’t immediately jive with cultural evangelism. It’s hard (not impossible certainly, but difficult) to justify studying, say, Bach’s cantatas or William Byrd’s motets on missional grounds. How is studying Latin going to help redeem culture? In what sense is sentence-diagramming kingdom-work? Most school administrators storming the gates of secularism don’t imagine doing so armed to the teeth with Fermat’s Last Theorem or a volume of Wordsworth. Some traditional school subjects just don’t seem that Jesus-y. In an intensely, hyper-self-consciously missional school, apologetics courses will crop up overnight like toadstool mushrooms, but classes on entomology and Old English will peter out of existence.
Surely, the idea of mission itself is a cause every self-respecting Christian school wants to embrace. If a Christian school isn’t missional in the sense that aims to renew students’ minds, then that school isn’t really Christian. Mission is necessary, but it’s, to borrow Macbeth’s phrase, “the be all and the end all.”
What, then, is education? I think the Apostle Peter tells us plainly in the first chapter of his second epistle:
[God’s] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence […] For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control…
Here Peter explains the role of virtue and knowledge in the life of the Christian. The end of our human trajectory, we learn, is God’s “own glory and excellence.” Not a job, not a peaceful state, not even an evangelized society, but glory—splendor. “For this very reason,” he adds, “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge.” Because the Christian is destined for glory, he should grow in glory now; she should pursue splendor presently. This is what education should be: a down-payment on future glory.
Peter is clear that virtue and knowledge aren’t themselves our salvation, but they do make the glory-bound “fruitful” and “effective.” A classical education doesn’t save young men and women, but it does help them flourish. It makes them more glorious. Consequently, we are not flippant with the question of whether little Johnny will get a job once he graduates from college or participate in society as an informed voter. It’s just that we’re concerned about a lot more—because Johnny is more than a worker or a citizen; he’s a worshiper, and he’s getting ready to add his voice to the Song of the Lamb.
Could it be that education is preparation for glory? Could it be that even the small successes at school, the victories that aren’t lucrative or culture-shaping, that don’t have radical social impact, are nonetheless good in themselves and preparatory for something greater? Could it be that a well-written thesis statement is a taste of future glory? That a thirty-yard field goal is hint of what’s to come? That computer code that doesn’t crash intimates a waiting “glory and excellence”?
That would be something wondrous. Even more wondrous than a water-glass-turned-oak.