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Who Do You Imitate and Why?

A Reflection on the Ubiquity of Imitation

A Few Axioms

We imitate: It would be sensible to ignore the pride that strives to transcend that.

We are an imitation: It would be good to embrace the Glory that comes with that.

We are imitated: It would be wise to embrace the responsibility that comes with that.

It is our wisdom and glory sensibly to humble ourselves by choosing responsibly who and what we imitate and by doing it well, for we become what we behold.

The only way to be original is to make oneself ignorant of what has gone before. Originality, therefore, is nothing but ignorance expressed in self-delusion. To seek originality is foolish and a waste of time.

Wisdom asks, “Who am I imitating and why?”

A Few Applications (generally presented)

It is no longer possible – and it is certainly not wise – to arrange a classroom in an unprecedented order. Who are you imitating? Why?

You cannot create a new mode of governing a school. Who then are you imitating and why?

Every mode of assessment has been attempted in the course of human history. Which mode do you imitate? Where does it come from? Why do you use it?

There are no new teaching approaches. Who are you imitating?

Every mode of learning has already been mastered by somebody. Who are you pointing your students to as masters to imitate? Why?

The Issue

But if all is imitation, how can we possibly judge who and what to imitate?

There are a few ways, more than I have discovered, so allow me to reflect and also to appeal for help.

When we teach, how do we judge who to imitate? And then how do we imitate him?

When you build, govern, teach, learn, assess, arrange, write, speak, sing, play, work, act, and think, how do you decide who to imitate – and how do you imitate him?

A rather significant aside: while on the surface it might seem ironic, it is this ability to choose who and how we will imitate that creates the possibility of true freedom.

Then how do we decide who and what to imitate?

A Very Important Qualification

First, a qualifier. I did not say that all is imitation; some is instinct or nature. We don’t have to be taught to breathe, walk, dodge objects moving toward us, or even to use language.

We can and do, however, need to be taught HOW to do the latter. And this is a key to sound learning: true and sound imitation is built upon, consistent with, and a refinement of nature.

When imitation and nature are in conflict, imitation is bad; indeed, it is destructive. This is what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she said that we should cut with the grain when we teach. “The grain” is nature. Imitate it.

A child will learn how to walk. Set a pattern for doing it upright. A child will learn how to speak. Model clarity and grace and they will follow.

The root of imitation is nature, and the goal of imitation is to perfect it.

The Challenge of Our Circumstances And How Not To Handle It

The trouble with sophisticated and elaborate social systems is that so much time is spent imitating complex activities that people forget this fact that is rather obvious when you discover it.

For example, a school is a rather elaborate social system within an already highly elaborate social system (what we loosely call society). So many different activities take place and they have been done the way they have been done for so long that we become unaware of what we are doing and what we are imitating.

This is necessary for survival. We can’t constantly be consciously imitating; we would go mad.

But when we consciously or unconsciously imitate things that are contrary to nature, disorder and unrest enter our souls.

If, for example, I am taught to do math in a way that disregards both my soul and the most craftsmanlike/creative ways to do math, I’ll fail to learn how math actually works (though false assessments that fit the false teaching might lead me to believe I am learning it), become unhappy, and possibly even come to believe that I don’t like the beautiful God-given gift called math.

If no effort is made to discover the nature of literature, and the teacher imitates modes of instruction that arise from, say, industry, then that teacher will discover that the students will only occasionally see the beauties of the great books and when they do it won’t be because of the teacher but because somehow the student made a direct connection with the book in spite of the teacher.

If the mode of assessment tries to support the ineffective (ie unnatural) mode of teaching (say, for reporting or administrative purposes), then the poor teacher and the even poorer student who succeed in this system might become convinced that they are doing well. And to some end other than learning they might well be doing well. But they aren’t teaching and learning well.

In fact, by ignoring nature, both are, to some extent, being deformed.

Don’t over-react to that. It’s not an accusation or a “bomb.” It’s just a fact of life.

We spend an awful lot of time imitating unnatural patterns. One of the founding errors of our age is the self-deluding attempt to escape both nature and imitation. But God is merciful.

It’s not something to be distraught over. Just be aware of it and gradually, by prayer and grace, move back in the direction of nature. Imitate the things you see or understand. Don’t over-react. And don’t be intimidated into imitating the status quo.

Back to the Issue

So I come back to the practical question, “How do I go about deciding who and what to imitate?”

Perhaps we have already identified one principle, though it may not be easy to apply (being easy might not be a standard God allows on this matter). I’ll suggest this:

We ought to imitate those who best imitate and perfect nature.

I hope you didn’t just shoot your computer or throw it across the room! I warned you that it might not be easy. Maybe it’s more than a principle, though; maybe this idea of imitating nature is a guide.

If we see it that way, maybe it won’t seem like such a terrible burden and will be instead a friend and companion along the way.

I know I prefer being led by a guide to carrying him on my shoulders.

The truth is, we can’t practically begin with hard questions like that. We have to start with a combination of three things that must be held before us at all times:

  1. Faith in those who are wise
  2. An unwavering confidence that we can become like them
  3. An unswerving love of truth

In spite of all that precedes, what matters most might not be who you imitate. What matters most might be why you move.

We all live by faith. The man who wants to amass a fortune doesn’t have a hard time figuring out the kind of person he wants to be like. Generally speaking his name is Rothschild or Buffett. He puts his faith in such a man because the object of his faith is demonstrably a master.

The man who wants to become a great athlete knows exactly who to imitate. He submits, by faith, to a coach who can guide his imitation.

If we want to become wise, then we need to let that desire be our guide. When the desire for wisdom becomes our heartbeat and we can say like Solomon, I will “Get wisdom, and with all [my] getting, [I will] get understanding,” then our orientation will determine what and whom we take with us.

So you go about deciding who and what to imitate by deciding who and what you want out of existence. If you want wisdom, then identify the wise and, as the author of Hebrews said, “Imitate their faith.”

We can become wise. Let us ask for what God wants to give us, and He will give it to us.

If we are teachers or parents or friends, let us love wisdom as the source of blessing to those we love, and let us love her so much that we cast rubies and diamonds at her feet for a three second audience. Let us trust her to speak when we need to hear from her. Let us quiet our own voices so we can hear hers.

Knowing that others will imitate us, let us imitate her.

Knowing that we are made to be an imitation, let us imitate Him in whose Image we are formed in all that we do:

  • When we create a world for our students to learn in (environment)
  • When we govern that world (governance)
  • When we design the course for them to run in that world (curriculum)
  • When we model wisdom before them (teaching and learning – pedagogy)
  • When we assess their imitation of our models and those provided by Wisdom (assessment)

For if we are not imitating Him, we have to ask:

“Who are we imitating –

and why?”

Please don’t let this be the end of this reflection. Help me better understand what I have said and what I must do.

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