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Don’t Put Your School Year on Autopilot

Several years ago, I read a book called The House That Cleans Itself. There were some helpful tips to make your house appear cleaner. Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that my house did not, in fact, ever clean itself. I could write thousands of words on all the elaborate, failed methods that I have tried – but the only way to get your house clean is to clean it. If you want your children to clean teach them the job, choose a time, clean together, and check their work. There are more and less efficient ways to do it, but cleaning is the only way to clean. 

 Similarly, I am a sucker for the alluring promise that a heroic downpayment of effort will result in a school year that runs itself. All it takes is summer planning, some checklists, and hey, presto! These resources do contain helpful ideas – there is work that can and should be done in advance to make the year run more smoothly. In the classroom, there should be a liturgy so that the students know what to do upon entering the class, during a test, etc. (You can tell a lot about a teacher by what her class does upon entering the room when she is absent.) But that does not mean that the class runs itself. Similarly, in homeschooling, there are systems to put in place so that everyone knows what he should do when not engaged in direct instruction with mom or dad. But there is no such thing as educational autopilot – it is in direct contradiction to what classical education is. 

 Autopilot mode means that constant control by a human operator is not required. Education is for humans.  Wisdom is not automatable. Virtue is not automatable. In David Hicks’s treatise on education, what he describes does not only preclude automation but also questions our exchange of knowledge and eros for class preparation and teaching techniques. Of lesson plans, he writes,  

 In many instances, the modern lesson plan disguises the teacher’s embarrassing lack of knowledge, especially of the sort relating that day’s gobbets of information or activity to fundamental human concerns. The ideas and beliefs men live for and die with seldom come out of lesson plans, but the lesson plan satisfies the teacher’s need for an appearance of knowledge.1 

 I don’t desire automation because I am lazy or unaware of my embarrassing lack of knowledge. I want a year of autopilot because I am faithless and do not believe there is such a thing as daily bread. In short, I do not want to be what God made me to be. I know that teaching the entire curriculum (much less being the entire curriculum) for three grades simultaneously will leave me spent. Or, more honestly, I find it impossible. So, if I can get my planning and our checklists just so, I’ll know where some moldy manna is stored if things go south. I have a backup. I am in control. I refuse to be – I am not what I am. 

 It doesn’t work. The results of this “autopilot” mentality are the twin sins of idleness and despair. Acedia was considered by the medieval to be one of the cardinal sins, and despair was a fault stemming from idleness. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains the concept of acedia. 

 In the first place acedia does not signify the “idleness” we envisage when we speak of idleness as “the root of all vice”. Idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man renounces the claim implicit in his human dignity. In a word, he does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, is. Acedia is the “despair from weakness” which Kierkegaard analyzed as the “despairing refusal to be oneself.”2 

 A despairing refusal to be oneself is remedied by a patient acceptance of our humanity. This past weekend I witnessed one of the most beautiful human moments that I have ever seen. A young father down the street was mowing the lawn. He was pushing a mower, and his toddler-aged son rode on his back in a hiking baby carrier. The boy’s blonde head rhythmically swayed with his father’s movements, and he smiled out upon the world. It was 99° with a heat index of roughly 120°. 

 Educators are not automators – it is better to think of them as hikers. The place is the plan, not a prescribed timetable shrilly grasped in hand. On a good hike, the map is already in your head. You know when you will want to quit, and how rewarding the vista will be from the next peak. You know when the wind turns sharply on the bald that it’s time to take the clouds seriously. Maybe you have a child in your belly or on your back. You fight about snacks and wonder why your middle child must touch every rock that forms the mountain. You teach them how to descend so that if they fall, they fall well. Nothing automatable is there, only beauty and humans and that daily crust of bread.  

 Do that this year, and all shall be well. 



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