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Nurturing, Cultivating, Growing: Gardening Metaphors Have Gone Way Too Far

John Calvin once said the human heart was “a perpetual factory of idols.” Similarly, the typical modern institution is a perpetual factory of clichés. A cliché is an idea which once had power but has become impotent and meaningless through overuse. Classical Christian education is presently filled with clichés, but so is every movement. We need not despair, but we do need to repent.

How is a cliché born? A certain New Idea is introduced into a community of like-minded individuals. The New Idea is philosophical, asks the community to see their work in a new light, and challenges stale conventions which have made the community unproductive. Suddenly, the New Idea is on everyone’s lips. The community throws itself into the task of researching and understanding the New Idea. It reads books on the subject, leaders preach on it, teachers lecture on it, friends discuss it over drinks, and gradually the New Idea becomes enshrined as a priority in the community. In the following years, the New Idea is appealed to frequently even by those who have little knowledge of its meaning. The New Idea gradually becomes the solution to every problem and thus the community loses incentive for taking the New Idea seriously. The New Idea has obviously failed to solve every problem, and yet no one points this out because criticizing the New Idea seems tantamount to criticizing the community itself.

The problem is not that a cliché is wrong or false or that it was never of value, but that human beings are lazy are enjoy the fantasy that a certain idea (or tool) can solve all their problems. Classical Christian education is no different. We regularly turn useful ideas into useless ones because we depend on them too much. Longtime readers of this blog can probably point out words and phrases that I rely on too heavily, profitable ideas which I have emptied through glib overuse.

Case in point: over the last ten years, classical Christian educators have come to heavily rely on gardening metaphors. A school should not be like a factory but a garden, and so we speak of nurturing students, cultivating virtue, growing them in the love of God, tending the soil of their hearts, and so forth. The student is a plant, the teacher is a gardener, the passage of time is the blooming of the flowers and the ripening of delicious fruit, and education is a pleasant thing. I believe the gardening metaphor is apt and that it stands to correct an overly mechanical, enlightened view of schools which we unwittingly absorbed from public education. However, a classical education cannot be understood entirely through gardening metaphors. Their use is limited and if we ask them to do too much, they won’t do anything at all. This is exactly what has happened, though. Survey a room full of teachers about what words and phrases their school uses way too often and these are bound to make the list.

Gardening metaphors became popular because they get at something essential about classical education. A classical education is not chiefly concerned with the transference of information. It is not about getting data from the teacher’s brain into the student’s brain. Rather, a classical education is about nurturing a student, by which I mean encouraging the innate desires to know, love, and serve which drive every human heart, but which have been marred and disfigured by sin. In the same way a man cannot force his flowers to bloom, neither can a teacher force a student to be virtuous. Instead, cultivating virtue in students means creating conditions which are favorable to growth. “God gives the increase,” be it in an orchard or a classroom, which means the teacher plants and waters and lives in hope, not certainty, that fruitful life will emerge where they have sown their prayers and lessons.

While gardening metaphors have value, their value is limited. How so? To begin with, plants do not cheat on geometry tests or look at pornography on their phones at lunch. A wax begonia will not pee all over the floor of the boy’s bathroom just for a laugh. There is no rose bush out there whose mother thinks it is going to Yale. Plants do not have feelings which mean they don’t respond to criticism or encouragement. Simply put, plants do not sin. Thus, if a school relies too heavily on gardening metaphors to explain what it does, an aversion to discipline, punishment, rigor, tough grading, admonition, chastisement, and hurt feelings will inevitably follow.

It is the issue of sin which places limits on the usefulness of gardening metaphors for education. No one understands this better than principles and headmasters, for it is when punishment is being doled out for sin that feckless parents are most prone to say, “I thought this school was supposed to be a nurturing environment.” If administrators find that parents generally resist discipline, punishment, and bad news of all kinds because they were falsely led to believe the school “would nurture my child,” the gardening metaphors have gone entirely too far and the school might need some military metaphors (2 Tim 2:3) or monastic metaphors (Matthew 3:1-4) or Christ’s terrifying parables of the kingdom (Matthew 13:1-53) to balance things out. If gardening metaphors mean that chaos reigns in the seventh grade and senior girls are teaching Cardi B lyrics and TikTok dances to freshmen during lunch—and all this foolishness goes unchecked and unpunished because “a bruised reed He will not break”—it’s not really a classical school because you know how they would have handled such things at any time between, say, 1967 and the creation of the world. You can’t teach twelfth century books with twenty-first century theories of discipline.

All a man wants from his rose bushes is that they do what come naturally, but the Fall means that teachers need students to do both what comes naturally and what only comes supernaturally. In “Man or Rabbit,” Lewis describes the supernatural transformation of a Christian man in unpleasant terms:

We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear – the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.

Gardening is pleasant and education should be pleasant, too, but education must be more than pleasant. The factory metaphors of the late nineteenth century were soulless and atheistic, but we must be careful to not run to the other extremes of sentimentality and naivete. So go ahead and garden your classroom but get real.

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