Malnourished Souls & Unskilled Hands

Mar 23, 2012
Malnourished Souls “Money isn’t everything seems to be a truth we feel compelled to confess without really believing.  In our cultural context, money is the dominant indicator of “success.”  By this definition, the same teachers who are counted upon to prepare young people for success are utter failures themselves. Such an irony is lost on most, but more significant is the trouble that comes from aiming at wealth, job title, degrees, or any other such accomplishment – they all grow wings and fly away.  Proverbs 23:5 says, “Will you set your eyes on that which is not?  For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven.”  1st Timothy 6:10 more bluntly states, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” What, then, is actually being done to those whose education is preempted for career preparation?  If true education focuses on the nurture of the soul (and it does), then what happens to those souls who are merely prepared for college, career, and the pursuit of money?  They are not only uneducated, in the truest sense, but their souls are malnourished. Thus, parents and students are told to make a choice in the false dilemma: full soul and empty bank account or malnourished soul and wealth.  Rarely does it occur to anyone that Wisdom carries length of days in her right hand and “in her left hand are riches and honor” (Proverbs 3:16).  As I noted in a previous post, by aiming at the development of wisdom and virtue, one can also achieve high test scores, college acceptances, and open career doors.  But, when we aim short of wisdom and virtue, we will always hit it; and a high salary is a poor consolation prize. Unskilled Hands As if malnourished souls were not enough, the modern industrial approach to education also fails to produce skilled hands.  As Wendell Berry observed:
"Young people are being told, 'You can be anything you want to be.' This is a lie. ... A high professional salary is not everything. You can't be everything you want to be; nobody can. Everybody can't be a leader; not everybody even wants to be. And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good."
Because we define success in dollars, certain occupations are relegated to the realm of “no good.”  Those occupations almost always involve working with the hands.  As a result, developing skilled hands becomes a waste of time, energy, and intellectual promise.  Have you ever wondered what would happen to one of your students if they got a flat tire on the way to school?  If a button popped off their shirt, would their only choices be to take it to someone or throw it away? In other words, students know how to take tests, but they are not given understanding or wisdom.  They are trained for careers, but not to work.  They are taught to make money, but are not self-reliant.  
Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, executed i...

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, executed in red chalk sometime between 1512 and 1515 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  The “Renaissance man” has been Romanticized and idealized, but too few consider that Leonardo da Vinci spent many of his days covered in sweat and sawdust.  We love the idea of producing Renaissance men, but the reality escapes us.  Leonardo was a painter, sculptor, inventor, writer, carpenter, and metal worker.  We train young people for one career. Now, in a desperate attempt to bring cohesion to my ramblings, I offer some questions for your consideration.  I anxiously await your comments.
  • How can schools better minister to parents when concerns over college plans and careers arise?
  • Classical education concerns itself with the whole man, but how do we do so successfully within our cultural context?
  • How can classical schools better teach skilled hands in a time of “sit down and listen”, indoor classrooms?  What role, if any, do schools play in teaching students to use their hands as well as their minds?
  • Who are some great Renaissance men that could serve as valuable models for us and our students?
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Brian  Phillips

Brian Phillips

Dr. Brian Phillips is the Director of CiRCE Consulting & the Headmaster of the CiRCE Academy.  He also serves as a pastor in Concord, NC, where he lives with his wife and their four children.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford.

The term "kalokagathia" in the context of Platonic teaching suggests a bodily, moral and spiritual whole. It would seem that at least that concept should be a given in classical Christian schools. Ironically, despite the industrial model imposed on Southern education in Reconstruction and thereafter, including but not limited to division by age, seat time, outcome measurements, etc., many of the "public schools" in the South in the 1950's and 1960's, before the commons was fully subsumed by the Hobbesian state, including the very heart of the commons, "the public," were closer, although still very far away and fading fast, to the classical Christian tradition than are some classical Christian schools: we read the Bible in school and not just as literature; we prayed in school; we had discussions on matters of doctrine and theology in school; we had Christian baccalaureate service in school for graduates; we were guided in reading great literature; singing and music were a part of our curricular routine into high school; all of my grammar school teachers could play the piano; throughout school, through the 12th grade we had non-varsity physical training, including learning to play and learning the rules of some life-time sports. We had shop, vocational agriculture, home economics and 4-H. Academic competition was keen, as individuals in high school competed in specific subjects at local, regional and state competition. In vocational agriculture, I learned basic farm plumbing, learned basic farm electricity, learned basic farm carpentry, learned basic farm equipment repair, learned farm welding and blacksmithing, home gardening, etc. Indeed, in my day, many of these skills were still fostered at home in my day.

My day is over in public schools. That which was the public and the commons have been subsumed by the state. State education continues to be, more so than ever, industrial, reductionist, and utilitarian, to the neglect of the other aspects of human flourishing. Too many private schools, not necessarily those who claim to be classical Christian schools, are simply state schools with tuition.

I do submit that we ought to think in terms of "kalokagathia" as we contemplate the physical structure of our schools, the curricular structure, the faculty and the students, including the parents. How we perceive and what we do with our bodies, our minds and our spirits will determine whether or not a classical Christian education can serve to develop that triune wholeness which we need to live creaturely and Christianly in God's creation.

Lisa, all excellent suggestions and observations! Speaking in generalizations, of course, we have not yet reached a point where classical schools have really broken away from the industrial approach of modern education. In fact, the predominant pressures on schools are to become more aligned with the goals of modern education.

We need to spend more time asking, "What are the goals of a classroom/school? How are those to be accomplished in a way that nurtures the whole child, including their hands?"

I'll have to give a bit more thought to your suggestions. Thought-provoking.

Schools, by their very nature as institutions, provide the structure and discipline necessary for kids to learn how to “sit down and listen,” which is a good thing, in moderation. But what they can’t do, I’m convinced, is nurture skilled hands in the same way they can, or at least should, nurture their minds & souls.

The real work of the hands is best learned at home, with parents, siblings and a child’s familiar & comfortable surroundings, inside and out, and lots of raw materials, inside and out. Any homeschooling mom with a handful of kids can attest to the natural resourcefulness, productivity and creativity of kids left to their own devices for nice chunks of interrupted time, in the absence of modern media, I must add.

Should schools insist on 5 days a week of classroom time? Can a good classical school accomplish their goals in less time? (ouch!) Or dare I suggest they might even be more effective if they narrow their focus to what is best done in classrooms (presentation of new material, discussion, debate, speech, etc.), and narrow yearly "scopes and sequences," thus giving kids more time to work with their hands, create, read, & develop meaningful relationships? I say we begin to take a creative look at how schools & families can cooperate in nourishing the whole child.