Before building a tower or engaging in battle, one must count the cost. If one lacks the resources or motivation to complete a project, it would be better not to begin. The same is true of arts. Every art has an end which governs its practice. While there is certainly value in amateur attempts, the art exists to achieve the end. The art of poetry aims to create poems; the art of rhetoric, orations; music, harmony. The art which fails to reach its goal has not been mastered.
The butterfly effect proposes that small actions can cause large effects. It suggests that a butterfly launching off a mountain peak in Asia determines if a hurricane will strike Texas. Thus, one of the lightest, most insignificant creatures unleashes a terrifying, destructive power. The principle can be observed by throwing a stone into a pond and watching the waves ripple outward growing larger. History records monumental turning points hinging on small details. How would the Persian War have ended if Xerxes didn’t accept Themistocles’s invitation to Salamis Bay?
Many parents have offered rewards to their child in order to form a habit. If the child makes his bed every day for a month, he gets ice cream. The goal is that he will continue to make his bed even after devouring the prize. But how often does the child take the reward and then fall back into the same undisciplined lifestyle? He had no interest in forming a habit; he just wanted ice cream and would jump through any hoops to get it. Because the child only valued ice cream, the reward short-circuited genuine habit formation.
Is teaching an art or a science? Such a question seeks to determine if there is a repeatable method to be followed in teaching—a formula to be applied—or if teaching is a matter of intuition, judgment, and inspiration. If a science governed by rigid rules, then anyone could be a teacher so long as he could learn and apply the technique. If an art, then every teacher must dedicate himself to his subject, audience, and craft in order to cultivate mastery. Teaching is a challenging profession requiring long study and practice.
Previously, I developed the idea of the latent tension between the active and contemplative life. We must live in the world and work for our bread, but there are higher things than food and clothing. This is how Jesus directs his hearers in the sermon on the mount. “Do not lay up treasures on earth… but in heaven.” “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Classical education prizes the goods of the soul above goods of the body and rightly orders loves by placing them in their proper hierarchy.
“When am I ever going to use this?” This question has plagued educators for generations. Students constantly demand a justification for the utility of their studies. No subject is immune from this assault. Technocrats would rather replace Algebra II with Microsoft Excel. Grammar can be shortened or eliminated because we learn to speak before learning grammar. The fine arts are especially vulnerable to the “starving artist” trope; you can’t eat art. Yet a true education will resist this creeping pragmatism and reach for higher ends.
Classical education seeks to return to the old paths of wisdom and finds nourishment from those excellencies and virtues which our predecessors judged worthy of preserving. It is not concerned with the transient or ephemeral, but sends its roots into deeper soil. Thus, classical schools devote much time to the reading of old books as they cultivate a posture of respect and admiration towards the best of what has been thought or said.
Survey a number of parents on the most important aspect of a school, and the majority will say “community.” Community is a fashionable word. Everyone talks about building community, being in community, or doing life together. Because man is a political animal, this is perfectly reasonable. Yet, like many trends, the word is often used without a sensible definition. Communities are founded upon something. There is a glue which binds them. Much like bricks without mortar, a people cannot cohere without something holding them together.
At some point upon entering 9th grade, the mindset of the student changes. Previously, he may have considered grades a curiosity, but now they are a badge of pride or shame. The new obsession with grades is not entirely internal, as parents also look towards college and its guardians: SATs and scholarships. While parents and students may once have accepted that a classical education is meant to nourish the soul in wisdom and virtue, they now confess the real goal is higher test scores and better colleges.
“Watch me. Now you try.” These five words are constantly repeated by parents to their children. But they are for people of every age. We are mimetic creatures who learn by imitation. Every good baseball coach teaches a batting stance by modeling one for the athlete. Preachers provide examples and illustrations so their congregants can apply theological truths. Parents read stories and fables to their children which provide models for emulation. Because we learn by imitation, teaching is inescapably mimetic.