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.
Several weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked people to name a book they know they should have read but are ashamed to admit they haven’t. Answers ranged from To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, and A Tale of Two Cities (I salute this last person) to whole genres in general. Russian literature got a huge shoutout as a major gap for many people.
“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.
I am often plagued with nightmares. They are vivid, violent, and visceral.
The other night, I dreamed that I was in a public plaza full of people: Some were milling around, some were protesting, and some were rioting. It was chaotic and loud. I was trying to leave with a group of people, and something made me turn around and head back. When I did, a man with a gun came after me. I grabbed a chair and held it up between us, but he knocked me to the ground, put his gun to my neck, pulled the trigger, and then walked away.
“And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God?
Hamlet is a play that ponders, among other things, the human urge to direct. In the context of a play, a director has the power to lead and guide the actors to fulfill his vision. A play within the play, commissioned by the Danish Prince, is a central catalyst of the plot (“The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”).
So far in this series we have explored what habit training is in part 1, and how it is done in part 2. In this final article, we will explore the why question. Perhaps you have read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, and like me you are convinced of his thesis. Maybe this article should have gone first. I decided on this order (what, how, why) because before we could actually get to the why, we needed to clearly define what it is we’re talking about regarding habit training.
Freedom is gained only through discipline. Discipline is regular, continual effort to enact self-governance in some way. Discipline comes in many shapes and sizes, from budgeting to exercise to reading. In each of these examples, one applies oneself to self-govern in order to enjoy a future freedom. We budget in order to enjoy financial freedom. We exercise to be free from health problems. We read to be free from ignorance. Discipline, though, is not easy.
As classical Christian educators, we place a high value on cultivating such qualities as wisdom, virtue, and piety in the students God brings into our care. A question that has challenged educators down through the ages has been how to effectively train students in these qualities. Do we put on the hard press, systematically breaking down their wills so that we achieve the kind of conformity one would expect of a military drill camp? Seems a bit extreme and dehumanizing. Do we create elaborate schemes of rewards and punishments?
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.