How Jesus Breaks the Seven Laws of Teaching

Apr 6, 2018

I recently reviewed The Seven Laws of Teaching, an 1886 manual for teachers by professor John Milton Gregory that is still recommended in Classical circles today. Teachers often hold up the Seven Laws as a model worthy of emulation, and evaluate their own performance against it. Here’s a paraphrased list:

  1. Master the subject to be taught
  2. Keep the student’s attention
  3. Use a common language
  4. Proceed from the known to the unknown
  5. Demand a repetition of the lesson
  6. Require reviews of the lesson
  7. Make the student the discoverer of truth

I was immediately struck by how the Seven Laws all stress the effective communication of new information. You might say that they aim at mastery as the goal and purpose of teaching. This got me wondering whether the world’s greatest teachers had this goal in mind, and whether they used similar techniques to achieve it.

To answer this question, I took the story of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler from Matthew chapter 19 and evaluated it against the Seven Laws of Teaching:

(16) “Now behold, one came and said to Him, ‘Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’

(17) So He said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.’

(18) He said to Him, ‘Which ones?’

Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ (19) ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

(20) The young man said to Him, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?’

(21) Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’

(22) But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

(23) Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. (24) And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Matt. 19:16-23)

So, how does Jesus’s technique stack up against the Seven Laws? Not as well as you might think. In fact, though He keeps the first Law requiring subject mastery – because, as the Creator of the world, He knows everything – He breaks most of the others outright.

Rather than using a common language, for example (Law #3), He begins by challenging the student’s understanding of the most basic words:

“Why do you call me good? There is none good but God.

It is as if Jesus were trying to undermine his student’s confidence in language itself, rather than establish a common ground of understanding.

Neither does Jesus proceed by easy steps from known to unknown (Law #4). On the contrary, He allows his student to begin with a misunderstanding that his performance of the law will save him:

“If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

Then, when the student takes the bait and asks, “Which ones?” He continues the charade by giving him a list!

‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The farther Jesus goes in this direction, the less his student knows about the meaning and purpose of the law, and the more ignorant he becomes! Finally, Jesus confounds the poor guy’s knowledge altogether and adds a Law to the list that doesn’t appear in the Ten Commandments at all, making his student’s confusion complete:

‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’

Rather than proceeding from the known to the unknown – that is, relying upon settled knowledge to introduce new material – Jesus has proceeded from ignorance to confusion.

Jesus’s performance against most of the other laws is equally spotty. He fails completely at keeping the student’s attention (Law #2), actually driving him away from the lesson:

But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Finally, when it comes to Laws #5 and #6, which require repetition and review, His lesson is a complete failure, for these things are hardly possible when the student has left the classroom! If the purpose and goal of teaching can be summed up in the Seven Laws of Teaching, then this is not an effective lesson at all.

However, there is one of the Laws that Jesus keeps: “make the student the discoverer of truth.” By this final measure, the lesson is a pedagogical tour-de-force. Jesus forces the Rich Young Ruler to discover the truth of his own condition, to see himself clearly for the first time, and to acknowledge, almost against his will, that he neither deserves nor desires the kingdom of heaven.

Finally answering the the student’s original question about how to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus suggests that it requires divesting yourself of all man-made sources of identity and depending on the identity granted by the King:

“Sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.

The religious who rely on an identity of good behavior are excluded, He implies. The wealthy who rely on an identity of self-sufficiency are excluded as well. Those who know themselves as good, or as wealthy, must forsake these identities before they are eligible. The young man’s problem is not his religion, or his wealth; His problem is that he will not trade these things for an identity that he did not earn and does not deserve.

The text tells us that the young man goes away “sorrowful” at the end of the lesson. What is he sorry about? Is he sorry that he will not inherit the kingdom of heaven? Not a bit; he does not want the kingdom at all. He is sorry because he did not know this about himself before, and now he does. It is an unwelcome realization. He goes away with full knowledge that his good behavior and self-sufficiency cannot save him, and that he is unwilling to part with either. He goes away sorry to have seen himself for who he really is.

Jesus may not hew to all the Seven Laws, but he hews like mad to the last one. He “makes his student the discoverer of truth,” and in so doing He pulls off the greatest lesson in the history of teaching.

I confess to being attracted to lists like Gregory’s Seven Laws, and to the philosophies of teaching that they embody. They offer the security of a simple “to-do” list and the promise of measurable results. They are designed to fill me and my students with a comfortable sense of predictable, ever-increasing mastery. More importantly, they promise none of the conflict, misunderstanding and rejection that surely follow Jesus’s more confrontational method. This is important to me, because I am not only a teacher but also a parent, charged with creating a lasting relationship of mutual trust, encouragement and love. How can I risk driving my students away like Jesus did?

But deep down, I think I know better. A teacher’s true calling is not the replication of mastery, but the inculcation of humility; and humility only comes through the discomfort of self-sight. Since nobody likes to hear what they are really like, my job as a teacher must sometimes be to bear bad tidings. Despite the risks, I must bear these tidings faithfully. I must proclaim to my students the rules of the kingdom of heaven – that only the empty-handed may enter – and help them confront their own resistance to these unwelcome terms.

Jesus must have loved the Rich Young Ruler, or He would never have gone to the trouble of teaching this lesson. Do I love my own children less? Thank God that where He calls, He also gives grace. I’m probably going to need it.

Adam Andrews

Adam Andrews

Adam Andrews is director of Center For Lit and a homeschooling father of six.  He and is wife Missy are the authors of Teaching the Classics: a Socratic Method for Literary Education, which presents a step-by-step method for teaching literature in grades K-12.  Center For Lit offers curriculum materials and support for parents, teachers and readers at www.centerforlit.com

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