In a blog post about sports, let me first begin by quoting C.S. Lewis on textbooks.
In his Republic, Plato strives to answer pivotal questions about education: What is it? What is its goal, its purpose in our lives? How should it be accomplished? He begins by describing education as a quest to seek, know, and love truth. It is not a simple acquisition of facts, but a journey that transforms the soul. Its purpose is to bring us to know and love what is just, beautiful and good, and to enable us to live a life guided by devotion to the truth.
In autumn of 2006, I unknowingly first walked by a future mentor in a hallway in midtown Manhattan. I was seventeen, and I was touring the liberal arts college that would soon become home for four years. The woman who walked past me was a small, dark-haired European professor, and someday she would become a beloved pedagogical mother to me. This friendship bloomed right after undergrad, when I became a teacher at her daughters’ school.
As a classical educator, I frequently observe the necessity of logic in the life of the student. Despite this truth, my students still bemoan both its practice and study, especially in the early days of the school year. Yet, nothing is more essential than “studying the tools” of classical education. To put it another way, there is nothing so needed in our classroom, than “learning to breathe, classically.”
There’s a dark irony within our current educational institutions. It appears as if the very time in which we began to place a heavy emphasis on test scores and practical skills is exactly when our schools and students started heading downhill. Don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to imply that there was once a “glory day” for schooling, as if everything was once perfect and has only recently begun to break down. Nor do I wish to claim that an emphasis on testing and practicality is somehow the only factor contributing to poor education.
I wish I could say that this quote was true for me as I grew up but it was not. I grew up in a five bedroom house with a TV in each bedroom, and two TVs in the living room, one for entertainment and another for video games. As a child I was surrounded by screens and books were difficult to find. As a matter of fact the only books I recall in my house could be found in the upstairs hall cupboard. Yes, in the dusty dark hallway, behind the closed cupboard doors lay a pile of disorganized books.
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.
Though I have little interest in standardized personality tests, it has always tickled my fancy that I am the same Meyers-Briggs type as Luke Skywalker. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that when I was a child, the Bible and Star Wars were the two texts that most informed my vision of the world, and while other children may have preferred the vest of Han Solo or the cloak of Darth Vader, I intuited my kinship with Luke at an early age. Now, as an adult at the beginning of my first year of teaching, I once again see myself in Luke.
Over the summer my eleven-year-old daughter read a contemporary piece of young adult “literature.” This is not a genre I enjoy, but I read the work with her so that we could discuss it together.
“Was it a good book?” I asked.
“Yes!” she answered.
“Why?” I followed up.
“Because I liked it.”
As I continued to press her, she continued to locate the book’s objective goodness in her subjective enjoyment of it. I was unsurprised by this. It is a natural human tendency to conflate our subjective preferences with objective qualities.
In his Confessions Augustine recounts his early education, an education which many of us would be proud to impart to our own children. From a young age he was steeped in the Greek tragedies, Roman histories, and classical languages of Greek and Latin. Yet as he reflects upon these matters he expresses deep sorrow over how his heart was led astray by his own carnal lusts and isolation from his Maker. The classical education he had received had become the fodder for his idolatry and hubris (word the ancient philosophers would have used for “pride”).