Education that produces gratefulness

Eugene Peterson says:

We wake up each morning to a world we did not make. How did it get here? How did we get here? We open our eyes and see that “old bowling ball the sun” careen over the horizon. We wiggle our toes. A mocking bird takes off and improvises on themes set down by robins, vireos, and wrens, and we marvel at the intricacies. The smell of frying bacon works its way into our nostrils and we begin anticipating buttered toast, scrambled eggs, and coffee freshly brewed from our favorite Javanese beans.

There is so much here — around, above, below, inside, outside. Even with the help of poets and scientists we can account for very little of it. We notice this, then that. We start exploring the neighborhood. We try this street, and then that one. We venture across the tracks. Before long we are looking out through telescopes and down into microscopes, curious, fascinated by this endless proliferation of sheer Is-ness — color and shape and texture and sound.

After awhile we get used to it and quit noticing. We get narrowed down into something small and constricting. Somewhere along the way this exponential expansion of awareness, this wide-eyed looking around, this sheer untaught delight in what is here, reverses itself: the world contracts; we are reduced to a life of routine through which we sleepwalk.

But not for long. Something always shows up to jar us awake: a child’s question, a fox’s sleek beauty, a sharp pain, a pastor’s sermon, a fresh metaphor, an artist’s vision, a slap in the face, scent from a crushed violet. We are again awake, alert, in wonder: how did this happen? And why this? Why anything at all? Why nothing at all?

Gratitude is our spontaneous response to all this: to life. Something wells up within us: Thank you!

(from Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 51)

Does your school’s education foster wonder or flatten the world? Do students doze off to the texture and intricacies of creation? Do your high schoolers seem dulled by their years in your school or enlivened? Are your students filled with gratitude?

How would education look different if educators framed the educational task as an effort to develop wonder and gratitude in students?

 

A Freudian Slip

Life without God is difficult to sustain; this became apparent to me while reading Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.’s The Question of God. In this book, Nicholi pits the thinking of C. S. Lewis (the theist) against Sigmund Freud (the atheist) and the result is a fascinating interaction between these monumental minds. One of the more interesting moments in the book occurs when Nicholi brings to light some of Freud’s letters. Curiously, these letters are laced with references to God. Here are some excerpts:

“I passed my examinations with God’s help”; “if God so wills”; “the good Lord”; “until after the Resurrection”; “science seems to demand the existence of God”; “God’s judgment”; “God’s will”; “God’s grace”; “God above”; “if someday we meet above”; “in the next world”; “my secret prayer.” In a letter to Oskar Pfitser, Freud writes that Pfister was “a true servant of God” and “was in the fortunate position to lead (others) to God.”

Confused? These are certainly peculiar words coming from an atheist. Nicholi says, “Can we not dismiss all this as merely figures of speech – common in English as well as in German? Yes, if it were anyone but Freud. But Freud insisted that even a slip of the tongue had meaning.” A Freudian slip indeed.

These glaring examples point to the difficulty of maintaining a purely materialistic view of the world. After all, when one loses God, they lose themselves. In order to retain the pieces of one’s humanity, the atheist must often become a bundle of contradictions. This is how Lewis felt during his atheist days. As Nicholi reminds, Lewis, although denying the existence of God, remained angry at God for not existing. And Lewis was just as upset at this God for creating a world and thrusting humanity – against their will – upon its stage.

It would be easy to puff ourselves up over Freud’s apparent inconsistencies, but I wonder whether Christians do something similar. For Freud, there existed a discrepancy between what he publicly professed and what Freud privately expressed through his letters. Freud appears to have lived a divided life. Might Christians be tempted to do the same? While publicly claiming belief in God, could it be that many Christians live their lives without giving God much thought? In other words, is it possible that many Christians live as practical atheists?

Classical Christian education, at its best, seeks to develop students who live fully integrated lives. By filling a student’s day with worship and aiming to understand all subjects in light of Christ, we will assist students in living consistent, unified lives.

Resurrection Power

Christian education and formation, by its very nature, is difficult because it's always working against the grain of the universe. All around us, life is marked by breakdown, decay, death. Christian formation, on the other hand, is about healing, growth, and life.

How could we ever succeed in bringing about healing and life in our students? What would make us think that we could push back against the deluge of death and decay that marks our existence in a fallen world? The short answer: Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection did not defeat death; instead victory came when Jesus stated with absolute finality, “it is finished.” In other words, death’s defeat came on Friday, not Sunday. John Stott puts it this way, “the cross was the victory won, and the resurrection the victory endorsed, proclaimed and demonstrated.”

This resurrection of Jesus will not be an isolated event. On the contrary, resurrection is the way of the future. Jesus is described as the “firstfruits” (1 Cor. 15:23), and his Church will undergo resurrection and reside in a gloriously transformed and resurrected new creation. Jesus’ resurrection completely redirected the course of western civilization, something recognized by both Christians and non-Christians alike. French Philosopher and secular humanist, Luc Ferry, attributes the unlikely move from Greek to Christian thought as a direct result of the Christian hope of resurrection. If Jesus’ resurrection changed the course of western civilization, can it change the course of a student's life? I believe it can. Christian educators in the throes of discipleship, take heart, your energies and efforts are accompanied with resurrection power (Ephesians 1.19-20)!

Chipotle and the power of a story

Justin Bariso explains how Chipotle's use of heartfelt stories helps "woo" customers back to the eatery (after a flurry of E. Coli cases). Bariso believes these refined animations touch the heart, producing an affection not just for the story told, but also for Chipotle.

"A Love Story" is not the only video Chipotle has produced. One of my favorites is Willie Nelson's distressed voice singing Coldplay's "The Scientist":

Chipotle's use of these animations highlights the power of a well-told story. My hope is that Mindhenge videos have a similar effect, piquing interest with prospective families as well as educating and reinforcing the commitment of current families.

When schools customize the video they are communicating that the story told in the video is not simply a story they like or aspire to, but it's their story.

Striving for a Chestertonian Spirit!

In one of my favorite moments of Toy Story 3, Mr. Pricklepants, a stuffed (and stuffy) porcupine asks Woody in a smug tone, “are you classically trained?” This lederhosen-wearing porcupine, while cute, has airs of superiority. I find it interesting that Mr. Pricklepants’ question seeks to learn whether Woody is classically trained, albeit of the thespian variety.

Classical Christian educators should keep in mind that it is indeed possible for classical schools and classically-trained minds to grow proud and aloof, taking themselves too seriously (like Woody’s friend, Mr. Picklepants). In order to mitigate the risk, classical Christian educators should heed the example of G.K. Chesterton, a man whose herculean intellect made its impact on the world because of his even greater imagination. Chesterton’s robust mind was coupled with a sense of playfulness and levity. This was, after all, the man who said angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

Before seeing Chesterton’s levity at work, some background is in order. During the 1950s (nearly two decades after Chesterton’s death), Dr. Alfred Kessler stumbled upon a gem. Kessler, a fan of Chesterton, found a used book in a San Francisco bookstore entitled Platitudes in the Making: Precepts and Advices for Gentryfolk by Holbrook Jackson. What made this book special is that it was a copy of the book given to Chesterton by Holbrook Jackson himself. Jackson and Chesterton, while friends, were worlds apart theologically and philosophically so the copy of Jackson’s book found by Kessler was laced with Chesterton’s witty remarks on the platitudes in Chesterton’s own handwriting. Chesterton’s handwritten comments provide a fascinating window into Chesterton’s playfulness and wit at work.

Some of my favorite Chesterton quips include the following:

         Jackson’s platitude: “No opinion matters finally: except your own.”

Chesterton’s handwritten comment: “…said the man who thought he was a rabbit.” 

Jackson’s platitude: “Things done on principle are things done wrong.”

Chesterton’s handwritten comment: “Only on the wrong principle. This last principle, for instance.” 

Jackson’s platitude: “A lie is that which you do not believe.”

Chesterton’s handwritten comment: “This is a lie: so perhaps you don’t believe it”

Jackson’s platitude: “Friendship is the only respectable form of human intimacy.”

Chesterton’s handwritten comment: “Puritan!”

Jackson’s platitude: “A man is a ship: his religion a harbour. Few men sail the high seas.”

Chesterton’s handwritten comment: “No, men do, except to find a harbour somewhere.”

Chesterton’s comments in Platitudes Undone refute Jackson’s maxims on life, but do so in a clever and playful way.

Like Chesterton, we live in an age at odds with the Christian vision of life. In such a setting, it is important that Christians cultivate the life of the mind. As Ken Myers says,

If ever there is a time when mindless Christianity is likely to produce menacing consequences, it is when the surrounding culture is embracing new conventions of thought, new institutional arrangements, new formative practices in the shape of everyday life.

Classical Christian educators would do well to cultivate the life of the mind and at the same time foster a creative, gracious, humble, and even playful spirit – a Chestertonian spirit! After all, in an age all too often marked by inflated, antagonistic discourse, the world could use more Chestertons, and fewer Mr. Pricklepantses. 

Is your school suited to serve your son?

American culture has grown increasingly hostile to boys. Recently, Allison Hull has wondered why Disney hates boys so much. But Disney's dearth of admirable male characters is part a larger problem for boys.  

Christina Hoff Sommers, writing in Timeargues that school has become hostile to boys. Albert Mohler summarizes the article and considers evidence that documents a growing gap between male and female academic performance, with boys performance suffering (click here; the discussion begins at the 8:00 mark). 

Classical Christian education takes seriously the differences between boys and girls, and seeks to cultivate the best of each sex. In my own involvement in classical Christian education, we spend considerable time discussing how we best serve boys in age increasingly hostile to them. 

Gregory the Great Academy in PA is giving attention to what a good education for boys looks like ("boys need adventure!"):

I'm curious, how does your school create an environment well-suited to boys? 

Christian education should look backward and forward

A Christian education must simultaneously look backward and forward. That is, Christian education must grapple with both the realities of the Fall (looking backward) and the realities of the New Creation (looking forward).

Without an awareness of the Fall and sin, a school's education can grow mushy, churning out students armed with sentimentality, not faithful compassion.

The schools who recognize the pinch of sin will best prepare students to "pollute the shadows," as N.D. Wilson puts it. The following video from Jonathan Edwards Classical Academy underscores the point:

 

But schools can't just look backwards, for students may grow crusty and cynical. In order to avoid the drift toward disillusionment, schools must look forward, to the hope of Christ's redemptive work. The Academy of Classical Christian Studies has developed a video that emphasizes the gaze forward, to the realities of the New Creation:

 

A balanced Christian education keeps both the Fall and redemption in view; teachers and administrators should bear in mind both Adam and Christ; students should have a keen memory of the Garden and at the same time expectant anticipation for the Garden-City, the New Jerusalem. When these bookends of Scripture frame the educational task - echoing in every class, hallway and cafeteria - students will be well-equipped to lovingly serve a world in need.   

The Little Mermaid and Parental Authority

Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 classic, The Little Mermaid, tells the story of a young and beautiful (but melancholy) mermaid princess who longs for the love of a human prince. Only there is a problem, no matter how attractive a mermaid’s top half might be, humans consider fish tails “quite ugly,” the mermaid’s grandmother explains, making it unlikely any human prince would ever reciprocate the mermaid’s love. Ignoring grandma’s warning and “forsaking…kindred and home,” the little mermaid through the help of the sea witch becomes human but tragically fails to win the prince’s love. Having lost her beautiful voice, her loving family and home, and the prince she adores, the little mermaid turns to sea foam.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid diverges from Andersen’s in a number of telling ways. Read the rest here.