Last April New York Times columnist David Brooks explored the differences between thick and thin institutions. For Brooks, thin institutions have a practical or horizontal orientation because members of thin institutions and the institutions themselves value one another for their instrumentality. Your local tag agency is a good example of a thin institution.
Thick institutions, on the other hand, operate more along the lines of virtue and vice and therefore have a vertical orientation. Brooks claims that thick institutions “have a set of collective rituals,” “shared tasks,” “often tell and retell a sacred origin story,” “incorporate music into daily life,” and “have an idiosyncratic local culture.” Kamp Kanakuk and the Marines are good examples of thick institutions.
Classical Christian schools should strive to be thick schools in an age when too many schools are thin. At my own school, students sing daily at matins, regularly recite Bible verses together, serve one another at lunch, and whoop with painted faces at jogathon (which pits our various houses against one another in friendly and fun competition). These thick practices are not “extras” but are central to an affection-shaping education.
Along with thick practices, my school (and many other classical Christian schools) offer students thick stories, stories that have stood the test of time. Over time, these stories develop thick imaginations. Consider these comments by one of our first graders as relayed by her teacher:
We were reading the story, Corduroy, which is a story about a stuffed bear who is waiting at the department store to be adopted by a child. The only problem is that he often gets passed by because he is missing a button and looks a little bit dirty and used. Every day, he waits for someone to notice him, love him, and take him home. One day, a little girl named Lisa sees him and buys him with her money that she had been saving up. The story ends happily with Lisa sewing on a new button for him, washing him and taking him home. After I read this story, I asked students to share a part that they liked or something that stood out to them. One student said that they liked that someone finally noticed Corduroy. Another said that they too would have adopted him because they don’t care that he had a missing button and looked dirty. Then one student said, “In this story, Lisa is like God and we are all Corduroy. God sees us when we are dirty and missing stuff and He loves us.” We then proceeded to share about how true that was and how grateful we are that God sees us, loves us, fixes our “missing buttons” and gives up something He loves (Jesus) to buy us so we can be with Him.
What is beautiful about this student’s comments is that she readily connects the story of Corduroy to the story of God’s redemptive love in Christ – the thickest of all stories (because all of creation is swept into it). May classical Christian schools orient students’ hearts and minds to the thickest of all stories, the story of God’s redemptive love found in Jesus Christ!