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Classical Christian Movement

Education and the Recovery of the Non-Modern Mind

By April 1, 2014January 27th, 2023No Comments

The movement to recover the insights of classical pedagogy is one of the most encouraging cultural phenomena of our time. While many parents may choose classical schools because they provide a wholesome moral environment and seem to equip students well to take standardized tests, teachers and administrators realize that there is something much deeper at stake in this approach to education.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith asserts that “Behind every constellation of educational practices is a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons — about the kinds of creatures we are.” Pedagogy reveals anthropology. But we can extend Smith’s observation further: educational institutions (the structure of curriculum, the form of classroom practice, the expectations and training of teachers, even the design of buildings) reveal a lot about our understanding of the nature of the cosmos — about the kind of world we inhabit and about the ultimate origins of its order. How we teach — how we approach the conveying of knowledge — is shaped by assumptions about the nature of human knowing and the shape and source of human well-being.

The assumptions that typically animate the lives of most of our contemporaries are a product of living in what we carelessly (and sometimes arrogantly) call “the modern world.” The whole world may not be as modern as this phrase suggests. But it is accurate to say that we live in a society that is shaped by assumptions properly distinguished as “modern.” To be modern is not just to be up-to-date; it is to care deeply about being up-to-date. Michael Gillespie has observed that “to think of oneself as modern is to define one’s being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time.”

Contemporary Christians who are serious about their faith necessarily struggle (sometimes without understanding the nature of the struggle) with the conflict between being fully Christian and being fully modern. Many Christians — failing to understand the consequences of being fully modern — believe that there must be a way to reconcile being a modern Christian. But surely we must be people who define ourselves in terms of our God, not in terms of time.

The preoccupation with being new that defines the modern goes hand in hand with a radical view of freedom. The modern mentality or posture (words more descriptive than worldview in this context) eagerly anticipates the new, often at the expense of traditions and in denial of claims of “permanent things.” To be modern, writes Gillespie, “is to be self-liberating and self-making, and thus not merely to be in a history or tradition, but to make history.”

Christians affirm that our God is the Lord of history and the Maker of meaning. The modern mentality, by contrast, asserts that meaning is whatever we want it to be, and history is no more than the sum total of projects generated by sheer human willing. There is a stark and consequential contrast between belief in a cosmos ordered and given meaning by God and a universe devoid of meaning — a mass of raw material awaiting human ingenuity to confer purpose. That contrast is at the heart of C. S. Lewis’s most important book, The Abolition of Man — a book about two models of education and the radically different visions of human nature and cosmic order they represent. Near the end of the book he contrasts the ancient way of wisdom as seeking “how to conform the soul to reality,” and the modern preoccupation — sustained by
an obsession to technological advances — with “how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.”

In insisting on a conflict between a Christian mentality and a modern one, I may be criticized by some for “wanting to turn the clock back.” But what assumptions are embedded in that metaphor? An inexorable and demanding clock is not a neutral image adequate to adjudicate the conflict between the modern mentality and its critics.

Fear of being behind the times is a valid fear only if one is preoccupied with being new and up-to-date. This is a posture that presupposes the non-existence of permanent and timeless realities by which our lives might be ordered. I’ve adopted “non-modern” as a term to describe the character of the Christian mind, rather than anti-modern, post-modern or pre-modern. These latter terms have their uses, but they tend to reinforce that biased temporal metaphor.

Can we imagine the contrast between the Modern and Non-modern spatially rather than temporally? Think of a land (rather than an era) in which, by habit, citizens glibly forget the past and compulsively hatch plans for A Better Future, a land in which people move with aggressive speed and confidence, despite the sense that they have no idea where they are going. In the neighboring land, by habit, the residents evaluate their actions in accord with a beautiful pattern of meaning known by their ancestors and conveyed to their children, a land in which past, present, and future are understood in terms of fulfillment rather than displacement and disposal.

Christians in modern societies need to think of themselves and their children as aliens from one land living in another, not as people pining for a lost past. The recovery of a non-modern mentality may be difficult, but it is not improper (unless one is already biased in favor of the modern mentality).

The difference between the modern and the non- modern concerns more than how we situate ourselves in time. More fundamentally it involves questions of how to live well. Music historian Quentin Faulkner has summarized two different mentalities that answer in radically different ways the question of how to live a good and meaningful life. According to one view:

An inherently mysterious, awesome power has created me to be part of the world, a world I can never hope to understand or control. Following the teachings or laws revealed to my people will enable me to remain pleasing to that creating force and at one with my family and tribe, and thus will provide my life with meaning because it is integrated with theirs. Following the teachings or laws requires me to fulfill certain duties and obligations, and I am fulfilled in doing these the best I can. Indeed I am compelled to do them: since living is an everlasting struggle between life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, growth and decay, unfaithfulness to my duties and obligations will lead to my destruction.

The second view situates individuals quite differently:

I am significant because it is a matter of common knowledge and observation that our species is superior and in control on this planet. The democratic ideal guarantees me freedom and the right to pursue my happiness. Therefore I am free to follow my own personal goals and to pursue comfort, satisfaction and personal pleasure. That which I do not now understand about the universe will eventually be explained by science, so that things which now seem mysterious will ultimately be provided with rational explanations. I am not compelled to be faithful to any higher order of existence, since there is none.

The first of these views fits the non-modern mentality quite well. It is communal, it affirms permanent realities that guide personal and corporate decisions, it recognizes the smallness of human efforts to achieve comprehensive knowledge, and it is essentially humble and reverent in the face of mystery. The second view bows before nothing (hence my preference for posture over worldview in this discussion), it enshrines the isolated, autonomous individual and can imagine no limits, it values knowledge for the sake of power and control, not for the savoring of wisdom, it knows no duties or obligations. This paragraph offers a good summary of the ethos embedded in all truly modern institutions — including modern education. The falseness of this mentality prevents modern educational structures from fulfilling aims of education that are humane and liberal in the best sense.

More than differing about explicit moral or religious matters, the modern and the non-modern mentalities disagree about the very nature of reality. C. S. Lewis makes this quite clear near the beginning of The Abolition of Man when he talks about the loss of belief in “objective value.” This phrase may cause some to stumble because the vocabulary of “values” has become so thoroughly subjective in our time. Lewis held the venerable if now unfashionable belief that some things are truly, really valuable, objectively worthy of valuing, “that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” The universe has a givenness to it, human nature — including the purpose of human existence — has a givenness to it, and the challenge of living well is to learn to honor that givenness in our hearts as well as our heads.

Education is thus the training of the affections, the moral imagination, the mind, the intuitions, even the bodily disciplines of young people to be in synch, in harmony with that givenness. As Luigi Giussani has summarized it, “to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” To educate is to train in the essential task of giving form to objective value: education involves the imparting of habits of mind and body that incarnate the true value of things. Our lives must have some shape to them; our convictions will take form in personal habits and practices, as well as in public institutions and artifacts. And the task of education — understood classically and by Christians not under the sway of modern assumptions (what people in that other land believe) — is to train the young in how to give form to value.

If I had to isolate a single priority for Christians in educating their children, it would be to convey to them a deep and abiding confidence that there is a givenness to the universe and to human nature, a confidence that is the foundation of ordered desire to spend one’s life learning to fit into that givenness. The classical model of education — as opposed to modern models — is a great boon to Christians precisely because it assumes a prescriptive understanding of human nature and the cosmos. It assumes that human beings, individually and socially, have an objective purpose that calls us to certain ways of life. Education is vocational, not principally in the sense of career training, but in the root sense of vocation: that God has called humanity to a purpose rooted in divine love and truth, a vocation that fits us for life in a world God has made with our flourishing in view. The pedagogical strategy of classical education establishes and is shaped by an affirmation of this givenness to things, and part of that givenness is the unity of head and heart. Classical thought and Christian thought (before it was contaminated by alien preoccupations) was confident that truth was something to be loved, not just understood analytically. Just as language is a gift enabling loving communication and not just a tool to accomplish practical tasks, so reason is a gift enabling our understanding — a valid if incomplete understanding — of the world, of each other, and of the divine.

James S. Taylor, in his book, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, notes that “An important point of the ancient, classical, medieval tradition on man as knower was the consistent view that it was the whole person who experienced the world — not just the eyes or just the mind, but the composite being, body and soul, man.” This understanding of human nature and human knowing gave rise to the Western model of education in the liberal arts, a model that originated in pre-Christian antiquity and was adapted and deepened by Christians, finally giving rise to the invention of the university.

The end of that knowledge was assumed to be more than the achieving of useful facts. In The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith, philosopher James Peters, confronts “modernity’s unfortunate legacy of a deep and ugly divide between reason and affection.” As he explains, “Despite the legacy of modernity that pervades our lives today, I believe that we can reasonably embrace the following radical claims: first, that the proper function of reason in human life is to enable us truthfully to locate ourselves in our world and to live wisely by recognizing who we are and what our proper place is in this world; and second, that reason cannot function apart from the guidance of the human heart.”

Later in the book, Peters summarizes the Augustinian view of Reason, displaying how stark the contrast is between Augustine’s understanding of rationality and that defended or assumed by most modern thinkers, an understanding which is embedded in many modern institutions, from education to politics to journalism to the arts. Following Augustine, Peters insists that the proper function of reason is not merely to make true judgments concerning a world of neutral, nonmoral facts, but to enable the rational individual to make proper contact with reality, a state of being that requires not only ‘true belief,’ but the transformation of the will and affections needed to put us in touch with — to align us fully with — reality. Assisted by divine charity, the proper function of reason is thus both cognitive and unitive. The perfection of reason requires our being transformed into the kind of persons we are designed to be — persons who are able not only to describe but also to affirm and become united with the God of love.

The methods and goals of modern education — along with the shape of much of modern culture — are rooted in the assumption that reason is a mechanism of heartless technology, just a matter of calculation. Reason has been constricted in modern usage and in modern culture to refer only to those things that can be established by science, by empirical verification. So the matter of cultivating the mind is commonly assumed to be no more than training in mechanical reasoning skills, the sorts of things that computers can do. Since all speech about value and values, about purpose and providence, is assumed to be subjective, personal, and private, it is outside the realm of reason, and hence, not properly within the jurisdiction of educators.

These are all assumptions that most of us need to unlearn if we are striving to be faithful to the givenness of things. Children who have been schooled in the tradition of classical education (along with their parents and teachers) need to be more confident that their education will help them truthfully to locate themselves in the world and thus live wisely.

The structure of teaching in classical Christian schools is rooted in the assumption that the universe has meaning and purpose, that human nature has meaning and purpose, and that reason itself is a capacity that is fulfilled as human beings come to know and honor the objective value present in Creation. The most urgent educative priority of parents is to enable their children to acquire a confidence in the givenness of things, a confidence which I believe classical Christian schools are uniquely equipped to convey. At this time in the history of the world and of the Church, it is crucial that the education of our children be fully Christian; we should pray not simply that our kids will keep their faith, but that they will grow to surpass us in faithfulness and godly maturity, pursuing all of the ramifications of the Kingdom.

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