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Where to Begin? Simple Foundations for Teaching Classically

By March 28, 2024No Comments

In high school, I did not care much about school. I managed to get by and do the minimum. Most of what I was taught was delivered in a mind-numbingly boring way. I just was not interested. I had things to do and people to see. School was the place where I just wanted to hang out, check the boxes I needed to check, and get on to the next thing. However, in my junior year, there was one teacher who kicked down the door of my indifference. She ignited a fire in me that I didn’t even know was there. 

Mrs. Points was a liberally educated teacher who knew how to agitate and engage even the least interested among us. Even though I had no category for it at the time, I later learned that Mrs. Point’s approach to teaching was formed by her classical education. After many years looking back, I learned she did three things as a classically educated teacher that made all the difference.

Ask Thoughtful Questions
First, she asked incredibly thoughtful questions. Political science in Mrs. Points’ class was not a mere recall of different forms of government or enumerating various political regimes. The questions she posed were the essential questions of human beings that undergirded the very idea of politics: What is the nature of man? What are rights? How do we form communities that are free and just? Why do we have to be governed? What is the relationship between authority and freedom? These philosophical questions preceded and framed all of the other questions in the class. 

So start with asking questions. One of the distinguishing marks of classical Christian education is that it asks the right questions; questions of ultimate significance. In In Defense of Philosophy, Josef Pieper said, “to engage in philosophy means to reflect on the totality of things we encounter, in view of their ultimate reasons; and philosophy, thus understood, is a meaningful, even necessary endeavor, with which man, the spiritual being, cannot dispense.” Ultimately, Pieper says, philosophy can be reduced to one question: “What is it all about?” Classical Christian education is a model based on the essential questions of life. Whatever subject we teach, we can and must ask these questions. They are not only the most important and consequential for human beings to consider; they are the most thought-provoking and compelling for our students to discuss. 

Love Your Subject

Second, Mrs. Points loved her subject. She was not only asking the most important questions of her class, but she was actively engaged in pondering the questions of politics herself. This aspect of her teaching distinguished her from all other teachers in school. No one seemed more genuinely engaged in her material than Mrs. Points. She was a learner, a reader, and a practitioner. She was involved in politics in her personal life and would talk about it in class. Interestingly, Mrs. Points held liberal political views. But rather than striving for neutrality, she welcomed diverse opinions without disparagement, fostering an atmosphere of open, genuine inquiry. We were learning together. 

It was evident Mrs. Points loved her subject because she seemed to know everything. There was not a question or a text that was outside of her knowledge base. She would often get loud and animated when she was making one of her points. She was compelling because she had conviction and intimacy with the content. The discussions meandered all over the place, but she was always passionate and fully present. Gilbert Highet said, “A teacher must believe in the value and interest of his subject as a doctor believes in health.” That was Mrs. Points. 

Know, Love, & Pursue Your Students

Third, she saw me and pursued me. As I mentioned, I was not a student a teacher would want to have in class. I was distracted and skeptical. However, Mrs. Points saw through my exterior and invited me into things she knew were good for me. She was on a mission and determined to connect what she loved to what she saw in me. She railed at me at times. She would laugh sarcastically at my weak conservative points and call on me to do better. And I did. I read what she gave me and more. I would find her after class and argue some more. She loved it. The next year, my senior year in high school, we had prom dinner at her house. She made her husband wear an apron and serve us while we talked about, you guessed it, politics. Mrs. Points made her classroom and her home a hospitable place for learning and friendship…for everyone. Turns out I was not the only skeptic who was welcomed into the raging liberal’s house for dinner! 

Be a Learner

Mortimer Adler said, “The good teacher must be one who is genuinely devoted to his own continuing education. Father Virgil’s soundness as an educator was due not only to his being a teacher, but more than that, to his being a teacher who was, first of all, a student, a man in whom the love of learning has not been killed by the degrees which confer officially the right to teach others.” This was Mrs. Points. She was a student before she was a teacher. 

Classical Christian teachers should be students first, then teachers. Adler argued that teachers should be “willing to submit themselves to the whole course of study which the college [school] is prescribing for its students.” Teachers must make time for deepening and broadening their own general and liberal education. Adler argued teachers should form study groups and dedicate themselves to discussing great books. He also argued that teachers should be given time to do this as part of their schedule. As Montaigne said, “Learning must not only lodge with us; we must marry her.” Go deep into your own subject, marry it, and watch what happens in your classroom.

Welcome, Connect, & Invite

Finally, loving our subjects and loving students are intricately connected. When you love something it overflows to others. It is contagious. Don’t be so enamored with yourself that you miss the opportunity and joy of giving what you have to those right in front of you. Welcome them into good things and don’t be offended if they don’t get it the first, or even the 20th, time. Your hospitality and welcoming may have more to do with their interest in the subject than your brilliant lecture. Patience, passion, and welcome are virtues that invite both connection and learning. 

Almost every teacher can do what Mrs. Points did. Every teacher can ask great questions, choose great texts, love their subject, know their students, and maintain an unrelenting passion for learning. In classical Christian education, we are often good at overcomplicating things. We can make simple things obscure through our fear of being wrong or by feeling the need to be erudite and precise. However, even the most novice teacher can teach classically by employing simple dispositions and practices. It will not mean they do everything right or bypass the challenges and disciplines of becoming a master teacher. However, it is an excellent place to begin.

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