This article was first published on the Classical Conversations CC Connected Guest Articles blog.
My wife and I are trying to give our children an education we never received, that is, a classical education. You may be in the same position as we; trying to understand what one is doing while one is doing it, committing oneself to something one doesn’t yet fully understand, then believing this is the right course while one is still trying to orient one’s map. It is hard work to both homeschool and do so in a manner that, though as old as the hills, is nonetheless new to us. Recently, however, I have been worried about a new wrinkle. Speaking on the difficulties of building and governing a classical school, Charles Evans said this:
A lot of the parents of the children in our schools have never really grown up. They themselves think very much like adolescents, and they are motivated by adolescent values.¹
This quote has been haunting my thoughts. Though we are not building a classical school in the same manner as Evans, we are building our homeschool based, as best we know, on classical principles. This is hard work, but what haunts me is that the gap I may need to close is not so much a knowledge or method gap as a character gap. In other words, am I trying to teach my children to become virtuous while I, myself, remain largely an adolescent in my values? If by virtuous we mean something akin to becoming the kind of people we ought to be, then I am failing miserably. And really, how hard have I tried? It is frightening that the idea of seeking virtue, and correspondingly, that education should be about cultivating virtue, was never in scope for my entire educational career; it just was not on the radar. Could it be that, while I seek to create a classical education for my children, I and my adolescent mind are the main roadblock to its success?
Quickly I see three obvious indicators (there must be many more not-so-obvious indicators) that I might still have an adolescent mind. First is that I continue to wonder what I will be when I grow up. The problem is that I am grown up. Now is not the time to plan future careers as much as it is to build upon the career I have already made. Sadly I have largely failed in this regard. Second, I have great difficulty in staying focused and am easily distracted. I recognize this is not specifically an adolescent characteristic, and it might have more to do with my DNA, nonetheless I find the adults I admire the most tend to focus on what is important and stay focused. I, however, tend to look for the next interesting thing, the next shiny object. This is all the more difficult in the age of the Internet. I can barely read a page in a book without turning my attention to my computer or iPhone to see if anything has changed in the last two minutes. And thirdly, I have little sense of civic duty or public service. I do not think we all need to become civil servants, but the act of extending oneself outward for the betterment of world should by now be as natural as breathing. Unfortunately, I have too much separated myself from the world and tend not to serve others. (My wife is much more of a natural servant than I.) Now add to this my general whininess… you get the picture.
And yet, I do believe there is hope. Reason would tell me that if I can know I still live with adolescent values then I can’t be entirely under their spell. I know I am in dire need of growing up, and may be until I die, but I also know that to be grown up, that is to be a complete man, is my goal. A “complete adolescent” does not yet know the need or value of becoming a complete man. There is also hope because one can choose to take steps away from being an adult with an adolescent mind towards being a complete adult. What are those steps? I can’t say definitively, mainly because I still lack wisdom, but here are six suggestions (not in any particular order):
- Love virtue: This may be the second most difficult one on the list to do. I do not think that one can truly love virtue without the help of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, one can study virtue and trust God in the practice. One can seek to understand what virtue is, how it looks in a person’s life, how it plays out in human actions and in history, and how one might acquire virtue. I do not believe that one can truly study virtue and happily remain with an adolescent mind. But the topic of virtue is not as common today as it once was, so we may need to reach back in time to find our definitions and examples. But then we are educators; reaching back in time should be joyful anyway.
- Examine oneself: We have all heard the Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.” This is also not an easy thing to do. We tend to put up lots of barriers to knowing ourselves. Maybe it is because true self-knowledge is frightening. And the study of oneself can slip into self-absorption and narcissism. We must be cautious but it must be done.
- Study the nature of man: What is man? The classical study of man has tended to fall off the map these days since science has re-directed us to the biological, chemical, and physical elements of human existence. The study of man is not, however, fundamentally an analytical affair, rather it is normative. We could say that it begins with the basic understanding that man posses a soul, and then proceeds to questions of human nature, questions of morality, questions of God’s image in man, and questions of gender differences and roles. And like the study of virtue, we may need to reach back in history to find the best ideas about man.
- Seek examples, find heroes: I need inspiration. Maybe that is a weakness, but history is replete with heroes who have been lauded and studied. Studying examples of virtuous men is good practice. The key is to find them. Our greatest example is Christ himself, who humbled himself, even to death, for the life of the world. We should spend our entire lives getting to know Christ. But there are many more who, though far from the perfection that is Christ, exemplify lives of virtue. Consider, for example, George Washington or Thomas Moore. Or consider mythological heroes such as Achilles or Sir Galahad. Ask how they are are virtuous, and also ask how they are not. Study them in their context and imagine oneself in their shoes. This activity ties into the examination of oneself.
- Fear God: This is the most difficult one on the list. There is no fearing God without the help of the Holy Spirit. To fear God is not merely to be afraid, or to tremble, it is also to take God at His word, to know the utter contingency of our existence, and to worship God with our entire lives. To know the greatness of God, the smallness of man, and also the image of God in man, is to then know the greatness of man. To see both the greatness of God and the contingent greatness of man is to challenge full-face the adolescent mind as an end.
- Pray: To pray is also to do something very difficult. One can choose to pray, but often prayer chooses us. To pray for wisdom and virtue, to pray to “grow up” and to become a man, can be scary. Not only is change difficult, but God often takes us through trials, sometimes severe, so that we “get it” at the level of our souls. To know and embrace virtue is not a mere mental assent to something good, rather it is a visceral, troubling, joyful rending of one’s soul such that the world has changed in some small but deeply profound way. We should pray for that, and pray that God will carry us through.
I hope I have the eyes to see the way to becoming a man. Like you I can only trust God. And like you I know that that trust is born along in my choices and ensuing actions. I work and God works; it is the way He has made my existence. The struggle for virtue is at the heart of a Christian classical education. If I desire virtue for my children (my students) then I must seek it first myself. If I do that then there truly is hope I might leave my adolescent self behind and finally begin to become the man I ought to be.
¹ Building a School, Charles Evans, delivered at the 2011 Society for Classical Learning Conference.