Category Archives: Education (General)

Beware the Wrecking of a Child’s Soul

For some years now I’ve been reflecting on a maxim I’ve derived from constantly teaching young people: If you change the stories a people tell, you necessarily change the identity and character of the people.

We frequently remind our girls on the one day a week they usually watch movies to watch out for messages of “Follow Your Heart.”

In this connection, having some time ago watched Wreck It Ralph 2, I decided to watch the first one with my girls. This was the first time they had seen it, so watching it with them, with my critical faculties on and ready to discuss the film with them afterwards, I almost immediately noticed a total difference of message between the two.

In the first Wreck film, Ralph starts out by following his heart because he doesn’t want to be what everyone thinks he is. In the process of trying to show who he “really” is he winds up wrecking many things, even to the point of almost destroying another video game. Trying to prove that he’s not what everyone thinks he is, he ironically only seems to prove they are right.

Ralph’s little friend, Vanellope, meanwhile, who is also following her heart to become what she seemingly isn’t, a racer, turns out to actually be a racer whose code the bad guy has corrupted so that she is something she’s not by nature meant to be. Ralph’s friendship with her ends up restoring her proper nature, and even though he makes some significant blunders in the process, his friendship shines through precisely in his desire to keep her from the harm that he thinks will befall her if she follows her heart.

Flash forward to Wreck-It Ralph 2. While it is an extremely clever movie in its portrayal of the internet and the various foibles of people on it, the moral message is exactly the opposite.

For in this one, Vanellope again decides to follow her heart, but this time her heart takes her out of her natural place in order to make her into something she is not meant to be, a rough-and-tumble racer in a very violent video game. At the high point of the film corresponding to the first one when she gets very angry at Ralph, she tells him that a true friend would let her do whatever her heart desires, and that’s why he’s a bad friend because he’s trying to talk her out of what she wants but is not actually meant to be.

I find this reversal of moral message fascinating, especially in terms of its portrayal of friendship. Clearly the two movies were written by and for two different mindsets, and

How many in our world today believe that true friendship consists in allowing one’s friend to do whatever they want to do – and supporting them (“validating” their choice) while they’re doing it – rather than pointing out to them things that will harm them and trying to dissuade them? Have we really lost the old idea and practice that being a friend means helping our friend seek what is actually True and Good and Beautiful, not just what they happen to feel (with ever-and-always-changing emotions) is right at the moment?

I’ve thought for some years now as a teacher that we adults should never underestimate the catechetical (teaching) power of pop culture. These things are not “just movies” any more than all the old immoral and sophistical myths about the gods were just entertaining bedtime stories. Many of the modes of seemingly “harmless” entertainment to which we allow our children to be exposed on a regular basis possess the power to fundamentally rewrite their moral imaginations – sometimes significantly enough to cause them ultimately to reject the truths we as parents have tried so hard to pass on to them.

As a classics teacher this brings to my mind that it’s no wonder Plato wanted to banish the poets from his ideal society. Stories are incredibly powerful, especially in the fantastically dopamine-stimulating modes (“cool” music, “awesome” movies, “fun” video games) that our current technology wraps them up in.

A jingle I heard growing up: “Oh be careful little eyes what you see.” We who are parents, charged with the nurture and admonition of the next generation, really must take more care to observe the entertainments to which our children are attracted. And we really must take the time to sit and talk with them about that newest action-packed CGI-stuffed superhero movie and that latest trendy video they’ve seen on the Internet.

It’s pretty ominous to realize that these things may eventually, through constant and uncritical exposure, have even more formative power over their minds and hearts than anything we ourselves could ever say or model in their presence.

The Liberating Knowledge of Letters (Literature)

Here’s a snippet from a letter about the educated man, written ca. 1160 A.D.:

…it is the knowlege of letters [literature] that leads one forth from the common ignorance of human beings and from the stolid torpor that characterizes the dull-witted, and renders to its pupil glorious liberty. And so the pagans rightly called the art of letters a liberal art, because this art liberates the one who studies it from the common lot of human beings enslaved to confusion; the one who obtains a mastery of letters is no longer oppressed and overwhelmed by the fetters of lethargy which bind the unlearned. 

– Philip of Harvengt, abbot of Bonne Esperance, to Henry, Count of Champagne (As translated by Robert Ziomkowski in Readings in Medieval Political Theory 1100-1400 [Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993], pg. 65.)

“Facility of Education Will Lead to Indifference To It”

More from T.S. Eliot, foreseeing the impasse of the modern educational ideal:

People can be persuaded to desire almost anything, for a time, if they are constantly told that it is something to which they are entitled and which is unjustly withheld from them. The spontaneous desire for education is greater in some communities than in others…It is possible that the desire for education is greater where there are difficulties in the way of obtaining it – difficulties not insuperable but only to be surmounted at the cost of some sacrifice and privation. If this is so, we may conjecture that facility of education will lead to indifference to it; and that the universal imposition of education up to the years of maturity will lead to hostility towards it. A high average of general education is perhaps less necessary for a civil society than is a respect for learning.

– as cited in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble, p. 620

“A Swollen Number of Candidates”

T.S. Eliot, writing about 72 years ago, presciently observes:

…the ideal of a uniform system [of education] such that no one capable of receiving higher education could fail to get it, leads imperceptibly to the education of too many people, and consequently to the lowering of standards to whatever this swollen number of candidates is able to reach.

– Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (as cited in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble, p. 621

Education is About What Things are For, Not How They Work

Education is not job training; it is not even schooling. Education, in so many words, is knowing what things are for, not simply how they work. The truly educated person understands the proper uses to which such things as bodies, brains, governments, art, and sport are put, not merely how to eat, how to execute difficult mathematical computattions, how to win an election, how to paint a still life, or how to hit a curveball.

The difference between these knowing what things are for and merely knowing how they work is the difference between wisdom and information, between knowledge and data, between knowing and knowing about. Those who acquire the former are genuinely educated; those who gain only the latter are technological functionaries, replaceable by the next generation of machines.

From Michael Bauman, The Second Death of Socrates: Why Public Education is the Enemy of Learning

On Worldview

The term “worldview” has a simple dictionary definition: “the way that a person views the world.” The way that we view the world is made up of a variety of factors, including spiritual, cultural, emotional, and intellectual ones.

Usually people who talk about worldviews focus primarily on the intellectual factors, or the things that we think. In this sense, when people talk about a worldview they mean the things that we think about God, ourselves, the world, and other people. It is important, however, to understand that worldviews have non-intellectual elements and practical consequences. Worldviews are not just thoughts rattling around in people’s heads. Thoughts in our minds come from our hearts and reflect what is in them (Mt. 9:4; Rom. 1:21).

As well, the things that we think about God, ourselves, the world, other people, and so forth substantially influence our behavior. Ideas give birth to actions. Someone who thinks that there is no God will act differently than someone who does think there is a God. Someone who thinks that humans evolved from lower life forms will act differently than someone who thinks humans were created by God. Someone who thinks that life does not mean anything will act differently than someone who thinks life does mean something.

Interestingly, sometimes things that we do can generate thoughts, thus actually altering parts of our worldview. For instance, what parent has not become painfully aware in recent years how the tsunami of devices and the digital life they create has altered the way their children – and perhaps even they themselves – view the world? Finding oneself a bit more impatient with the way life is than one used to be? Unconsciously wishing one could just “swipe” the unpleasantness away and have much more congenial items in one’s mental and emotional “feed”? Devices have generated new and altered worldview thoughts – which is both interesting and horrifying.

One easy way to get hold of the concept of a worldview is to think of it as answering certain basic questions. Different people give different lists of the basic questions that a worldview answers. A simple list is this one:

  • Who am I? what kind of creatures are human beings (what is the nature of a human being)? What is the task of human beings in the world? What significance or meaning do human beings have?
  • Where am I? what is the origin and nature of the reality in which human beings find themselves?
  • What’s wrong? In many ways, the world seems to be broken, or at least, somehow “sick.” What is the reason for this brokenness, this “sickness”?
  • What’s the remedy?Can the brokenness and “sickness” of the world be alleviated?If so, how?

These are basic questions, questions that you can use to get a “feel” for what a person’s worldview is. However, you must take care not to “put people in a box” based on the answers they give to these questions. It is important to understand that within a particular worldview there can be disagreement about the proper answers to the basic questions.

For instance, all Christians believe that the answer to the third question, “What’s wrong?” is that “Mankind sinned against God and must be saved by God.” But not all Christians agree with each other on “sub-questions” that come under this one, such as “What were the effects of man’s Fall on the human mind?”, “Do human beings after the Fall have free will?”, and so forth. All Christians believe as a basic answer to this part of the Christian worldview that man has fallen into sin, but not all Christians believe the same things about particular parts of the answer to the question.

Likewise, all Christians practice baptism because Jesus said to baptize people in his name. But not all Christians believe exactly the same thing about baptism. Some think that baptism can be given to infants, while others think it can only be given to people who have first made a public statement of their personal belief in Christ. Some believe baptism is only properly done via immersion. Others believe in sprinkling, and still others in pouring.

All Christians believe that Jesus is coming back to this world at the end of time, but not all Christians believe the same thing about when the end of time will be and how the events described in the Bible’s passages about the end times will all work out.

All Muslims share certain beliefs about the inspiration of the Koran and the character of Allah, but this has not stopped diverse views (such as Shi’a, Sufi, and Sunni) from developing due to different takes on “sub-questions” within the worldview. All Hindus believe in a nebulous entity they call “Brahman,” but great differences have arisen amongst them about the precise role of Brahman in their religion.

More examples could be given, but these show that outlining the basic questions of a worldview and its basic answers to those questions is only a start at understanding a belief system. Worldviews can help us to clearly organize beliefs and analyze their consequences. But worldviews are less like encyclopedia articles and more like the superstructures of skyscrapers upon which different exteriors and within which different arrangements of rooms can be built.

This means that part of good worldview thinking is to be able to discern essential questions from secondary questions. When it comes to the Christian worldview, for instance, are we bound to say that a particular economic system – the one we ourselves think is best! – just is what the Bible teaches as normative for everyone? What would an assertion like that mean for dedicated, godly followers of Christ in other places than our own and other times than our own? Does the Christian worldview demand that everyone dress a certain way, have certain settled attitudes about tattoos and beer and smoking cigars, or is all of that kind of stuff just local cultural practices that can legitimately vary for Christians not in our own circumstances?

Another part of good worldview thinking is to be charitable toward others. People are not just minds. and their lives are not reducible to systems of propositional statements of ideas. People do not always think and act in ways fully consistent with their espoused worldview – or even with a worldview that we attribute to them because we’re trying to conveniently categorize them so as to more easily refute them. And importantly, imperfect consistency between a purported system of beliefs and the ways in which a person lives from day to day turns out to be a feature not only of unbelievers, but of Christians, too.

Thus, worldview thinking is not a bludgeon with which to hit people who disagree with you. Nor is it a mental straitjacket, preventing the movement of the mind outside its narrow confines. It is just a tool to help you learn to systematically think about beliefs, both your own and those of others who, like you, are made in the image of God but need the redemption from sin and all its effects on life and culture that only comes through Jesus Christ.

How Faith Comes to Seem “Less Real” for Our Young People

Why have destructive ideologies such as critical theory (underlying current race and gender controversies) made such headway in the church? Phillip Johnson gave us a hint more than 20 years ago in his book Defeating Darwinism when he wrote of how the oppressive, day-by-day assumption of materialism in science education and work spills over into other disciplines Christian young people study in colleges:

“As students grow more and more accustomed to assuming materialism and naturalism in their academic work, the concept of creation by God gradually tends to become less real to them. It is not so much that any single finding undermines their faith; rather, the day-to-day practice of thinking in naturalistic terms about academic subjects makes it awkward to think differently when it comes to religion. Young intellectuals may insist for years that they are still believers, but then one day they wake up to realize that their belief has been emptied of its content, and they either throw away the empty shell or fill it with something else. That is why every mainstream Christian institution is beset these days by people who want the church to turn away from its old business of sin and salvation and devote its energies to whatever social causes are currently fashionable in the secular world.” (p. 88

Note that last line in particular, in light of many current trends among younger Christians. What Johnson warned about 20+ years ago as merely the church being “beset these days” has become the uncritical default assumption in our youth. And unfortunately, the moralistic and intellectually deficient sort of culture-warring that has prevailed in Christian educational circles for just about as long as it has been since Johnson wrote “Defeating Darwinism” has only made it all the more likely that Christian young people will keep defecting in favor of the much more viscerally-engaging and “relevant” ideologies trampling our whole culture into the dust “these days.”

There is hope: but only if classical Christian educators start taking the classical tradition much more seriously than we currently do. It isn’t enough to read the books around Harkness tables and have kids write worldview analyses that begin and end with what they (or we as the teachers) already knew. We need to learn to challenge the reductionistic kind of thinking that makes content less important than method, that substitutes a vague, subjective supernaturalism for a robustly wonder-based engagement with the created world, that teaches kids to be cynics about ideas they don’t immediately understand or that they don’t find relevant to “the real world” of living just like everyone else does Monday through Saturday, but with a little “religion” sprinkled on top in “Bible Class” and at church.

Otherwise we’ll just keep getting shallowness and keep on laying the foundations for cultural irrelevance and even actual defection from the faith.

Ignorance is the Real Arrogance

Petrarch on the arrogance of ignorance:

Believe me, many things are attributed to gravity and wisdom which are really due to incapacity and sloth. Men often despise what they despair of obtaining. It is in the very nature of ignorance to scorn what it cannot understand, and to desire to keep others from attaining what it cannot reach. Hence the false judgments upon matters of which we know nothing, by which we evince our envy quite as clearly as our stupidity. [Source: Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, by James Harvey Robinson (citing a letter from Petrarch to Boccacio), pg. 391]

Worthless Books

In line with his Stoic principle that “excess in any sphere is reprehensible,” Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.) has this to say about having too large a library:

Even in our studies, where expenditure is most worth while, it justification depends on its moderation. What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? The mass of books burdens the student without instructing him, and it is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many. Forty thousand books were burned in the library at Alexandria. Someone else can praise it as a sumptuous monument to royal wealth, like Titus Livius, who calls it a notable achievement of the good taste and devotion of kings. That was not good taste or devotion, but scholarly self-indulgence – in fact, not even scholarly, since they had collected the books not for scholarship but for display. In the same way you will find that many peole who lack even elementary culture keep books not as tools of learning but as decoration for their dining-rooms. So we should buy enough books for use, and none just for embellishment….How can you excuse a man who collects bookcases of citron-wood and ivory, amasses the works of unknown or third-rate authors, and then sits yawning among all his thousands of books and gets more enjoyment out of the appearance of his volumes and their labels? – “On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa (New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005), pg. 45

The Liberating Knowledge of Letters

Here’s a snippet from a letter about the educated man, written ca. 1160 A.D.:

…it is the knowlege of letters that leads one forth from the common ignorance of human beings and from the stolid torpor that characterizes the dull-witted, and renders to its pupil glorious liberty. And so the pagans rightly called the art of letters a liberal art, because this art liberates the one who studies it from the common lot of human beings enslaved to confusion; the one who obtains a mastery of letters is no longer oppressed and overwhelmed by the fetters of lethargy which bind the unlearned. – Philip of Harvengt, abbot of Bonne Esperance, to Henry, Count of Champagne (As translated by Robert Ziomkowski in Readings in Medieval Political Theory 1100-1400 [Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993], pg. 65.)