“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
To instill a lifelong love of learning. This statement presents a core value of Covenant Classical School and provides the next topic of our summer blog series — one that has explored each phrase in the mission statement of our school. And this statement may be my favorite in the sequence!
At first glance, a lifelong love of learning means exactly what it says. Your team at CCS wants to make students into lifelong learners. In my 14 years of teaching, I have found the same commitment across the classical education community. We want our students to love learning, and want them to never stop loving it — even after they graduate, even after taking their first job, even after they retire from the workforce. That’s the goal behind this core value and, as you can tell, it’s a lofty one.
But before we get lost in the clouds, let’s be clear: A lifelong love of learning, while idealistic, does not refer to lofty standards or educational idealism. On the contrary, if we want students to love learning, and to love it for the rest of their lives, then what this missional phrase sets forth is an internal disposition, a posture of the heart. As a teacher, I believe my colleagues and I have a moral imperative to model this posture before our students.
To help us take a deeper look into that posture, I want to seek the help of a friend — an old one.
Abbot Hugh served the monastery of St. Victor, in Paris, during the 12th century, and before he died, he published a work for students — a guide on learning — called The Didascalicon. In Book 3, chapter 13, he discusses what is required of a student — or, we might say, learner — and that topic leads him to a consideration of humility. Here is what he says about it: “The beginning of discipline is humility. Although the lessons of humility are many, the three which follow are of especial importance for the student. First, that he hold no knowledge and no writing in contempt; second, that he blush to learn from no man; and third, that when he has attained learning himself, he not look down upon everyone else.”
I just love this passage. First, notice the sequencing. It tells me that Abbot Hugh is thinking not only of the prerequisites for learning but also the benchmarks of true learning. Beginning and end. Or — a more organic analogy — both soil and harvest. Each centers on the student. And what is it that Hugh is looking for in them? A harvest of humility.
As Abbot Hugh knew so well, a little learning can produce an abundance of pride. And if pride is the result of education, then true learning has not taken place. And if it has, then what purpose are we serving? Rather than serve such a tyrannical model, Hugh holds a higher, more holistic, view of education. Learning is more than the acquisition of information or the accessing of power — it is the cultivation of virtue in community for the benefit of the greater community.
And it’s that purpose that brings us back to a lifelong love of learning. For a lifelong love of learning to ever develop, a student must have the humility to admit ignorance. Consider the following example: a person who loves a craft so much they seek out its master craftsmen and beg to apprentice under them. They don’t bring any skill with them or insights into the craft, and even if they have gained a preliminary understanding of it, what lesson are they going to teach the master? On the contrary, all they bring to the table is a love of the craft and the humility to learn it patiently. That love is exactly what we are trying to cultivate in our students — a love that can blossom into a lifelong love of learning — and it’s a love that can only live and grow in the soil of humility.
Now, that analogy does not mean that your teachers at CCS are the master craftsmen and master craftswomen. Education has endured eras when this view of learning carried the day — one where the teacher was the master there to teach, while the student was the novice there to receive. Today, we live in an age that holds a similar view and believes that knowledge is left to the experts. It’s an exclusive terrain — one that is accessible only to those who climb high enough in our culture to seize the right to decide. The rest of us are seen as the consumers, and our “job” is to consume and discard.
Likewise, our technologies today make learning both easier and more difficult — easier because some knowledge is so easy to access that we can just look it up. And, given such accessibility, we think, “Why do I need to read this now when I could look it up later?” Or, we think, “Why do I need to read this when I could just read someone else who already did?” More often than not, accessibility acts as a deterrent to learning. At the same time, learning today is also more difficult because of the legalese that safeguards the experts’ power. We think, “Do I really need to read my user agreement? “Their length alone seems designed to deter understanding.
Now, I have probably over-generalized these views here, but I believe the point still persists in the world around us: Knowing seems to be restricted by the experts for the benefit of the experts.
So, how does a lifelong love of learning stand up to such restrictive views of knowledge?
Well at CCS, a teacher is still an apprentice — albeit, one who has walked a bit further down the road of their craft than their students have. As an apprentice, we continue to love and learn our craft. We do not need have an answer for every question a student may ask us, for one of our tasks as a lifelong learner is to continue to admit when we don’t know. Our culture may look on such admissions of ignorance as weakness, as unfitting of an expert. But we must have the humility to be honest before our students in order to show them a better model of learning.
More importantly, for the one who loves learning, these unanswerable questions present new areas of knowledge to explore. They also produce an even greater effect. Not only do they help the teacher to advance along their quest, they also allow the student to join them on it — even though they are novices. And the teacher can handle the confession of ignorance, because the teacher at CCS has come to terms with the fact that only One knows all, and that One is our heavenly Father.
But the question remains: How do we instill such a love in our students?
The difficult thing about such a love is that it cannot be forced upon anyone. Again, it is a posture of the heart, not a thought in the head. Nor do our various disciplines come naturally to our students (or any human being, for that matter). Getting a teenager to love an old book that is really difficult to read?! Think again. Acting like an equation — that takes time and brainpower — is both intricate and beautiful?! Good luck with that one.
Moreover, for the high school or college learner, learning is often just work. For it is merely a means to an end, one that when attained, can allow real life to begin — whatever that “real life” may be. But for the lifelong learner, that life has already begun, and that learning is already underway. More importantly, those challenges in learning are met by a love of the subject itself — one that can lead to a deeper understanding of it.
So what should a teacher who has caught such a love do with a group of students who has not? Well, we continue to love our disciplines out loud in the hope that one day our students will catch our vision. We continue to explore the depths of our discipline in order to share with our students the treasure we have found. We continue to act, unapologetically, like the crazy and confounding human beings we are — people who actually enjoy this old arcane stuff! And we continue to relate what we have found to our heavenly creator. Why? Because God created all things, and he made them good; therefore, learning is a good in itself.
So may we find the humility to continue learning; may we cultivate the curiosity to explore the depths of creation; may we develop the discipline to never grow tired of learning; and as we do so, may we never cease to marvel at our Maker. For beside His learning, all our best efforts can attain is humility.
by Phil Bassett, Upper School Humanities Teacher