When I talk to my colleagues or to parents here at the school, I frequently hear something like this: “I want my students/children to have the kind of education that I didn’t get.”
As teachers, we usually feel like we’ve ended up acquiring something similar to the education we’re providing, but it’s taken us many years to read and absorb the kinds of ideas we teach in the classroom, and it’s still usually incomplete compared to what we’re doing here at Covenant. (I mean, I can talk fairly intelligently about Plato, but I don’t even know what a quadratic equation is, much less how to solve one!)
Parents usually end up trying to pick up some of the literature we teach here so they can glean something of this education for themselves, but work and life sets some limits on how much and how far they’re able to pursue that.
All of this assumes, of course, that a classical education is confined to the classroom. And while what we do in the classroom is the formal foundation of what we’re trying to accomplish in this movement, at the end of the day, we’re trying to teach our students to see and live life differently. The classroom trains us how to live and think when we’re not in the classroom – how to value and orient our lives toward the good, the true and the beautiful.
So, even if you haven’t yet read any Plato, and even if you wouldn’t know a quadratic equation if it hit you in the face, there are still things we can all do to live our everyday lives in a classical way. Here are some quick thoughts.
Value the Enduring
My wife is a bit of a clock collector. My favorite is a fairly plain arts and crafts style wall clock that hangs in our entryway over an old barrister bookcase I inherited. The clock and the bookcase have seen better days, but each one has held up well because it was built to last. Each time I wind that old wall clock, I wonder who else has wound it. Some father, like me, who would wind it up after his children had gone off to bed? A grandmother who lived in relative quiet and solitude? What books were stored in that old bookcase before it came to me? An old encyclopedia set? The complete works of Dickens? Sentimental old love stories?
My wife sometimes accuses me of thinking things are good simply because they’re old. I like to think that things usually become old because they’re good. That bookcase and that clock may not be the most beautiful pieces of furniture you’ll ever see, but they were well crafted. And because of that, they’ve lasted. We ask our students to read literature that has become old because it’s good. We value it because it’s well crafted, it expresses some enduring truth, and it has its own kind of beauty.
That perspective on literature ought to be one that applies to every aspect of our lives. Popular culture is deeply infatuated with things that are trendy and faddish. We acquire those things, use them and dispose of them in short order so that we can acquire the next trendy and faddish thing. We can dispose of those things so easily because, at the end of the day, they’re not well crafted and worth keeping.
What if we valued the enduring in every aspect of our lives in the same way we value it in literature? What if we made some room in our Spotify lists for music that people have listened to for centuries? What if we prayed prayers composed by our ancestors in the faith and prayed by generations of Christians afterward? What if we stored our good old books in good old bookcases?
Surround Yourself With What is Beautiful
I was on a long drive a few months ago and started surfing through the radio to find something worth listening to. I paused for a moment when I came across a Spanish language music station. What immediately struck me was that the music was, well, happy. Hearing that song was such a stark contrast to the snippets I’d been hearing for the last minute or two: tear-in-my-beer country songs, angsty rock, vapid pop. Not exactly uplifting stuff. Then, suddenly, a beautiful song lifted my spirit even though I couldn’t understand a word of it.
We don’t have to look very far in our culture to find what is base and ugly. It seems to be baked into the cake these days, and we encounter it seemingly every time we round a corner. We find it, as I did, in the music we listen to. We find it hanging on clothes racks in the mall. We find it in posts to social media. We find it on the television and in the movie theater.
We will, over time, be formed by the things we encounter repeatedly, so it’s important for us to be aware of how often and how meaningfully we encounter the base and ugly. And then we need to counter it by intentionally bringing the good and the beautiful into our lives. It’s not as easy to find as the base and the ugly, but it’s there to be had if we have the determination to look for it.
Unplug, and Do Something Real
I don’t just mean go read a good book – though that’s almost always a desirable activity. No, I mean go get your hands dirty doing some kind of meaningful and productive work. Go spend some face-to-face time with other people. Get out in nature. Start a garden. Start painting or sketching. Cook a meal that involves time and whole ingredients. Make time each week for a family game night.
God created us as a mysterious union between soul and body. The fact that we have souls makes us, in some way, part of the unseen spiritual dimension of creation, and the fact that we have bodies makes us part of the larger material creation. This means that we should live in and engage with that material creation in intentional and meaningful ways.
One of the many things I really enjoy about our students here at Covenant is that they begin doing those kinds of things almost instinctively as they get older. I’ve had seniors who knit while translating Plato. I’ve hired students to build custom gun racks for me. I’ve eaten bread that a senior baked in a bread machine in the Senior Lounge during the school day. I have artwork created by alumni. One of this year’s seniors is writing a thesis that argues that classical Christian education should incorporate instruction in traditional craftsmanship because it allows us to imitate the good and beautiful.
Along the road of their classical education, our students recognize that their education points them toward the real, the beautiful and the enduring in our material world, and they find and pursue the real, enduring and beautiful things that engage them. Even in their youth, they’ve recognized that their education isn’t simply theoretical and strictly academic – it’s an education that calls them to live in and engage with the material world in ways that are meaningful, beautiful and God-honoring. They lean into that.
Valuing the enduring, surrounding ourselves with beauty and doing real things take some thought, self-awareness and intentionality, but we can all do them if we put our minds to it.
And after we’ve cleared away some of the mental clutter that consumes more of our time and lives than we often recognize, we might be pleasantly surprised to find that we have a little more time to read some Plato or learn how to solve quadratic equations.
by Dr. Jason Merritt, CCS Upper School Greek Teacher and Senior Thesis Director