Whitefield Academy Blog
Rethinking Education: What We Do at School
And just like that, we were back together again. Over an unusually hot and sticky week in early June, about a week after the final bell rang for the summer, Whitefield’s faculty and staff gathered together for our second annual summer retreat — a time to reflect on the previous year and to help one another grow as teachers, people, and followers of Jesus. We gathered with a mixture of emotions: sad as we left our families for several days, but energized by one another’s company; weary from a long school year, and yet expectant that there was still so much for us to understand in order to be the teachers and staff that our students, parents, and God would have us to be.
The backbone and main intent of this year’s retreat was to read through parts of a 12th-century text written by a monk and teacher from Paris named Hugh of St. Victor. Hugh wrote an important medieval text called The Didascalicon, a book as profound as it is hard to pronounce! Didache means teaching or doctrine (think of our English word didactic) and Hugh’s book was written as a manual for students to instruct them on how to learn and study, which means addressing what is most important in life and what we as humans were created for.
Now I will freely admit that I have a temperament that loves ideas and I, given the option, will read a medieval text with an unpronounceable name for fun. It is the more practical and grounded at Whitefield who rightly tie a rope around my ankle and lead me back down to Earth by asking the questions, “So what?” and “Why should this matter to me and my students?” as we read. It’s these kinds of interactions and conversations that make Whitefield such a beautiful place — a place to gather among friends and read an ancient text that enables us to see the times we are living in more clearly. It gives us the opportunity to ask questions about how to best teach and care for our students, and, most dearly of all, how to love God. Let me quickly sketch for you what this looks like in practice.
The Three Questions
When we read a great text we need to ask three questions: First, “What is truthful?” Here we ask what the author is trying to say and what the literal truth is of what we are reading. Second, “What is good?” How do we take the wisdom conveyed and make it impact our lives and the lives of others? Third, “What is beautiful?” Here we find other senses of truth other than just the literal. This question confronts us by asking, “What are we after?” Or, “Why read and search in the first place?” It was Hugh’s answer to this third question that so struck me at the retreat. His answer is so utterly simplistic and seemingly old-fashioned as to be offensive today.
Knowing God, His Son, and His Creation
Without maybe even realizing it, we often answer the question “What are we after?” in the de facto ways that our culture says they should. So we live in order to chase more and better things, to express ourselves fully and authentically, or to be able to tell others what our job titles or our kid’s job titles are. Hugh says that in all of the ways that we try to answer the question, what we are truly after is God, because that’s the way that He has created us.
You see, Hugh’s understanding of life is this: God the Father made the world through the Logos, or the Son, Jesus. Because of this, the world is made to be understood and is properly ordered to be known by us. Therefore, we have the wonderful ability to learn, discover, and enjoy the good things of life that God has given us. In fact, God tells us in Genesis that these abilities are also responsibilities. We are to take care of creation and look after what God has given us. We are to become lovers of wisdom and that beautiful order that God, through Jesus, has given. Hugh says when we slow down to think about what that means, what we discover is that, in our studying and learning, we are truly coming to know Jesus because He is the Logos, the form or the principal of everything behind our universe. That means that God has created us all to be philosophers! Not in the way that image probably conjures up for you, but as people who love wisdom because we desire to know and love our Creator and our Redeemer. The crazy part of all of this is that, practically speaking, when a person studies math, they are coming to know not only how numbers and figures work in order to be able to pass a class, but they are coming to know Jesus. I know, it’s a crazy paradigm shift to think this way!
Here’s the problem, though, because it all sounds so nice and easy the way I’ve described it so far. We have lost our way. Though our hearts and minds have been created to recognize God in everything that He has made, we’ve forgotten how to do that. We could say it in stronger terms and say that we’ve deliberately chosen to go our own way and to see our own selfish and sinful desires reflected back to us rather than the Logos. The question becomes, “How can we get back to the place where we are able to see in the way we’ve been created to see?”
The one word answer is: grace. It is only through God’s grace that we can be restored, and so we must turn to Jesus. Once we have done that, God in his grace has given us education. It is by a reforming of our hearts and minds through the study of Scripture and the liberal arts that we can come to see aright again. For Hugh then, education is a restoration of our hearts and minds in order to properly see God and to become human again. So with that view, doing math homework or an English essay is restoring us to who we were created to be. How much different is that outlook than the way I used to view my homework! It’s an outlook that we are trying to absorb at Whitefield Academy in the midst of so many competing answers.