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28 April 2016

On Classical Education: What Is a Student?

This post is part of a series:

Character is the True Aim
Cultivation of Godly Character
What is a Student? (this post)
Make Haste Slowly
Much Not Many
Ordered Affections
Repetition is the Mother of Memory
Repetition and the Habit of Attention
Embodied Learning
Songs Chants and Jingles
Wonder and Curiosity
Educational Virtues
By Teaching We Learn
Classical Education is Like a Table

I've been listening to and blogging about Dr. Perrin's series of lectures about Classical Education for a while now, and this time I've been working on his lecture about Educational Virtues. I listened to this lecture three or four times before I started to make sense of it. Part of that is that, for some odd reason, coming up with a whole hour to just sit and listen just isn't happening. So I'm listening while I cook or do dishes. But part of it is that until now I have never, ever considered the effect of virtue on learning. And this new (to me) idea has taken some time to make room for in my thoughts. 

Dr. Perrin suggests that until students are ready to exert themselves, to develop what he calls "educational virtues", and use them to actively seek knowledge and growth, to love the thing is that are lovely, until people do that --

-- They're not really students. 

And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced he's right. We are meant to act, not to be acted upon. Education is the task of building our best self, of cultivating our capacity for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and His grace, our failures to live the celestial law perfectly and consistently in mortality can be erased and we are enabled to develop a Christlike character. Justice demands, however, that none of this happen without our willing agreement and participation.
-Elder D. Todd Christopherson,emphasis added, Free Forever To Act For Themselves

I can, and should, create opportunities for my children to interact with the True, the Good, and the Lovely. I am charged with the responsibility of seeing to it that their education takes place in a context that embraces the best books, that seeks for the virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy and spreads it, like a feast, for their growth. But ultimately, they have to choose to take it in. Or it won't go.

But virtue isn't something that our culture thinks about much, anymore. Virtue is pretty much never trending or viral. What is it? Dr. Perrin, in his lecture about educational virtues says this:

"Virtue can be defined in a number of ways. It's related to the Latin word, the word for man is actually veir... There is a Latin word, virtus, but it had this idea of the ideal, excellent human being who embodied all what the Greeks call excellence or erite. We get the word virile from the same root, veir. So it was this idealized human being, that had all the great qualities that you would wish for... Virtues are... deeply embedded parts of our character... that readily dispose us to feel, think and act in morally appropriate ways."

As parents, we need to not only cultivate in our children an inclination and habit of thinking, feeling, and behaving in morally correct ways, we must also cultivate these same traits in ourselves: we cannot pass to our children that which we do not possess. We need to be, ourselves, journeying toward this heroic ideal of human excellence. We are trying to inspire in them the belief that they can be the heroic figures with which their education ought to be filled.

Interestingly, he also says that, in certain cases, habits can be synonymous with virtues, in that when we make a habit of feeling, thinking, and acting correctly, this begins to define who we are - in this way we become virtuous. Being that I'm also currently studying Charlotte Mason's thoughts on Classical Education, I thought this was really interesting: Charlotte Mason had a lot to say about habits.

The habits of the child determine the character of the man.
-Charlotte Mason, vol. 1, page 118

That sounds very much like what Dr. Perrin was getting at. Miss Mason also said this:

Let children alone... the education of habit is successful in so far as it enables the mother to let her children alone, not teasing them with perpetual commands and directions - a running fire of Do and Don’t ; but letting them go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way and grow to fruitful purpose.
-Charlotte Mason, vol. 1, page 134

Miss Mason is suggesting for our homes much the same thing that Joseph Smith said when he was asked how he governs his people. He said,

I teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves.
-Joseph Smith, quoted by John Taylor, JD 10:57-58

And that's exactly what we're looking for: students -people, parents, citizens- with the virtue, the self-discipline, to govern themselves at all times and places. And this need for virtue starts in education. And education starts when a person chooses to exert themselves to learn: when they begin to make choices from which a natural outgrowth of those choices is the cultivation and strengthening of these necessary virtues.

Dr. Perrin spends some time talking about what happens in the absence of virtue, when you have what he calls "disordered passions." This idea of disordered passions is really more broad than what the word passion might suggest. C.S. Lewis said it this way:

Aristotle says that the aim of education is
to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.

Which brings us again back to the cultivation and appreciation of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and to the need for virtue. In much the same way that we help our children cultivate the taste for healthy foods, rather than allowing them to eat their preferred diet of ice cream and marshmallows, we need to guide their education towards that which will help their souls to grow.

...seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith...
-Doctrine and Covenants 109:7

The Lord wasn't only saying that we need both study and faith to learn the most effectively, though obviously that's important. But there's this idea of best books that is important because it is only the very best books that will develop the soul the way we need to in order to reach our vast potential as children of God. We cannot expect to dine, intellectually (which really is spiritually), on intellectual and spiritual ice cream and marshmallows, and expect to be able to grow a healthy soul that way. Nor can we indulge in pablum, twaddle, or award-winning trash that passes as "literature" and expect to grow the way that children of the Most High ought to. The injunction is to seek out, not just good books or better books, but the very best books for ourselves and our families. We need to find the cream of the crop, the ones that will urge us on toward the heroic ideal, toward ordered passions.

How will you manage to think rightly with a sick soul? A heart ravaged by vice, pulled this way and that by passion, dragged astray by violent or guilty love? Passions and vices relax the attention, and scatter it, lead it astray, and they injure the judgement in round-about ways. Knowledge depends on the direction given our passions, and our moral habits.
-quoted by Dr. Perrin

Scripture puts it more succinctly, not only giving instruction relative to our passions, but also pointing out the result of that effort: being filled with love.

...and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love...
-Alma 38:12

Disordered passions hinder and can even prevent the acquisition of knowledge. And this happens because, if, when the student sets down to learn, he has too many thing competing for his attention, then he will not be able to focus effectively. If he's not engaged in the learning at hand - which requires that he love it to some degree - then something else will occupy his mind, and his learning will suffer as a result. And here's the rub: in this fallen world, the thing which comes most naturally is seldom, if ever going to be that which is True, Good and Beautiful. Things that come naturally - the natural man - are in opposition to God, who is the embodiment and perfect fulfillment of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. It is always going to be harder to seek Truth, Goodness, and Beauty than it is to settle for the white lie, the good enough, and the pleasant. But settling isn't what education is about. It's not what a student is.

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