Growing up in the modern West, most of us have been conditioned to think that the best students are those who don’t struggle. Successful people are those who easily achieve straight A’s, who can get their homework done as quickly as possible, and who rarely have to deal with unpleasant realities such as frustration, struggle, confusion or failure. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned and permeates the culture of the classroom.
From my book Saints and Scoundrels, page 302:
“In our era, young children are continually being pressured to engage in self-expression before they are shown how to think coherently, and they are pressured to engage in reasoning before they are given the facts with which to reason. The result is not intellectual freedom but enslavement, for someone that is never taught how to think is by default trained to be a bondservant to the latest fad or fashion.”
Throughout my career as a freelance author, there have been certain themes I keep returning to. One of these themes is the necessity for parents to demonstrate to their children that Christianity is beautiful, that following Jesus is not simply the right thing to do but also lovely and attractive.
Christians have often failed to take seriously Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique that religion has a tendency to stifle joy and to bring death rather than life, and that consequently Christianity is life’s nausea. Sadly, what often passes for “Christianity” has often been nauseating and succeeds only in driving children away from the faith. Continue reading
When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.
Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.
But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”
Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)
From Part 4 of my interview about brain fitness:
To cultivate learning without cultivating the imagination is to create automatons. That’s why the capacity to imagine has been the enemy of all great totalitarian regimes in history, since it is through the imagination that we are able to make connections, to form associations, to conceptualize long-term consequences and to see the infrastructures of meaning that lie beneath the surface of things. In other words, the imagination feeds all the things that make us truly free.
Last night my wife and I finished listening to a talk given by Father Seraphim Rose (1934-1982) on the topic of developing an Orthodox worldview. (The talk is available on Youtube while a transcription is available HERE.) He spoke about the challenges facing Christian parents in today’s world. He gave the talk in the early eighties so some of the end-times stuff towards the end is a bit dated, but if anything the general problems he diagnosed have become even more acute since then, making his message all the more relevant.
In Part 3 of my interview with Graham Taylor on brain fitness, I talked about educational reform. I pointed out that sometimes our educational efforts are focused so much on content that we neglect to give adequate consideration to the skills that go into being an effective learner. For thousands of years thinkers have been developing techniques of memory and learning, yet modern education tends to neglect these techniques to focus exclusively on content. Here’s one of the points I made about this:
“Let go and let God.”
“Human effort plays no part in the spiritual life.”
“If you’re struggling to be holy, that just shows you’re working in your own strength rather than God’s.”
Do these cliches sound familiar? Having spent most of my life in evangelical circles, I can’t begin to count the amount of times I was told that a spirit-led life should not be a struggle, but should come easy. One teacher told me that the Christian life should be as easy as a boy rolling down hill, while other mentors told me that frustration, confusion and struggle are the signs that someone is living in the flesh rather than the Spirit. One book that was recommended to me by almost all my evangelical friends said that will-power played no part in the life of someone surrendered to Jesus.
Those of us who are involved in classical education, whether as writers, teachers, home-educators or parents, find ourselves at a disadvantage. How can you teach classically when you yourself have not been given a classical education? Perhaps you have struggled with that. Perhaps you are a homeschool parent who feels inadequate to the task of giving your children a classical education. If so, then there are four things you should do or keep in mind.
In their book The Teaching Gap, James Stigler and James Hiebert discuss the differences between how math is taught in American classrooms vs. Japanese classrooms. Their observations were based on extensive video footage of eight-grade classrooms in both countries (plus Germany) in research aimed to identify general teaching patterns and differences. Was there a specifically American way of teaching that might help to explain why American is lagging behind other nations in math scores?