Educating Narcissus

Recently posted on AOI is Bryan Smith’s essay on Christian education, “Educating Narcissus”.  Bryan is a friend, fellow parishioner, and a rare jewel in the educating community.  He is also the founder of the Orthodox School Association and headmaster of St. Peter’s Orthodox Classical School in Fort Worth, TX.  The school has the entire age-range of students, and Bryan works with them everyday.  He knows education from top to bottom.

Unfortunately, we now have behind us several decades of professionally sanctioned educational practices which, in their methods as well as in their results, could be called an education to narcissism. Child-centered learning, whole-language practice, and multiple-intelligence theory have taught countless children that nothing matters which has its origin outside the self.

Though perhaps not overtly, the lesson has, nevertheless, been taught. It has been taught in stream-of-consciousness “journaling” where external forms such as spelling and grammar are of no consequence; it has been taught in anti-knowledge schools where memorization is belittled as “rote learning” and administrators declare openly their inability to predict what children will need to know in the future. It has been taught by teachers telling students there are no right answers, and by the cheap teen novels once hidden from the instructor but now assigned as classroom reading because she believes the young people can “relate” to them better. It has been taught in social studies where students learn nothing of the sacrifices of heroic men and women of the past, but everything of their own personal entitlements. In these and so many other ways, our current “progressive” schools encourage children to gaze no farther than their own adolescent images.

There are many problems with this approach. Most practically, it simply fails as a means of education—a fact by now so well documented that only those with careers rooted in the old theories still echo their empty tenets. Moreover, this approach to education assumes a Romantic optimism about human nature that is unjustified by practical experience, denies the fallen nature, and robs young people of the noblest ideas and examples of human kind while forcing them to wallow in the low, the base, and the mediocre. Furthermore, the progressive approach squanders the best opportunity—that of the early school years—to instill a body of objective factual content that can become a network of epiphanies in later years, and to inculcate habits of diligence in the attention to minute details that must always accompany successes that are not accidental. The most dangerous effect of all, however, may be that this progressive approach to education gives children the idea that the universe orbits around the parochial world of themselves and their peers—that the world will forever reconfigure itself around their desires, moods, and natural inclinations.

Many Christian schools, we must admit, are not guiltless of this pedagogical folly.

Bryan, a historically minded educator as well as an historically minded Christian, casts a corrective vision.

The education offered by Orthodox Christian schools has as one of its intentions to lure Narcissus away from his pool. Our focus on the history of Christian Civilization is an attempt to ground young people outside themselves in a legacy of ideas, actions, and aesthetics that span continents and millennia. We want them to see society as comprising the dead, the living, and those yet unborn. Our studies of great historical personalities are intended to impress upon the students how greatly their own lives and options have been shaped by the prudent foresight of another generation. Even in our study of other cultures we are not so impressed with the insular cults of folk-ways as we are with the common nature all humans share—a nature which universally acknowledges one natural law and so points to the existence of a standard higher than the assumptions of any one self-approving group.

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Josh McDowell and Christian Solutions

I spent my day off with my Godsister Courtney and my Godson Christopher on a trip down to Tyler, TX.  We were charged to set up and man a table for a fantastic Christian summer conference at a Josh McDowell event at a  local Christian School/ church.  It’s not the first time that I’ve heard apologetics events like these, and not the first time I’ve heard one from McDowell.  I, like many other fine-arts oriented Christians, believe that “beauty will save the world”, and that there are strong limitations to Christian apologetics.

The Christian Apologetic mission is not limited because it is wrong, but because it’s a solution that often fits the problem it tries to face the way defensive driving classes fit speeding.  Information of this kind can influence behavior people are ambivalent about, but it will not change your life.

As a sophomore in High School I took a class called “Apologetics”, and for our main text we used McDowell’s A Ready Defense.  Though later on I would find some issues treated a little simply, for the most part the book was wonderfully helpful.  Truth be told, I believe that book saved me a lot of grief because it helped me to think through some issues and provided me with some credible reasons to believe Christianity was true.

It was not enough to save me from doubt and anxiety.  This was because my anxiety, like most people’s, didn’t have to do with the exact number of texts that attest to the historicity of Holy Scripture, or textual variances in certain manuscripts. No amount of McDowell or William Lane Craig can give to the human soul what Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or Lewis’ Till We Have Faces can.  These books do more than testify to the historical veracity of Christ, they reflect the One who is Truth and Beauty in their very makeup. The human being craves more than just information, and needs much more than the facts in order to mature and make good decisions.  Plato reminds us that there is a great discrepancy between knowledge and information, and what McDowell wanted to do — self admittedly– was to dispense information to the mass of Christian youths.

After McDowell’s apologetics greatest hits, he dedicated a session to sex and love.  You might think, as I did, that the information gushing was now likely to slow down and leave room for fatherly wisdom.  This was not the case;  McDowell started delivering the important statistics that teens are not usually told: how the number of STD’s has increased by hundreds of percents over the past decades, how condoms are only 70% effective, etc.  Certainly this is good to know, but does it solve the problem?

And this is what Courtney and I talked about in the car on the way back: what is this event, and those like it, trying to fix?  We might surmise that  this particular segment was trying to combat sexual activity among teens.  It would be naïve to think that this kind of solution would be greatly effective; keeping say, 50% of the teens in the crowd that would otherwise be fornicating with their serious significant other from doing so.  Certainly it is good, but is it a solution?

I don’t think it is a good solution because I don’t think the problem is the right one to treat.  The goal of stopping kids from having sex is a bad goal.  I say this not because I’m ambivalent about premarital sex or about teen health, but because such a goal cannot but come across as unwarranted policing.  To put my point into contrast, why not give skin cancer the same treatment we give STD’s?  It’s a problem that is easily cured by self-control, and knowing the risk may help temper kids vanity as they decided whether to join the rest of sunbathing crowd.  The answer is that there is much more to sex than health risks and divine commands.  Sex is a meaningful and precious thing, and its misuse is sorrowful; like spray paint on the Sistine Chapel.

The reason McDowell, and the others like him, grab a microphone and fill an auditorium with their young’uns is because they love them (however generally and abstractly) and want to see their lives develop into something wonderful.  Instead of calling the problem “teen sex” the problem is “helping awaken kids to the Good Life”.  Abstinence is just a part of living a meaningful and beautiful life.

That is why I shuddered when McDowell tried to separate “love” from “sex” for the young crowd.  He was trying to help those who think that they must sleep with the person they love, and he thought the thing to do here is to make sure that the definition of “sex” and “love” did not overlap.  That’s why he said,

We call sex ‘making love’ but that is really a misnomer.  Love and sex are two VERY different things.  It is not ‘making love’.  It’s just getting it on!

I contend that the single greatest threat to our children is the withdrawal  of meaninglessness from their lives. Stealing meaning from sex by divorcing it from love is a recipe for disaster, even if it successfully keeps teens abstinent.  What kind of marriage do we want for our kids?  If sex is a rather meaningless activity that, by the way we should only engage in within the bounds of marriage while consider the significant health issues involved, then what human activity is meaningful?

I’m sure that if you asked any of the kids, parents, or teachers  in the audience if you thought that was what McDowell was driving at they would rush to his defense.  And they are right to do so insofar as he is not intending to further an agenda of meaninglessness.  However, statements like this have significant impact as part of the “dreadful tide” that mounts against the souls of this culture.

Add “Sex is just getting it on” to “Food is just fuel” as innocuous slogans that rot away a generations ability to find meaning, joy, and happiness in life.

Culture Revisited, Again

A couple things have sparked my interest in the misconception of culture. The first is my experience at the strange little private school I work at, aka “Flexing Poplars”. Walking into the place is a bit like walking into another world. Hogwarts would be more relateable. When I first started working there a year ago several of the students had heroin problems. One of my favorite students was a 14 year old boy who was working very hard to kick a nasty cocaine problem. Everything I normally assume was exchanged for the opposite, and it has been difficult adjusting without being derailed.

What does a place like Flexing Poplars need? It needs more than just motivation, direction, vision, and competence. It needs a culture change. So I have been focusing on using my presence there to affect a culture change, both in and outside of class.

Teaching high school Sunday School has afforded me a means of comparison. The problems there are similar but different, and the discussions between the priests and myself have been on the same motif: culture creation.

The more direct impetus for this rant was a discussion with a group of conservative Christian men (from many denominations) about how Christians should view education. The issue was brought up by a man who has been deliberating over different post-high school options for his daughter, and it bears noting that his daughter was present. During the conversation I noticed that culture and education were sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes antithetically. Now both these terms suffer frequent violence, but the drum of “impacting culture” was beat regularly and unenthusiastically by everyone present.

The man’s main concern was for his daughter’s development; he wants her to be a happy, responsible, and respectable person. His worries were concerning the information she would be fed, and that the conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values present in the media would be absorbed by her. Surely these fears are reasonable, but what is the response? I know people who went to Berkley in the 60’s and are as conservative as they come. There are plenty of people who are media-literate who aren’t enslaved to whatever happens to be channeled on a given week.

The problem is not as simple as where you get your information from. It’s about who you are.

Of course that seems like a tall order: “who you are”. How does one become a good person? This is in fact the question that forms culture.

So I asked the man’s daughter, “What has shaped you into who you are?” This question is beyond the scope of this piece, but it throws into relief where I think we go wrong. Culture isn’t mainly about information, it’s about the vision of the Good Person.

Two sober remarks need to be made about the current state of our culture: American culture was not formed as a Christian culture, and the secular/sacred distinction has neutralized American culture from developing. The founding fathers’ view of the Good Person was largely the Ben Franklin model. Franklin, not a Christian, was working towards human perfection sans God. Ingenuity, hard work, and habits that supported these virtues took the spotlight. Humility and mercy receded. Ben Franklin, who was not meek, has inherited this piece of earth.

The founding fathers were largely deistic in their philosophy, and certainly shows in their politics. They created a government that assumes that God will not be acting within it, and encouraged mankind to prepare to live and govern without His help. Government, then became a space neutral to divinity. Secularism is built into political philosophy.

Christ was baptized. Water has not been the same since. He was nailed to a tree, and they have yet to forget it. He was buried in the earth, and it is hallowed. I may render to Caesar what belongs to him, but he belongs to God. Christ is present, and he is the Good Person. Christianity is about this Good Person and us becoming more and more like Him as we abide in Him. Christianity acknowledges everything as sacred, and the role of humankind is to take the fruits of the earth and, lifting it up to Him, allow Him to exchange it with something holy. Everything is being transformed, nothing is secular.

Living this way is a tall order, and it is one that we cannot do by ourselves. Convinced as we might be of the sacredness of all things, we wake up in the morning feeling removed from the sacred and ignorant of how to continue in the movement of Christ’s transformation of the cosmos. This is because transformation is occurring within us: we are growing and developing. That is, we are developing if we continue.

I’ve found myself asked quite frequently if being a Christian has any impact in our lives. Can it be the case that I can look like everyone else, act like everyone else, and be a perfect Christian because what Christ has done for me has already been done. However, until death, what is there for us to do? Evangelizing doesn’t seem to match many people’s personalities, and those who seem suited to it are often very annoying and counterproductive.

The dilemma is, in other words, either Christ affects my entire life, or He affects only my post-death destination. Personally, I understand this dilemma well, and it points to a deficiency in contemporary Christianity. Why do we have no Christian culture, no development, no hope? How can we read the Bible and not see the concern that God and his authors have for the continual deification of His people?

If culture is “how one sees the world”, and we cannot see Christ anywhere in the world, then either Christ is false or we are blind to reality. Fr. Alexander Schmemman offers this definition of a Christian: one who sees Christ in everything and rejoices. The mark of culture is that those who grow it see the world in a mature, developed, and cultivated way, and the mark of Christian culture is that we see Truth in the world, shining in the light of His glory.

Education and Activism: “A Secular Church”

After attending a conference of DFW’s Christian Classical Schools a couple weeks back, this well-funded lecture by Bennington College’s President Liz Coleman seems not only unimpressive, but a little naive and self-important. While her analysis of the fragmentation of knowledge and the Myth of the Expert are spot-on, they are not by any means novel insights. Likewise, her secular attack on the problem sounds like poor man’s version of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, and her renovation a far cry from the one that started St. John’s.

Now I have a hard time scowling at anything that urges our institutions of higher learning to become less hermetic, and I am rather comfortable with recognition that idea and ideals are to be action guiding.  (I am, after all, a fan of Phillipa Foot.) I am certainly a fan of making people who are generalized, thoughtful, and civic.  For this I wholeheartedly commend Dr. Coleman.  What seemed to me to be conspicuously missing from Coleman’s talk is the attitude of learning, and the attendant excitement and humility. Instead of the awe and pleasure of learning, the yarn that was spun was one of a collegiate brain trust, as if all that was needed from education was a group of students and their imaginations.  Coleman’s vision is to turn the liberal arts school into one of Center for Civic Advancement, or some variation on that theme.  Instead of studying history with the classical attitude that expects to learn it becomes a tool for our socially active brain trust.  To quote: “history provides a laboratory in which we see played out the actual as well as the intended consequences of ideas”.  This may be better than useless academic deconstructionism, but it certainly is not the new and promising vision that Dr. Coleman thinks it to be.

When Coleman mentions “fundamentalists” who do not hesitate to use the liberal arts as a tool to bring in the “absolute” and a theocratic vision, she means that as a threat to her audience.  Such people– the same ones who “do not believe in evolution”– are not educated in Coleman’s point of view, but according to her they still have the liberal arts.  What this begins to betray is that Coleman means something very different by “liberal arts” than everyone else.  In her vision, the liberal arts  means not having a expert lead the way, which of course does not necessitate education.  Now to be fair, she mentions deep thinking about things that matter, and that really is central to education.  But how can Bennington be offering a fair education to its students if it doesn’t force them to deal with the questions outside the immediate purview of today’s social activism unless it is, in a sense, classical?  How can it be education, in the sense of offering the deepest thoughts about the deepest matters, without dealing with the great thinkers who have thought  God? It’s not that I hate secular education, or even really distrust it.  It’s that vision for a new liberal arts that thinks a “Center for the Advancement of the Public Action” can replace a church does not understand the Church, the role the Church has played in society, and the relationship between the Church and the University.

Humanity and Education

Going into college my best friend and I talked about what majors we wanted to pursue.  He was most fascinated by philosophy, largely because of it impact on history and our current societal situation.  I was equally compelled, but I decided to “narrow” the focus down by studying psychology.  My thinking was that philosophy studied many things– psychology being one– but the determinate factor was what philosophy had to say about the human being.  I still hold that view, but — naive me– psychology (the discipline) doesn’t exactly encounter psychology (the subject) in some of the important ways philosophy does.

As an educator and a student, I have been interested in some time in how a proper vision of humanity affects a proper vision of education.  More often than not, “Christian” education is one that sees one or two things wrong with the current secular educational model, and creates their own clone that leaves those things out.  Sometimes this is married with a conservative zeal for the “good ol” times, so they enforce uniforms, teach Latin, and don’t offer sports; calling themselves “Classical”. While many of these institutions are good places to send you kids (largely because they are filled with good people, not by virtue of their curriculum), they do not have the proper vision of humanity and the proper vision of education.

Implicit in my critique is that the Christian denominations from which these schools spring up lacks the proper vision of humanity.  That is why the Roman Catholic school ethos is vastly different from that of a Presbyterian or Bible church school.  Imagine (if you don’t have an example handy) being a freshman in high school, undergoing a steady barrage of “Total Depravity” (whatever that means) and then wandering into art class.  How is one to paint anything true and beautiful? Imagine being taught to “Let Go and Let God”, and then being forced to work hard in Algebra.  Imbalanced Christian doctrines lead to imbalanced educational programs: anemic Christianity will certainly offer up an impoverished education.

With that in mind, listen to John Granger, who is much more to be trusted on the subject than I.

Culture, revisiting a place to start

What is the relationship between culture (as I am using it) and psychology?  To what extent is culture within the person, and to what extent is it without?  This seems to be where the culture/schema distinction ultimately leads us.  As I mentioned in the comment section, if possible I want to avoid using the word “schema” both because it is jargon, and because it imports Kantian baggage that I find misleading and (for a Christian) un-Incarnational.

We could say that schema is psychological – that is to say, it is a certain sense of what could be understood when I spoke of “a way of seeing the world”.   Schema however, is not in the world, but in us, and the world can become more or less the servant of “our way of seeing it” depending on our previous philosophical and personal tastes.  This leads me to a major objection to using the word: the locus of power can become completely the individual human being.  This  leads us to the typical nature/ nurture whirlpool, and epistemological skepticism.  Sure we could talk about it, but the more that discussion happens, the less removed it is from reality.  Also, I simply don’t care much for it.  Largely it is unhelpful.

What is more important is to keep Truth on the table.  This means, allowing for the common understanding of the world being at least part of reality.  We, schemas included, are subject to the “tribunal of experience”.  Moreover – and this is complex philosophical position worthy of rigorous attention – I believe that experience is conceptually laden.  It is the case that ideas enter into us experientially, even in a certain sense physically.  Epistemologically speaking, man is opened up to the world when he experiences the world.  Experience is not streams of data, but of actual things in an actual world.  (This, as I have noted before, gives an interesting perspective on physical sin, which allows concepts to harm the νούς as well as the body.) Thus I prefer to talk of concepts and experience instead of schema, because I believe it maintains the proper authoritative relationship between the person and the world.

Where is culture in all of this?  I mentioned in the comment box my heritage from Aristotle who continually speaks of the man who is μουσικός , which is either “musical” or “cultured” in most translations.  It comports well with our idea of culture here, though mostly because it signals an initiation into a particular practice of the polis, like music or reading/writing.  There are, of course, other words that also refer to culture in Greek: Plato talks of “education” or “training” (παιδεια), and of course Aristotle’s ethics (from ἐθός ) are all about forming man into true man, the good man.

The multiplicity of words doesn’t detract from my understanding of culture, but further points to what it is I claim we are missing: formation towards an end.  When sociologists talk of “schema” there is not much of an inherent  developmental sense, only a pragmatic one.  Being cultured in this sense would mean learning how to cope with the world, not about how to become most truly and beautifully who you are.

This sense of culture opens the human being up into the world and lifts his face to God, for it is Christ who is the Truth and the example of the Good man.  It is in Him that we can live with each other and the world in Beauty.  Christian culture is that which develops us into persons who can see the world rightly, who can affirm that the heavens declare the glory of God, and the image of God in our neighbor.

Development means change, and change means the death and passing away of somethings.  Being a Christian means being cultured and leaving behind the dead old man we once were.  Does it mean leaving behind our heritage?  Well yes and no.  The Irish were still Irish after St. Patty, but they were no longer Druids. (Apparently that task now falls upon one of my high school students.)  A friend of mine was reaffirming for me the completeness of change in Christ, but even this is not clear.  Is it I who persist through the change, or is it I that am the subject of change; and if the latter, how is it still me?  This question can quickly become mostly fruitless like epistemological skepticism, but it highlights one of the main fears when we talk about culture and “the Good”: namely, how do we judge what stays and goes?  Who are we to be the judge?  I cannot answer that question, but I can tell you part of how we should approach the issue: humbly.

Culture, A Place to Start

A while ago I started writing on the misuse of the word “culture”; aiming at understanding how we miss what a true culture is.  I accussed us of falling for the manikin of Vapid Culture, then  I wanted to dial in closer to the real thing by looking at “high” culture and subcultures.  Today I hope to hit on what the real thing is, offer a place to start thinking about culture building, and offer a start of Christian culture.  Off course, this is a blog – not a book – so even if these thoughts are pretty good, they are bound to be over-reaching and insufficient.  Given that, it is only appropriate to place my thoughts in context.

A couple things have sparked my interest in the misconception of culture. The first is my experience at the strange little private school I work at, aka “Flexing Poplars”. Walking into the place is a bit like walking into another world. Hogwarts would be more relateable. When I first started working there a year ago several of the students had heroin problems. One of my favorite students was a 14 year old boy who was working very hard to kick a nasty cocaine problem. Everything I normally assume was exchanged for the opposite, and it has been difficult adjusting without letting the mission become derailed.

What does a place like Flexing Poplars need? It needs more than just motivation, direction, vision, and competence. It needs a culture change. So I have been focusing on using my presence there to affect aculture change, both in and outside of class.

Teaching high school Sunday School has afforded me a means of comparison. The problems there are similar but different, and the discussions between the priests and myself have been on the same motif: culture creation.

The more direct impetus for this rant was a discussion with a group of conservative Christian men (from many denominations) about how Christians should view education. The issue was brought up by a man who has been deliberating over different post-high school options for his daughter, and it bears noting that his daughter was present. During the conversation I noticed that culture and education were sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes antithetically. Now both these terms suffer frequent violence, but the drum of “impacting culture” was beat regularly and unenthusiastically by everyone present.

The man’s main concern was for his daughter’s development; he wants her to be a happy, responsible, and respectable person. His worries were concerning the information she would be fed, and that the conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values present in the media would be absorbed by her. Surely these fears are reasonable, but what is the response? I know people who went to Berkley in the 60’s and are as conservative as they come. There are plenty of people who are media-literate who aren’t enslaved to whatever happens to be channeled on a given week.

The problem is not as simple as where you get your information from. It’s about who you are.

Of course that seems like a tall order: “who you are”. How does one become a good person? This is in fact the question that forms culture.

So I asked the man’s daughter, “What has shaped you into who you are?” This question is beyond the scope of this piece, but it throws into relief where I think we go wrong. Culture isn’t mainly about information, it’s about the vision of the Good Person.

Two sober remarks need to be made about the current state of our culture: American culture was not formed as a Christian culture, and the secular/sacred distinction has neutralized American culture from developing. The founding fathers’ view of the Good Person was largely the Ben Franklin model. Franklin, not a Christian, was working towards human perfection sans God. Ingenuity, hard work, and habits that supported these virtues took the spotlight. Humility and mercy receded. Ben Franklin, who was not meek, has inherited this piece of earth.

The founding fathers were largely deistic in their philosophy, and certainly shows in their politics. They created a government that assumes that God will not be acting within it, and encouraged mankind to prepare to live and govern without His help. Government, then became a space neutral to divinity. Secularism is built into political philosophy.

Christ was baptized. Water has not been the same since. He was nailed to a tree, and they have yet to forget it. He was buried in the earth, and it is hallowed. I may render to Caesar what belongs to him, but he belongs to God. Christ is present, and he is the Good Person. Christianity is about this Good Person and us becoming more and more like Him as we abide in Him. Christianity acknowledges everything as sacred, and the role of humankind is to take the fruits of the earth and, lifting it up to Him, allow Him to exchange it with something holy. Everything is being transformed, nothing is secular.

Living this way is a tall order, and it is one that we cannot do by ourselves. Convinced as we might be of the sacredness of all things, we wake up in the morning feeling removed from the sacred and ignorant of how to continue in the movement of Christ’s transformation of the cosmos. This is because transformation is occurring within us: we are growing and developing. That is, we are developing if we continue.

I’ve found myself asked quite frequently if being a Christian has any impact in our lives. Can it be the case that I can look like everyone else, act like everyone else, and be a perfect Christian because what Christ has done for me has already been done. However, until death, what is there for us to do? Evangelizing doesn’t seem to match many people’s personalities, and those who seem suited to it are often very annoying and counterproductive.

The dilemma is, in other words, either Christ affects my entire life, or He affects only my post-death destination. Personally, I understand this dilemma well, and it points to a deficiency in contemporary Christianity. Why do we have no Christian culture, no development, no hope? How can we read the Bible and not see the concern that God and his authors have for the continual deification of His people?

If culture is “how one sees the world”, and we cannot see Christ anywhere in the world, then either Christ is false or we are blind to reality. Fr. Alexander Schmemman offers this definition of a Christian: one who sees Christ in everything and rejoices. The mark of culture is that those who grow it see the world in a mature, developed, and cultivated way, and the mark of Christian culture is that we see Truth in the world, shining in the light of His glory.