Returning to Paideia – Education as Worship

Earlier this year, I posted several times regarding the concept or idea of paideia.  By way of review – the concept is best described as the education of the entire person.  The word itself is Greek and much of the discussion around this concept centers on the practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as the root of centuries of Western education come directly from these practices.  But another ancient statement of this idea is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in the great statement of the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

“Hear of Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

As stated before – this encompasses the entire person (heart, soul and might) and involves all of life, not merely formal instruction.  It also assumes it continues throughout life.  Although the command involves teaching children, it also includes every sphere of life for all ages.  H.I. Marrou, a French historian of ancient education, spoke of the ideal of not just molding the individual but of providing unity to a civilization – “sharing a single idea, a common attitude toward the purpose of existence” and a “common devotion to a single ideal of human perfection”.   Note the language of devotion.  Education is by its very nature devotional, an act of worship.  When we learn or to put it another way, to truly be able to learn, humility is required.  Learning requires the admission of ignorance.  It involves the submission of the learner to be taught.  One who already knows something by very definition cannot learn it.  That thing can be reviewed or rehearsed, but not learned in the proper sense of the word.  In fact, one of the greatest impediments to learning is the thought that someone already knows.  If I am to learn anything, I have to admit that I need to learn.  I have to present myself to be changed.  This is an attitude of worship.

I consider this in several contexts.  First, there is the context of formal education.  In today’s world of “child-centered learning”, authority is thought of as almost a dirty word.  One thing that is interesting about education in the ancient world is the utter lack of interest in child psychology.  For the ancients, the child wasn’t the point but instead for the child to grow up.  The means were only administered with the end in mind.  And to be sure, there was an end in mind.  What is the end that we have in mind for ourselves or for our children?  In other words, what is the point of education?  In today’s world it all too often is merely a credential, a piece of paper conferred at the end of a prescribed course of study or the ability to make a living.  We have aimed too low.  Or from another perspective we have aimed too broadly.  As Jacques Barzun wryly observes, we have aimed schooling “to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars”.  So what is the point?  For the ancient Israelite it was the love of God.  For the ancient Greek or Roman it involved a “single ideal of human perfection”  or a citizen properly prepared to take his (and yes, in that world it was definitely his) place in the polis, the common culture of the republic.  But what is it for you and I?  We must not substitute means for ends.  The mastering of particular material, the sharpening of skills, the completion of a course or the prospect of earning a living are all worthy goals, but they are not the end of education.  Education is an act of worship.  And it must be centered on a worthy object of that worship.  As a Christian, the end of education for me or for my children must be the conforming of one’s entire personhood to Christ.  This should be more than tacking a few Bible verses onto a lesson plan or muttering a quick prayer before the classwork begins.  True education is apprenticeship.  We learn best what we love.

The second context I think of is parenting.  The Shema refers to talking about the commands of the Lord constantly.  It hearkens back to the day of oral traditions as a means of passing on culture, but to me it highlights something vital that is missing in much of our society.  Vigen Guroian, an Orthodox Theologian who teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia authored a book named “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination”.  In this book he references stories such as Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Snow Queen and The Princess and the Goblin as invaluable teachers of virtue.  Though not strictly speaking stories, the commands referenced in the Shema were to be taught not simply as formal instruction but as oral tradition – that is to say, incorporated deeply into the family story that was told and re-told each day in the context of daily living.  Gurioan likewise commends the material of great stories (though not divinely inspired as Christians hold the Scripture to be) as something that can awaken the moral imagination if they are incorporated into the life of the family as read-alouds (or stated another way, as oral tradition).  Storytelling is an irreplaceable aspect of the building of virtue.  The corollary to this is that the lack of storytelling (or the telling of the wrong kinds of stories) leads to the lack of virtue.  We have lost much of the sense of oral tradition within our society, but what is troubling is that stories abound in our culture anyway.  Well, to refine that thought, it isn’t troubling that stories abound in our culture, it is what those stories are that is troubling.  Our children are less and less being shaped by stories told within the context of a family based oral culture.  They are instead being shaped by the stories being told by a mass media popular culture that all too often has an agenda that is antithetical to the values and virtues that as a parent I want to teach.  Paideia depends to a great degree on the stories we choose to tell to our children (or for that matter to ourselves).  What story do we adopt as our own?  Or to put it more precisely, what story do we allow to adopt us as its own?

A final context is personal worship and devotion.  There is an oral tradition in the Christian faith that many miss.  It is the reality of God speaking to us personally and directly.  A vibrant walk with the Lord is impossible (or at the very least deeply impaired) without the frequent experience of hearing God’s voice.  Too much of the evangelical culture in American Christianity downplays or even denies the possibility of the believer hearing God directly.  Scripture is distilled into doctrinal statements or principles for living and immediacy of communication with God is at best held at arm’s length.  But Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27).  How to hear God is a whole other topic.  I would recommend my friend Alan Smith’s book “Unveiled: The Transforming Power of God’s Presence and Voice” as a terrific introduction and guide to this topic, but to put it simply – a life of worship and devotion to God requires hearing the voice of God telling us His story and our story and making those stories one.

Flannery O’Connor made a profound observation about stories.  She said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way….You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate”.  So it follows that without stories, any attempt to teach, to learn or to worship is inadequate.  It simply leaves too much unsaid.  I think that if we place education (our own and our children’s) in this context – it makes much more sense.

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