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The prince of preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, once wrote in his wonderful John Plowman’s Talks, “I would have everybody able to read and write and cipher; indeed, I don’t think a man can know too much; but mark you, the knowing of these things is not education; and there are millions of your reading and writing people who are as ignorant as neighbor Norton’s calf.”
Those ignorant masses of whom Spurgeon wrote are not those who failed to finish their lessons. They are instead those who did finish — or rather those who naïvely thought that lessons were the sorts of things that could be finished.
Education does not have a terminus, a polar extreme, a finish line, an outcome. Instead it is a deposit, an endowment, a promise, and even a small taste of the future. For many, it is sad to say, this uniquely Christian perspective is an entirely foreign worldview — an alien notion, an arcane paradox, an unfathomable mystery. Minds dulled by the smothering conformity of popular culture cannot plumb the depths or explore the breadths of the distinctively Christian virtue of hopeful contentment in the face of perpetual tasks. Thus they rush toward what they think will be the termination of this, that, or another chapter in their lives. They cannot wait to finish school. Thus for instance, graduation is not a commencement for them, but a conclusion. Afterward they hurry through their lives and careers: they plod impatiently through their work week anxious for the weekend; they bide their time until vacation and plod on toward retirement — always coming to the end of things until at last things come to an end.
But within the Christian worldview framework, hopeful contentment in the face of never ending responsibilities is a virtue that continually breeds in us anticipation for new beginnings, not old resolutions. It is a virtue that provokes us to a fresh confidence in the present as well as in the days yet to come. That is simply because it is a virtue rooted in an understanding of God’s good providence and in the covenant fortunes of His grace.
We above all people — we who were brought from death to life, we who were brought from the end of ourselves to the threshold of eternity — we above all people understand this. This is, in fact, the very essence of the Gospel. The crucifixion is not the termination of Christ’s mediatorial work; rather, it is the conjunction of two beginnings: the incarnation and the resurrection. It is the pivot of civilization demarcating a new creation: “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Thus we are now innately an optimistic people, forever starting anew, affirming our faith in full accord with the patriarchs and patristics: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
Thus, for example, all talk of education is for us a reminder that we have only just begun to learn how to learn. It is an affirmation that though our magnificent heritage has introduced us to the splendid wonders of literature and art and music and history and science and ideas in the past, we have only just been introduced and that a lifetime adventure in these vast and portentous arenas still awaits us. Indeed, the most valuable lessons that education can convey are invariably the lessons that never end. That is actually at the heart of the Christian philosophy of education.
Educational excellence from a biblical perspective is thus not so much concerned with the amount of data accumulated in a student’s head, but a way of thinking and acting woven into a student’s life. That is the great legacy of Christendom.
Sadly, this is not a particularly popular perspective these days. The hard work and substantial discipline necessary for lifetime learning are hardly in vogue. They represent archaisms — long since left in the dust of time by the new fangled gadgetry of industrial contemporaniety and progressive modernity.
Take reading for instance. Long before the bane of television invaded our every waking moment, C.S. Lewis commented that while most people in modern industrial cultures are at least marginally able to read, they just don’t. In his wise and wonderful book An Experiment in Criticism he wrote, “The majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called reading oneself to sleep. They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished.”
He further admitted that there is a profound puzzlement on the part of the mass of the citizenry over the tastes and habits of the literate, “It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal. Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts.”
All this is not to imply any hint of moral turpitude on the part of modern bohemianism; rather, it is to recognize the simple reality of the gaping chasm that exists between those who read and those who don’t, between the popular many and the peculiar few. It is to recognize that education demands the latter while maintaining steadfast incompatibility with the former.
And there’s the rub. We want to have our cake and eat it too — a prospect as improbable as an Elvis sighting, a Beatles reunion, or a good piece of legislation coming out of Washington.
The problem with serious reading is part and parcel with virtually all the other problems of modernity — serious reading is often laborious work requiring unflinching discipline, and if there is anything that we moderns have an aversion to, it is disciplined work. In this odd to-whom-it-may-concern, instant-everything day of microwavable meals, prefab buildings, drive-through windows, no-wait credit approvals, and predigested formula-entertainment, we tend to want to reduce everything to the level of the least common denominator and the fastest turnaround — which seems to be getting lower and lower and faster and faster with every passing day.
Even the church has fallen prey to this “spirit of the times.” If we really had our druthers we wouldn’t want worship to be too terribly demanding. We wouldn’t want doctrine that challenges our pet notions. We really only want music that we’re comfortable with. We only want preaching that reassures us, that reinforces our peculiar preferences, that affords us a sense of serenity — and all in record time. We want quick change; cheap grace; inspirational platitudes; bumper sticker theology; easy faith. We want Christianity Lite. We want the Nice News, not necessarily the Good News.
For the same reasons, when we read we’d really prefer literary junk food. The predigested factoids of USA Today are much easier to swallow than Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. Face it, Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, and Tom Clancy are easier to digest than Abraham Kuyper, Thomas Chalmers, and Merle d’Aubigne. Reading is a discipline — and all discipline is difficult. But then, that is the way it is with anything worthwhile, really.
In his remarkable book The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson drives home that point with great clarity. He makes the point that “the best things in life” invariably “cost us something.” We must sacrifice to attain them, to achieve them, to keep them, even to enjoy them.
That is one of the most important lessons we can learn in life. It is the message that we know we ought to instill in our children: patience, commitment, diligence, constancy, and discipline will ultimately pay off if we are willing to defer gratification long enough for the seeds we have sown to sprout and bear.
A flippant, shallow, and imprecise approach to anything — be it sports or academics or the trades or business or marriage — is ultimately self-defeating. It is not likely to satisfy any appetite — at least, not for long.
It was the modern abandonment of this kind of educational excellence, this pattern of lifetime learning that provoked G.K. Chesterton to remark: “The great intellectual tradition that comes down to us from the past was never interrupted or lost through such trifles as the sack of Rome, the triumph of Attila, or all the barbarian invasions of the Dark Ages. It was lost after the introduction of printing, the discovery of America, the coming of the marvels of technology, the establishment of universal education, and all the enlightenment of the modern world. It was there, if anywhere, that there was lost or impatiently snapped the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking.”
If we are to buck the trend of malignant modernity, if we are going to recover our Christian heritage in education, if we are going to be able to pass that heritage on to our children and grandchildren, if we are to undertake the initiation of unending beginnings, then we must return to the dumb certainties of Christendom’s experience: educational excellence is hard work — and it demands a vision for lifetime learning.