An Orthodox Education Cultivates Wisdom, Self-Descipline and Virtue
I am constantly amazed by the titanic effort of most within the modern education system to avoid entirely questions concerning the purpose of education. If pushed, a professor or teacher might mumble something about the need to prepare students for the work place, to provide them with the skills they need to succeed. It is mumbled though because even as they speak it, they know it to be a shallow and unworthy goal for education. Students are less inhibited and are often quite willing to say that they are there simply to "get a better job" and by that they mean a higher paying job. A university education ought not to be so pedestrian and yet one wonders what else is left to those who have forsaken the orthodox faith that motivated the original founders of the universities of the West. I want to argue that the reduction of a university education to that of job-training is but one of the many unintended consequences of the jettisoning of an orthodox faith in our culture.
What does an orthodox Christian faith provide in terms of education? In simple terms it provides both a purpose and a method. Orthodox belief provides a confidence in the pursuit of knowledge for it tells us that Truth is rooted in the character of a transcendent God and yet knowable by us, for he is an immanent God who has made us in his image and imbued us with his Spirit. Such creatures have every reason to believe in our ability to come to know the truth. Therefore, whether it be scientific, philosophical or moral truth, it is there to be discovered, not invented, for it has its existence in the character of a transcendent and yet immanent God displayed in his creation. As orthodox Christians, we have reason to believe that seeking for order in the universe is a reasonable endeavour for it was created by a God of order. As Butterfield said, “if Newton had not had his God, he would not have gone looking for his laws”.
The pursuit of knowledge cannot be merely about the accumulation of information precisely because it relies on an act of faith, a stepping out in uncertainty. It is tied therefore to the character of the one who is doing the acting. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, “if I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing”. More striking still is the description of the pursuit of knowledge provided in Proverbs 2:
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, 2 turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding— 3 indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, 4 and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God….
9 Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. 10 For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. 11 Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.
The pursuit of knowledge, therefore, begins with belief – “if you accept my words and store up my commands in you”, requires perseverance and self-discipline (“turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understand”) and is rooted in love (“if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure”). Only then will you “find the knowledge of God”. Only then will you grasp the true purpose of the pursuit of knowledge, of education – “Then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path.” The result will be happiness, not some ephemeral fleeting happiness but a lasting happiness for “wisdom will enter your heart, knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you and understanding will guard you.” That is the orthodox understanding of education in just a few verses – belief preceding action, action that leads to assurance, assurance that leads to sureness of direction, and sureness of direction that leads to true and lasting happiness.
Orthodoxy therefore provides us with a confidence that this stumbling after truth, however difficult and prone to error it may appear to be, is not without hope but it is like the treasure hidden in the field that must be sought. While it is to be discovered, it does not reveal itself to those who would examine it impartially and make a final judgment only when all the facts are in. Rather it must be desired as something of greater worth than gold, it must be pursued with conviction even in the face of doubt.
Augustine once wrote “I believe in order that I may understand”. That is the starting point of an orthodox understanding of education. We do not come to our pursuit of knowledge from some neutral or objective ground. Rather we come with assumptions or beliefs about how the world is and from that foundation we seek to push our understanding out into the areas of ignorance and we teach others to do the same from within the world view that we have adopted. We believe in order to understand. There is no sense that reason and faith are at odds with each other but rather that faith is an essential element for the right functioning of reason and that reason is an essential guide to the right functioning of faith.
It hardly needs saying that this is not how our modern education system views the pursuit of knowledge. The abandonment of faith leading to understanding can be attributed, to no small extent, to the success of science. The founders of western science were all committed Christians who pursued their search for order in the universe precisely because they believed in a rational Creator so it is certainly a strange irony that their success should lead in large part to the abandonment of the very reasons for their pursuits. Nonetheless, because of science’s success in describing the material world, humanity began to think that perhaps faith was not necessary for understanding after all or rather that true knowledge could only be attained through scientific means. All other forms of knowledge were viewed as suspect. We began, as Lewis puts it, to replace “I believe” to “one does feel” as though we were talking about something very hazy indeed. And the irony of it all is that the basic building blocks of morality – integrity, justice, love, honour – have stood the test of time much better than any scientific theory. Nonetheless, moral truth could not be tested scientifically and so it had to be relinquished as unworthy of the name. It became instead merely personal opinion or whim. The result for education was that there was no longer any basis for the overarching purpose of education as a means of discovering, in the words of Proverbs 2, “what is right and just and fair—every good path” simply because there is no such thing as the good path or at least no way of knowing if there is. Questions of the right understanding of knowledge, how we ought to make use of what we have learned are no longer a matter of reason and therefore cannot serve as a purpose for education.
Education should be a process not only of imparting skills for performing a given task but also as a means by which we grow – through the cultivation of wisdom, self-discipline and virtue – into the people that God intends us to be. It is the primary, though not the only, reason that I send my children to St Timothy’s Classical Academy . I still remember receiving my eldest son’s first report card in Kindergarten. It was a detailed report with actual comments from his two teachers for each of his subjects. But what struck me most was that they had understood his character. They saw how his sense of justice needed to be tempered with a sense of mercy and they were working with us to cultivate that in him. That is orthodox education. It is education that understands that what we learn in the classroom is intimately tied to who we are as people and that to pursue knowledge rightly requires faith, hope and love.
An orthodox understanding of education can inspire because it provides reason to believe that the truth is there to be discovered, because it can engender awe in the greatness of the one in whom resides all truth, because it allows belief to precede and shape understanding and lastly because it understands that the pursuit of truth is a moral endeavour and thus can only be achieved through wisdom, self-discipline and the cultivation of virtue; belief preceding action, action that leads to assurance, assurance that leads to sureness of direction, and sureness of direction that leads to true and lasting happiness.