The Formation of Affections through Education
Tonight, I hope to bring together two great Christian thinkers for you, an Englishman and a Canadian: C.S. Lewis and James K.A. Smith. C.S. Lewis died in the 1960s and is probably the most influential Christian thinker of the 20th Century. His book (delivered as three lectures) about education, The Abolition of Man, has had a large and positive impact on classical Christian education. Jamie Smith, who is very much alive and teaches at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been one of the most influential Christian philosophers in the early 21st Century. His book, Desiring the Kingdom, has similarly had a significant impact on classical Christian education. In particular, these two Christian thinkers have helped us understand that what we do must be rooted in what humans are—in other words, they are helping us to get our anthropology right. I once heard Jamie Smith say, “Every pedagogy is rooted in a philosophical anthropology.” At first, I had no clue what he meant. Then, when I began to figure it out, I was a little terrified. Pedagogy, the practices we do in the classroom or more broadly the practices we do with children, are not simply neutral. They came from somewhere and reflect someone’s anthropology—their vision of what humans are. Thus, we can unwittingly take on practices that reflect anthropologies that we do not believe. An example of this: at one school I worked for, we had the honour roll posted on the wall. A visiting consultant asked us if we really wanted that posted. Upon reflection, we decided to take it down. Highlighting high grade point averages, and inadvertently those who did not make the list, was not really in line with our school’s goals. I would argue that one of the hardest and perhaps the most important thing we can do in education and in child rearing is consistently work on our practices to get them to align with our beliefs and best desires. This is because our practices in fact form our beliefs and best desires: we become what we do. But I am getting ahead of myself. The title of this talk has two big ideas: Affection and Formation. I want to address them in that order, but, before we are done, I will return to anthropology and to good practices (pedagogy) at school and at home.
I want to have us begin thinking about affection with a mental exercise inspired by Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man. Imagine you walk up behind two boys in the Canadian Rockies who are looking at Mt. Elbert across the Twin Lakes. One boy says, “This is awesome” and the other, “This is pretty.” My question is this: Is one answer better, more fitting, more ordinate than the other? Lewis would say “Yes”—one answer is better, more fitting, than the other. He would absolutely say that there are right emotional responses to things, visible and invisible, and it is in learning, making, and habituating these rightly ordered affections that we become human. Alternately, someone who cannot make these right responses to reality is somehow sub-human; something has been abolished in them. In his book, he is taking to task two authors of a high school English textbook who teach that there is no connection between our emotions and reality. When we say the mountain is awesome, they say “we appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.” Lewis is horrified by this. He says that what these authors have done to a schoolboy “is cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.” Thus, the book’s title: the full effect of their philosophy is to abolish the student’s humanity. Let’s go a little deeper with this. Lewis called this reality that we live in light of, and need to respond to with well-ordered affections, the Tao. He borrowed this from Japanese philosophy. The Tao is the Japanese word for the Way: it is the underlying order of things—God, creation, natural processes, human traditions—the Tao is the way things really are. In one of my favourite quotations from the book, Lewis says, “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao, I recognize this as a defect in myself, just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colourblind.” We should find small children delightful—and we are less than human if we do not. (We should also find old men venerable!) Lewis claims that every traditional culture had an anthropology that forefronted this right emotional response to things. He then goes on to explain our (Western) anthropology, inherited from Aristotle and Plato, that puts rightly ordered affections at the very heart of what it means to be human. Lewis says it this way: We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. There is much to unpack here! In this anthropology, there are three parts to us: 1) the Head or reason; 2) the Belly or appetites; and 3) the Chest where emotions are organized by trained habits into stable sentiments. It is easy to understand the head—cerebral man—and the belly—visceral man. If we were just heads, then we would be mere spirit, like angels. We would be disembodied. If we were just bellies, we would be mere animals, like dogs. But what is this third part, the part that makes us human? What is the chest? It is emotional responses that through training have become rightly aligned to reality so that they become habits—stable sentiments that allow us to feel and do the right thing at the right time. We become magnanimous—big hearted: courageous, generous, patient, and kind. This is more than gritting our teeth to do the right thing; it is having the right thing become second nature. I feel and do the right thing. For example, I do not have to convince myself that Bach is beautiful, that I should return the bag of oranges I accidentally walked off with, or that I should stand up for a fellow student who is being mistreated. Lewis says it this way: Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. How many of you have children between the ages of 2 and 7? Aren’t you doing this chest training all the time? Your goal is to habituate goodness, so you do not have to be there all the time helping them make moral decisions. You want them to feel and do the right thing. Lewis is arguing that this chest training is not just for 2-7 year olds; it is in fact what all of education is about. Lewis quotes Aristotle who said that the “aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” This is a radical break with progressive education, but a return to an ideal for education that was upheld into the 20th Century. It is hard to believe it was commonplace, but it was. For example, Noah Webster wrote in 1788, “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; And for this reason the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.” At my alma mater, the University of Michigan, this quotation from the Northwest Ordinance (1787) is on the façade of Angell Hall (finished in 1924): “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The founder of the Stowe School in England (1924) wrote that the purpose of the institution is to turn out young men who “were acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.” I am not sure I can find a better quotation to explain what the chest is than that!
Lewis’ shocking claim is that our emotions can and must be trained to accord to reality if we are truly to be human. If this is true, then education must be about chest training, and this moves us to our second big idea—formation—and to our second Christian thinker, James K.A. Smith. About education, Smith says that it “is not just or even primarily the dissemination of information. It’s actually the formation of the whole person, including the affections.” Smith, whose anthropology is big like Lewis’, Plato’s, or Aristotle’s, famously says that humans are not just brains on sticks. We are not simply thinking things. We have bodies with appetites and hearts with affections and to train something that is not just a brain on a stick requires more than giving us information: it requires formation. So what does this formative education look like? It not only convinces your intellect but recruits your affections and reforms your heart habits. It understands the importance of habituation in education and in child rearing. Smith says: So it’s really education as habituation. Think of education now as the formation of the person, and I would say primarily informing what we love. So what a Christian education would be is our inculcation into Christlikeness because actually this education is recalibrating our hearts. It’s reshaping what we long for, what we love. Thinking is going to be part of that, but it’s going to be a much more holistic encounter and experience. Smith wants us to avoid an anthropology that reduces us to information receptacles, so he calls on St. Augustine who helps us see that we are lovers who need our loves to be ordered, not just thinking things. Then, in what may be as surprising as Lewis’ earlier idea about training emotions, Smith puts forward the idea that this formation operates through habituation. Education is habituation. Teaching and parenting is habituation. Perhaps we can put it all together like this: Christian education (including parenting!) is chest training, habituation, that forms our affections to love the right things so that goodness becomes second nature—it is an inculcation into Christlikeness! I want to end with some examples and suggestions of this kind of formation/habit building/inculcation-into-Christlikeness that you might consider in the home. This is not exhaustive, but I hope that these might serve as an imaginative launch into a way of thinking about parenting as formation. This is also not a list of all the things you should do as soon as possible. Rather, you might choose a few to habituate along with the good family habits you already have.
1. Teach actions that you think are obvious.
How do we repent to one another?
State what I did wrong, how it hurt them, ask for forgiveness, and thank them for granting it.
Repent to your children and to each other in front of them.
How to be at the table in a family discussion.
How to behave during car rides.
How to greet an adult friend (but not in front of the adult friend…).
How to sit in church.
If you are frustrated about something, ask yourself if you have taught them how to do it.
Do it again and again. Practice it.
2. Talk to your child’s teachers about what character traits you are working on at home and what they see as strengths and weaknesses of your child’s character. How can we partner together to help my child grow in certain character traits?
This is a great topic for a Parent-Teacher conference.
3. Do something regularly that requires serving others especially as children get into their early teen years and beyond.
Can you set this up so it becomes a monthly habit of service?
4. Have household chores that become habits.
This helps children learn to delay gratification and put others before oneself.
5. Honour family members at birthdays and tell family stories.
On or around a family member's birthday, have a time to honour the person for their character and especially for their growth in character over the last year. (We still do this with our adult children. I do not think they would let us skip this.)
How have they grown in kindness, resilience, wisdom, generosity? Train children to give specific examples for their siblings (and their parents!).
Also, tell family stories that become stories-of-belonging. How did mom and dad meet? What happened the day I was born? What was it like for my parents as they were growing up? What are my grandparents’ stories?
6. Limit screen time.
Wendell Berry’s insight: “Television is the greatest disrespect and exploiter of sexuality that the world has seen.” And now it is in our pocket.
Andy Crouch, in The Techwise Family, recommends one hour without screens daily, one day without screens weekly, and one week without screens yearly.
7. Have morning and evening rituals/family devotions and weekly rituals.
This could be a special Saturday night dinner to start to the Sabbath/Lord’s Day.
8. Read books to children; listen to books on audio on long car rides. 9. Mary Pipher is a family counselor who wrote the book The Shelter of Each Other. Whenever she has a family in crisis come to her, she recommends that they start by doing three things:
Eat dinners together
Get out in nature together
Take vacations together
Finally, if you would like to read more about habituation, consider Justin Early’s two books: The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction and Habits of the Household: Practicing the Story of God in Everyday Family Rhythms.
It seems only fitting to end with a quotation from Jamie Smith: It is crucial for us to recognize that our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are learned. And because love is a habit, our hearts are calibrated through imitating exemplars and being immersed in practices that, over time, index our hearts to a certain end. We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love. You are what you love!
An address to St. Timothy's parents by Jim Reynolds
Until recently, Jim was the head of the lower school at Veritas School in Richmond, VA. Prior to this, he served as the Dean of Faculty at the Geneva School, a Christian, classical school in Orlando, FL.