How Shall We Teach?

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Dillon, one of my students from this fall semester, took an upper division course on the history of modernity in Europe.  It was a survey class from the beginning of the seventeenth century through World War I.  In the course of the semester, I found him to be a politically engaged young man, who supported Black Lives Matter and urged me to listen to songs from Catch 22’s album Permanent Revolution.  I was willing to oblige, and we had several interesting discussions by email and face to face.  He is an individual genuinely interested in ideas and committed to finding out what is really true and not content with accepting simple cliches.  He ultimately chose to do his research paper on Karl Marx, and declared to me in mid-November that he was a Communist.  In this process of discovery, I shared with him the problem about murderous modern ideologies that fail to see individuals in a proper light.  And he, while not always agreeing with my worldview, was receptive to the dialogue and grew more aware of the history of ideas in the modern west.  One of the central texts that we read together in class was Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, and it is my hope that this text, which poses a number of critiques of modern utopian projects, will germinate future spiritual seeds for Dillion.

Here’s the twist. 

This is not a tale of woe about Dillon’s fall into darkness.  His story is at least intellectually a story of partial success (if not necessarily one of moral and spiritual triumph).  So, while Communism, an ideology that killed millions upon millions of innocent people is not a thought system I would recommend for others to embrace, it is at least a worldview with a set of definite and relatively coherent beliefs about the world.  Would that most of my students rose to that level today, where they actually want to find out about the key to the cosmos instead of retreating into comforting electronic pleasures.  

“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”  Thus, the Lord Christ addresses the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:16.  Lukewarmness is a controlling metaphor for our age, a weak, therapeutic, and nervous time.  It is a time where adolescents lovingly stroke their devices, and the men and women in the west are “without chests,” as C.S. Lewis noted almost a century ago.  And as he remarked later in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” education has become a process of creating ever more pointless work procedures with increasingly complex, time-consuming, and soulless learning.  

As a teacher of college students in history and philosophy at several different institutions, I find this development spiritually nauseating.  Nevertheless, I see a silver lining in Dillon’s case.  For as an Orthodox Christian, I am committed to a view that Christ is the goal of all searching for truth.  And this particular moment reveals the need for educators who praise questions as more than a form of therapy, rather they seek to enter into difficult dialogues with students as a means to find out what is true.  Thus, the question of “how shall we teach?,” is an important one.  In answering, I will explain why I see Dillon as perhaps charting his own fruitful life path, and why this presents Orthodox Christians with a great opportunity for engagement and mentoring.  

As a young adult, I learned to see education as exploration and imbibed the ancient notion of the transcendentals.   Namely, that the honest pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness all led to God.  For example, I was raised as an evangelical Christian, and when I graduated from high school, I wanted to live in a men’s ministry house, sort of an evangelical form of single-sex religious life before marriage and with a focus on evangelism.  Partly out of my mother’s desire that I go to school abroad, this didn’t happen.  Instead, I went to Calvin College in Michigan and proceeded to encounter serious intellectual ideas and rigorous texts there.  During my freshman year, I read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.  The words in that book ran right into my soul.  Indeed, I remember reading with tears Solzhenitsyn’s chapter on the ascent when he thanked God for prison.  Here was a faith that (while similar to mine) was deeper than the one I’d been brought up in.  In the pages before me, the author looked at suffering and saw Christ redeem and hallow it.  I was floored.  Although I didn’t become an Orthodox Christian then, the literature of that Russian really got the hook into me. I was marked.  And it was an English professor, the late Edward E. Ericson Jr. (1939-2017), who after he’d had me in class during my first semester and noticed my precociousness, gently suggested that I look at Solzhenitsyn’s book.

In my life, a professor’s suggestion led to my immersion in a meaningful story that fired my imagination and strengthened my spiritual muscles.  In graduate school, the quest continued, and I’ve taken the same approach to my own teaching.  The educational program I recommend is to encourage students to pursue truth wherever it leads.  For me, this eventually led out of evangelicalism and into the Orthodox Church.  For Dillion, it is unclear where he’ll go, but the willingness for him to really pursue truth over mindless entertainment can’t possibly be bad.

This is exactly the medicine our sick age yearns for, a courageous grappling with one’s soul.  Older kids need to be put in situations to discuss difficult texts, and to be given opportunities to investigate reality.  And if there is a thoughtful and committed Christian who helps them to develop the skills of analysis, then many of these adolescents will go on to develop their true selves.  They become human enough to see Christ.  That’s the goal.  And this is why Dillon’s story is hopeful, he’s stretching out to try to encounter and find true things.  He’s (hopefully) on the way, past Marxism and onto God.  Or so I hope.  But the fact that he’s interested in something denser than TikTok, SnapChat, and facile identity politics is a good sign.  He is actually reading serious works and thinking about them! 

Dillon represents an opportunity and challenge for the educators of our time. How does one chart a roadmap for how teachers may open up and light the path of life? As I see it, there are two major pitfalls to avoid.  The first, is to embrace the surrounding culture in a pathetic attempt to be relevant.  This quickly leads to the impoverished situation we find ourselves in today.  It is a place where the schools become centers of sexual perversion and woke identity and nobody reads.  This ideology is antichristian and that’s bad, but it’s also intellectually lazy and that’s even worse.  Education is about reading great texts to see if they’re true and how to then shape your life in response.  I advocate a stance toward learning that is a refreshing break from a dominant corporatist and high-tech frame of reference, unmoored to any spiritual and ethical guideposts.  It’s an old and time-honored educational program that is aimed at truth over technology, at asceticism and ardor over autonomy and artificiality.  

The second hazard is the temptation to build the Christian fortress.  Dominant is the fear of letting in any creative ideas because they might dismantle the truth.  We cannot downplay and degrade the intellectual quest.  As our Lord said to the adversary, “Man does not live by bread alone.”  To manfully grapple with ideas is the path of a free man, and the only way to become truly human.  God asks for our full service, for a full communion with us, and He doesn’t want us to remove our minds in the process.  

Real education must thread the needle between cultural surrender or hostile retreat.

Yet what about the effect educational exploration has on respect for tradition?  Mustn’t Orthodox Christians respect their faith in Christ as handed on to them by the Church?  Absolutely.  Every dogma is about God and our full relational engagement with Him.  But as Alasdair MacIntyre noted, living tradition continues to engage and draw forth truth ever anew for new situations.  It cannot be made into a dead traditionalism that ossifies cultural forms mistakenly elevated as dogmatic formulations.  Such rigorism is in fact idolatry.  What might this mean?  Well, for the Orthodox, one change might be that our older forms of catechesis (fundamentally set up for what was once an oral culture) change and an emphasis on greater literacy (something we do in almost every other aspect of our life) is adopted.  What it will never mean is that we change our teachings or practices because of outside cultural pressures.  Real tradition is the church’s living communion with Jesus Christ, who is new and yet the same in every age.  But it should never be a worship of dying cultural forms.  

Orthodox Christians need to engage more fully with the current forms of thought roiling our culture.  We have a generation that lacks some of the most basic relational skills, and that has put its yearnings for transcendent meaning into politics (never a good thing to do).  By critically engaging with students through great texts and unlocking what is in their minds and hearts, we can help other flawed human beings step outside of themselves and into solidarity with others and onto the great journey of life.  Teaching them to connect with Christ, knowing Him who is the truth itself, will be exactly what sets them free. 

“How shall we teach?” remains a pertinent question for Christians in every generation to answer.  It is the timely reflection upon the timeless imperative of continuing to forward God’s kingdom and to love the world and share Christ’s life.

 

nfriend

About nfriend

Nathan Friend has a PhD in American Studies and teaches history and philosophy. He and his wife (Sarah Gerhart Friend), with their three daughters and baby boy, are parishioners at Saint Paul's Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA.

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