A few years ago at co-op, a peculiar thing started happening during my Plutarch class. Mrs. Vencel? Can I go to the bathroom? Mrs. Vencel? Can I go get my water bottle? Mrs. Vencel? Can I go tell my mom something real quick? It went on and on. My students could think of any reason to leave class. The most interesting thing about this is that I had it on good authority that the students asking these questions loved my class.
Fast forward to more recently, and I was teaching Plutarch once again, this time at a local private school. I have two classes, and both of them were doing the same thing. They wanted a drink of water, to go to the bathroom, to know what time lunch was going to be, to know what time class would end … and on and on and on.
And again, I was surprised that this was coming from children who love my class. One Friday, a little boy who had asked all the questions — bathroom, water, food, you name it — very sweetly left my class with a smile on my face. Do you know what, Teacher? This is my favorite class.
Be still my beating heart.
Still, the fact remains that all of these children are or have been clamorous and self-distracted. This happens in homeschooling, too. We find, for example, kids who are suppose to be doing their math lessons wandering the house with their hands full of cheese slices, leaving Latin mid-lesson to go to the bathroom, and more. I think we all know this is a problem, but the temptation is to say that the behavior is the problem.
But is that really the case?
Drinking a lot of water and going to the bathroom aren’t the real problem — and some children (like diabetic children) may have a real need for those things.
Taking a philosophical approach to education means that when we see a situation like this we need to look deeper — look beyond — so that when we tackle the problem, we aren’t doing it at a shallow level, but rather dealing with it in light of an understanding that allows us to see the problem elsewhere when it comes up.
Let’s explore some philosophical ideas that will help us understand this situation — not just understand that this is a problem, but understand why it is a problem.
1. True education is concerned with searching for wisdom.
There is a type of humility that is required for learning to take place. The student — even the adult student — must forget himself for a time. His cares, his worries, his task list — all must be forgotten as he becomes absorbed in the object of study. This is the first step in learning.
We often talk about pursuing rest in learning, and even right here on Afterthoughts we have talked about cutting back and simplifying as a way of pursuing rest. But we forget that the number one obstacle to restful learning is not a busy schedule. The problem lies inside the children themselves.
The children are clamorous.
If I am thinking about my bladder, my stomach, my dirty hands, what time it is, what comes next in my schedule, or whatever else, I am unable to seek wisdom. Lady Wisdom requires me to bow the knee in humility, and that begins with self-forgetfulness. The Lady does not offer herself to those who are self-obsessed. She requires a restful, receptive posture.
When I was allowing my students to get up and down and answer every random call of their noisy bodily appetites, I was allowing the obstacle of self-consciousness to remain in place. I permitted the barrier between the children and Wisdom — between the children and learning — to grow up as a great thorny hedge, thicker with each class meeting.
One Friday morning, I had had enough. They had just come in from recess, for goodness’ sake! Two of them at once, the moment they had all sat down: Mrs. Vencel, can I go get my water bottle? Mrs. Vencel, can I go to the bathroom?
Yes, I said, go. But know that this is the last time. Next week I will be mean and say no to all of this. They all laughed.
The next week came, and right after they were seated, my students were at it again. Remember? I said I was going to be mean from now on. I know you all think that recess is just for socializing, but you were even reminded that you’re supposed to get a drink and snack and go to the bathroom. No more leaving my class.
I said it all with a smile, and no one seemed upset about it. Five minutes later, they were the most relaxed I’d ever seen them. They settled into the class and it turned out to be our best discussion to date by the end.
2. Ancient education is concerned with building heroes.
When we educate classically, we are tapping into a long tradition of hero-building. Heroism wasn’t perceived as something that happens by accident. The Greeks, for example, had very specific methods of training. They didn’t always follow them, of course. There are plenty of examples in Plutarch’s Lives of times where the training has been neglected and instead the people have embraced luxury and pampering.
It’s interesting to note that what they have ultimately embraced is self-indulgence. They have begun paying much attention to their appetites, and it shows in the decline of the quality of both soldier and leader they are producing.
When we think of heroes, our minds immediately go to courage, strength, fitness, boldness. We forget that the principle that underlies all of this is self-denial, perhaps coupled with self-forgetfulness. The hero first and foremost cares about something else — his God, his country, his people — more than he cares about himself.
This is why Charlotte Mason writes:
It is not self-ordering, but an object outside of ourselves, leading to self-forgetfulness and a certain valiant rising of the will, to which we must look for a cure for the maladies that vex us. (Ourselves, Book 2, p. 155)
Heroes are the ones who say no to the instinct of self-preservation because they are serving some higher cause. Someone who can’t even wait five extra minutes for dinner isn’t capable of heroic action.
We cannot guarantee heroics as an outcome, but we can give them practice in self-denial by asking them to wait a bit, by asking them to calm their clamorous hearts and minds (and bodies!) and think about something else.
3. Christian education is concerned with cultivating and ordering love.
In the Christian religion, there are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love. This isn’t just a flippant thing we say to each other — this is (among other things) an idea that must order our educational priorities.
Christians are to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Christ is the image of God (II Corinthians 4:4). If we combine our ideas about what God is like with our previous idea about love reigning supreme, we realize it is helpful to think about the implications of the fact that God is love.
We cannot and should not isolate God’s attributes from each other. So we end up with this swirl of thoughts: God is love and He’s also infinite, which means His love has no bounds — He loves it all, even the things we don’t like as children, like vegetables and math. God is omniscient; everything He loves He also knows thoroughly. God is perfect; His love for things is always properly ordered, appropriate, and justly proportionate.
These are ideas about love that are helpful to bring to our educational table.
Why, for example, do I love my friend more than a stranger? They are both humans, after all. Presumably they both merit the same amount and type of love. The primary difference is knowledge; I know my friend; I don’t know the stranger.
We cannot love something we know nothing about. We have to know in some measure if we are to begin to care about a thing.
What in the world does this have to do with thirsty students with full bladders making demands? It’s simple really. Students can become so distracted by their own bodies and desires that they cannot pay attention. It is impossible for them to be receptive because they are so self-obsessed. When we are so distracted that we cannot come into knowing a thing, we are cut off from any possibility of growing to love that thing.
In classical education, we often pay lip service to “rightly ordered loves.” We do not often consider that distraction fosters disordered love because the student’s attention is removed from the object of study and placed upon the self. The only love that is fostered in this situation is self-love.
And self-love is the opposite of learning.
It’s more than a drink and a bathroom break.
There is nothing morally wrong with being thirsty or having other bodily needs to attend to, and we need more to justify a rule or a practice than the convenience of the teacher. My authority as the teacher ought not be an arbitrary one, which means my decisions need to come down on high … informed by my theology and philosophical principles.
In regard to this situation, it is very convenient to have my students at rest and in a posture of learning. But this isn’t what justified denying bathroom passes, among other things. What justified those things is that this isn’t really about bodily needs at all. This is about how all of us struggle with self-obsession and self-distraction — how we all have the potential to drown in the sea of our own self — and how sometimes, saying no is really a form of throwing our students a life preserver.
We all need to be rescued from the tyranny of the self.