At some point in our parenting or teaching journeys, we come to the realization that education is not simply about imparting information; rather, education is formative. When we tell a child, “Don’t pick your nose in public,” we are doing more than merely passing on information to that child; we are shaping and cultivating the child’s body and behavior, and hence fostering the child’s dispositions and inclinations to act a certain way in public. Education is not merely informative, but formative of a distinct kind of human person.
This means that Christian schools must take seriously the kind of environment represented by our classrooms that is shaping the habits of students. What we want to cultivate in our students are what I call “habits of grace”: dispositions, inclinations, and actions that exemplify Christ-likeness in all that they do so as to enable their humanity to flourish.
There are at least 4 ways to cultivate habits of grace in our students:
Help them see the school as sacred space. I think it is foundational that students learn to appreciate that the various practices, acts, arrangements, and etiquettes that organize and govern the life of the school collectively reveal the school as sacred space; a place sanctified, set apart from the world as a lived-out expression of a people in but not of the world. By understanding the school as sacred space, students will immediately realize that sacred spaces require special rules, because it is these rules that set the space apart from mundane space. Special places require special rules.
Show them that school rules let good things run wild. We have to instill within our students an appreciation that school rules and standards are not arbitrary rules that stifle their freedom; rather, rules and standards serve to cultivate their freedom. Imagine telling Michael Jordan when he was a kid, Do whatever you want with the ball, skip around with it; follow your heart and it will never let down. Instead, he was taught the rules of basketball. And what is the result if such rules are followed? G. K. Chesterton wrote: “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.” And so, whenever a skill is mastered, such as singing, sitting in place, obeying the teacher, compliment the students; show them how they are embodying good things that are running wild.
Cultivate a freedom to fast. Christ-likeness requires that we consider the needs of others as more important than our own. This in turn requires that students learn a conception of freedom that is very different from secular conceptions. Freedom in secular terms is often characterized as a negative freedom, a freedom from, or subjective freedom, the freedom to follow my heart, to do what I want to do. But in the Christian tradition, freedom is more positive, it is the ability to become what you were created to be, the freedom to fulfill our divine calling. In light of Christ’s own self-giving, model before the students how considering the needs of others is more important than our own. This will both avoid conflicts as well as resolve them in a Christ-like manner.
Cultivate a love for honoring their teachers. We need to get our students to think through this: why are you supposed to obey your parents, your teachers, and your elders? Of course, the answer you are going to hear is because God commands it. But, remember, we want to cultivate Christ-likeness by fostering habits of grace. So why does God command it? Because the Son always honors the Father. The Son, as the eternal image of the Father, is always infinitely lovingly reflecting back to the Father the wisdom that the Father is always infinitely lovingly pouring into his Son. The Father did not send the Son into the world to do whatever he wanted to do. This is why you obey your elders, for in doing so you are embodying eternity and communing with divine life – you are relating to your teachers and your parents in an analogous way the Son has infinitely been relating to the Father.
Put these steps into practice, and you will be modeling before your students habits, dispositions, and inclinations that reflect habits of grace in every area of life.
For more ways of cultivate habits of grace, see my Ebook, Classical vs. Modern Education: A Vision from C.S. Lewis, or watch the video series on classical education here.
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