Cultivating a Love for Learning: Conclusion

Richard Weaver wrote a book in 1948 entitled Ideas Have Consequences. The goal of his book was to diagnose the decay of Western civilization, especially in America. His basic premise is that as society as a whole begins to dismiss the transcendentals—as people begin to disregard, or to question even the existence of, transcendent, absolute standards of truth, goodness, and beauty—people no longer have intellectual, moral, or spiritual moors to ground them, and to draw their thoughts beyond themselves and beyond their own personal desires and impulses, to an objective standard to guide them toward virtue and wisdom.

Weaver says if we continue down the road we’re on, we’ll end up with a society of spoiled children who don’t have the capacity for either humility or critical thought, who, whenever something doesn’t go as they wanted or as they expected, the only way they know how to react is to throw a tantrum. That sounds familiar doesn’t it?

So what is Weaver’s prescription? What’s his suggested solution to this predicament? He says the answer is in a return to a proper understanding of what education is—as the cultivation of virtue and wisdom by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. As Weaver makes clear, this pursuit is not only for your own personal benefit; it has radical effects on society as a whole.

Your grades in school, the prestige of your alma mater, the standing of your career, the numbers in your salary—none of that ultimately matters if your beliefs, morals, and affections have not been rightly ordered and shaped to pursue virtue and wisdom for the rest of your life.

The cultivation of virtue and wisdom is primarily about the ordering of the soul—the ordering of our beliefs, morals, and affections. And as you go out into the world, you must be aware that it is a devastatingly disordered world. If you’ve not gained a foundation that has oriented you to objective standards of truth, goodness, and beauty, rooted in the character of an unchanging, holy God, to whom you are accountable for how you live, what you believe, and what you love, then when that disordered world seeks to pull you away from those moors, you’ll have a much harder time staying the course, because the world seeks to drag you down not primarily by changing your mind, but by capturing your heart.

So, students, I urge you, as you leave the harbor of home and enter the uncharted waters of independence and responsibility, to continue to pursue virtue and wisdom like your life depends on it—because, as Solomon makes clear, it does.

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Cultivating a Love for Learning: Proverbs and Applications

In our last post, we saw that one of the marks of wisdom, according to Solomon, is to value the pursuit of wisdom itself. He continues this theme throughout his writing.

The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. And whatever else you get, get insight.” — Proverbs 4:7

Take my teaching and not silver; may you choose knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than jewels, and all desires shall not compare with her.” — Proverbs 8:10–11

By way of application, allow me to offer three observations on Solomon’s teachings as suggestions to you for the pursuit of wisdom.

1st: to gain wisdom, you have to want wisdom. If you don’t have a desire for wisdom, then you’ll get what you want—you won’t gain wisdom. You see, we pursue the hardest whatever we want most. And if you, like Solomon, desire wisdom above wealth, fame, comfort, or any other satisfaction that so quickly turns to vice, then you will honestly, humbly, pursue wisdom.

2nd: if you want to pursue wisdom, pursue God. As Solomon put it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” God himself is the transcendent and absolute standard of truth, goodness, and beauty. So if you want to pursue wisdom and virtue, (and remember, to do that you must nourish the soul on truth, goodness and beauty), then the surest way to pursue it is to know, follow, and love God.

3rd and finally: if you want to pursue wisdom, you must surround yourself with wise people. Solomon says in Proverbs 13:20, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

The apostle Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians that “bad company corrupts good morals.” And the opposite is just as true. We become like those we spend time with; so as inconsequential as it sounds, one of the most important decisions you make is choosing your friends well. And that only becomes more important as you leave high school. So, surround yourself with wise people. This includes people you might consider already wise, such as your parents, professors, mentors, and other wise elders. It includes peers who are practicing the same pursuit of wisdom and virtue that you are practicing. It also includes reading the writings of wise individuals both living and dead.

Crave wisdom. Follow God. Walk with the wise.

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Cultivating a Love for Learning: Wisdom

Education, classically understood, is about the formation of the soul by cultivating virtue and wisdom. In our last post, we saw that in pursuit of virtue we ought to exercise our affections like muscles, training and stretching ourselves to grow a greater capacity to appreciate and delight in works of excellence.

Augustine said that the character of the soul is assessed not by what a man knows, but by what he loves, because you can know the right thing to do, but if you don’t love the good more than you love what you’re being tempted by, you’ll stray from goodness every time.

Related to this understanding of virtue is Thomas Aquinas’ articulation of one of the key goals of education as the ability to “order things rightly.”

But in order to order things rightly, you must know their relative worth, and in order to know the relative worth of things, you must know their true or ultimate worth. As Aquinas also pointed out, you cannot say that anything is “better” or “worse” unless you have some ultimate standard that gives meaning to those terms. Something is “better” if it approximates whatever good you are relating it to better than the thing which is “worse.” — Martin Cothran

This principle refers to what is often known as the transcendentals—Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. That is the idea that there are transcendent, (meaning outside or beyond human experience and limits), objective, absolute standards of truth, goodness, and beauty. And so a common definition of education in the classical education world is “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.”

This brings us, then, to wisdom.

Wisdom teaches you “not only the distinction between the true and the false, but how to tell the more important truths from the less important ones; not only the difference between the good and the bad, but how to distinguish between the more important goods and the less important ones; not only the difference between the beautiful and the ugly, but how to determine the difference between the more and the less beautiful.” — Martin Cothran

Allow me to use King Solomon as a paradigm for this discussion. The modern utilitarian would find Solomon foolish because he chose wisdom over wealth. When Solomon became king of Israel, God told him to ask what he would of God and God would grant it. Solomon asked for wisdom, and an understanding heart, to discern between good and evil so that he could govern God’s people justly. The Scriptures say that it pleased God that Solomon asked for this, and God blessed him because of it. Solomon in his many writings extols the virtue of seeking wisdom, of prizing understanding and discernment.

In the introduction to Solomon’s Proverbs, where he states the purpose of his writing, he says, “to know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing… to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance… The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, wisdom and instruction fools despise.”

Notice that one of the marks of wisdom is to value the pursuit of wisdom. Solomon returns to this theme throughout his writings, and I’d like to draw a few applications from this in the next post.

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Cultivating a Love for Learning: Virtue

As I mentioned in my previous post, part of Richard Weaver’s solution for how man can get out of the hole he’s dug himself into is to return to a classical understanding of education as the cultivation of virtue and wisdom. So then, just what are virtue and wisdom?

Our English word virtue comes from a Latin word that can mean strength, courage, character, worth, or merit; but its basic meaning points to a human being attaining excellence in some area.

Practically speaking, a specific virtue can be defined as a refined faculty. Andrew Kern defines a virtue as “a God-given, natural ability trained to a pitch of excellence. Humans have the natural faculty or ability to speak. But that ability refined becomes the virtue of eloquence.” [1]

There are four basic categories of virtue: Moral virtues, intellectual virtues, physical virtues, and spiritual virtues. But I’m focusing on a specific kind of virtue—a meta-virtue, so to speak—and that is the virtue of loving the right things in the right way.

Anyone who finds happiness and fulfillment in the mere acquisition of money, or fame, or food, or comfort, or the like, may feel fulfilled, but only in a very shallow way. He is fulfilled only in the sense that he has exhausted his inadequate ability to be fulfilled. His glass may be full, but his glass is very small. Part of what it means to grow in virtue is to expand your capacity to love—to expand the number and kind of things you can appreciate—to heighten the quality of the things in which you delight. That’s what training the affections—one of the essential aspects of a good education—does for you. By cultivating the taste in higher things you would not otherwise be able to appreciate, you are not just obtaining more things to appreciate; you are expanding your ability to love the right things.

We could illustrate this point with literature or music. I may find immediate gratification in a substandard novel, but not be able to appreciate Homer, or Stevenson, or Tolkien because I have never adequately prepared myself to appreciate their greatness. Or I may like the immediate pleasures of some form of pop music, but because of my lack of experience and knowledge of any other kind of music, I not only don’t like more sophisticated forms of music, but I’m not capable of appreciating the great composers such as Strauss, or Schubert, or Zdeněk Fibich—because my taste for these other, higher things has not been cultivated. So there could be things that are deeper and richer that my sensibilities simply aren’t able to delight in because I have not cultivated my appreciation of them.

It is so easy for us, sometimes through sheer laziness, to be content with less significant things—to be content with being unable to delight in works of true excellence. This is not necessarily always a problem with the things (it’s not wrong to find enjoyment in the cheap story or the pop song), but it is a problem with the inadequacy of our contentment—the limited capacity of our affections. The hard truth is that it takes a little work to be able to delight in the right things, in the right way; so we have to exercise our affections like muscles, training and stretching ourselves to grow a greater capacity to appreciate and delight in works of excellence.

Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris—that is, rightly-ordered affections, wherein every object is accorded that kind of and degree of love which is appropriate to it. This reflects the teaching of Aristotle who said that the aim of education is to train the student to like and dislike what he ought. Why is this so important? Why is training our loves—our affections—such an integral part of education?

Well, because education is about the formation of the soul.

Augustine said that the character of the soul is assessed not by what a man knows, but by what he loves. The reality is that you can know the truth, but if you don’t love what you know to be true more than you love a lie, you’ll betray the truth every time. You can know the good—you can know the right thing to do—but if you don’t love the good more than you love what you’re being tempted by, you’ll stray from goodness every time. So it is essential that you pursue virtue.

References:

[1] Andrew Kern, “What is Virtue?” Memoria Press.

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Cultivating a Love for Learning

I used to think I hated education. I didn’t hate learning; I just hated school. But I’ve grown to appreciate and value my schooling, and to apply myself better, because I learned that I had the wrong understanding of what education is.

If you leave your high school years and haven’t gained a love for learning, your schooling was not a success.

I think that’s true whether you go to college or enter a trade. It doesn’t have to do with whether you’re in school or not. In whatever area of life, you ought to know how to, and be passionate about, pursuing virtue and wisdom.

Let me begin with a quote from Richard Weaver, a professor at the University of Chicago in the early to mid 20th century. Weaver was one of the most important political and social philosophers of his time, and you’d do well to read anything by him you can get your hands on. In a 1956 essay from In Defense of Tradition, Weaver writes this about modern education:

If educators really want to know why they have fallen so low in public esteem, they need only to wake up to the fact that they have abandoned concern with the very things which educators are traditionally the custodians and expositors. There are teachings concerning the nature of reality, the validity of knowledge, the meaning of goodness, and the origin and final end of man.

In response to the question “What is man?” Weaver says,

The answer is that man is a body and a soul. Consequently, education has as one of its controlling considerations man’s supernatural destiny. It cannot be exclusively for the objective of ‘adjustment to the environment.’ Even biology now teaches that a perfectly adjusted organism ceases to develop. Neither should it be exclusively for ‘success.’ Failure is just as truly a part of reality as success, and a complete education equips one to survive that…

That modern progressive education is an apostasy, not only from all faith but from all learning, is apparent to anyone who takes the trouble to examine its premises. Man is continuous with nature, and nature is eternally changing—toward what, nobody can say, because the universe is regarded as self-existing. And since man is only an atom in this vast flux, free will is not only intellectually untenable but also practically undesirable. The upshot is a picture in which there are no eternal moral values or moral standards… no conduct intrinsically good or bad, no moral responsibility; there are no good men or bad men; no heroes, no honest men, no scoundrels; there are only ‘cases’ (neurotic or badly conditioned). Well, having dug himself into a hole that deep, how is man ever going to get out?

“How is man ever going to get out?” Part of Weaver’s solution for how man can get out of the hole he’s dug himself into is to return to a classical understanding of education as the cultivation of virtue and wisdom. So, in the next couple of posts, I’d like to unpack just what virtue and wisdom are.

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Who was St. Patrick?

Happy St. Paddy’s Day! St. Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. The way my wife gets excited about Valentine’s Day, I get excited about St. Patrick’s Day. I love listening to and playing Irish music… I’ve dabbled in learning Irish Gaelic… I love the old Irish culture, idiosyncrasies, wit, and work ethic… I love Irish food and drink… I love Irish dances… and one of my favorite movies is The Quiet Man. Most of all, I love my own family’s Irish history.

But as we watch the annual drunken parades and pop-culture consumerism of this March holiday, you may think that no one could seem more distanced from biblical Christianity than St. Patrick. And yet, Patrick’s life looked more like a revival meeting than a shamrock-decorated drinking party named in his honor. Yet today, the dominant features of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations include green beer, leprechaun hats, and Americans making complete fools of themselves. Well, let’s take a look into the history behind the holiday and the man behind the legend.

st_patricks_causeway_ireland

Patrick was born with the name Maewyn Succat, in what later became Scotland, to wealthy Christian parents in AD 387. At the age of sixteen, Irish raiders attacked his family’s estate and took him captive, forcing him to work as a shepherd. During this time, he learned the language and customs of the Irish people. In his solitude, Patrick remembered the Scriptures that he had been taught as a young boy, and turned to God for comfort. Alone in the hills, he developed a rich, personal relationship with Christ. After six years of slavery, Patrick escaped and made his way back to his family in Britain. God later called Patrick back to Ireland — back to the people who had enslaved him — to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to the pagans of Ireland. So he began to study the Bible more deeply and train for mission work. Once he was ready, he returned to Ireland and tirelessly preached the gospel for 40 years before he died. As he converted the Irish, he made disciples out of them. And many of his followers went on to become renowned religious leaders as well.

By the time of his death, at the age of 73, Patrick had led tens of thousands to Christ, and established hundreds of churches. In fewer than 100 years, the pagan country of Ireland became predominately Christian, eventually sending missionaries of its own to Scotland, England, Germany, and Belgium. I have an excellent book titled “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” and a great deal of the book is devoted to tracing the incredible impact that Irish Christianity has had on the world. And the preaching and pastoring ministry of St. Patrick was the initial catalyst for this revival and spread of the gospel to the nations.

I’m impressed by the ministry of Patrick to the Irish people for several reasons; but think   about this for a moment with me. He could have hated the people who stole him from his family, and forced him into slavery (wouldn’t you?), but he knew that they needed God’s love. He loved his enemies and wanted for them to know Christ like he did. That shows amazing maturity on his part, and an intense desire to follow the will of God for his life. Also, in addition to converting many, many people, he spent time training them to lead others. We need to learn from his example of not only evangelizing the lost, but training them in God’s Word after they are saved, so that we can, like Paul tells Timothy to do, train men so they can then instruct others in the Word. Disciples making disciples — that’s what we need today!

I think it’s also important for us to review the history of men like Patrick so that we can remember real history, so that we don’t get confused and unnerved by the revisionist historical claims of anti-Christian liberalism, as well as the pagan revivalists. For example, there is little to no evidence of a “golden age” of equality among the sexes within the Druid cult. In reality, wherever the message of Christianity was preached, the truth and love of Christ brought harmony among the sexes with the understanding that men and women are joint-heirs with Christ — and the relationships between men and women flourished.

I think there is a lot that we as evangelical Christians in a post-Christian culture could learn from St. Patrick. Patrick’s context was a Celtic culture deeply entrenched in paganism, led by the native earth religion of the Druid priests. This is especially relevant in this era, where pseudo-Celtic and earth-worshiping paganism is increasingly en vogue in both America and Europe.

March 17th, the date of Patrick’s death, is an Irish national religious holiday. Until the 1970s, Irish laws even mandated that pubs be closed on this date. Isn’t it interesting how much has changed just in the last 40 years?

So as you celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day, remember the real meaning behind the holiday: celebrating the life of a missionary and pastor who faithfully preached Christ to a pagan culture, and transformed the nation in its early history into a catalyst for the gospel!