Merry Christmas and Advent greetings (depending on your calendar)!
George Michalopulos has linked to a thoughtful address on Orthodox education by David Hicks to the Orthodox Christian School Association. You may wish to read “The Seven Traits of a Truly Orthodox School” in its entirety. I recommend it—except for its infuriating and inconsistent employment of the feminine pronoun as a neutral pronoun and for its lack of the Oxford comma. Here are some selections:
My first question is this: Is there such a thing as a distinctively Orthodox education which one might expect an Orthodox school to offer, or do we mean by an Orthodox school a place where Orthodox families send their children to receive an education in substance much like the one they would otherwise receive at a state school, albeit with smaller classes, more loving teachers, better discipline, morning prayers, a compulsory religion course or two, and icons on the walls? The second question, if I can make a persuasive case for a distinctively Orthodox education, is: How does this education differ from the one the Church already offers in its religious education classes? . . .
Here’s my brief: I believe there is or ought to be a distinctively Orthodox education in our schools, and I think that between our schools and the religious studies departments in our churches there is or ought to be perfect philosophical alignment. Where they differ is in the content of what they teach and, to a degree, in the methods they use.
Were I the headmaster of an Orthodox school, I would be perfectly happy with the statement of purpose that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese developed for its Department of Religious Education: “The purpose of Orthodox Christian Education is to help build up the Church, the Body of Christ, by nurturing every person in the life of personal communion with the Holy Trinity, and thus, through this ministry, to bear joyful witness to God’s loving and redeeming work in the world.”
The fact that there is nothing here about literacy, or mastery learning, or superior scores on high stakes tests, or preparing for Harvard, or putting the first woman on the moon doesn’t disturb me, as an educator, in the least. Why ask for bread when you can have manna? Why write in periodic sentences if you can write in iambic pentameter? I believe our schools should be utterly committed to, and all about, the highest and best purpose for each child of God in a desk, and that is not merely about literacy, high test scores, and Harvard. Otherwise, where is our faith? “After all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:32-33)
But simply stating this as our high purpose or philosophy doesn’t make it so. It still begs the question, what should an Orthodox education look like anyway? Perhaps you’ve heard of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Well, here are the 7 Traits of a Truly Orthodox School.
1. We understand that learning grows out of relationships, in this case the intimate relationship between the teacher and his pupils. This begins, of course, with our Creator, who is not a unitary deity gazing at his own naval, but is three persons in relationship with one another, yet all bound by the will of the Father. It is a relationship characterized by love demonstrated in actions based upon profound concern for the well-being of each student as a child of God. Admittedly, it is difficult to talk about this in our culture because of the prevalence of twisted adult-child relationships with selfish and evil intentions, but we cannot let our culture, toxic as it is, dictate the essential traits of our schools. If anything, it should only underline the need for believing and practicing Orthodox teachers in every classroom. Ultimately, we must ask, how can a school be Orthodox if the teachers, who are meant to exercise this profound influence on their pupils, are not themselves Orthodox?
2. Aligned to this trait is our bedrock understanding of personhood . the uniqueness and preciousness of all persons as children of the God who loved His children so much that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world to die and bring them home to Himself. The Holy Trinity teachers us, we as persons do not exist as individuals; we come alive in our relations with God and with one another. As the English poet and cleric John Donne said, “No man is an island.” So our schools are preoccupied with questions like these: Who is this person God made me to be? What are the relationships I am meant to have, and what do these relationships require of me? . . .
3. Of course, we must ask, what is studied in an Orthodox school? In the Syrian schools just mentioned, students learned to read by using the Psalter, which they were required to commit to memory and which also became the basis for lives of unceasing prayer. I’m not proposing that, but I would propose a selection of content (objects of study) based on the following criteria:
—Does the text, implicitly or explicitly, allow for a vertical element, a metaphysical space, even if not explicitly Christian, or does it assume only a horizontal element, naturalistic, materialistic, nihilistic?
—Does the text celebrate sin, or does it expose sin for what it does, corrupting minds, souring relationships, destroying life, and flirting with death?
—What are the virtues this book is challenging our students to cultivate?
Notice I haven’t said anything about studying only texts produced by Christians, let alone Orthodox Christians. Anyone who has read St. Basil’s treatise on the role of pagan literature in Christian formation or knows anything about St. Clement’s school in Alexandria knows that such a proscription would be against the spirit and best traditions of Orthodoxy. On the other hand, if you’re studying American history, why would you pass over the history of Paul Johnson to read a secular historian? Or if you’re studying the Middle Ages, why would you read a dull enlightener like William Manchester, who is not even a medievalist, when you can read Steven Runciman, Christopher Dawson and C. S. Lewis? Or better yet, when you can study the works of the Middle Ages themselves, the cathedrals, the paintings, the writings of Boethius, Chaucer, Anna Comnena, Dante, John Chrysostom, Benevenuto Cellini, Erasmus, et al? Orthodox schools should not be about textbooks and other forms of second-hand learning. Burn them!
4. Now I come to the heart of my argument. The fact is, there is no academic disadvantage to our students in failing to study the cultural detritus that everyone else is studying. This is so not only because the works we study in Orthodox schools are more demanding, more full of meaning, richer and closer to the source, but because the most researched and data-supported educational theory declares it so. What you teach is not nearly as important as how you teach! Whether you entirely buy this theory of not, it should relieve you of any anxieties you might feel about carefully selecting your study questions and reading lists.
So, how ought we to teach at an Orthodox school? Above all, we ought to have clear instructional protocols that ask all teachers to use an interrogatory method based on high-order reasoning. The teacher needs to identify the essential questions for every lesson, use differentiated strategies in instruction, and never complete a lesson without a high-order assessment. Without this, she [sic] will not build the critical-thinking, complex-problem-solving, high-order- reasoning skills that universities are looking for and that every productive citizen needs. Nor will he be faithful to our best traditions as Orthodox Christians. Remember, we are nurturing humans, not automatons: creatures whom their Creator made in His own image, with reasoning minds and free wills. The conclusions that our students come to after having weighed all the evidence and heard all the arguments are those that will guard them against the intellectual fads and fancies of this world at the same time as providing them with the critical tools to tackle any new topic or question with confidence and discernment.
5. Still, when it comes to the selection of our teaching content and the organization of the curriculum, our schools do have a point of view and a story to tell. We have a theology of history and a meta- narrative that culminates in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, events in time that made all things new. It is, to be sure, a largely implicit story. It begins with our school year, organized around the Church calendar, its Feasts and Fasts, its Saints Days and readings from the Gospels, Epistles, and Lives of the Saints. Our school days ought, to some extent, to reflect the Hours. And the books we study either draw upon the great 6 themes of our narrative and God’s redemptive work in history, or they call attention to the shallowness, emptiness and depravity of a world absent God and the hope of redemption and Resurrection.
I’ve heard it argued that this is the very reason not to send your child to an Orthodox school. “This is not education, but indoctrination!” It is tempting to respond to this charge as Tertullian might have done: “If this be indoctrination, then let us all be indoctrinated!” But this isn’t necessary. Our story is no more doctrinaire than that of the State schools wherein religion is a proscribed topic and God is never mentioned, nor a theology of history ever taught. What is the implicit story there? Simply, that God doesn’t exist, or if He does, He doesn’t matter. Do we really believe this? Do we want our children to believe this? Let’s be clear about this: the State’s narrative is much more shocking and anti-historical than ours, as well as one that effectively censors from the curriculum many of the deepest thinkers and much of greatest literature of all time simply because they don’t fit the narrative.
6. The ancient Greeks, who invented the school, as you probably all know, did not distinguish in their language between “education” and “culture.” When seeing the word “paideia,” modern English translators have to decide from the context whether to write education or culture. I think there’s an important lesson for us here. Culture is the most profound education of all. It pervades everything, and it is perpetually indoctrinating and educating us whether we are aware of it or not. Think of the profound effects television, popular music, video games, and social media have on us and on our children.
For this reason, an Orthodox school that fails to organize itself along the lines of what sociologists call a “deep culture” is largely failing in its mission. Think of that school in Nisibis with its daily “recitation of the choirs” (reciting of memorized psalms) and its community meetings. One of the great beauties of our faith is the temple. When we enter the temple, all our senses tell us that we have left the world behind. It should be this way with our schools as well. The hardscape should be compelling and unequivocally Orthodox; the rituals, the traditions, the celebrations, the rules—all should reflect and encourage Orthodox habits of heart, mind and body. . . .
7. Finally, it seems to me that an Orthodox school owes itself and its graduates a culminating course of study reflecting back on all that the student has learned from a specifically Orthodox point of view. If he’s equipped to do so, this might be the perfect course for the local priest to teach. Whatever the case, some fieldwork, perhaps in a monastery, some research, nowadays probably on the internet, and an extended essay ought to be integrated into this demanding course. Whether they make confessions or conversions (decisions that are not in our hands), our graduates ought to be able to give an account of the practices and beliefs of Orthodox Christians, as well as of our quarrel with and hope for the world.
Perhaps at this point, before concluding, I should digress briefly to respond to the question I raised earlier: How does this education differ from the one the Church already offers in its religious education classes? Well, other than the fact that the School is called upon to teach basic skills like reading and writing and a much broader range of subjects like chemistry, strings and Mandarin, I would offer these thoughts:
—The Church focuses exclusively on Orthodox beliefs and practices. The School compares Orthodox beliefs and practices to others and examines them in the light of history and the often hostile attacks on them, from pagan times to the present. It offers an Apologia.
—The Church offers itself as the all-holy Bride of Christ worthy of our unquestioning devotion and obedience. The School is called upon to distinguish between our Lord’s perfect intention and the historical struggles of the Church, both with internal and external enemies, to live up to the Bridegroom’s intention.
—The Church assumes a child’s faith and prepares the child to enter more fully into the richness of Christ’s Kingdom. The School does not assume. It presents, studies and defends the Faith in response to the existential questions that drive the curriculum (and life) and to which non-Orthodox answers are also studied. . . .
Excellent! I wish Orthodox and other Christian educators the best in their good works.