As Christian teachers, we want to relate well with our students. We pray that the love, patience, and grace that we show our students on a regular (indeed, sometimes daily) basis points them to Christ. This worthy impulse, however, can sometimes (perhaps, as in my experience, often) slide into an understanding of the teacher’s role that downplays the teacher’s authority in favor of being something of a gregarious uncle, a kindly big sister, or a hip youth pastor. On such a view, enforcing discipline or holding students accountable for their words and actions can actually be construed as a hindrance to the kind of relationship that will lead them to Christ. The vocation of actively forming students into something different from their present selves falls by the wayside.
Of course, such an approach to teaching flies in the face of both the classical and Christian traditions. In the classical mind, students were in need of formation if they were to become people of virtue. As Aristotle points out in his Nicomachean Ethics, virtues are habits of right actions, which can be formed or inculcated through practice. As Aristotle argues, “It is therefore not of small moment whether we are trained from childhood in one set of habits or another; on the contrary it is of very great, or rather of supreme, importance” (II.i.8). In particular, recognizing that a child’s natural instinct is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain (as understood by the child) and thereby stray from the path of virtue, our students must be “definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means” (II. iii.2). Education, then, is the business of shaping our students’ loves and affections.
The Church Fathers picked up on precisely these insights in their writings on education. For Christians, the need for formation in faith and virtue was even deeper than the pagan philosophers had realized. As the bishop and preacher John Chrysostom elaborated in his homily “On Vainglory,” human nature is characterized by an essential “weakness” common to all human beings on account of sin and its consequences. Despite this serious obstacle, Chrysostom argues, children can nevertheless be shaped and molded by their education; they can in fact be trained to become people whose ways of thinking and living ultimately produce faith and virtue. This language of training comes through most clearly with Chrysostom’s charge to parents and teachers to “raise up an athlete for Christ.”
For Chrysostom, then, education requires consistent (and, to stay with the athletic metaphor, often painful) exercise to condition the student to a life of disciplined virtue. Students’ souls are, in fact, like wax seals: “If good precepts are impressed on the soul while it is yet tender, no man will be able to destroy them when they have set firm, even as does a waxen seal.” Turning to another image, Chrystostom compares the work of a teacher to that of a sculptor: “Like the creators of statues do you give all your leisure to fashioning these wondrous statues for God. And, as you remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking, inspect them day by day, to see what good qualities nature has supplied so that you will increase them, and what faults so that you will eradicate them.” Like Michelangelo, we can imagine ourselves as being called to the work of setting free the statue (that is, the student in all of her glory as Christ has created her to be) from the surrounding block of marble (that is, the sin that disfigures the imago Dei in her).
This requires, though, an education that explicitly includes instruction in virtue and provides opportunities for students to exercise or train the “muscles” of their souls. It requires, in other words, a teacher who is committed to an understanding of the teaching vocation as explicitly counter-formational to the prevailing currents shaping students from both within and without. This is, I believe, what Paul was getting at when he instructed the church at Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). If our default is to conformity with the world’s ways of thinking and to pursuing our vocations as teachers from within the framework of anthropological presuppositions foreign and often contrary to Christian teaching, it will take nothing less than a renewed vision of the work of teaching and learning if we are to see our students’ transformation into Christ’s likeness.
This blog post is excerpted and adapted from Kyle R. Hughes’ Teaching for Spiritual Formation: A Patristic Approach to Christian Education in a Convulsed Age (Cascade, 2022).
For more on John Chrysostom’s vision for forming students in faith and virtue, see chapter 3, “Who Are Our Students? John Chrysostom and Embodied Learning.” The book is available now.