In the last post on attention and formation, we looked at our outward gaze. Both the farmer and the classical educator, by attending outward, recognize a responsibility to cultivate an environment that promotes flourishing.
At Austin Classical school, we believe that a child like a plant, will soak up whatever values, behaviors, or ideas are present in the surrounding environment, whether that is worry or anxiety about getting into the right college and being prepared for a changing workforce, or whether there is joy and love for learning at each stage of our journey through school.
But we are not perfect. Creating a perfect environment is not only NOT possible, but it is also not enough to counteract a broken and fallen world. Sin is real. And sin doesn’t just exist in the environment we create for our children, but it dwells within their very heart. We know this because it exists within our own hearts. As John Calvin is often quoted as saying, “The human heart is an idol factory.”
This means that our attention must not only be fixed upward on God who is sovereign, and outward on the world in which we are responsible, but it must also be fixed inward on our heart that wants more than anything for us to wander. Once again, both the farmer and the classical Christian educator offer examples of how one might go about “attending inward.”
Ensuring that conditions are set for plant life to flourish does not mean that a farmer leaves a plant unattended. Rather, he must draw his attention inward, to the heart of the plant. I recall a time when my Dad took me to look at some old shrubs on his farm that are commonly grown for hedgerows. Since a hedge is intended to offer a living barrier, the inner branches need to be well developed. Another way to say that is there must be some integrity to the hedge, or you will be able to see right through it.
Well, the plants we were looking at had minimal integrity. They had a few thick branches, but little else. The soil was cultivated, but the farmers did not attend inward to the plant itself. They needed formation through pruning. In the absence of such formation, the end result was deformation.
The solution my Dad shared with me, was to attend to the evergreens that were just planted that spring, and start pruning them lightly. It looked quite silly to see grown men bent over, pruning little tufts of new growth on plants that were no larger than a pencil. But each strike of the pruning shear redirected growth so that the hedge developed internal strength and took the intended shape of a tree worthy of a hedge.
The Classical Christian Educator
We don’t have to make too much of a jump to go from the farm to the classroom. Just as a farmer cannot leave a field unattended and expect a beautifully formed tree or abundantly fruitful crop; so too, a teacher knows that students left unattended will not desire, or attend to, what is true, good, or beautiful. This is because the heart is no different than a farmer’s neglected tree – a wild thing prone to deformation.
This is clear when we see students building an identity around their GPA. Or when we hear students coveting, not celebrating, the athletic gifts of a classmate. Or when we learn that a student is fixated on another’s popularity and anxious about the number of “likes” their pictures receive on social media. Each of these tendencies is evidence of deformation in the ways we were originally formed, and as adults, we know that we are not immune to their power.
We know this because we know the reality of sin. We understand the reality of the Devil who wants to lay claim to a battlefield that Christ claims as his dwelling place: our heart. And so our hearts then, require attention. In Proverbs 4:23 we are reminded, “Above all else, guard your heart for everything you do flows from it.” Such guarding involves both the planting of God’s Word, as well as the careful extraction of those sinful tendencies.
Such inward attention on the habits of our heart is as important for our students as it is for our teachers, co-teachers, and our heads of school. Just like those old shrubs taught me as a boy on the farm, integrity does not come without pruning. But with pruning, we might form students, and become the type of people who mirror what CS Lewis calls “men with chests – capable of virtue and enterprise.”
Head of School
Austin Classical School