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From the September/October, 2009
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Education Normal by Mark T. Mitchell

Education Normal

Mark T. Mitchell on the Oddity of Giving Children a Moral Imagination

“Are you ever afraid that homeschooling your kids will make them, um, oddballs?” We were staring into the campfire. The kids had all been tucked more or less comfortably into their sleeping bags, and we parents were savoring the opportunity to talk. With the cool night crowding us closer to the fire, the conversation was lively, though tinged by a reflective mood.

As anyone who is the parent of small children will know, the conversation eventually turned to kids. Soon we were talking about how to raise godly children in a culture that, in many ways, seems intent on undermining their faith. And not only their faith. Many of today’s cultural forces create impediments to a sound education as well as a solid faith. These must be resisted. But that persistent question remains.

Books versus TV

Are we raising kids who won’t fit in? I have asked this of myself regularly over the past few years. My wife and I are educating our three boys at home. We don’t watch television (only an occasional video). We emphasize books. We read to the kids and make them memorize poetry. We pray together on our knees. In many ways, our kids are culturally ignorant. They don’t know about Disney World. The other day, my five-year-old asked, “Who is Mickey Mouse?”

So I guess the answer to the question has to be yes. But the “yes” is a qualified one, for when one considers the concept of “odd,” one should ask, “compared to what?” This moves us in a helpful direction, for if “normal” is merely what everyone else does, then what is normal changes with the times. What is odd in one time might not be odd in another. On the other hand, if “normal” refers to a proper way of being human, and if human nature is unchanging, then what is odd, in the sense of being opposed to the majority, may in fact be normal.

As we consider exactly what, in our culture, sets the odd kids apart, it seems to me that the clearest and brightest line can be drawn when we ask the following question: Will your kids be raised primarily on books or on television? To put it another way: Will your children be educated in a logocentric environment, where the written and spoken word is the primary conveyer of meaning, or will they ingest most of their information through electronically generated images?

Now, of course, emphasizing books over television is not the entire story, for books vary in quality and there are plenty of books that cultivate misshapen virtues and a cynical view of life. But I think it is safe to say that parents who make the effort to emphasize books as a way of life will generally be those who have been powerfully moved by books themselves. They have experienced the wonder and joy and goodness of certain books and will introduce these to their children even as one introduces a family member to a much-loved friend.

But setting the content of the books aside (for only a moment), those whose minds are shaped by an ongoing encounter with language will develop mental habits that include patience, perseverance, the ability to think abstractly, and an imagination that does not require the constant stimulation of external images. The imagination of the reader (guided by the author) creates the images, whereas the child raised on television merely imbibes what has already been fully rendered by the camera.

More than Rules

There are two facets to educating a child well. The first is to recognize that education is not merely the accumulation of facts, but that it has an unavoidably moral aspect. A suitable education must do more, therefore, than simply teach facts, even moral facts. Education must seek to cultivate the moral imagination of the child, for reducing moral education to a list of rules is bound to fail.

For one thing, just as it is impossible to make laws to cover every conceivable situation, so, too, it is impossible to create a moral code that does the same. The complexity of human life precludes the sort of detailed arrangement that would reduce moral and legal reasoning to the mechanical application of myriads of rules. Judgment is a necessary part of moral decision-making, and judgment must be cultivated through practice. And an important part of this practice comes through encounters with historical and literary characters.

Another reason why moral education cannot be reduced to a set of rules is that lists of rules fail to move the imagination. They do not elicit the aid of that spirited part of the soul of which Plato writes. Consider which of the following would educate a young person more effectively: (1) a rule stating, “Be brave,” or (2) the story of Leonidas at Thermopolyae or Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech.

Stirring a child to aspire to noble thoughts and deeds is a central role of education. The example of Our Lord is instructive: He educated his disciples by telling them stories.

Centered on the Word

The second facet of a sound education is developing in the child a logocentric view of reality. Holy Scripture is accessible only to those who are literate. God has revealed himself through the words of Scripture, wherein we read that “In the beginning was the Word.” Christ is the Logos. God did not give us a Sacred Picture Book. He gave us words by which we, via our imaginations, can gain access to eternal truths.

This is not to say that we cannot and do not employ visual images to depict sacred truths, for the telling of a parable is itself an exercise in creating a mental picture that illustrates what is true. But if our children are raised primarily on visual images, if they do not cultivate the mental disciplines necessary to access truth via language, then the Holy Scriptures will remain opaque, the creeds and confessions of faith will be meaningless recitations, and hymn lyrics will be merely pleasant-sounding rhymes to accompany occasionally pleasant-sounding music.

While the ultimate aim of education is to cultivate the souls of children toward godly virtue, a secondary but related end is the preservation of civilization. The foundations of our civilization, so long in their development, bought at such a high price, are being attacked in many quarters and are simply ignored or taken for granted in others. If we ignore the past, if we fail to grasp the invaluable and delicate gift we have received, if we fail to pass this love on to our children, then civilization itself is in jeopardy.

And our particular civilization, for which the spoken and written word has been such a central part, cannot be perpetuated by those who are not both literate and loving. That is, stewards of our civilization must possess well-cultivated language faculties capable of grasping complex and abstract ideas and concepts. But the ability is not sufficient, for these stewards must also have a deep love for that which they have inherited. Their well-formed moral imaginations will not be duped by cheap goodness or half-truths or paltry beauties. They will love that which is best and seek to improve that which is wanting.

Normal Children Needed

If a proper education is to accomplish or at least to seek to accomplish these tasks, then a normal child is one whose moral imagination is well formed, whose soul is oriented toward a love of logos and the Logos, and who knows and loves the best of his own civilization. Such a child will, perhaps unwittingly, become a steward of the good, the true, and the beautiful. In a world where normal is considered odd, such children are desperately needed.

Several years ago, when I was away at a conference, my wife took our three young sons out to eat. It was a family restaurant; still, apparently so families wouldn’t have to talk with each other, televisions were positioned at strategic points around the room. Now, children who don’t watch much television seem almost hypnotized when they encounter it. It is extraordinarily difficult for them to ignore. So with the television hovering overhead, my wife struggled to maintain a conversation with three young boys who were craning their necks to see the screen.

Somewhere in the course of dinner, an episode of The Simpsons came on, and this episode just happened to include a spoof on Homer (the Greek poet, not Bart’s dad). Our oldest son, Seth, who was six at the time, soon pointed and exclaimed, “Mom! That kid is pretending to be Odysseus!” He didn’t know Bart and Company, but he did know Homer. Score one for normal. •


Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Virginia. He is the co-founder of Front Porch Republic.

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