What is paideia? – Paideia is a Greek word which means education, but with a richer sense than just teaching a student information.  In Ancient Greece, it meant educating a child properly, so that the polis would be insured of its continuance with the best kind of citizenry.  In Scripture, Paideia is teaching children how to be the men and women God created them to be, to fulfill His purpose for His kingdom and His glory.  In both senses, paideia carries with it the notion that education is the shaping of character, the development of intellect, and the cultivation of virtue in a child, which takes place over the course years and which enables him to have a well-ordered life.

Paideia is precisely what C.S. Lewis describes in his book, Abolition of Man, which he wrote about education and the changes in philosophy and pedagogical practices in the mid 20th century towards progressivism. 

He said, “Where the old [way of education] initiated, the new merely ‘conditions.’ The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly:  the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds – making them thus or thus for the purposes of which the birds know nothing.  In a word, the old was a kind of propagation – men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.”


Plato and Aristotle argue that education for the sake of conveying information for its usefulness is the lowest form of education, one barely fit for slaves and certainly not fit for free men.  The education of the free man needed to be a GOOD education – one that shaped character, developed intellect, and cultivated virtue.

The word, “education” comes from the Latin “ex duco”, which literally means “to lead out.”  But what are we leading our students out of, and more importantly, where are we leading them?

Plato describes the education of man by comparing it to a prisoner that has been set free, being led out of a cave, from the flickering shadows of ignorance, slowly and carefully being led into the light of day and illumination; with his eyes slowly adjusting to the light.  At first only able to withstand reflections in the water, and the light of the moon and stars.  And then, writes Plato, “Last of all, he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.”

That slow process of illumination and contemplation brings a freedom to the mind, without which it will be forever enslaved.


I think we should be a little cautious about becoming too enamored with what the world finds to be useful as a litmus test for its worthiness in the classroom.  Beauty is necessary for its own sake.  In Victor Hugo’s enduring classic, Les Miserables, the bishop that redeems Jean Valjean makes this point.  He lives humbly, and keeps a garden. His garden is described like this:

“The garden, somewhat marred by the ugly structures already mentioned, was laid out with four walks crossing at a dry well in the center.  Another walk around the garden skirted the white wall that enclosed it.  These walks left four square plots bordered with boxwood.  In three of them, Madame Magloire grew vegetables; in the fourth the bishop had planted flowers and there a few fruit trees.  Madame Magloire once said to him in a kind of gentle reproach, ‘Monseigneur, you are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot.  It would be much better to have salads there than bouquets.’

‘Madame Magloire,’ the bishop replied, ‘you are mistaken.  The beautiful is just as useful as the useful.’ He added after a moment’s pause, ‘Perhaps more so.’”

I think we do well to heed these words.  In all of our pursuit of giving our students a great education, we need first to make sure that it is indeed paideia – focused on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

As teachers and educators, we have the incredible blessing of sharing this journey of paideia with our students. We are able to invite them, like we have been invited ourselves, to walk and talk in the garden with some of the greatest minds of the past few millennia that have significantly impacted our world. Together, we can walk through the wardrobe, sail with Odysseus, suffer with Oedipus, and be guided by Virgil. We can relearn beautiful order of the periodic table, a Latin declension, or a proof in geometry, and we can find joy in the discovery. It is beautiful. It is beautiful. But the modern question still plagues us:  is it useful?

I would argue that yes, it is.  It is perhaps more useful than the useful, because it is beautiful. In 1921, Madame Curie conveyed this very point to students in an address at Vassar College:  “And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it.  It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science.”

In His service and for His glory –

Rachel Greb

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