What is Paideia? Part 2


This week, Holy Week, is a week of contemplative worship and preparation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ our Lord.  Quiet contemplation is an art which classical Christian education seeks to restore. Holy Week is the perfect time to practice the art of contemplative worship.




As this applies to education, I see it as the difference between synthesis and compartmentalization.  Synthesis seeks to understand how everything fits together in the divinely created order. Compartmentalization, on the other hand, breaks everything down and separates it. 


The well-ordered mind synthesizes.  Without governance by the well-ordered mind, the well-organized mind will tend towards mere compartmentalization.


When we teach math, we should be asking the question, how does this fit into the well-ordered mind?  What about history?  What about the arts?  And physics?  How do these work with the other areas of knowledge? How are they related to each other through the person of God from whom they originated, and how are they fit into the divine order of the universe?  Medieval scholars believed that astronomy should be the capstone of one’s education because it invited the learner to the contemplation of the heavens, much like Plato’s freed slave.


If we are looking for things to be useful, and asking the question, why do I need to know this and when am I ever going to use the quadratic equation, we have reduced the value of that knowledge to a compartmentalized fragment of information, rather than synthesized it into a larger body of knowledge with a habit of proper thinking. 


Ultimately, a habit of compartmentalization limits our ability to reach the fullness of understanding of the world God has created and our place in it as imago Dei, and therefore limits our ability to fully respond to the Great Commission.


When I say compartmentalization, I mean that modern education has taken knowledge areas and broken them down into small enough pieces so that they no longer appear to be related. The interconnectedness of knowledge is a wonderful conversation we as teachers should be having among ourselves. As a literature teacher, I should be sitting in the history class, the science class, the math class, the art class, and the music class. To teach well, I need to see the connections so I can help my students to see.  We ought to be teaching our students both the Art of Science and the Science of Art, the Story of History, and the History of Story; the Language of Physics, and the Physics of Language.


Compartmentalization in knowledge areas is too neat.  It is also too disconnected.  I don’t think our minds are designed to do that.  We’re not meant to have compartmentalized lives, and fractured souls.


The well-ordered mind seeks to understand the permanent things, and is not dominated by the chaos of present.  And let me say this:  you can be well organized and still be living in chaos.  The well-organized mind, if not governed by the well-ordered mind, will not discern between the temporal and the eternal, and will likely become governed instead by the tyranny of the NOW.


It's the difference between Mary and Martha.  Mary sat at the feet of Christ because she had a sense of her life being well-ordered.  Martha rushed around getting everything done and checked all her boxes because she prized her well-organized life instead.  Both are needed, but one must govern the other.




Part of the Beauty of paideia, that is, Christian education, is helping our students to gain an eternal perspective.


Cicero says it this way:  “The beast lives in the present, heedless of the past, or future. But man endowed with reason perceives the connection of things, marks their causes and effects, traces their analogies, links the future with the past, and surveying without effort the whole course of life, prepares what is needful for the journey.”


Great education is a long process of cultivation. It is not fast food. It is not a quick remedy for the ills of this world.  It is not a switch that is turned on from 8:00 a.m. to 3:15 pm.  The Roman orator, Seneca, said that “there is only one really liberal study – that which gives a man his liberty.  It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled.”  Lofty, brave, and great-souled – contrast that with secularized edu-speak flavor of the month fad words:  student-centered, differentiated instruction, and collaboration.  True paideia is Christ-centered, and not dependent on ticking boxes on a long list of soulless standards aimed at doing nothing more than standardizing our students.


Rather, paideia is the long process of cultivating seedlings into great strong trees that can endure life’s inevitable storms. Isaiah writes that properly cultivated children will be called “the oaks of righteousness, and plantings of the LORD for the display of His splendor.  They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”


If we are going to do that, we constantly have to keep an eternal perspective at the forefront of our mind.


I like how the ESV translation of the Bible describes how long Jacob lived. Jacob says to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years.”


He saw himself as a sojourner, a traveler, a temporary resident here on earth because heaven was his home.


When you have that kind of perspective you are free from the tyranny of the NOW. When your foundation is the permanent things, the eternal truth of Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection, your trials and afflictions become light indeed and you begin to know just how easy his yoke is.


What a disservice it would be to our students if we don’t teach them to have this eternal perspective and for them to be subjected to the tyranny of the NOW, chasing the latest job trends and hottest emerging careers, rather than responding to fire the Creator of the Universe placed in them for whatever He has called them to do.




Giambattista Vico, an early 18th century thinker and writer wrote that “the true function of the disciplines…is to accustom the mind to the TRUE THINGS.”  Learning TRUE THINGS is necessary so that we recognize and become accustomed to what TRUTH looks like. In all of the disciplines, as we learn TRUE things and teach our students TRUE things across the various disciplines, then, we are equipping our students with a broad understanding of what TRUTH looks like in the various life experiences they will go on to have after they leave our classrooms.


In Greek mythology, one of the rivers in Hades is Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.  The Greek word for Truth is its opposite: aletheia. In other words, the things that are not forgotten, the things that do not pass away, the things that are permanent and unchanging.


Teaching them the permanent things, the aletheia:  about the periodic table, the quadratic equation, how to do a geometry proof, to write well, to read well, to think well, and to have a well-ordered mind.


They will develop a sense of being able to discern TRUTH, because they will know what TRUTH looks like.  They will not only be able to recognize TRUTH, but the more true things we can teach them, the more comfortable they will be with TRUTH.  It sounds so simple and obvious for this to be the aim of Christian education, but there is a whole world out there that is not comfortable with the TRUTH.  It is the essence, in other words, of paideia of our students – shaping character, developing intellect, and cultivating virtue, all firmly grounded and rooted in love.  Indeed, this is what Paul calls us to in his letter to the Philippians. “Whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…” The list goes on.  “Think on these things.”  Be intellectually engaged with aletheia.  Contemplate the beautiful. 


In the classroom, we can help our students see this.  It may or may not influence the content of our classrooms as much as it influences our approach.  If our students were to ask why a biology teacher loves teaching biology and actually cares what a strand of DNA looks like even though he has no aspirations of becoming a research scientist, what would he say? I suspect most teachers would say they love it – be it biology, art, math, foreign language – whatever the specialty is – they love it because they know that it’s true.  That’s how we teach them to love it too. Not by telling them, “you need this class or that so you can do this or that someday” – we need to be more honest with them. 


You don’t have to validate it your love of your discipline to your students.  You are teaching it to them because it is TRUE, and you love it because it is TRUE.  Tell them that.  Be comfortable with that.


And so, back to the garden of the bishop.  We need to invite our students to join us there, where the beautiful is just as useful as the useful, and perhaps more so. After all, it is in a garden, surrounded by beauty, where the Greatest Story ever told begins. And like Plato’s newly freed man, when we turn our whole souls to the Son, we too will be able to see Him, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but we will see Him in his own proper place and be able to contemplate Him as He is.



In His service and for His glory –

Rachel Greb

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