This year, I’ve been thinking about education a lot. My oldest child (wasn’t she a newborn yesterday?) recently celebrated her fourth birthday. For some children, four is school age, so my daughter is often the oldest kid on the playground during school hours, and I often get questions about where and when she goes to school. While she probably won’t attend school next year, education is on my mind.
My own educational background is a patchwork. I had two intelligent, kind, involved parents. In many ways, my formal education held little weight compared to my rich home life. My father was a military officer and I attended about a dozen primary and secondary schools, mostly public. I earned my bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Bryn Athyn College of the New Church, then taught biology and geometry,not too badly, I hope, for two years at the Academy of the New Church. After which I retired into motherhood.
Since then I’ve been re-examining my own education, reading books, and speaking with educators. I’ve also been looking through the Old and New Testament and the Heavenly Doctrines for guidance: the way people, particularly children, learn what education in heaven is like and so on.
Perhaps the most eye-opening conversations have been those I’ve had with New Church parents and educators. Besides those children enrolled in “traditional” New Church schools, there are children attending public and private schools, children home schooling and unschooling…. The list goes on.
Dizzy with the variety of educational choices, I asked one seasoned teacher what she felt was the best way of educating a child. She smiled and said simply, “It depends on the child.” This answer frustrated me in the moment, but it’s since informed the way I’ve looked at education.
I love the variety of choices that shelter under the umbrella of New Church education. I want to believe, though, that general guiding principles from the Word can inform any of these choices. I would like to begin a conversation exploring these principles.
I want to frame my question carefully. While I love a good “should” or “ought,” I don’t want to stymie or alienate the people out there thinking and writing about this subject. I invite others to comment on this post with their own passages and thoughts. So here’s the question: What could New Church education look like?
That’s pretty open-ended, but I want this conversation to be just that. So I’ll begin by commenting on a few passages from the Old Testament and Heavenly Doctrines.
To keep things in perspective—especially for myself—I’d like to offer this passage from Heaven and Hell:
“From the things stated, it can be confirmed what the education of little children is in heaven, namely, that it is leading them by means of an understanding of truth and the wisdom of good into the angelic life, which is love to the Lord and mutual love, in which is innocence.” (334)
From this we can see that the purpose of educating people is to prepare them for angelic life, loving each other and the Lord. On the one hand, this is a tall order for anyone who spends much time around small children who are dickering over toys or smacking even smaller siblings.
On the other hand, this should take a huge weight off the shoulders of parents and teachers agonizing over things like whether to enrich Junior’s life with tuba lessons or to include Vasco de Gama in the unit on explorers. I don’t mean to dismiss the fun that oom-pahs could bring or the work that goes into crafting curricula. For myself, though, I want to remember to keep my priorities straight. Will I value the kindness my child showed a friend during recess more than the perfect spelling test she brings home? Will I remember that moral behavior is preferable to outstanding academic achievement? I hope so.
In this next excerpt from Heaven and Hell, Emanuel Swedenborg watches little children and their caretakers:
“I have also been shown how all things are instilled into [children] by delightful and pleasant means suited to their genius. … Once also it was granted me to see them accompanied by nurses and by maidens, in a park most beautifully adorned, not so much with trees, as with arbors and covered walks of laurel, as it were, with paths leading inward; and when the little children entered, attired as they were, the flowers over the entrance shone forth most joyously. Hence the nature of their delights can be established, also how they are led by means of pleasant and delightful things into the goods of innocence and charity, which are continually instilled into these delights and pleasures by the Lord.” (337)
While the notion that instruction can, and even ought to, be pleasant makes sense to the modern parent, this idea isn’t many centuries old. Injunctions like “spare the rod and spoil the child” held sway well into the 1900’s. For an interesting take on the influence of Protestantism on our modern education system, I recommend Peter Gray’s book “Free to Learn”. Corporal punishment in school is largely a thing of the past, but the idea that learning ought to involve some suffering is still out there.
On a more constructive note, I’ve found this passage useful as I watch my own kids. It’s my privilege and responsibility to notice my kids’ personalities, interests, and needs. The corollary: I’m their advocate, especially in the early years when they may not be able to verbalize these things themselves. I can help make their journeys delightful. Divine Providence 136[6-8] has another sweet description of children learning through delights.
Note that the caretakers of heavenly children described in HH 337 don’t seem to be ordering their charges around. They observe the children’s choices and trust the Lord’s guidance. This might be the most important lesson for me, personally. I can easily fall into the false belief that my choices for or instruction of my children make them who they are. That is a paralyzing, fearful trap for parents. “Did my failure to provide proper art materials stunt my son’s potential talent? Did my unwillingness to create a bilingual home environment deprive my daughter of crucial neural connections?” Perhaps the glut of extracurricular activities, the “gotta catch ’em all” mentality, for children as young as preschool stems from this trap.
Parental guilt is real, pervasive, and often irrational. Of course I do the best I can for my kids, and of course I don’t leave them to their own devices. But I hope I watch with humility as they make their own choices, helping them as best I can and being grateful to the Lord for providing a unique path specially suited for each.
Most striking have been passages describing memory and assimilation of knowledge. Modern educators and researchers are always hatching the next brilliant way to get kids to remember facts and formulas and dates. But consider Divine Providence 80:
“Nothing that a person merely thinks about becomes attached to him. Indeed neither does anything that he thinks about willing, unless he at the same time does will it to the point that he also does it when given the opportunity.”
I wonder how much time is wasted forcing people, especially children, to learn things they don’t care about. If learning can come naturally and delightfully to children, is it necessary to force a child to learn something before he is ready and willing?
I realize this radical thought is way off the educational grid, but it’s one that I see borne out almost every day. I’m amazed at the learning that occurs when a kid’s curiosity and affections are engaged. There’s a vast difference between a student who freely chooses to learn about bees and a student who feels compelled to learn about bees.
I don’t mean to imply that children shouldn’t be compelled to learn things, but it’s important to remember that they sometimes comply to get people off their backs. I know I did.
Divine Providence 148 describes this situation and distinguishes between two kinds of freedom: interior and exterior.
“Besides, every person wishes to be free and to escape a lack of freedom or condition of servitude. Every boy who is under a schoolmaster wishes to be independent and thus free. So, too, every servant under his master, or maidservant under her mistress. … All of these who serve of their own accord in order to gain their freedom compel themselves; and when they compel themselves, they act in freedom in accordance with their reason, but from an interior freedom which regards exterior freedom as a servant.” (148)
Of course, small children don’t have as developed a capacity to reason or compel themselves. And at any age, self-compulsion under authority is sometimes necessary. How else would we learn to obey civil or Divine law? But perhaps compulsory learning ought to be a last resort, with the acknowledgement that it is less than ideal and certainly not as effective as learning freely chosen.
I’ve been trying to notice when I’m putting my children in a position of “servitude”, when they submit to my authority, and when I’m giving them interior freedom to follow their affections. It’s amazing the amount of discipline a child will impose on herself when pursuing a goal of her own choosing.
Freedom in education has become pretty important to me. I wonder if it is not so much a right as a necessary ingredient. Consider the metaphorical wedding, the marriage of a person’s will with his or her understanding, as described in Divine Love and Wisdom 404:
“When the wedding has taken place, the first conjunction occurs through an affection for knowing, from which springs an affection for truth. … We do not by the wedding mean here the first state, which is one of sheer ignorance…. This state is a prelude to the wedding. Present in the second state, which is a person’s state in childhood, is, as is recognized, an affection for knowing. It is in consequence of this affection that a young child learns to speak, learns to read, and afterward progressively learns such things as are matters of the intellect. That it is love residing in the will which occasions this cannot be called into question; for unless love or the will prompted it, it would not come about.”
After the ignorance of infancy, the “affection for knowing” is present in children. Children seek truth, sometimes to an exhausting degree. A three-year-old wants to know why why whyyyy. This idea that children want to learn shouldn’t surprise parents and educators, but do we structure educational systems to reflect this belief? Do we wait patiently for a child’s innate affection to spur her on to speaking, reading, and other desirable academic skills?
Many would argue that few high school students would willingly put themselves through a course in trigonometry for the sheer affection of truth. It’s up to parents, educators, and their charges to determine academic goals. Might a student more willingly enter a trig classroom because he wants to go to medical school? (There’s that exterior freedom again, as described above in DP 148.)
But I would suggest, as some modern educational theorists claim, that in this age of hand-held computers, with knowledge one tap or one voice command away, it matters less what students are learning and more how they are learning to think critically and persevere intellectually. Maybe not every high schooler needs to experience the joys of trigonometry. Now, my children are 4 and 1, so you can check back in with an older, wiser me in a decade to see what I think about educating my then-teenagers.
Last year, I asked my parents how they felt about the education I’d had. I’d been agonizing (in advance) about the choices I’d be making for my own kids. I’d felt pulled between options. Their answer severed the rope in my mental tug-of-war, causing all sides to go tumbling over: “We tried to do our best, but we figured that what went on at home mattered more.” This is an important, sometimes intimidating thing for me to remember for my own kids.
Kids absorb priorities. My own mother, who was not a seamstress, spent considerable time and effort (and probably a few quiet obscenities) on a cross-stitch pattern for the dining room wall. The motto was a quote from Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” That was true. While we lived far away from church societies and schools for most of my childhood, Mom always read the Word to us, and Dad would hold simple family worship services. They carried on their own religious studies. They taught us the Ten Commandments.
Certainly, some educational methods are superior to others; some are downright harmful. But the emotional security, religious instruction, good habits, intellectual curiosity, and healthy relationships that can come with a happy home are gifts caretakers can give to their children as measurable predictors of future success.
I’m trying to approach whatever modes of education my children and I choose as extensions of the home, rather than the other way around. And while I make choices about the tone and activity of my home every day, I would be foolish to forget the charge from Psalm 127 my husband and I received at our wedding: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” If I want to be a wise parent-educator, I would do well to remember that the Lord established my home and my family, and that He will be the one to build our minds if we are willing.
As I said, I hope readers continue this conversation in the comments section. What could New Church education look like? I’ve barely scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg, to mix metaphors. It’s an exciting time for education in general, and I think the New Church has some unique truths to offer.