The Five-Sense Inventory: Seeking a Fully Embodied Education

The Five-Sense Inventory: Seeking a Fully Embodied Education

As I consult with classical school and homeschool communities, I find myself talking more and more about our five senses. This is because many in the classical education renewal are rediscovering the importance of embodiment. Our educational ideals (such as wisdom, virtue, and eloquence) need to be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt.

Please pardon this gross generalization: Since the Enlightenment, the life of intellect, learning, and education has become increasingly text centered. Now, I am a great advocate of texts, particularly the best texts, or the so-called great books. I think we should read much more of them and talk much more about them. I do think, however, that too much focus on texts makes for dull schools and dull students. Some will object. Should not the written word be central? Are we not under siege by all matter of inane video, images, and cacophony? Is not Christ called the Logos, elevating the “word” to the highest place?

Well, yes and no. The word and the text do deserve a privileged position, and yes, we are flooded with visual and sonic debris. Speech does set us above the animals and mark us as being made in the likeness of God. Christians acknowledge that God has spoken through Scripture and in these latter days through His Son—the divine Word.

Still, we should note well that Adam and Eve were placed in a garden and that the Word became flesh. Eve was able to see that the fruit was “a delight to the eyes” and “good for food.” Is it safe to assume that much of the garden (if not all of it) was also a delight to the eyes? We know that much there was delicious to eat.

Christians consider humans to be enfleshed souls, and that therefore the life of the body is delightful and good. In fact, as enfleshed souls, most Christians consider the body and soul (or mind) as two parts of one unified person. This means that our body is important for a life of the mind and vice versa.

I will refrain from a summary of the various positions of the body-mind or body-soul relationship in order to stress that despite some differences of opinion, we are enfleshed souls blessed with five senses that enable us to know, learn, serve, and love.

Why then do we pay so little attention to what will delight the eyes and ears? Hardly ever do we think about what we will smell, taste, and touch in our schools. Lesson plans and curricula are filled with references to what students will read (good so far, very good in fact) and what they will write and perhaps speak. But what about the senses?

Try this thought experiment: Imagine a lesson plan or curriculum that appeals exclusively to the sense of touch, smell, or taste. We are not sure what that would look like, for we must see everything. We could do much more with touch, smell, and taste, but we scarcely know where to begin. Probably, we would be wise to simply try to extend and deepen our engagement of sight and sound.

Try another thought experiment: Imagine going into a school for a day with a blindfold on. What would you hope to hear that would delight your ears? What sounds, what music, what laughter, what kind of conversations among teachers, students, parents? Is there any poetry? Are songs being sung, some of them spontaneously? What sounds are making you truly happy?

Imagine visiting a school, and this time you are unable to hear (via some very good earplugs). What do you see that delights your eyes? What countenances, what art, what light, what arrangement? Do you see smiles? Do you see animals? Is there a large, beautiful globe on wheels in a public space? Is the art displayed big or small, delightful or part of a mishmash of visual clutter? How are the children dressed? What are they doing with their bodies that indicates their own revelry and joy?

I recommend a five-sense inventory. What does each of your senses tell you about your school or homeschool? What delights? What would you love to see, hear, smell, taste and touch? What would embody your learning ideals?

I think we need to think creatively in how we embody our ideals and not merely talk about them, and I hope taking an inventory might help. I note these sad facts: Most schools (often due to circumstances they cannot control) are ugly. By this I mean “normal.” In comparison to other institutions, our schools more than any others resemble the layout and organization of a prison—casement windows that do not open, polished cement floors, heavy doors, long hallways, industrial fluorescent lights, buzzers, and keys. Visually, the classrooms are a clutter of calendars, class rules, number lines, word walls, maps (always too small to use), art prints (always too small to see from the middle of the room and usually unrelated either to each other or to any class theme), and the standard, obligatory class globe (always kept on a shelf like a knickknack because it is too small to use, but cheap enough to buy for display). The room is brightly lit by cheap overhead fluorescent lights.

I acknowledge this situation has something to do with money. We have a habit of doing schools cheaply, and we call this good stewardship. But we generally buy the best home we can afford. What if we thought of schools more like the way we think of homes? What if we confessed that beauty is just as important as truth (in fact wed to it) so we do all we could (with the resources God gives) to make our schools like lovely homes? This does not mean tearing down and rebuilding with marble and mahogany. Many teachers live in modest homes that they have made beautiful. We could, if we put our minds to it, beautify our schools in various ways. I think our difficulty is largely a problem of mind-set. Classical educators have majored in truth, and minored in beauty, if they have studied it at all.

If I sound severe, know that I am being severe with myself. Know as well that our aesthetic anemia is a culture-wide problem, and we are more or less being carried along by the contemporary cultural tide.

Let me close with a high note. There are schools (and countless homeschools) that are making their schools beautiful. The Ambrose School in Boise, Idaho, had the opportunity to build a school over five years ago. The school leadership thought deeply about how to embody the classical ideals of education in its architecture, painting, layout (they built the school around a two-story library), lighting, and furniture. When you enter The Ambrose School, you meet a cathedral ceiling and then look up to see the second floor of the library. Immediately to your left is a coffee shop/café run by the school, with granite counters, leather couches, and large replicas of classical art. You can take a look at the school here: theambroseschool.org/about/the-facility/.

There are many other schools that I could cite who have labored to create beautiful buildings: the Veritas School in Richmond, the Regents School of Austin, the new building coming for Immanuel Lutheran School in Alexandria. Many others, however, with modest funds, have worked to make what they have beautiful.

Why not take the five-sense inventory and note what your entire body “sees.”

Here is 10 minute video in which I discuss the five-sense inventory:

Online Upper-School Latin Teacher Needed!

Online Upper-School Latin Teacher Needed!

Scholé Academy, Classical Academic Press’s live, online academy, is seeking a part-time Latin teacher for upper-school Latin courses for the 2016-17 school year, with possible teaching opportunities beginning in January 2016. Qualified candidates should have studied Latin at the college level and have previous experience teaching Latin.

Interested candidates should submit their résumé and brief letter of interest to Emily Price at epriceatclassicalsubjects.com. Scholé Academy will contact applicants to set up a phone and/or videoconference interview.
Click here to learn more about Scholé Academy.
Update: The position listed above has been filled. If you are interested in teaching for Scholé Academy, please express your interest to Emily Price (see above). We would be glad to consider you for future teaching opportunities as Scholé Academy continues to grow and expand.
Running Around the Curriculum

Running Around the Curriculum

Just last night I hosted a webinar with author Sarah Mackenzie, who wrote Teaching from Rest. The topic for the webinar was “Curriculum Is Not Something You Buy.”

The conversation went well. Clearly, like traditional-school parents, homeschool and private-school parents struggle to maintain a “balanced life.” Put another way, most parents and students must confront educational stress and anxiety.

There are a lot of reasons why parents have become anxious about education:

  • Many are uncertain about what a good education should be, so we don’t know what we are aiming for. We are not confident that we have had a great education, so we are hesitant to just give our children what we received.
  • If we have adopted the aims of a classical, liberal arts education (a fine goal) we remain uncertain of what to do. How do we give to our kids what we have not received?
  • Our modern moment is full of educational controversy: More STEM! No, let’s make that STEAM (the A is for art)! More standardized assessments; Common Core Standards. No, let’s reject these and return to the basics!
  • Families pursuing a classical education at home or in a private school make great sacrifices (in terms of time and money) to educate their children. This can heighten anxiety: we have invested so much to do this that it had better go well. We must prove to our skeptical relatives and neighbors that we have made a wise choice. That proof (in our minds) usually consists of our kids being smarter and brighter than their kids.

Then we decide to implement a classical curriculum. We are not sure what it is, having not received a classical education ourselves. What’s more, we are confused by the differing conceptions of “classical” offered by various experts. Still, we jump in and start researching and buying classical “curricula.” Feeling peaceful yet?

This is a good place to pause and reflect. At this point of choosing curriculum, we are likely to import our modern sensibilities of education right into or on top of the classical approach. They don’t mix well. The modern approach is frenzied, frenetic, busy, quantifiable, and data-driven. It “covers material.” The classical approach retains a tradition of contemplation, leisure, and encounter—we might even say the “uncovering” of that which is true, good, and beautiful.

Even the word curriculum is instructive. It is the Latin word for “race course,” “course,” “lap,” and “career.” The related adverb curriculo means “at full speed.” Think of the Romans enjoying a chariot race at the Circus Maximus and you will be thinking as the Romans did about curriculum. We could go further with this etymological study. The Latin verb curro means “I run.” From this verb we get such English derivatives as current (running water) and cursive (a running script) and discursive (running to and fro).

The irony here may be obvious: we take our curriculum far too literally—we run with it. A liberal arts curriculum is to be the course of studies we present to our students, but we ought not to run the course. We should walk it, for we are neither horses nor charioteers.

Aristotle seemed to understand this. He was called the “peripatetic philosopher,” for he would teach his students while taking them on a walk around the Lyceum. Learning becomes permanent not when we race through our studies, but when we find time to linger, ponder, and savor that worth knowing—the true, the good, and the beautiful. This does not mean that a student won’t work with diligence—he will. But his educational course won’t be busywork that fills his day or mere repetition of facts without understanding. To use Sarah Mackenzie’s words, the curriculum will be turned into a feast. Every feast will involve some hard work of preparation and cleanup, yet the feast itself will make this work merry work, work filled with purpose and satisfaction.

I find it gratifying to hear how many homeschooling families and some classical schools have recovered the “nature walk” as part of their curriculum. The slow, leisurely pace of walking in the midst of natural beauty creates a wonderful disposition for learning and loving the lovely that will seep into the home and classroom.

My advice for employing a classical curriculum? Go for a walk.

For further study:

Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Josef Pieper)

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (A.G. Sertillanges)

Teaching from Rest: The Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace (Sarah Mackenzie)

For those wanting to learn more about just what a classical education is, see my blog posts on “What is Classical Education?”

I Would Like to Order… an Education

I Would Like to Order… an Education

The Christian tradition speaks regularly about the importance of ordering one’s affections or desires. Augustine, for example, speaks about an ordo amoris (an order of love) in The City of God. Ignatius speaks of “disordered affections” that cloud our judgment. C. S. Lewis calls upon the ordo amoris to argue for a doctrine of objective value in which we give the appropriate love to every good thing we encounter—waterfalls are loved in one way, people in one way, and God in another.

Jesus often signals an ordo amoris, telling the rich, young ruler there is one thing he lacks (Matt. 19) and telling Martha that though she is busy about many things, Mary has chosen what is best: to converse with him rather than prepare dinner (Luke 10). When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he responds that there are two: to love God with your whole heart and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22). Jesus seems to believe that there is a divinely ordered hierarchy of loves and pleasures.

If our loves are to be ordered throughout life, then surely they should be well-ordered in our schools and homeschools. Lewis argues (in The Abolition of Man) that the doctrine of ordo amoris is needed at the most basic level—for unless we believe that there are objective realities that truly merit our admiration and love, we must swim in a sea of subjective relativism that ultimately destroys man himself. The aims and means of education are undermined unless we can love trees, books and ideas with the loves suited to them, meaning that a towering redwood is truly beautiful and that Virgil is truly admirable.

When our loves are disordered we love things with distortion and misplaced passion. Some things we may love too much (such as having an obsession with excellent coffee) and other things in the wrong place (such as buying a new car on credit while still in college). Christians know that to lose our first love is to unravel all our other loves; with God off the throne, other affections begin to compete for our highest love, and the result is instability and often chaos.

The same holds for education. To give great affection to trivia or passing, frothy literature is to disorder affections. It is not to say that we cannot read shallow literature from time to time, but we ought to love it as shallow literature should be loved. Likewise, to attempt algebra as a fourth grader is to misplace loves. To study literature to the exclusion of math, language and science is to disorder loves. To ignore the study of music and art is to starve affections for the beautiful and the good. Classes conducted in drab, windowless rooms with florescent lighting reveal something troubling about what we love and what we do not: we love efficiency over inspirations; we teach children in a space we would never dare live.

Thanks to James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, many of us in the classical education renewal have come to see that what we do with our bodies has much to do with how our loves are ordered, or how our affections are formed and cultivated. Most of us have inherited the assumption that education can properly live in spaces that resemble prisons more than homes, with long corridors, polished floors, rectangular spaces (which are most efficient), florescent lights, and windows that don’t open. Let us add lots of locked doors, buzzers, and cattle-ready cafeterias with long plastic tables. Because our own affections have been formed in these kinds of schools, we rarely question educating our own children in the same kind of environment. Like a fish in water, we don’t notice whether or not the water is contaminated, and yet we breathe it everyday and bid our children to jump in. Are we unwittingly disordering the loves of our children by having them spend seven hours a day in spaces that we would deem repulsive to live in? And yet our children do live in our schools—at least they are trying to.

Flying around the Classroom

Flying around the Classroom

Teaching is a serious affair, as we are seeking to shape the soul of a child. We know of Christ’s warning that to lead a child astray brings quite serious consequences for the deceiver. We also know that educating children is the future of our families, the church, of civilization. We are raising up the next generation. What’s at stake? The soul of a child (and apparently the teacher). The soul of civilization.

What’s more, education is hard work, and we work with students who often would rather not be subject to authority, discipline, and teaching. We must ask students to do what they might not otherwise choose to do on their own. It is no easy task, this teaching enterprise, and James warn us that those who teach will be held accountable.

Consider how defenseless a small child is. Erasmus (from his book On Education for Children) points out that in contrast to the animals, our offspring are born and remain quite vulnerable. Erasmus notes that animals are after birth quickly equipped to live independently “with swiftness of foot, keenness of sight, strength of massiveness of body, coverings of fur, or the protection of scales, plates, horns, claws or poison,” while man alone is “created weak, naked and defenseless.” Whereas the animals by instinct (whatever that is) can build nests or hives, or store up food in a hole in the ground (ants), “man cannot eve eat, walk, or speak without instruction.”

Erasmus asks, “So what can we expect of man? He will most certainly turn out to be an unproductive brute unless at once and without delay he is subjected to a process of intensive instruction.”

So perhaps education is indeed a weighty endeavor. However, weighty matters bring with them their dangers. Serious tasks tend to make serious men. Important matters tempt men into men of importance. In other words grave tasks can be the death of us, since the one who becomes self-important must soon learn to die to himself. The very gravity of our work can rob the levity of our souls.

Once again, I must trot out Chesterton, who understood this paradox (and so many others). Chesterton says that a man should take his mission but not himself seriously. He also says notes that “the devil fell from the force of gravity” and that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Angels, we can assume, are conducting serious business, but they fly and are full of joy. Without taking time to explore the inner working of our own souls, can we at least ask ourselves, “Do I fly when I teach?” Or am I a somber presence in the classroom, teaching weighty matters and weighing down all the students?

Some of my readers will know that I am an ardent advocate of “restful learning” or scholé. The serious teacher may seem at rest, like a stone is at rest, but he is not restful, not full of the kind of contentment and satisfaction that we know when we are truly refreshed by our engagement with something truly good and beautiful.   Nor should we neglect the pang of longing that is also mingled with our satisfaction, for we are not like the angles, we have not beheld the face of God. For we humans to rest, we still must endure longing, the awareness that not all is right nor perfectly good—yet. So we cannot fly like the angels, we are still tied down by that which made us fall. But can our spirits soar?

Even our fall gives us every reason to take ourselves lightly.