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.