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.