James K. A. Smith, in his book You Are What You Love, talks about how humans are teleological creatures, that is; that we are oriented toward a “goal” or an end. It is our loves that orient us toward that ultimate end or telos. When we talk about virtue formation, we are talking about orienting our students towards the telos or goal of virtue. We are oriented by our longing and directed by our desires.
Simply put, virtues are good moral habits. They are bound up in the sense of excellence; good habits that takes us toward what is best for us. They culminate into character. I tell my students that character is the part of your insides that we can see on the outside.
Education in virtue is a kind of formation, a retraining of our dispositions. “Learning” virtue – becoming virtuous – is more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory: the goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can play “naturally”. Learning isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.
Instruction Informed by Virtue
We assume that depositing information, ideas, and beliefs into the minds of our students will somehow drive action towards those ideas and beliefs. When Jesus taught, he didn’t just inform the intellect of his audience but he formed their loves. He went after a man’s wants and longings, which is ultimately, the heart. Hebrews 4:12 talks about Jesus judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart, and penetrating even to dividing soul and spirit. Paul in Philippians talks about love as the condition of knowledge. It’s an “I love in order to know” mentality instead of “I know in order to love”. Whatever direction the body takes, the heart can’t help but follow.
So if you are what you love, and if love is a virtue, then love is a habit. Habits grounded in love take practice to orient our desires towards God. We learn to love not by acquiring information about what we should love, but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love. It’s not about lectures that inform us, but rituals that form us and direct our affections. These are ultimately the pedagogies of desire.
Virtue Formed by Liturgy
Let’s talk about liturgy. It’s kind of an old “crunchy” word to chew on, connoting cathedrals and kings, but it’s really a modern day concept we can use to transform our teaching. Liturgy, simply put, is the formative, love-shaping rituals or practices that we put in place to direct the loves of our students towards virtue. Love-shaping practices are liturgies.
Our idolatries are more liturgical than theological. They are the fruit of disordered loves or wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere. Informed intellects are not powerful enough to counter the power of cultural liturgies. We form habits which give birth to desires, and then the heart is oriented in that direction. If you want to see your child’s deepest desires, look to their daily life and habits. Liturgies are not just things that we do, it’s things that do something to us. The most powerful liturgies are tied to embodiment. Ultimately, education isn’t first and foremost about what we know but rather, about what we love. Our highest calling as a teacher is to form the student to become a person of virtue.
Virtue Embodied in Christ
Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of virtue. Jesus as a human is embodied God. Children are ritualistic in nature, absorbing the gospel in practices that speak to their imagination. We are continuing as we teach to show the gospel to our students and help them see Him in all things. Classical education is inherently a formation project, not just an information endeavor. Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “All education, whether acknowledged or not, is moral formation.” Remember that we are building excellent citizens of the coming kingdom of God. Plan towards informing the imagination and not just informing the intellect.
Scholé Muse Colleen Leonard is the Director of Sola Gratia Classical Academy in Raleigh, NC, which began as a Scholé pilot group in 2015, following three years of teaching a group out of her basement. She has been homeschooling for 15 years. She runs the SolaGratiaMom.com website and writes about her experiences in classical education and the journey her Scholé grouphas been on since its inception. She loves to bring creative, embodied learning to students, and help others create a more restful experience in their pursuit of a classical education. Her passion is to educate student’s heads and hearts for Christ.