by Fr. Deacon James Hughes
In our striving to answer the question, “What is an Orthodox education?”, we realized that we had to start our thinking from the fact that Orthodoxy is not merely a particular set of religious doctrines. It is the true way of life and the correct perspective of the nature of man. Therefore, rather than adding Orthodox elements to an essentially non-Orthodox pedagogy, we would need to find a way of placing an Orthodox perspective at the core of the pedagogy and work from there. We wanted an educational approach that would be Orthodox at the core, not just on the surface. We also saw that the school must be a faithful extension of the church life and, therefore, must help to rightly form the souls of the children, not just inform their brains. With this in mind, we have worked to design our pedagogy around the Orthodox teachings concerning the soul.
The Church Fathers describe the soul as having three primary powers: the powers to will, to feel, and to think. We have especially used the writing of St. Theophan the Recluse and St. John of Kronstadt to help us understand these powers and to gain insights into how to integrate these teachings into the classroom activities.
We have all heard the expression “the eyes are the windows of the soul”, but the soul has other windows as well. The Church teaches that all the senses can be avenues of sin or avenues of true formation or education. What is perceived or experienced by the senses affects the soul – for good or for ill. That our senses can be used for sin we all know too well. In one of the evening prayers, we read…
“I confess to Thee…all my sins which I have committed …by all my senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch…”
Yet St. John of Kronstadt sees in the Divine Liturgy and all of Orthodox liturgical life those same senses being used for good, as an educational experience:
The Church, through the temple and Divine Services, acts upon the entire man, educating him wholly; it acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of the bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the phosphoras, the singing and the sweet sound of the reading of the Scriptures.
Beauty, imagery and movement are in intrical part of Orthodox liturgical life. They are the framework of our worship and prayer services. Contrast this use of the senses with the classic picture of a Protestant service. Certainly there are songs within the service and the church may be decorated with attractive banners, but the core of the service is the sermon, which is directed primarily toward the mind. In Orthodox services, we do not simply speak the faith, we sing it.
If in the Orthodox Liturgy, all our senses are engaged, is this not a clue to how an Orthodox educational curriculum should be designed? If our body and all our senses are employed in the Church, perhaps we should find ways of employing the body and all the senses in the classroom.
This perspective is actually implied by the word “educate”. In Latin, “educere“, means to “lead or guide out”. Rather than meaning “to put in”, as in information, to educate means to lead out these powers of the soul and develop them through experience. The “sit in your desk, read the textbook, and fill out the workbook” approach that most of us endured leaves much to be desired from an Orthodox perspective. Desks, texts and workbooks have their place, but should not be the center of attention, especially with younger students. Beauty and movement should be at the core of a young child’s curriculum, not just as an addendum as a separate subject.
At St. Michael’s our school day began with our gathering at the icon corner for prayer. As part of our prayer time, we made it a practice to be always learning one of the psalms. The psalm were printed large enough to read at a distance on 11 x 17 paper and attached to the wall. We read the psalm everyday until it is memorized, then take down the paper. When we know it very well, we choose another Psalm. St. Ambrose of Optina recommends particular psalms for children to know. We have learned those psalms and now the children want to start with Psalm 1 and work through the entire Psalter.
St. Barsanuphius of Optina, St. Theophan the Relcuse and others write about the importance of poetry to the soul. St. Theophan, in The Spiritual Life, and How to be Attuned to It writes:
In the sensual [or feeling] part of the soul, there appears a yearning and love for the beautiful. The eye does not want to tear itself away from the flower and the ear does not want to tear itself away from the song, only because the one and the other are beautiful. We go for a walk and select a place for the single reason that it is beautiful. Above this is the enjoyment received from paintings, works of sculpture, music and singing, and even higher than this, the enjoyment received from poetry.
Our effort to engender a love of poetry in the children resulted in what we call our “Poetry Tea”. Once a month or so, the teachers or older students make tea while the rest of the students push their desks together to form a few large tables. We bring out the books of poetry (we have lots of them) and spread them on the tables. The children look through the books until they find a poem to share with everyone. I was not sure how the children (especially the boys) would respond, but after the first tea, it was clear that I was wrong. Poetry Tea is now a favorite event. Nearly every week, someone asks if it is time for a Poetry Tea.
Nourishing that love of beauty in the soul has also been a primary focus of our educational effort. We try to incorporate artwork into as many areas of study as possible. We have developed crayon drawings to accompany the learning of numbers and letters. There is artwork in our introduction to grammar and arithmetic. The study of the Old Testament includes a few dozen watercolor paintings, as well as time lines, maps and compositions. The children also draw and paint various seasonal and nature themes. Using art so much not only educates the feeling power of the soul, giving it an appreciation of beauty, but also strengthens the will as well. Producing artwork required patience and perseverance, two virtues which pertain to our will.
Anyone reading the writing of the Church Fathers will soon encounter the phrase “a love of labor.” This phrase, or one similar to it, is often part of a discussion on how the human will is rightly formed or on how to gain humility. St. Theophan writes:
… it is from the action of the soul that there appears desire for and production of unselfish deeds or virtues, or even higher than these – the yearning to become virtuous. Properly, the work of the soul in this part (the will) is the establishment of temporal living conditions for man… At the same time, it is not satisfied with this, but goes out of this domain and carries out deeds and undertakings not all because they are necessary beneficial or pleasant, but because they are good, virtuous and just.
The will is that which moves the body and directs the thoughts. The body, however, does not readily yield to the will of the soul. It tends to seek comfort and pleasure. The power of the will in the soul must be drawn out, “educated”, and through various experiences strengthened so that it can overcome the inertia of the body. An adult or child can be “strong willed”, but if that strength is used for selfish desires, it is not rightly formed. A rightly formed will can overcome the personal and do what is right despite the lack of personal comfort or pleasure.
With this in mind, part of our curriculum involves physical labor. It is the children who do most of the cleaning of the classrooms. A few times a week we put down the books and pick up the cleaning rags and vacuum cleaners. In about twenty minutes, everything from bathrooms to blackboards has been cleaned. We have also taken responsibility for maintaining particular areas of our church/community grounds. This involves planning, planting and, of course, weeding. We have found weeding to be especially good for the will. Over the years the children have also built fences and play structures, laid paving stones, hung sheet-rock, and painted.
What about the power of thought? When sending our children to school, we want them to learn about math, science and literature; we want them to succeed when they take tests. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these desires, far too often, the rest of a child’s soul, that is, the other powers of the soul, get no attention. We are essentially trying to build without paying attention to the foundation.
This power of the soul is not simply the ability to learn information and mechanical math skills. It is the ability to correlate knowledge and discern meaning and relationships. Right thinking is closely related to a rightly formed will. Clarity of thought is dependent upon one’s willingness to be not self-centered. Such a person can remove one’s own desires from a situation and see things as they truly are. A person who has not been taught to go against his own self-will can not think clearly. Right thinking also rests upon a heart that has learned to appreciate and produce beauty. If a child’s will and heart have been given what they need, the power of thought has a firm foundation.
St. John of Kronstadt has several insightful things to say in this regard. Here are two of them.
What should be our chief care in the education of the young? We must chiefly endeavor that the eyes of their understanding should be enlightened. (Ephesians 1:18). Do you notice that our heart acts first in our life and in nearly all our knowledge? The heart sees certain truths (ideas) before the mind knows them. When knowledge is acquired, it happens thus: the heart sees at once, indivisibly, instantaneously; afterwards this single action of the sight of the heart is transmitted to the intellect and subdivided in the intellect into parts or sections, preceding and subsequent; the sight of the heart is analyzed in the intellect. The idea belongs to the heart and not to the intellect; that is, to the inner man, and not to the outer one. Therefore to have the eyes of their understanding enlightened is a very important matter in acquiring all knowledge, but especially in that of the truths of faith and of the laws of morality. (My Life in Christ, pgs. 47-48)
In educating, it is extremely dangerous to only develop the understanding and intellect, and not pay attention to the heart. We must, above all pay attention to the heart, for the heart is life, but life corrupted by sin. It is necessary to purify this source of life, to kindle in it the pure flame of life, so that it should burn and not be extinguished; and should direct all the thoughts, desires, and tendencies of the man through all his life. Society is corrupted precisely through the want of Christian education. (My Life in Christ, pg. 208)
In our three to four decades of teaching, we have seen that the Lord’s command to “seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things shall be added unto thee” has its application on the classroom. If we design the curriculum to include opportunities for all powers of the soul, that is, if we include opportunities for physical labor, plenty of movement, art, song, and poetry, we shall reap, in abundance, what is generally expected of a school. This is how we truly teach “the whole child.”
Finally, when we discuss Orthodox Christian education, we must not forget the influence that culture has on our children and that most of a child’s formation happens outside the classroom. Those of us over fifty grew up in a culture that was at least ostensibly supportive of Christianity and the values taught in a Christian family. However, our current culture is increasingly more bold in its anti-Christian agenda and values. Simply going to an Orthodox Church on Saturday nights and Sundays is not enough to offset the influence of the secular culture. Children will naturally absorb the values, attitudes and language of the culture in which they live.
For our children to be formed correctly, we must provide for them a taste of Christian culture. This does not mean that we create a type of “hothouse”, but rather a close-knit community of believers which deliberately works to provide a Christian culture of brotherhood, music, festivals and other activities. Such a community acts as a buffer for children, giving them a chance to develop a world-view in a Christian environment and providing a standard against which they can evaluate what they encounter in the secular culture. A child exposed to the “butter and honey” (see Isaiah 7:14-15) of a Christian community with an emphasis on courtesy, respect, service to others, orderliness, wholesome literature, uplifting music and beautiful art will develop tastes which will help them, when they have left the nest,
“refuse the evil and choose the good.”