How a Teacher Can Imitate God: Incarnational Teaching

Another thing that came out clearly while I was in Austin at Veritas Academy was the central role of ideas in classical education. Mortimer Adler showed that when we teach we always teach one of three things: content, skills, or ideas. Each is taught differently. If you want someone to know content you give it to them or at least tell them where to get it. If you want someone to learn a skill, you give them coached practice. But why bother with skills and content?

In the Christian classical tradition, the answer has always been, because they give you access to ideas. All Christian classical instruction revolves around ideas: contemplating them, being transformed by them, and imitating (applying) them. When the idea was lost, the Christian classical – the western – tradition was lost.

In short, teaching communicates an idea from one soul to another. So one might reasonably ask, “How is that done?” The answer is surprisingly simple: “By embodying the idea.”

We all know this from common experience. If I am trying to explain something to you and I confuse you, what will you say? Probably, “Can you give me an example?” In other words, can you embody this idea you are trying to help me see.

Let us suppose that you want to teach your students the idea of justice. How woud you do that? I don’t want to sound trite, but the first and most important thing is to BE just – to embody justice in your own treatment of the students. Failure to do so will lead to confusion on your student’s part, no matter how clear your lessons are.

Yet, none of us attain that perfect wisdom that enables us to be perfectly just. So what do we do? First, injustice demands a correction. If you are unjust, apologize. It will restore order to your soul as well as to the classroom. And second, you don’t have to carry the full weight of the burden of justice. Tell the children stories about just people and just acts. These stories will embody justice and it will draw out their souls with its beauty.

In each case, you are incarnating the idea of justice. It’s the only way people can learn, no matter how good a text book or curriculum.

By restoring the Idea to its central place in our teaching and in the curriculum, we can truly see the vision of classical education restored in our classrooms. By incarnating ideas, you imitate God, who revealed Himself to us in the Incarnation!

To learn more about how to teach classically, give us a call. James Daniels, Debbie Harris, and I are available for in house teacher training for your school or organization. Also, come to the CiRCE conference this summer. Only 100 seats are available and we’re offering a huge discount for people who register in January (only $200/person), so don’t hold back. Click HERE to learn more or HERE to register.

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6 Responses

  1. I think that helps.

    So, ideas are like the grass in Heaven in Lewis’s “The Great Divorce.” They are more real than we are, but not in just some ethereal way. If you walk on them, they will slice you to shreds.

    Thank you and it was good to converse again.

    • Nice comparison! Yes, I would say that is what I’m getting at, though I am not at all willing to be a gnostic, so I’m not sure I’d say they are more real than we are except in the sense that they are more fully realized than we are. We don’t fulfill the idea of ourselves, but that is what Christ is doing in us. Does that make sense?

      Man, it’s good to hear from you again!

  2. Ty,

    I’m probably using the word idea differently than Adler, but I’m reluctant to say so. I don’t pretent to have totally mastered what he means by it. The idea is one of the hardest things to grasp in all of existence.

    I think what I would suggest is that the idea is a controlling and unifying principle (a logos) of a study. When you teach, your goal is to get the student to absorb the idea into his soul so well that he is then able to express it (in words, in music, in art, etc.).

    So when you embody the idea, the only way you can tell if you are doing it right is if there is an idea that is being embodied.

    However, I do not think of the idea as a conscious thought in the mind. That is a concept and it can be clarified by making it more like the idea itself.

    So I don’t mean to make skills and content “mere means;” I mean to make them incarnations. If they are not that, they don’t exist.

    Does that help or confuse things?

  3. It’s good to hear from you too, Andrew! I’m a regular here on Quiddity so I decided to go ahead and start up a conversation.

    I see how you are distinguishing between educational and non-educational purposes now. I agree that skills and content have other purposes besides education and even other “ultimate” purposes. I think we will both agree that, eventually, the ultimate purpose for everything is to bring glory to God.

    But I’m still having a hard time making ideas the only telos of education. To continue discussing music, we do need an idea about the greatness of God in order to praise Him. In this case, ideas are necessary but not sufficient. We also need skills in order to praise Him well. I suppose you might argue that my poor performance of music skills is simply a failure to grasp the right idea, but then I think you’d be using the term “idea” differently than Adler when he came up with the original ideas/skills/content framework.

    You say above that the Idea has a central place in teaching which needs to be restored. To this I say “Amen,” wholeheartedly. What I’m questioning is whether skills and content must therefore be inferior (even in the context of education). What is the final end of education? Is it that the students grasp the idea? Then ideas are certainly primary. Or is the final end that the students incarnate the idea like (or better than) their teachers do? Then idea, skill, and content are all present in their incarnation (of an idea) which involves doing something (skill) to something else (content).

    I’m probably way out on the skinny branches now, so I’ll go back to the beginning and restate my concern. Basically, making skills and content mere means to reaching ideas seems Gnostic to me, even if the discussion is limited only to the realm of education.

    Thank you for responding; I’m enjoying this immensely.

  4. My dear Ty,

    It’s wonderful to hear from you!

    I have to take a moment to point out that Ty is an alumnus of mine – I had the privilige of teaching him from 8th -12th grade (if you count the summer after 8th grade as 8th grade), great books, great ideas, logic, Latin, stuff like that.

    Now, of course, I’m paying the price for teaching him logic.

    But Ty, I need your help here. Did you think I was saying that the only purpose for skills and contents was as “handmaidens for ideas”?

    As for praising God, yes that is a reason for developing musical skills. It’s the reason for developing every skill – at least it is if I can understand praising God in the more inclusive sense of giving glory to God.

    Would you agree that if you don’t have an idea about the greatness of God you can’t put the idea of His greatness into your music?

    I supppose I’ll put it this way and see if this makes sense: understanding or at least being able to re-present ideas is not the ultimate reason for skills and content, but it is the educational reason.

    It’s beyond good to hear from you Ty!

  5. “But why bother with skills and content? In the Christian classical tradition, the answer has always been, because they give you access to ideas.”

    Although later on you make it clear that embodiment of these ideas (which is skill and content) is also important, don’t skills and content have some purpose outside of being handmaidens for ideas?

    I’ll choose one of the liberal arts to make things easy on myself. What about Music? Many skills are taught while instructing students in music, including listening, reading notes, singing, and playing instruments. While these skills do give us access to ideas, is that all?

    Surely another reason to “bother with” musical skills is to better praise God. The practice of musical skills does not merely incarnate an idea of praising God; once the skills are learned, they can be used to actually praise God, not to have an idea about praising Him.

    I think many similar arguments could be made for other skills and content.

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