Training the Heart

Our task is to set before these young students a robust diet of virtue, truth, goodness, and beauty, and let them feast.

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Our theme for the year–“Love. Think. Speak.”–gives us three areas to focus on as educators: the heart, the mind, and the mouth. As noted previously, these three areas line up nicely with the classical trivium’s grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. In C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical works and in his writings on education we can glean some further wisdom for understanding how to train the heart to love what God loves, how to train the mind to think in ways that reveal His truth, and how to train the mouth to speak in ways that glorify God.

First, Lewis’s accounts of his childhood give us an example of a typical grammar stage child’s habits of heart. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that as a child he had an ongoing imaginative project: he created a fantastical imaginative world called Animal-Land with talking animals and he wrote stories about “chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats.” Lewis says that these stories were inspired by the types of stories that he read as a child, which were also filled with talking animals or chivalric knights. He was doing what all grammar-stage children naturally want to do: to recreate what they discover and learn through imitation. He says that he enjoyed this creative project because he was a “systematiser”—he wanted to create an ordered world, with defined characters, systems, codes of conduct, histories, and legends.

Young children have this propensity to imitate. Even when they are embarking on a highly creative project, like Lewis’s Animal-Land, they are really imitating what they have already encountered, and mimicking new information helps them process and retain it. It’s the way young children are wired to learn—their hearts already have a natural inclination to appreciate and emulate the world around them.

And Lewis says we should feed this natural love with that which is true and good and beautiful. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis explains that setting things which are admirable and beautiful before the young student helps her develop a preference for goodness and beauty. As he puts it, “The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.”

He points us to St. Augustine, Aristotle, and Plato for further advice:

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.…In [Plato’s] Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who…would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

The young student is not ready to reason—to exercise the mind in challenging, analytical ways—but he is ready to exercise the heart. He is quite capable of loving that which reason later reveals: “righteousness, correctness, order,” virtue, truth, goodness, and beauty (Lewis, Abolition of Man).

This is why our grammar stage students memorize scripture; it is why they read and digest the morally infused Aesop’s fables, why they learn to discern the virtuous heroes from the detestable villains in literature and history, and why they copy lines of beautiful poetry. It is why we want them to memorize math facts and learn that the orderly relationships between numbers never change, and it is why we want to show them the constant laws that govern the universe and help them explore as much of God’s incredible creation as possible.

Our task is to set before these young students a robust diet of virtue, truth, goodness, and beauty, and let them feast. If we do this well, then when the grammar stage student reaches the logic stage, exercising the heart well will be a habit, and he will be able to focus on exercising the mind.


Aubry Myers is the Director of Classical Education at Granite Classical Tutorials.


This post is the first in a three-part series based on a talk given at Granite Classical’s February 2017 Re-Enrollment meeting for parents. Read Part II here.

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