by Dr. Christopher Perrin
Show me how you teach, and I will be able to discern what you believe a human being is and what a human being is for.
We know that if we teach according to what has been given to us, to what we have been born into, we will be harmonizing ourselves with the world into which we have been born. But often educators today don’t want to teach according to nature. These days, there are increasing numbers of those who seem content to ignore our natural mother.
We derive our word “nature” from the Latin nātūra, which in turn is related to the Latin verb nascor (“I am born”) and the perfect participle nātus (“having been born”). You will recognize the root as well in our English words “nativity” and “native.” You are a native to the land in which you were born. You are also a native to nature—the world into which you have been born.
One day you were born, and the great adventure began: an adventure that you did not seek or ask for, but rather received as a gift. We always speak of birth in the passive—“I was born”—because birth is something that happens to us rather than something we make happen.
Chesterton says that when we are born, our parents confront us like brigands from behind a bush—they come to us through no agency of our own. Then, throughout life, we encounter every new face like a face from a fairy tale. To be born, to exist, is a great, unsummoned romance.
Is this why we are naturally prone to celebrate birthdays? We get to be here. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton says of birth:
Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
We have been born and given life that we didn’t ask for. We didn’t expect or plan to be here, but here we are indeed, and glad of it. Nor can we claim our birth as a deserved privilege or right. This is why we cannot bring ourselves to say “I birthed myself” or “I gave myself birth.”
From the first moment, our eyes were fixed upon she who gave us birth: our alma māter, from the Latin māter (“mother”) and alma (“nourishing”). But we also each have another mother: māter nātūra. This mother, too, has given us a gift and has nourished us. Nature, ah nature. While we all may dispute what is beautiful, you will rarely find someone who will proclaim the sea, the mountains, or the stars ugly. As we find our mother’s face beautiful, do we not also find nature’s face beautiful? And as we find it natural to follow the guidance of our mother, should we not also find it natural to heed nature?
This is the crisis of our age. We all know of teens who rebel against their mother’s instruction, but what do we make of the great multitude who question the mother of us all? Many now ask whether anything much is given to us in nature. Are there not immutable, given, natural principles or even laws of nature? Is everything changeable? Is all in flux?
We know that our earthly mothers, as kind as they may have been, had standards, had laws. As toddlers, we all were schooled in the right and wrong of both our mother’s world and of the wider world she prepared us for. One did not steal cookies and one did not walk into traffic.
To teach according to nature is to be aware of these facts and to conform ourselves to them. Mother nature has also taught us that there are immutable and unchangeable truths. The law of attraction we call gravity would be one. Similarly firm ethical laws would be not deserting your friends in times of trouble and not walking past someone who is drowning in a river. Such ethical truths have been universally accepted. In other words, there are moral truths that exist.
Yet now, with our childish ways behind us, we are rethinking everything we heard at our mother’s knee, and everything that the heavens used to declare. Maybe we are our own mothers; maybe we can yet find our own truth, give birth to ourselves, and become what we were not.
You know where this thinking has led. My point here, however, is not to record the litany of modern reinventions of the self, but to note what this means for education. In the classical tradition, it was understood that one should teach according to what was given, which is to say, according to nature. This fundamental insight is spelled out clearly in Plato and Aristotle, assumed in the Old and New Testaments, and reaffirmed and developed from Augustine to Aquinas and onward.
To teach according to nature also means to teach according to human nature, which means that we must teach out of our anthropology, or our view of what a human is—what the Romans called humanitas. In the classical tradition, education is largely about human formation above all else. In fact, if any educator aims at teaching for the sake of human formation, she will soon find herself recovering the classical tradition of education.
If, however, we disregard the Beauty, the Truth, and the Goodness that we find in this cosmos, we will not be teaching according to nature. Instead, we will be creating a kind of discord when it comes to education and helping children to grow up in such a way that they can serve well in this world, in nature.
The philosopher James K.A. Smith says in his book Desiring the Kingdom that every pedagogy assumes an anthropology—a view of what a human is and what a human is for. If he is right, then every educator is teaching out of his own anthropology, whether he is conscious of it or not. Those teaching not according to nature still have an anthropology; even the common-variety secular pragmatist educator has a view of the human, too. Her view is roughly this: The human is self-made and self-making, even self-reinventing.
What pedagogy will such a teacher adopt? Will she impart any changeless principles of ethics? Will she pass on a treasury of collected wisdom from the past, worthy of possession by all her students? Will she note the great books that stand out from the rest and should be enjoyed as privileged reading? Will she encourage memory? Will she seek to cultivate in her students virtues that go by the names of humility, love, courage, and temperance?
The consequences of rebellion against our mother are appearing regularly now in report after report, headline after headline. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty can no longer be said to exist; they have all vanished with the disappearance of mother, for they were her teachings. If we reject true beauty but keep these words, we reinvent them so that they become our own: my truth, my goodness, my beauty. We try to give ourselves a new birth—and so does everyone else. The result is a loss of family, a loss of unity, a loss of humanity.
All of us are tempted at times to think that to break out on our own we must also leave our mothers behind. If we are to be in harmony with what is given, we will find that this is not something that we can do. It is in light of these temptations that the Scriptures warn us to “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8). This is proverbial wisdom, and very apt for these tumultuous times. If we heed this instruction, we will know what it means to be human in this world and inform ourselves accordingly: This will mean a full humanity, one in harmony with what has been given to us.
Dr. Christopher Perrin is an author, consultant, and speaker who specializes in classical education. He is committed to the national renewal of the liberal arts tradition. He cofounded and serves full time as the CEO/publisher at Classical Academic Press, a classical education curriculum, media, and consulting company. Christopher serves as a consultant to charter, public, private, and Christian schools across the country. He is the former board vice president of the Society for Classical Learning and is currently the director of the Alcuin Fellowship of classical educators. He has published numerous articles and lectures that are widely used throughout the United States and the English-speaking world.
Christopher received his BA in history from the University of South Carolina and his MDiv and PhD in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was also a special student in literature at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He has taught at Messiah College and Chesapeake Theological Seminary, and served as the founding headmaster of a classical school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for ten years. He is the author of The Greek Alphabet Code Cracker and Greek for Children and the coauthor of the Latin for Children series, all published by Classical Academic Press. Christopher has a passion for classical education and is a lover of goodness, truth, and beauty wherever it is found.