As human beings we have lost our ability to rest and therefore we have also lost our ability to rest in education. Anyone who has followed my writing and speaking over the last several years knows that I have been advocating a return in America to scholé—leisurely learning, undistracted time to study the things that are most worthwhile. (You can read my original 2010 article on Developing a School of Scholé here.)
As I have advocated this return, I have had to reckon with the fact that I myself have a tough time resting. This is because I too am an American. We Americans—we Western humans—have almost forgotten what it means to truly rest. Yes, there are some holdouts—a few odd people who still manage to read, sing, and seem comfortable in their own skin, and who often don’t own a cell phone (I do)—but they are certainly not in the majority.
This rest to which I am referring is that rest for which our souls long, that which satisfies at our core. What is it that satisfies the soul’s longing? Restful engagement with the true, good, and beautiful, and, by implication, with God Himself, since anything true, good, or beautiful originates in Him. As Christ says, He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 6:4).
From Genesis on, rest figures as an important part of human activity and fulfillment. Man is created on the sixth day, in effect waking up on the seventh day—the day of divine rest. We also know that this rest is more than relaxation. The biblical idea of a Sabbath rest incorporates deep satisfaction, festivity, celebration, and peace (signaled by the Hebrew word shalom).
Rest is not an option for a Christian; it is a command that comes to us first as the fourth commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
This is a command we ignore regularly and without a twinge of conscience. The reason is simple and true, but repressed or masked, and that reason is work. And by “work” I include the smaller idols dancing around it: money, status, freedom, comfort. We worry, What will happen if I don’t do x or achieve y by this or that time? Will I miss the opportunity for a better job, advancement, a more comfortable life? Truly setting aside a day for restful festivity just doesn’t feel right to us in light of these concerns.
Did Israel keep the Sabbath faithfully? Not really. The book of Isaiah begins with a stinging indictment of the faithlessness of Israel and the ways the nation corrupted the Sabbath, making it a worthless ceremony no longer worthy of the name:
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening. (Isaiah 1:12-15)
It is frightening to consider the possibility that God may not be listening to our prayers, but this represents just how far Israel had wandered. While they still honored God with their lips, their hearts were far from Him, and thus even their Sabbath-keeping was a worthless exercise.
We know that throughout the Old Testament, God calls the Israelites back, urging them to repentance and faithfulness. We find as well the specific call to return to rest or Sabbath, which should not mean mere ceremony, but a real returning to the Lord Himself in the midst of worship, feast, and fellowship:
In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. (Isaiah 30:15)
Also in the book of Isaiah we find remarkable promises of restoration that describe the people of God at peace, enjoying shalom and a blessed rest. Isaiah 55-56 beautifully represent the call and promise of rest extended by God to His people:
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare. . . .
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands. . . .
This is what the Lord says:
and do what is right,
for my salvation is close at hand
and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
Blessed is the one who does this—
the person who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it,
and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 55:1-2, 12; 56:1-2)
This passage wonderfully displays the union between shalom and sabbath (peace and rest) and their association with deep satisfaction, joy, and delight—all of which comes as a gift, without cost, to the people of God.
It is hard to read this passage without thinking of the New Testament parallel of Jesus saying,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Jesus is Himself the promised rest, is He not? All the promises of God in the Old Testament find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ:
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1:20)
The writer of Hebrews makes this explicitly clear, identifying the gospel of Christ as a message we believe and in so doing find rest:
For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. Now we who have believed enter that rest. . . . (Hebrews 4:2-3)
While rest is promised to us as a free gift (“wine and milk without cost,” Isaiah 55:1), it is easy to be diverted from the “richest of fare” and persist in spending our time, money, and effort on what is not bread and what “does not satisfy” (55:2). Even the writer of Hebrews is compelled to exhort his Christian readers to “make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11). Apparently, it is not easy to enter rest. Apparently, we are easily distracted by some good-smelling fare that turns out to be the cheap stuff, yet we go back and back.
Do we who teach have our own distractions and diversions? Of course. Are there some “cheap” pedagogies that attract us, promising quick results and easy application? Certainly there are. When we lift our hands to teach, is it possible that neither God nor our students are listening and that we have become a burden to them? A frightening prospect, but indeed possible. If education in the Christian tradition means cultivating the souls of our sons and daughters, then education is a noble enterprise, and one that should be done in and for peace and rest—shalom and sabbath. If we cultivate our children to love God, His ways, His creation, His Church, and His creatures, then we are pursuing peace and rest. If we deviate from these ideals, we are heeding some alien voice, following another shepherd than the One we know. To do this is folly, betrayal, and even rebellion. Why should anyone listen to such teachers?
How many of our pedagogies have become near to worthless because we have wandered far from the Lord in our educational ideals, unable to rightly understand our mission before God and for the sons and daughters of the Church?
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3)
When a teacher does not understand, how can he teach?
We know that Israel was regularly tempted by the models around her, by other nations and their gods and ideals. First, Israel demanded a king “like the other nations” (see 1 Samuel 8:19-20). Then, Israel found some of the foreign gods captivating and went after them. The propensity to give allegiance to other gods was seen as early as the Exodus when the Israelites fashioned a golden calf while impatiently waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai:
Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:2-4)
Are we not similarly tempted by the ideals around us? What have we done with the gold that has been given us? What might be our pedagogical gods? If we are to avoid the sin of Aaron, what might we do instead with what we might call pedagogical gold?
The classical Christian tradition of education insists that some learning that preceded the coming of Christ was to be rejected, but that some of it was consistent with Christian truth if it was reoriented to serve Christ and His Church. In Augustine’s mind, the Church received some “gold” from pagan learning, but that gold needed to be refined, refashioned, and put to its proper use. Here is a famous passage in which Augustine makes this claim:
Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use. (On Christian Doctrine, Chapter 40, sec. 60)
Augustine notes what Israel should have done, but did not do well. By the command of God, the Egyptians gave the Israelites gold jewelry and vessels. The gold was good, but the Egyptians had not put it to good use. The Israelites, under the leadership of Yahweh, would put the gold to its proper use—particularly in the adornment of the tabernacle and temple for the worship of God. (Ah, but Israel was not always faithful.)
Augustine compares the pagan tradition of literature and the liberal arts to that Egyptian gold. Some pagan learning is “true and in harmony with our faith” and therefore is good, but it has not been put to good use. Such “gold” that has been “dug out of the mines of God’s providence” by others needs to be melted down and refashioned and devoted to the “proper use in preaching the gospel.”
The Exodus narrative and Augustine’s commentary remind us that both pagans and Christians can misappropriate the gold found in the mines of God’s providence. The Egyptians may not have managed this gold well, but neither did the Israelites start or finish with a stellar record. Moses did better than most, and Augustine notes that Moses himself was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). In other words, Moses had refined the gold he received and put it to better and proper use.
As classical educators, we should be sobered and instructed by the Exodus narrative and Augustine’s commentary. We too, are prone to wander and fashion idols from our own golden inheritance. We are prone to receive and heed a tradition from the nations around us, to worship their gods and ideals. What are those “educational idols,” those “pedagogical gods”? They should come easily to mind: to educate for money, status, and comfort—the golden trinity of American secular society. These ideals demand various educational practices or pedagogies: we train students instrumentally to acquire skills for work and good jobs, by which we mean good-paying jobs. In short, any pedagogy or training that results in “earning a good living” (rather than living a good life) becomes our practical norm. The upshot of it all is that we are governed by our love of money and therefore agitated by a near-constant anxiety that afflicts all people who pursue riches and comfort. We are not at rest, nor do we teach from rest, nor impart rest to our students.
Our educational anxiety thus partakes of a generalized American anxiety that currently plagues this nation. Educational ideals always reveal what it is that a people or nation seeks at the deepest level. A hundred years ago the nation’s ideals were in large part goodness of character and virtue, along with practical know-how. The so-called “greatest generation” that fought and won the Second World War was the fruit of this kind of education. That generation was great because it was good, to paraphrase what Tocqueville concluded about American culture in 1835 (the publication date of Democracy in America).
Sadly, for a variety of reasons not worth noting here, American “know-how” turned into an obsession with assessing, measuring, and slotting Americans into an industrialized democracy in which everyone found his place. Then our growing prosperity developed into our own nemesis as we, like the Israelites in the Promised Land, began to say “my power and the strength of my hands made me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17). In so doing, we forgot God as the source of all blessing and wealth, and we have each “turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Our current educational ideals and practices reflect this turn, and we are reaping the whirlwind. Filled with anxiety, we are anything but rested, restful, or at peace.
What this means for classical Christian educators is clear yet difficult. We must repent and turn back to the Source of all rest, peace, and wealth. He says “come unto me” (Matthew 11:28), and so we must come. We must shed the national ideals that have become our idols; we must melt down the gold and put it to its proper use; we must celebrate the Sabbath once again with joy, delight, and the richest of fare.