Wisdom from wildness.
He led a troubled teenaged life that included shacking up with a woman at age 17. They produced a son a year later and lived together for the next 13 years. At 19, he rejected his mother’s Christian faith because he felt the Bible, translated in simple Latin prose, paled in comparison to "the dignity of Cicero."1 Yet I wish he taught at our local high school. Through trial and error, St. Augustine understood the means and ends of education – two things sorely lacking in our educational system today.
The means of education is what teachers call pedagogy. The soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly, said Augustine. He got pedagogy exactly right. Teens, like sane adults, do not enjoy being lectured to. They prefer getting their hands dirty and self-discovery. "Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn," said Benjamin Franklin. Good educators have long recognized that we treasure "incidental learning."2 Incidental equals indirect, an inclination of Emily Dickinson.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.
As lightning to the child eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.3
Augustine also got the purpose – or ends – of education exactly right. I talk to a lot of parents who are Christians and say they want their kids to grow up and believe the right things. That’s not quite right. Augustine said we ought to help our kids love the right things… in the right order. When he wove together the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love in his famous catechism, Augustine noted: "For when we ask whether someone is a good man, we are not asking what he believes, or hopes, but what he loves."4
The ordering of our loves reveals what we truly believe and hope. In God’s creation there is an "ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affection in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it," said C.S. Lewis.5 In other words, God properly orders his love of good conversation, good food, sex, entertainment, ecology, education, homes, affluence, work, shopping and leisure. Our arrangement will always be more dynamic, since humans exhibit diverse temperaments and experience different callings and stations in life. Yet the order of our first two loves remains non-negotiable: love God and then love neighbors.6
Since Augustine is not certified to teach in our local high school, here’s a way to translate his ideas at home. If you are feeding and caring for a teen or twenty-something, hand them a stack of ten 3×5 index cards. Write a different word in the center of each card – a word capturing a current interest. It can include boys (or girls), sports, shopping, school, driving, spending money, video games, sleeping in, Fantasy Football – you name it. Make sure that one card reads: "God." Then ask them to write a number on the upper right hand corner of each card. Tell your teen or twenty-something to be as honest as possible – assign a number that reflects what they enjoy the most (#1)… all the way to what they least prefer (#10). Ask them to "tell it like it is."
Next, on the lower left hand corner of each card, ask them to write a second number that reflects what they hope will be the order of enjoyment ten years from now. Ask them to talk about the two numbers. After a few minutes, my daughter caught on and asked, "Is this Augustine’s ordering of your loves?" Yep. Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.
The index cards are a way to reflect the "four-chapter" gospel – how life ought to be (creation), how it actually is (the fall), how life can be made better (redemption) and what we hope it will be (the final restoration). We ought to first properly our love of all things (chapter one), since "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude."7 Yet we have to recognize additional disordered loves (chapter two) and reorder them (chapter three). Finally, almost every kid goes through rough patches. They need parents who express hope (chapter four) that regardless of the current state of affairs, the last chapter has yet to be published. Since we want to teach our children well, try a handful of cards and tapping into the wisdom of a once-troubled teenager.
1 Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford’s World’s Classics) trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.4.7, 3.5.9.
2Rogers, A. "Learning: Can We Change the Discourse?" Adults Learning 8, no. 5 (January 1997): 116-117. (EJ 540 449)
3From "The Riddles of Emily Dickinson." Obbligati (Atheneum, 1986)
4 Augustine, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1961), p.xi
5C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p.29. Augustine’s comments can be found in De Civ. Dei, XV 22. C.f., ibid. ix.5 xi.28.
6Deuteronomy 6:5 & Matthew 22:36-40
7 I Timothy 4:4