Teaching Virtues in the Classical Christian Liberal Arts Classroom
~ by Pres. Maria Koulianos ~
“Let everything take second place to our care of our children, our bringing them up to the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have great wealth and glory than riches can provide.”
–Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians, Homily 21
As Saint John Chrysostom states in this quote, loving true wisdom is what we strive for when teaching our children. In the classical Christian liberal arts classroom this translates into love that focuses on virtue, beauty, wisdom and goodness vital to its ethos. It calls us to be God-centered in our approach, and not man-centered, which will always fall short. We strive to cultivate virtues because it brings us to what God has created us to be; he has created us to be saints.
It is with this purpose that students, parents, and teachers journey together collaboratively. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” We must seek the divine purpose of salvation for each unrepeatable person created by God, so that they discover and share their true self with the world. This is a monumental task, a ministry, which aims its focus on serving God within the context of the gifts given to each individual.
Upon cultivating this ground, students become prepared and equipped to use these gifts and talents rooted in the virtues, in the service of God and others, remembering the two greatest commandments spoken to us by Jesus Christ which are, to love our God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the higher purpose.
How can this be accomplished in the classical Christian liberal arts classroom? How can virtues be embedded so that the true goal of education is accomplished? This can be achieved with a holistic multi-faceted approach using literature, the lives of the saints, iconography, historical events, Scripture, poetry, monthly maxims, reflections, and discussion. Ultimately, this creates an environment where teaching the virtues becomes innate and relevant to life.
Let’s take for example the classic story of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Alice’s adventures are taken as a metaphor for the experience of growing up, both in physicality and spirituality. Her anxiety about coming of age, constantly growing and shrinking again and again in the story, reflects the inner dynamic she faces in finding her place in the unknown world of the future. Her perseverance in the end serves her well as she becomes thrilled by the possibilities and eager to discover what is to come.
Here the virtue of perseverance is ideal as a discussion with students on how it helped Alice as a character in the story, but also how it is relevant to life today. Using a maxim such as, persevere—for a willing spirit can be led to all that is good, discussions can be led, and reflections made upon how this virtue can be cultivated in our everyday lives.
Simultaneously, Saint Mary of Egypt can be raised as an example of real-life perseverance. At the age of 12 she decided to leave her home in Alexandria and traveled to Jerusalem to live a life of sin. But when she couldn’t enter the church there in order to venerate the Holy Cross of Christ, being held by an invisible power because of her unworthiness, she immediately turned and prayed for the intercessions of the Theotokos. She promised that if she could do this, venerate the Cross, then she would follow the path of salvation. Indeed, she was able, and later, was led into the desert where for 47 years she lived in repentance and in prayer. She did not flee to the desert for punishment, but rather, to find herself; her true self, which God created her to be. Through perseverance she accomplished this fully becoming a saint who intercedes for us all to God.
Notice how all the pieces discussed intertwine, creating a spiraling effect which highlights the same underlining focus. The story of Saint Mary of Egypt connects to the plight of Alice’s coming of age, and how along with the maxim, which highlights a willing spirit, the virtue of perseverance is more well understood, strengthened, relatable and applicable to daily life. It is with this type of technique that the virtues can be fruitfully taught.
Cultivating the virtues must take priority and be developed naturally within the classical Christian liberal arts classroom. Our prayer is that in educating the now and future, we guide students to develop all the gifts and talents which God has bestowed. They must be shepherded to discover who they are created to be in the presence of God, and how this can be shared in service to the whole of the world. Metaphorically it is a mosaic being created which cannot be finished without each piece being present. Each piece representing individuals being cultivated in mind, body, and soul.
Icon pictured by Guirguis T Boktor