Wonder and Piety as the Basis of a Liberal Arts Education
~ by Lylah Molnar ~
Yesterday my husband and I, who are both teachers, were pondering how much having a child changes our perspective on the way children learn. Though we are both familiar with the latest research on how to motivate and teach students, there is nothing like watching your own child develop to make you look past the research to the heart of the child. Our daughter trusts us as her mother and father. At 15 months, she turns to us as her guides to discover realities about the world. She takes joy in naming objects and wonders at each new experience life affords her. A trip to the local train station or river, seeing new objects like locomotives and boats sends her into ecstasy. In her trust, in her wonder, this little toddler has a certain freedom, but in her lack of knowledge, she maintains a certain confinement that she feels acutely as she stumbles over words trying to express herself.
Could real education be rooted in these observations? I think yes. Watching my daughter grow up, along with my experience teaching, has given new life to the thoughts I harbored in my own heart about children and how they learn: Children will learn if they have the piety needed to respect their teachers and are given ample opportunity to be at wonder with the world. Education depends first on these virtues and, rooted in them, will give learners the freedom to clearly express themselves. This is the education I want for my daughter, for her to maintain her childhood trust and wonder while developing her gifts and abilities in accordance with the training of the Lord.
Does such an education exist? Yes, but it has been forgotten and is now being reclaimed. A classical education uses the seven liberal arts to “develop a mind that is clear, calm, and comprehending, or a mind that is free.”1 The fruitfulness of a classical Christian education demands a certain docility of spirit and openness to all that is true, good, and beautiful. In the classical tradition, the job of early childhood educators is to cultivate piety and wonder in their pupils.1 The rest of a child’s education hinges on the cultivation of her soul in the early years.
Piety “signifies the duty, love, and respect owed to God, parents, and communal authorities past and present.”2 This virtue nurtures trust and allows a student to properly order his affections, allowing him to learn not only content, but more importantly, how to live.1 This is the virtue my daughter naturally showed when she trusted me as her mother to guide her in truth. This fostered her humility to receive correction and guidance as she learned words, objects, and phrases. As she continues to grow and learn not only from me, but also from teachers, coaches, and instructors, my daughter must recognize that these authorities are also trustworthy and must similarly be willing to receive their correction and advice if she is to learn.
To cultivate piety in young children, teachers and parents should pay close attention to the way they structure time, space, and language in their school or home. The daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines should include time for worship, service, and leisure.3 Children should be surrounded by beauty, both inside and outside, with opportunities to rejoice in the natural world, as well as in human artwork. Early childhood educators should teach the language of virtue to their pupils and sing God’s praises with their own lips as a model for those entrusted to their care. These are the liturgies that will root the students’ hearts and minds in piety that, together with wonder, will lay the proper foundation for their path to lifelong learning.
When our students’ hearts are ordered properly through piety, they are able to see clearly what is lovely in the world, to delight in it, to stand in awe of the beautiful. Like piety, wonder is an essential prerequisite to a liberal arts education.4 This childlike innocence allows our pupils to pause, to observe closely the world around them. My daughter Lucy will sit on the ledge of the rock wall outside our home watching the cars go by for half an hour. With each car, she points, smiles, and waves. Wonder allows the object of a person’s delight to live in his thoughts and heart.5 It is this same “self-forgetfulness” that allows students to worship God and sing his praises, thus wonder leads naturally towards worship. Worshiping the Father in truth in turn leads to wisdom, the goal of a classical education and the proper formation of the human spirit.5
Grammar school teachers should nurture wonder in children by reading great literature and by allowing the children to be their guides. It is our duty to make sure that our kids read the best that has been thought and said. When I was designing the Mommy and Me curriculum for Schole Academy, a curriculum I hope to use one day with my own child, the quality of the Bible stories, myths, and fairy tales I selected for the pupils to read was of utmost importance to me. Ensuring that the literature will delight the senses, lead to wonder, and cultivate virtue took discernment and intention. As parents and educators, we must consciously choose to raise our children in the Lord’s wonder, even when doing so demands extra time and energy on our end. Finally, we must recognize that in teaching we learn. Our children will learn when we allow them to teach us. To this day, I still regret asking my former second grade class to come back “to class” when they were all huddled around the window watching a rabbit play in the snow. I missed the opportunity to allow those students to teach me that there are things worth slowing down for, that recognizing God’s world as good and taking delight in its beauty are the most important truths that they should learn.
Herein lies the challenge for those who work with classical education’s youngest learners: will you rush around, busily checking off boxes, to do lists, and curricula or will you see your primary job as a cultivator of souls, teaching society’s smallest members the virtues of piety and wonder?
- Kern, Andrew. The Seven Liberal (Liberating) Arts. Classical U.
- Clark, Kevin and Jane, Ravi. The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. Page 18.
- Perrin, Christopher. Principles of Classical Pedagogy. Classical U.
- Clark, Kevin and Jane, Ravi. The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. Page 15.
- Sertillanges, xix, The Intellectual Life
Lylah Molnar began teaching in the classical tradition 5 years ago and finds that the emphasis on the good, true, and beautiful allows her to live a more contemplative life. Working with the younger years is Mrs. Molnar’s passion, as she delights in the wonder little children take in the world. Accordingly, she is excited to launch a new course with Schole Academy this year, the Mommy and Me class, as it focuses on building a tapestry of knowledge, where the various disciplines intertwine to form one cohesive picture. She hopes to one day use all that she has learned to school her own daughter and raise her in the wisdom and faith of the Lord.