Open to Reality
By Dr. Kevin Clark
What is a well-educated person?
Ken Myers describes “the well-educated person” (his phrase for the ideal graduate of a Christian classical school) as someone who is “open to reality, receptive to truth, delighted by what is lovely.” This is a surprising description. If I were given a dozen chances to draw up the portrait of a successful graduate, I don’t know that I would have come up with the phrases on this list. Instead, I probably would have opted for such seemingly more academic-sounding phrases as “well-read,” “skilled at communication,” or “able to solve complex math problems.” I suspect I am not alone. I think this is the case because, even as advocates of liberal arts education, we are used to thinking about educational outcomes in terms of deliverables like applicable skills and content area knowledge. While there is certainly nothing wrong with knowing things and knowing how to do things, Myers’ description of the well-educated person reminds us that there is something more basic to education than mere knowledge or skills. Beyond providing students with extensive knowledge and the tools to learn for themselves, a liberal arts education also has the potential to make the student more receptive to truth, goodness, and beauty—indeed, to reality.
The description above comes from Myers’ article “Is Anything True? Is Anything Lovely? Educating Heart and Mind in a Culture of Relativism.” This article was the subject of my last post, where I considered the provocative image of lifeboats as a way to think about Christian classical schools. The point of the lifeboat image is that Christian classical schools are necessary, not to shelter our children from culture or to give them a value-added educational option, but to be centers of alternative intellectual and spiritual formation. For, if the rising generation of Christian men and women is going to sustain a rescue and recovery operation for the life of the world, students need an education that orders their loves and renews their minds in preparation for service in Christ’s kingdom, wherever he may call them. A fundamental part of this ordering and renewing has to do with shaping a student’s posture toward truth, goodness, and beauty. Or, to put it in Myers’ terms, making them open to reality, receptive to truth, and delighted by what is lovely. In the remainder of this post, I look at the significance of being open to reality; I will pick up with truth and beauty in the next post.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything distinctly classical or even remarkable about being open to reality. Modernity, after all, is seemingly defined by its openness, whether this is understood in terms of free scientific investigation of the natural world or the realistic look at the human person and human society offered by the social sciences. There is, however, a curious irony in the modern world’s dealings with reality. While we have never been more equipped to explain and to describe the world, human beings, and human history, fundamental questions about what people are and what they are for are seemingly up for grabs. According to Myers, this indicates that we are confused about the nature of reality itself—what it is, what it’s like, and how we can know it. He writes:
Our cultural crisis is a function of faulty assumptions about the nature of things and about how to properly know the nature of things. That is to say, we are confused about being and about knowing. We are confused about the kind of creatures we are and the kind of world we live in and the kind of Being who made and sustains all things.
Students of worldview will recognize the three standard categories of talking about reality: God, the world, and the self. Setting aside God and the self for the moment, Myers explains how modern people—believers and non-believers alike—tend to treat the world as an object open to our neutral investigation. This, of course, is out of step with the Scriptures that view the world as God’s creation and human beings as God’s creature-stewards of creation. An important conclusion follows from this observation: failure to perceive the world as God’s creation is not just a religious error; it is an error about reality. It is failure to perceive things as they truly are. Similarly, failure to exercise proper stewardship of creation, or to return thanks for the goodness of creation, is failure to know both the world and ourselves properly.
Not surprisingly, modern ideas about being and knowledge work themselves out into modern approaches to education. Myers explains:
Conventional forms of modern education are all about doing. They focus on techniques that will promote success in doing all sorts of things, without examining the ends that should guide our doing.
Why is this the case? If the natural world is not creation, the theater of God’s glory, but a chance (if fortuitous) configuration of natural causes, then what further purpose ought scientific study serve than getting things done? If human beings are not image-bearers of the Creator, then what further purpose ought they to serve than maximizing their own utility, and perhaps the utility of others? It’s common to hear people criticize the pragmatism at the heart of modern education, whether this is understood as the reduction of knowledge to test preparation or the replacement of liberal arts learning with career preparation. It is not so common, however, for people to recognize that faulty assumptions about being and knowledge are lying behind such pragmatic approaches to education.
Myers’ hope for Christian classical schools rests on the fact that they make a decisive departure from modern education precisely in their approach to reality. He writes: “[Christian classical schools] offer a framework and a set of practices that equip young people to know themselves, Creation, and their Creator properly.” Note both parts of what he says Christian classical schools offer: a framework and a set of practices. A framework is a certain way of thinking or perceiving things. Practices are the day-in and day-out actions we share as teachers and students. Together these frames and practices have a determinative effect on a child’s education. Imagine for a moment the long-term implications of teachers praying with students in class, speaking of the natural world as God’s creation, or expecting mystery to be an essential quality of truth. Imagine, conversely, the long-term implications of separating “religious” practices like prayer from classroom education, or explaining natural phenomena or historical events in terms of purely natural causes, or of speaking of mystery as a category for things we have yet to explain.
We hear phrases like awakening wonder or inspiring students and think of imaginative lessons or mesmerizing teachers. Yet, while creative classes and talented teachers are important, openness to reality is essential. At the heart of the Christian classical educational tradition is the idea that it is not so much the creativity of the teacher that awakens wonder but the created world, the Creator, and the acts and artifacts of human creativity. The work of the teacher is to help connect students to these inexhaustible sources of wonder and wisdom.