The ancient Greek poet Pindar writes that our most important duty in life is to become who we are. This imperative, however, is not exclusively a pagan one; it is also at the center of the Christian educational tradition. For the past 25 years, I have attempted to respond to this imperative by dedicating my life to education. This includes a commitment to my own continuing education, to that of my five children (together with my wife), and to the leading educational institutions I have professionally served. Education, then, is my vocation in life.
The most important truth about education that I have discovered is best expressed through the powerful yet simple words attributed to the Irish poet Thomas Moore: “Education… [is] making visible what lies hidden as a seed.”
This is a claim that demands our attention. Those of us who are parents and educators are entrusted with this hidden seed, and a high responsibility it is. This is the seed that, when cultivated, grows into the full being and wisdom in those with whom we have been entrusted. We must resist the permanent temptation of merely projecting our own expectations and regrets onto those we educate. Making visible the beauty that lies hidden places certain demands on us. First and foremost, we must truly want to know and love our students for who they are. This allows us to help them find their unique calling in life in freedom, guiding (not coercing) them in planting that seed in the world where it can grow and bear fruit. In his book Education at the Crossroads, French philosopher Jacques Maritain reminds us that “the education of man is a human awakening,” which aims at “the conquest of internal and spiritual freedom” by the individual person so that he can shape himself into a more fully human person.
Upon reading this description, you might think that, while it all sounds very lofty and noble, there is a simple question: how can we put it in practice? What I have come to discover over the years working with students and learners of all ages and backgrounds, from school pupils to political leaders, is that the culture of the learning environment is the key to unlocking each person’s ability. A good learning culture is like an atmosphere, one that comes about only with the help of peers and teachers who encourage each student to make full use of his talents and gifts. When founding or rejuvenating an educational institution, the first focus should be selecting the right people and the right setting. These two aims are as practical as it gets. And yet they are informed by transcendent values, as both hiring people and cultivating a place both to begin with truthfulness and beauty.
Seven Virtues, a 41.6 x 147 cm tempera on panel by Francesco Pesellino and Workshop (ca. 1422-1457), located in the Birmingham Museum of Art.
First let us consider how founding or rejuvenating this kind of institution necessitates truthfulness. The men and women that we engage in our educational efforts should only be people who strive in earnest to live out the mission of your work and a dedication to learning and growing themselves. Educating others is only possible when we are educated ourselves, and this becomes possible when we live an authentic life that shows a unity of word and deed. It is the attitude of life that counts. There are few things more destructive in education and formation than when those who teach do not live in accordance with their own teachings. In the profound words of Michael D. O’Brien:
A messenger is in his words, if the messenger is truly himself. His life is his primary word, and his spoken words bear his life. He learns to be this when he has discovered that a man can give to others only what he truly is.
Wreath of laurel, palm, and juniper with a scroll inscribed “Virtutem Forma Decorat” (Beauty Adorns Virtue) (ca. 1474-1478), tempera on panel by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Secondly, where does beauty come in? We educators must cultivate a physical environment for the learning endeavor that uplifts the soul. This means that the school building, university campus, or conference venue should always be a place that is ordered and pleasing to the eye and other senses. This principle informs how we make decisions about architecture, furniture, and the natural environment.
Prioritizing beauty is by no means a luxury, and it should not be luxurious; it is a real need that is to be met with simplicity. I have seen beautiful yet very simple school buildings in Africa that were far better suited for this purpose than most of the bland modern European or American educational buildings and conference venues I have passed through. Ugliness and noisiness, so omnipresent in our functionality-driven societies, only distract and cause anxiety. These ugly spaces can never be a suitable environment for true learning and growing. Beauty invites the human spirit to quietly observe, contemplate, and, as a result, to rise up to higher planes of knowing and understanding. We have all experienced what a beautiful landscape, harmonious music, or the paintings of the great masters do to our souls.
Once we have firmly established truth and beauty as the foundations of our educational efforts, we can start with undertaking the first and most difficult task in the educational adventure of making visible the hidden seed: character formation. This comes before intellectual formation in importance. As James V. Schall explains when he speaks about liberal education:
There is an intimate connection between our moral life and our intellectual life. Sometimes I think the history of our times can be described as an argument whether or not this connection is true. Self-discipline is the beginning of wisdom, not its end.
The moral life, which is what character formation seeks to address, is not an individualistic effort. Education is fundamentally relational. Otherwise it is not true education. We learn through and with people and our relationships with them, a truth we have been painfully reminded of during the extended school and university closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. No matter how technologically advanced we have become in enabling distance learning, we cannot and will not ever replace human interaction and personal relationships.
Character formation happens where people meet and grow together in wisdom and experience. Students learn not only from what the teacher passes on about a certain subject, but more importantly they learn from who the teacher is and how that person of authority lives, acts, and leads by example and instruction. We also learn continuously through our fellow learners, including through disagreement and conflict. Character formation encourages growth in virtue, as it teaches us to become ever more consistent in discerning between good and evil and challenges us to act accordingly, even in situations of great difficulty. We advance this life-long cause through learning and teaching the virtues, both classical and Christian. The virtues, which Josef Pieper in his well-known work on the same topic calls “the tools of life,” can be instilled and strengthened in many different daily ways: not just through reading, writing, discussion, theatre, sports, and social and community service but also simply by living, working, and ‘hanging out’ with others, especially those whom we do not like or understand. The most important thing to realize when designing curricula and programs with character formation in mind is knowing (and teaching) that the virtuous life requires constant humble work to direct our own characters and those whose education is entrusted to us ever closer to becoming persons who live purposefully, act justly, and are blessings to those around them.
This brings me to a point that is especially relevant today when we speak about character formation in education. In his prophetic work, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argued 80 years ago that “[w]e make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Our education in the 21st century, even more than when Lewis wrote, is largely marked by a culture of weakness and entitlement, leading to spineless and all too delicate people who cannot deal with other opinions and who bail out on commitments the moment an obstacle arises. These people have been taught to look for the cause of all their problems outside of themselves, and so long as they follow this malformation, they will not be able to take personal responsibility.
We thus need to rediscover and encourage anew in our educational work the character trait of heroism, described in so many great works of world literature and philosophy. Why is heroism important? Because this fundamental attitude of life directs us to apply consistently the virtues of perseverance, self-mastery, self-sacrifice, and courage as an urgently needed alternative in a society that is so obsessed with invented rights and perceived victimhood, whilst mostly rejecting duty and service.
The character formation now defined, we come to the intellectual life itself. Here again there is a priority to pursue in education: learning how to think. If there is something our modern world has completely forgotten how to do, it is the ability to think with clarity. We live in a society of permanent distraction where fleeting feelings, opinion polls, and the latest social media hypes are the ever-changing norm, usually not hindered by any deliberate process of careful reflection and ordered spoken or written public discourse. As the bestselling personal development author Robin Sharma puts it so well: “The majority is stuck in vague, imprecise thinking. And vague, imprecise thinking yields vague, imprecise results.”
Superficiality of thought and its resulting destructive action seems to be the norm today where basic science, logical argumentation and a healthy debate is routinely rejected in favor of whatever the new orthodoxy of groupthink claims is now to be the valid norm, and where any deviation is harshly punished with “social death” through de-platforming, ostracization, and censorship. An education—and for that matter a society, however, that seeks to make visible what lies hidden as a seed in the individual person, wants to form a new generation of thinkers. It aims to cultivate people who are unafraid to address the great and oftentimes controversial questions of life and society with profundity and truly open hearts and minds, and who are not afraid of inconvenient truths and facts, even if they contradict the shrill mainstream narrative of vague and imprecise thinking. Here there are no taboos or thoughtcrimes and here there is no blanket rejection of tradition and religion, or a one-sided moralizing reading of history. Instead, we learn and teach how to read thoroughly an ageless work of literature or philosophy and to carefully analyze its purpose and meaning. Here we learn and practice how to conduct an ordered intellectual discourse and exchange of ideas where not our opinions, feelings, and sensitivities are in the foreground, but rather a common effort to know, to understand and to grow into more mature human beings with a more informed conscience. We also learn that truth is a goal to attain, not an object to claim, since, in the wise words of Jacques Maritain, truth “does not depend on us but on what is.” Learning how to think requires true humility and the willingness to fully engage with oneself, with the other—a culture of encounter as Pope Francis would call it – and with the topic at hand. This is an exercise not suited for the faint hearted, the entitled, and the ideologized. It can only be undertaken by those who know that they do not know and thus desire to continue learning.
We now return to the title of this essay: what is education? In summary and based on the privilege of many years of experience in the field, I can answer this question as follows: Education is the seeking out, planting, and cultivating the seed that lies hidden in the heart and mind of every human being young and old. Doing so requires an atmosphere of truthfulness and beauty in which, through acquiring knowledge and the heroic practice of the virtues, the character of the individual person is continually shaped, strengthened, and inspired by uplifting human interactions, profound friendships, and a community where charity reigns supreme. Here the student is then enabled, with the help of the great minds of human history, to learn how to think, thus allowing for a life lived with a listening heart that sets its sights on the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Education, therefore, is the art of learning how to live in accordance with the Creator God’s plan for humanity.