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Know-How and Habits

Shaun returns home from work and enters to find his children embroiled in world war 3. Marigold has transgressed the national border of Jennifer’s room to retrieve her stolen jewels. Diplomatic relations were briefly attempted, but quickly devolved into a verbal barrage of demands punctuated by the artillery of insults. Both children look up to the voice of the United Nations thundering from on high, “Stop yelling at each other!” — hereafter known as the shout heard round the world.

With his words, Shaun is communicating quite clearly: there is to be no yelling in the Lecter household. However, with his tone, he has communicated at least two additional maxims for the home: 1. Don’t yell around dad. 2. Only dad is allowed to yell. The what may have been clear enough, but the how also affected what the children learned.

In the renewal of classical education, many have given attention to what should be taught or curriculum. The curriculum of a classical education is the liberal arts as these allow the student to perceive and embrace truth, bringing harmony to their own souls and to their community. As educators continue to discover this lost tradition, more thought is being directed towards the how of teaching or pedagogy. These two aspects, curriculum and pedagogy, must remain united if the educational endeavor will be successful.

James K.A. Smith, in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, contends that every pedagogy assumes an anthropology, or to restate it, how we teach indicates what we understand about human beings. If my main method of teaching is to overturn the bucket of informational feed into the open receptacles seated at their desks, I am acting as if human beings are essentially brains on sticks. The main goal of life is to get as much information as possible. I may communicate something similar if I treat education as uploading the right beliefs or worldview onto a student’s blank hard drive. If they can regurgitate the right beliefs about the world, they are educated.

Rather than this top-heavy, Mega-Mind-esc conception of man, we ought instead to understand human beings as embodied souls. We most certainly have minds capable of receiving information, and we all carry different beliefs about the world, but we also live in the world on an almost precognitive basis. How many of our actions are carried out without any thought? Have you ever jumped into your jalopy, started the old lemon, and the next thing you know, the scene fades to black and you were pulling into your driveway? Think about your personal or family rituals that you just do — brushing your teeth, sitting down together at dinner or scattering across the house, waking up early enough to lounge through your morning or jumping out of bed and into the car to barely make it on time, watching three hours of Netflix before bed, cleaning the house only when the government has become aware of a new radioactive threat — Smith contends that these are all shaping you on a gut-level to orient you towards the world.

Whether you are a parent or a formal educator, this should cause you to give thought to your own habits or rituals (liturgies, as Smith calls them). What do they say about the kind of person you are or are becoming? When teaching literature, do you hand out detailed worksheets asking who, what, where, when and then give factually oriented quizzes on the reading? This is communicating a view of what literature is for. When engaged in historical study, do you approach the world like a history textbook, culling the much more interesting primary sources for “just the facts, ma’am”? In your home, what does the day look like? Is it the random, disoriented feeding of junkyard dogs happening upon their next meal as every man fends for himself? Or do you consciously gather together to start the day, no matter how behind you already are? Your habits and rituals are shaping you and your children/students. Consider even the orientation of students in the classroom. Are they all facing the front of the room, lined up in individual desks with a uniform, factory precision or are they gathered into clusters and pods, each a smaller closed off unit? More importantly, what does this say about the learning process?

If we believe that education is about cultivating wisdom and virtue, we must be attentive to how the practices we adopt are shaping us on the unconscious level. Smith talks about how one can describe what it’s like to hold a cat by the tail, but then there is the “know-how” of actually doing it. We must recognize that we can talk about virtue-formation for hours, days, and years on end, but unless students are adopting habits and practices that orient them towards this end, they are just filling the shoebox with some neat trinkets. They can perfectly define and describe virtue, but they aren’t actually becoming virtuous. Take a “practices-audit” and think about the habits you have adopted and how these are shaping you. If our practices do not line up with what we think we are teaching, we may find ourselves to be a Penelope, weaving by day, but unraveling by night.