When I am asked what we do at Emmaus Classical Academy, I will typically say something like, “We read hard old books.” When I was a student, this course description terrified me. I was an avid reader, but only of books I was already comfortable with––Sherlock Holmes, perhaps, or Jules Verne, or one of Dorling-Kindersley’s Star Wars visual dictionaries. I was reluctant to read anything unfamiliar or intimidating for fear I wouldn’t like it. After all, why try a three-course meal at a new five-star restaurant when you know you like cheap fast food from the nearest drive-thru?
It is easy to lament the dwindling of modern attention spans by wringing our hands over social media and the proliferation of Marvel movies, but the human tendency to shrink back from good things is nothing new. It has been rooted in our nature since the beginning, when our earliest parents traded an intimate relationship with an infinitely loving God for a bit of fruit. In "The Weight of Glory," C.S. Lewis offers a fine description of just how paltry our appetite for goodness often is:
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We human beings are capable of making some staggeringly bad judgment calls. Confronted with genuine, glorious goodness, we often prefer shabby trifles. Were God to offer me full union with Himself at this moment, I might politely turn Him down for the comparably meager comforts of a happy marriage, a stable job, or a good meal. I am far too easily pleased. A classical education looks at this quirk of human nature and wagers that it is actually rather hard to love good things. A classical education is not merely concerned with knowing what is good; it is also concerned with loving what is good, which turns out to be far more difficult.
Good things offer deeper, more meaningful rewards than shallow, mediocre things, but they also tend to pull us out of the comfortable little worlds we curate for ourselves, reminding us what “half-hearted creatures” we truly are and giving the lie to our illusions of mastery. However, it is precisely when we resist the temptation to curate our lives that we can receive the good gifts God wants to give us––gifts that are far better than what we could imagine for ourselves.
In the Gospels, the crowds prefer spectacular signs, but Christ often gives them cryptic parables instead. He is not giving them information to stockpile so much as He is inviting them into an intimate and unimaginably dynamic relationship with Himself and His Father. The Word of God is living and active, and the greatest texts approximate this living and active quality, which means they can be just as stubborn, elusive, and gloriously surprising as flesh-and-blood human beings.
For the classical educator, hard old books are less like a subject to be mastered before a test and more like brilliant, often intimidating people who nevertheless want to be lifelong friends. The task of the classical educator is not to elevate texts above students, or students above texts, but to cultivate friendships between students and texts. You could introduce Tom to Harry with a lecture on Harry’s merits, but what you really want is for Tom and Harry to spend time with one another, get to know each other, and become friends of their own accord.
As a student and a teacher, classical education has taught me two things above all. First, that learning to love good things is the most important, meaningful, rewarding thing a human being can do, because it is what we are meant to spend eternity doing. Second, that learning to love good things is very hard, and I do not need to feel so disappointed in myself (or in others) when it is not a quick and easy process. We can do a lot to impede our growth, but we can only do so much to expedite it. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis likens education to the irrigation of deserts, which sounds horribly tedious and laborious if you think about it. It takes a long time. It is not easy. But it is worth it, and thankfully, God is a good and patient gardener.
Timothy Lawrence graduated from Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute with a degree in Cinema and Media Arts (with an emphasis in Screenwriting). He is the managing editor of FilmFisher, a movie review site, and has been published in the FORMA Journal and on the CiRCE Institute blog.