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The "How" and the "What"

February 24, 2020
By Memorial Lutheran School


This post today marks the beginning of Memorial Lutheran School’s blog. Weekly the faculty, staff, and clergy of MLS will release articles and devotional material for the edification of our church and school families. Mondays will feature the release of an article on classical Lutheran education, philosophy, worldview or other topics. Wednesday will feature a sermon preached in chapel during the week prior or a devotion appropriate to the current season of the Church year. We pray that the blog will be a fruitful way for MLS to foster discussion and enthusiasm toward “building a strong foundation.”

In Christ,

The Faculty and Staff of MLS


“The How and the What”

---Musings on “the importance of teaching our students how to read and write, how to think, and how to imagine beyond themselves, their experiences, their lives, and their world.”---

Martin Cothran of Memoria Press has stated succinctly that a classical education is one that teaches students “how to think and what to do,” (Martin Cothran, What is classical education?, Memoria Press, 2017).

Reading, writing, thinking, imagining: these are critical skills. They are skills that require a judgment or discernment. This word "critical" comes from the Greek word kritikos, which in turn comes from the Greek verb krino, meaning to judge or discern. When one does any of the above (reading, writing, thinking, imagining), judgments and decisions are made. Seldom do we think about how we make those judgments. We do not ask the questions that we ought. What assumptions underlie our decisions? What assumptions underlie what others say or do? Are these legitimate assumptions? When reading, is there a way to sympathize with a character or an argument without claiming it as our own position?

A classical education is a “liberal” education. It is freeing in its inculcation of the “how” to think, read, write and imagine, and the “what” of virtue, eloquence, and Christian love. It is freeing too in how it permits each student to see that their knowledge, their works, their emotions and experiences all work together to serve those around them and those that they come in to contact with. 

A classical education frees children to think critically and to do so with well-trained discernment. This is important because each student needs the tools of discernment to serve the neighbors that they will have now and will have in the future. A great education may be one that merely teaches "how to think" properly. But a classical Lutheran education is uniquely significant in that this, proper thinking, is not the end or point of the education. The end, the telos (another Greek term that is quite useful), is to love the neighbor, to look outside of oneself. A classical education is dedicated to teaching children "how to think" and "what to do." This is all for the benefit of the other and not the self.

Our education is directed outward. Much of education has been focused inward, motivated by the "self". Therefore, the focus on the teaching of “how to think" instead of “what to think” is “critical.” Now of course, students must be inclined and directed toward this “how”. A certain extent of the “what” must be taught so that reading, writing, and arithmetic can lay the foundation of the skills of the Liberal Arts. But once the tools are in place, then instruction toward the “how to think” can begin. “How” is applicable in a variety of circumstances and this is a boon to the classically educated youth. Many children and adults have been trained solely in “what to think” and there is little freedom to think outside of one particular profession or mode of life. A training in “how” provides the tools to transcend the modern sins of self-absorption and self-centeredness. The narcissism of our age (see Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations for example) becomes more deep-seated with every generation.

Thinking beyond oneself involves analyzing assumptions and presuppositions. Talking beyond oneself involves listening to others. Reading beyond oneself involves taking chances by reading outside of one's preferences. Imagining beyond oneself is the result of loving, analyzing, listening and participating in the conversation of humanity. On one level this conversation takes place  in the classroom as the result of a curriculum founded upon classical principles and texts and lectures that come from the treasure trove of Western civilization. On another level, the formal instruction of education is the beginning of the act of inclining and forming students towards the actions that foster the love of the neighbor. This training in "how to think" molds one towards the proper "what": loving others in thought, word, and deed.

Classical Lutheran education inclines and forms students to think about themselves in light of others. Our Lord's summary of the "greatest commandment", love of God and love of neighbor, properly directs our focus and our end (Matthew 22:37-40). The love for God that Christians have is shown outwardly when we love our neighbors. The law here is that we need to think beyond ourselves, our needs, our emotions and our experiences. Learning "how to think" prepares us to do this academically and theologically. The academic knowledge and the theological knowledge gained from a classical Lutheran education equips students to think, talk, read and imagine in ways that serve others. The promise here is that God provides us love through our neighbors and love for our neighbors through us. Training children to be thoughtful, conscientious, and loving neighbors through thinking, reading, talking and imagining is a noble and worthwhile endeavor. We at MLS are glad that you are a part of it. 

Rev. R. W. Paul - Headmaster and Associate Pastor