And we’re back with more from The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being!
Chrysostom was an early church father nicknamed “Golden Mouthed” for his eloquence. He received a Greek liberal arts education from a pagan, then went on to study theology under a respected teacher.
He taught the Bible with a plain understanding instead of interpreting with elaborate allegories, which was the common at that time. He spent two years of his early adulthood as an ascetic hermit, which time he used not only to wreck his health, but also to memorize copious amounts of Scripture.
In his writings, he admonished fathers to raise and educate their children with care – as much care for their spiritual maturity as for their economic potential.
It is rather reassuring to see that such admonitions were as much needed in the fourth century as they are in the twenty-first.
Christian education methods and metaphors
Chrysostom spends a good deal of time explaining why and how children should be told stories – history stories, Bible stories – deliberately and repeatedly.
Stories are formative, he tells us. The first way that we teach our children is to tell them true stories well, then – get this – Chrysostom says we should have them tell the stories back to us. After that, we should put them in the way of hearing the same stories from others and watch their minds leap with recognition and delight.
After developing this teaching method for young children, Chrysostom uses a powerful metaphor to describe a person. A person, he says, is like a city.
For the soul is in truth a city.
We each have gates, inner courts, and other analogous parts that we can guard and tend or let fall to ruin and rubble. The city of our own soul can be anarchy or ruled by law – with similar consequences as literal cities.
So, if we are helping to guard and guide the city of our children’s souls, Chrysostom warns against over-legislation:
It is useless to draw up laws, if their enforcement does not follow.
Inspect what you expect has long been proverbial.
Draw up laws, and do you pay close attention […] for we are founding a city.
Here are some of the laws Chrysostom would have us secure:
- use no one contemptuously
- speak ill of no one
- does not swear
- be not contentious
- do not mistreat slaves
- abstain from insulting & slandering
Yes, character training has always been considered part of education – education’s point is virtue, after all – but this was accomplished not with a checklist or curriculum, but by example and consistent correction in the midst of various studies and activities.
Thus this gate (his tongue) will have been made worthy of the Lord, when no word that is shameful or flippant or foolish or the like is spoken, but all beseems the Master.
And laws are not only negative; laws should contain positive action, as well:
So let him learn to sing hymns to God that he may not spend his leisure on shameful songs and ill-timed tales.
So part of our method of instilling virtue is pursuing and learning what is lovely, what is excellent, and filling our minds with these, rather than only or merely eliminating or punishing the bad.
Have not recourse to blows constantly and accustom him not to be trained by the rod; for if he feel it constantly as he is being trained, he will learn to despise it. And when he has learnt to despise it, he has reduced thy system to nought.
Whatever our system is – whether it is the rod, or nagging, or constant chatter, or onerous consequences – if our children come to despise it (or us), we will be ineffective. We must be on our guard, watching our own hearts as well as the attitudes of our children. We don’t want to come to that point, when it is hard to course correct.
Let him rather at all times fear blows but not receive them
This principle probably applies to any consequence, not only physical. Our given consequences should be bitter, but not frequent; we must keep our word in applying it, but be careful we don’t over apply and make life burdensome.