What is a hero? Who are your heroes and why? Why does it matter as an educator and a parent? As our country (and many countries around the world) celebrated different versions of Veterans Day this week, I have been spending some time reflecting upon its significance in our culture at large, and specifically in our school culture.
A hero is commonly understood as an individual who is admired or viewed as an ideal example of virtue- typically courage, integrity, and sacrifice. Heroes are set apart in societies because, regardless of one’s professed view of human nature, we all seem to intuitively recognize that these traits are uncommon and need to be upheld as examples to pursue.
What does this have to do with our school? The importance of the heroes as role models is a link to the wisdom and philosophy of a classical education. The driving motivation and strategy of classical curriculum and the classical instructor is the importance of nourishing the soul of a child by setting before them examples of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. While we aim to do this in all the subjects, I think the consensus would be that the most transformative examples are those seen in the stories of heroic people. Visible in heroic poetry and ancient legends, one of the hallmarks of classical literature is the clear portrayal of the hero (and the stark contrast with a villain). Examples of heroes may be mythological (like Achilles or Gilgamesh) or historical (like Joan of Arc or George Washington).
Another core concept in the classical education (and one that conflicts with a lot of contemporary education philosophy) is the importance “calling forth the adult within the child.” What does this mean? Isokrates, a quintessential classical educator along the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, challenged the Sophists of his day with this concept. The goal of the Sophists for their students was based on utilitarianism and pragmatism- only teach and focus on what is useful and practical to help the student function and get by in society (sound familiar?). In contrast, Isokrates invited his students to challenge the status quo by holding before them the ideals (often embodied in heroes), and calling them forth towards maturity and nobility. To quote David Hicks in his book, Norms and Nobility, he writes:
Isokrates’ educative aim was to form an adult, not to develop a child, and his method was to teach the knowledge of a mature mind, not to offer relevant learning experiences at the level of his student’s stage of psychological development…Isokrates must have perceived childhood as a period of becoming rather than as a state of being. Children, he recognized, want to be brought up; they do not want to remain 12 year olds. The healthy child wants to become an adult, just as the mature adult wants to be an adult (Hicks, 38).
What are the implications for us as parents and educators today? First of all, this understanding is foundational to why we need to have high expectations and standards for our children. These standards and expectations should not be rooted in a sense of self-centered pride for our school or family, but in the recognition that high standards are what we all need to call us forth from the sinful temptations of complacency and worse, apathy. If we as humans are not challenged and called forth to a grand ideal, then we will all eventually fall into these areas of temptation.
As believers, I hope you see the true fulfillment of this in the gospel of Christ. On the one hand, God loves his adopted children and welcomes us into His family as we are- having covered our guilt and shame by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross (cf. Romans 5:8). However, God saves us for His eternal purpose of conforming us to the perfect image of his Son, Jesus. Note what is sometimes overlooked in the famous Romans 8:28-29 passage:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28-29, ESV, emphasis mine).
Elsewhere, the Apostle Peter writes similarly,
“For to this [a godly life in the face of suffering] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
Parents and Teachers- let us not follow our culture in this and hold the bar low. Let us not hesitate to hold high and godly expectations -of ourselves and our children. Let us not grow weary in challenging our children toward that which is True, Noble, Good, and Beautiful. Let us invite them, in humility and hope, to join us in this journey. Let us uphold and contemplate the great examples of history, recognizing and making clear that the good we see in them are glimpses of the image and glory of God and Christ- being partially seen in mankind, but most clearly and majestically in His Son, Jesus Christ- our ultimate hero!