Education as Formation: Remarks by George Sanker

Education as Formation: Remarks by George Sanker

On Friday, October 24, Veritas was honored to host the Headmaster of The Covenant School, George Sanker, as our keynote speaker.  By way of introducing his topic, Mr. Sanker shared his personal story of early life in a broken home in Washington D.C., the education he received, the opportunities missed and taken and the faithfulness of God in his life.  A significant excerpt of his speech is printed below.

The purpose of our time together tonight is to discuss the important role that the family plays in enabling the school to fulfill its mission of “cultivating the head, heart, and hands of the students under their care so that they are equipped to impact the culture for Christ in the various vocational roles.”

What is Formation?

[Based on the stories I just shared with you], I think you can see the two key areas where formation takes place. The first is in the home, within the context of a family and a community and the second is in a school setting that should strive to ensure that the students under their care are living integrated lives.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 2.02.58 PMAt Covenant, we are pursuing more intentional conversations this year about student formation as part of a book study that we started in August. The work that frames our discussion is The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. This work was written in 1943 to address Lewis’ concern about how schools were viewing the role of the moral formation of their students. This book truly helped my get my arms around the questions I had been asking since I left Gonzaga as a teacher. At the core of Lewis’s argument is his belief that there has been a shift in modern education that is impacting the formation of children:

Lewis observes that “until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”

Lewis continues by reminding us how the pre-modern view of education was more about training the emotions or affections than about training analytic reason.

Now let me share with you a few quotes from Lewis’ work:

  • “St. Augustine defines virtue as ‘ordo amoris’, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded the kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.”
  • “Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in “ordinate affections or just sentiments will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.”
  • “Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”

Lewis also refers to the role that education has had in equipping people for the great task of life, of discerning (in Lewis’ terms) “how to conform the soul to reality.” There’s a real world out there, a world of practical challenges and moral meaning, a world with spiritual consequences and recognizable patterns of wisdom and folly. And the project of each human being is to grow in discernment about reality, to understand it aright, both in its large patterns and in its specificity, and then to find our place in it. The task for which education should begin to prepare us is that of rightly perceiving the shape of reality and then rightly discerning the task established for us within its drama. Wow!

What Happens When Formation Goes Wrong

So what happens in a culture that denies that one can in any way grasp the reality or order of God’s world? This position assumes that all versions of reality are expressions of personal preference and social prejudice. There’s an interesting perspective on this mentality in sociologist Christian Smith’s book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (18-24 yr. olds). Smith’s book is a sequel to an earlier study he wrote on the spiritual and religious live of American teenagers. Many of the emerging adults he and his colleagues interviewed for this new book have been under gentle surveillance for a number of years now, and the lessons learned from this study are a bit frightening.

Here’s a summary observation from Souls in Transition, describing the assumptions that are present in a generation of students who have lost a sense of an ordered reality:

“The majority of emerging adults…have great difficulty grasping the idea that a reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could have a significant bearing on their lives…They are in a sense doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around people that can serve as a reliable reference point for rational deliberation and argument…They cannot, for whatever reason, believe in—or sometimes conceive of—a given, objective truth, fact, reality, or nature of the world that is independent of their subjective self-experience, and that in relation to which they and others might learn or be persuaded to change.” And I believe each one of us feels this in our increasingly pluralistic world.Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 2.18.20 PM

Next, under the head “It’s Up to the Individual”, Smith writes, “According to emerging adults, the absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is his or her own sovereign self. Anybody can literally think or do whatever he or she wants. Of course, what a person chooses to think or do may have bad consequences for that person. But everything is ultimately up to each individual to decide for himself or herself. The most one should do toward influencing another person is to ask him or her to consider what one thinks. Nobody is bound to any course of action by virtue of belonging to a group or because of a common good. Individuals are autonomous agents who have to deal with each other, yes, but do so entirely as self-directing choosers. The words duty, responsibility, and obligation feel somehow vaguely coercive or puritanical.”

Lastly, let’s take a look at Smith’s interviews with emerging adults on education. This section is aptly entitled: “Education is of Instrumental Value”: “Here Smith found that many, though not all, emerging adults believe in the importance of finishing high school and getting a college education. Large numbers want to go to university, do well in school, get a degree, and put it to use. But for most, the motivating reasons behind their valuing higher education seems to have almost entirely to do with the instrumental advantages it produces—as well as the fun one can have in college. What matters is getting the credits, earning the diploma, and becoming certified as a college-educated person so that one can get a better job, earn more money, and become a good salary earner and supporter of a (materially) comfortable and secure life…Few talk about the value of a broad education for shaping people into informed and responsible citizens in civil life, for producing leaders and members who can work together toward the common good of all in society. An articulation of an understanding of the enduring worth of a broad classical liberal arts education for the development of persons and the sustaining of humanistic societies is not often heard from this age group.”

How Did We Get Here?

Thus far we have talked about Lewis’ concern about the movement away from forming children towards loving the good and then we saw some of the implications of students being nurtured in an environment that longer believes that there is a standard by which our lives are to be structured. In this context many of us would probably point to the loss of our Christian culture in the 20th century but I think if we are truly students of history and culture we will find out that the problem is much deeper. Let me take you back a bit further to the writings of a fourth century theologian who sought to address some of the same challenges with young adults in his community.

John Chrysostom lived in the 4th century AD and he was an Archbishop of Constantinople and an influential early church father. Near the end of his life he wrote an address to his community entitled Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children. The major focus of this sermon was the indifference of parents’ attitudes towards the spiritual formation of their children. Specifically, he commented that parents’ plans for their children’s future were generally confined to professional success and prosperity. These goals were practical, materially minded, and individualistic. Within this framework parents were primarily focused on securing material conveniences for their children. He noted that they sought out the best teachers for their child so that they could acquire those provisions, which would help them in their worldly life and career.

Now I must state that some of the things these parents were pursuing for their children were good things but I think it is crucial that we do not miss the heart of what he was trying to convey which was a concern that parents were more concerned with what their children were going to do in the world rather than who they should be.

Chyrsostom believed this vice of vainglory was not taught explicitly to children in this culture but it was in the water that everyone swam in and it was swallowed informally and was sweet to the taste buds.

What Does Vainglory Look Like Today?

I believe the vice of vainglory is also behind the comments that were made by the emerging adults that Christian Smith interviewed.

Let’s take a closer look at vainglory to better understand what it is and how it is impacting us today. First, I would like to define vainglory for you.

Vainglory is the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.

For example: Seeking to be well known and approved of for things that don’t truly merit approval or trying to appear better than we are because we want approval or admiration so badly. Now I do understand that we all need recognition and acceptance from other. This is not a bad thing in itself. But a good desire can be distorted if

  • We want to be admired for the wrong things:
    Qualities we don’t have.
    Qualities that don’t deserve glory.
  • We want to be admired by others, so that we…
    Will do wrong to get the right attention.
    Will not give due glory to God for our good qualities.

We spend a lot of our effort and conversation trying to improve our own image in the eyes of others. I wonder if we could spend one day next week…

  • Not defending ourselves when we suspect others are being critical of us. Instead, let our actions speak for themselves (be above reproach)
  • Not initiating a conversation that will call attention to yourself: for example, refrain from telling stories about yourself, recounting your version of events, or expounding on your feelings, texting or facebooking or twittering about yourself or what you like or what you are doing.

Instead: Listen attentively to others and encourage them to tell you about themselves.

I am sure that some of you might be thinking is vainglory just another way of talking about pride but what distinguishes it from pride is the “love of show.”

  • Prideful people want more than anything else to be ‘number one.’ The vainglorious person, on the other hand, does not aspire to something because it is excellent. Rather they seek what will bring in the most praise, whether deserving or not.
  • Rather than wanting to be excellent—like the prideful—or to be honored for our worthiness—like the ambitious—the vainglorious seek only the manifestation of excellence. We want more than anything else to be well known and widely know (facebook, twitter, instagram, selfies) without have to work for it.

To give up vainglory requires us to relinquish our place at the center of attention—to admit that from beginning to end, it’s not about me.

Now as I close, I want to share with you what I believe to be the key virtue that we should pursue as an antidote to vainglory: Solitude/Silence. “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it itself is the greatest of our miseries” (Blaise Pascal). Today this is very evident in the multitude of distractions that we place in our life, particularly those derived from the ubiquitous presence of technology—listening to your headphones, sending texts, responding to your twitter account, etc. But are they distracting us from hearing God’s voice?

To counter our anxiousness, it is vital that we cultivate an inner silence and solitude that sets us free from loneliness and fear. Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment. Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Inward solitude has outward manifestations. There is the freedom to be alone, not in order to be away from people but in order to hear God’s voice. Here I think of Elijah in 1 Kings when he ran from Jezebel, and God speaks to him in a still, small voice on Mount Horeb.

Without silence there is no solitude. Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, it always involves the act of listening. Simply to refrain from talking, without a heart listening to God, is not silence. There is a strong connection between inner solitude and inner silence. The purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to hear and focus on the one who speaks. Control rather than the absence of noise is the key to silence. Under the discipline of silence and solitude, we learn when to speak and when to refrain from speaking. I must admit, these two practices have been a struggle for me most in my life.

  • Gratitude: Gratitude is only possible when our attention turns outward to the world around us. When we see the good things in our lives as gifts, we are practicing gratitude. When we see our daily bread as the product of a bountiful creation, we open the door to gratitude toward God as well as the various hands that have cared for it along the way. Gratitude is a way of seeing the world that is impossible when our eyes and imaginations are turned inward. It is precisely this inward attention that induces dissatisfaction and closes off the possibility of living lives open to the world and grateful for our place in it. (I think we can see vainglory rearing its head again)
  • Attentiveness: Attentiveness calls us to pursue face-to-face relationships with others rather than striving to relate with most of our friends virtually (have you noticed that cell phones are not for calling anymore and that some breakups are done by texting?). It also calls us to be attentive to one thing at a time rather than seeking to multi-task (doing homework while responding to texts, or checking our Facebook page, or checking our pictures on Instagram).

Now let me get a bit more specific. I will use my family as an example to give you a sense of how gratitude can be cultivated in the home.

  • Chores at Home: We cultivate gratitude in our family through the responsibilities that our kids play in the upkeep of our home. Everyone has chores inside and outside of the home that they are responsible for on a daily/weekly basis. On occasion our boys moan about this because most of the kids in their class have someone that cleans their home so that the kids can focus exclusively on being a good student. (My wife also has chores for me: grass, cleaning the bathroom, which I am behind on for the past couple of weeks due to different talks I have had to prepare so my time is up tomorrow).GeorgeSanker
  • Meals & Extra-curricular activities: As a family we are very diligent about prioritizing meals together as a family. Our dining room table is wonderful setting for cultivating gratitude for the bounty of God’s creation and the skills of the chef. This is also a context where our kids learn to be grateful for what is served and not whine about what they would rather have. To ensure that we are able to have meals together we have also minimized the amount of activities that our kids can get involved in. For our kids, who are pretty athletic, this involves rules stating that you cannot play a team sport until you are in the 3rd grade and you can only play one sport a year until you get into middle school where you can add a second sport.
  • Devotions/Reading: My wife and I strive to read to our kids every night and I must admit that we have good and bad seasons with this practice based on meetings that I have and other activities that we are involved with—i.e. small group every Wednesday evening. Last year I initiated devotions with my then 5th and 6th grader. Initially I had them read it each night and talk to me about some of their key take-aways and then I decided to read with them and discuss the text with them in more depth. I find this is a great way to build a bond with your kids and help them to notice ways that God is trying to speak to them in the midst of the rhythm of their daily routine.

I hope that the examples that I have shared with you today about the important role that each of you plays in the formation of the hearts, souls, and minds of the children that God has given you. I also want you to know that there is no ten step program to pursuing this project. Our way forward involves faithful prayer for wisdom and a community of relationships with other adults in your church, neighborhood, and the school to provide resources and serve as sounding boards as we seek to faithful navigate the different season of our children’s lives.