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Liturgies of Learning

What does taking a practical approach to liturgy in the classroom look like?

"What does the author mean by 'perspicuous' language?" I asked my student, Jonathan.

He squinted and looked away. "I need a kyrie moment, Dr. Jackson."

Jonathan had invoked a Greek term from the phrase kyrie eleison, or "Lord, have mercy." It was a creative adaptation of some terminology used in our course on the History & Philosophy of Education. He was taking my primer on ancient and medieval trends in Western education, where I’d introduced some of the classical lexicon, in the spirit of our historical studies. I granted him his mercy and moved on.

Kyrie and three related terms were taken from a traditional form of Christian worship: the musical mass. Inspired by James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, I wanted to explore the integration of faith and classroom practice. Smith invites us to work on ordering our desires in daily practice—which is a broad definition of "liturgy"—and that sounded to me like something that could fit with the goals of education. Aristotle tells us to choose ethical habits carefully. Augustine teaches that human integrity requires a right ordering of our loves. But, following Smith's prompt, I wanted to determine if there was a genuine link between my pedagogy and the life-shaping forms of Christian liturgy. And, so, I began ordering my classes around a four-fold structure that traces the sequence of the musical mass.

I teach at a Christian institution, where there is no bar to explicit religious language. But the ordinances of a Christian church, designed for worshippers' spiritual nurture, could resonate with the ordering of any classroom. It does not depend on students being believers.

When Jonathan invoked his "kyrie moment," everyone understood: he wanted a get-out-of-jail-free card. Kyrie isn't a difficult concept to grasp, any more than teaching a child to say "I'm sorry." From day one, I simply emphasized that our ignorance and (occasional) willfulness obstructs understanding—and this includes instructors and scholars. If we intend to make intellectual progress, we must acknowledge our error, the way a penitent acknowledges his sin. Even the pagan Socrates defined true wisdom in terms of intellectual humility: "knowing you know nothing"—which is to say, recognizing your incomplete grasp of reality.

As it turned out, Jonathan's request came in the middle of a discussion on the educational methods of Quintilian, the best known orator of first-century Rome. Several students noted the ancient professor's enlightened approach to corporal punishment. Quintilian discouraged use of the rod so as not to diminish a student's essential motivation: his spiritedness. He was a pagan supporter of kyrie moments.

The twenty centuries that separate Quintilian from us require an imaginative leap for my 20-something students. As I told them, we were conducting a form of "pedagogical archeology" by digging in a first-century (translated) text for relevant educational principles. They were impressed by Quintilian's masterful psychology and eloquent presentation: students' innate abilities differ and must be carefully weighed in the teacher's response; children's receptivity to memorization and drill exceeds our wildest expectations, as long as teachers use energetic methods that encourage playful competition; the children's worst enemies are the debauched adults who serve as models.

Exemplary forms like Quintilian provided the grist for thoughtful discussions that led to our second liturgical stage: gloria. In Christian worship, glory goes to God alone, who is the source of "every good and perfect gift." And it is the evidence of those gifts that so eloquently argues for the worship of the Giver. Just as the psalmist explained that "the heavens declare the glory of God," so the created world—including the achievements of human culture—bears witness to the One who alone is good. Whenever we take pleasure in what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has ever been thought or said," we are entertaining evidence of God's glory in the humanities. And, so, cultural caretaking becomes a form of giving glory to God.

Looking at Quintilian's legacy, my class re-discovered a glorious model of education that has largely been forgotten today. Quintilian is unknown in contemporary educational circles. Most "foundations of education" courses begin with twentieth-century methods. But my students reveled in Quintilian's pedagogy. The glory was palpable, and I felt like Sir Arthur Evans leading his excavation crew to the buried ruins of Knossos. Gloria!

Having admitted our ignorance and then recovered lost treasure, the next element of our classroom liturgy was an explication of what we had come to understand: credo. Just as a Christian congregation recites a statement of belief, in which terms have been refined and propositions carefully crafted for precision, our pedagogical credo spelled out our beliefs on the subject. What did we accept as essentially true about education? For example, when Quintilian prescribed that "even the lines which are set for [the child's] imitation in writing should not contain useless sentences, but such as convey some moral instruction," we derived the pedagogical principle that form cannot be divorced from content. Every word counts, even in the mundane activities of the classroom. Students are always watching—and learning—so the instructional example must be commendable, embodying our ideals.

Sometimes, the master presented us with an authoritative claim, as with the following aphorism: All language has three kinds of excellence, to be correct, perspicuous, and elegant . . . and the same number of faults, which are the opposites of these excellences. Initially, we accepted his definition on faith.

But we didn't stop there. We entered into a conversation with the spirit of the text, speculating that Quintilian's three-fold excellence of language corresponded to truth, goodness, and beauty. We argued that for language to fully express reality, it must proportionately reflect man's full nature: rational, ethical, and aesthetic.

At that point, we recognized the power of Anselm's dictum: I believe that I may understand. We had started with a premise of belief (taken on good authority). Then our classroom deliberation carefully explored the truth of our initial conviction. In the end, belief had produced greater understanding.

Though "belief" is often misunderstood in an age that popularly dichotomizes facts from values, even contemporary philosophies of science are recovering a respect for Anselm's proposition (usually without naming the eleventh-century archbishop!). As Michael Polanyi repeatedly argued, our scientific understanding of the world is derived from a method shaped by tacit knowledge within a tradition of knowing—i.e., an epistemology. Or, in Esther Meek's pithy formulation: "There is no such place as an epistemological Switzerland."

Which brings us to the fourth and final facet of my classroom liturgy: benedictus. Though the last element of a Christian service focuses on remembering the Lord's Supper (and for many Christians a physical encounter with the Risen Lord through the Eucharist), I was not starting my own church. Rather, I intended to demonstrate the educational equivalent of Natural Law: a Good Word intuitively grasped or "written on the human heart." Thus, if we, as learners, confess our ignorance, discover the glory of the created order, and articulate our incomplete understanding, we may encounter a deeper Reality—one that lies beyond mere description of surface phenomena.

But, here we arrive at the threshold of mystery, where I am reminded of those experiences of the Hebrew prophets of old, whose divine encounters were shattering: Isaiah was "undone" in the Presence of the thrice-holy God, and Ezekiel was overwhelmed by the glory of the LORD. Those eye-witnesses were unable to adequately explain their holy encounters—and so it should be, for Reality exceeded their rational constructions.

In Bach's Mass in B minor, perhaps the most well-known composition employing this traditional structure, the Baroque maestro coalesced the sanctus (holy), hosanna, and benedictus in his final movement. Following Bach's formulary (and occasionally playing excerpts from his masterpiece), I concluded our classroom discussions in ways meant to honour the remains of the day:

  • acknowledging the mysterious, complex, often paradoxical world that confronts us—leaving loose ends that may never be resolved (this side of eternity);

  • offering a poetic rendering of the "dappled world," for as Josef Pieper reminds us philosophy and poetry are both prompted by our capacity for wonder; or

  • providing students with moments to gather their thoughts in coherent form—e.g., in a journal, posing questions for future discussion, or constructing their own aphorisms to capture the spirit of our time together.

No matter which form was used, I intended the benedictus to serve as a meditation on the rich mysteries of life; to keep the Great Conversation going; and to provide students with some "personal space," where they could continue the intellectual movements of the day, on their own terms—without a teacher's interruptions.

In that spirit, let me conclude as I did each class last term, with the following benediction—a blessing for my students' continued growth. Formed as a composite of the Great Commandment, Goethe's aesthetic, and a dash of Chesterton, this benediction reminds us to use language just as we pursue the Good Life: as an act of worship.

Love the LORD.
Attend to the beautiful.
Explore the paradoxical.
And, if possible, produce a few good words.
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Robert Jackson Robert Jackson
Robert Jackson is an associate professor of English and education at The King's College (New York). ... read more »
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