Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him-self nule drinken
Written in an older form of English, the above apparently means something like, “Who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?” Perhaps the oldest English proverb still in use today, this saying was recorded as early as 1175 in Old English Homilies. We generally use today in the form of “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” Cast your mind’s eye on the vision it evokes for a moment: A man leading his thirsty horse to water, knowing that the horse must drink in order to function and flourish, but being unable to force the horse to take what it needs the most. The man may push and prod as much as he likes, but he cannot make the horse do what the horse does not want to do.
This is a metaphor for education. We can lead our children to all the vast array of knowledge we have available to us, we can speak to them, write to them, and ‘profound’ (a word my Challenge IV class and I have coined in a sort of playful elaboration of the word ‘expound’) for them, but unless they themselves decide to apply their time, interest, and talents to the endeavor, we will not succeed in truly educating any one.
Oliver Van DeMille, in his book A Thomas Jefferson Education, echoes this when he devotes a section of his book to the idea that in order to educate, we must ‘inspire, not require’:
[I]t’s important not to force the young person through their learning experiences. Force in learning kills the spirit, dampens the passion and destroys the zest and life of learning1.
This reflects a great deal of the sound wisdom expressed by Dorothy Sayers in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.”2 Sayers delineates the skills of learning and tendencies of each stage of the Trivium. We should always keep in mind that when we try to force a child to do what is counter to his or her natural inclination at a certain stage of learning, we will inevitably meet with difficulties. For example, when we go against the grain in the grammar stage, we ignore a child’s natural desire to repeat and mimic; we then steal from them their opportunity to memorize large quantities of information at precisely the time when they enjoy doing it the most. (It is important to note that this is a precious time in a growing child’s life. It will probably never come again with the same joy.) In the dialectic stage, we ignore children’s desires to question and explore at great risk of stifling their curiosity and analytical skills for the rest of their lives; we doom them to live with unexamined thoughts and open them up to be consistently manipulated by the little-understood thoughts of others when they are adults. At the rhetoric stage, we make a grave error if we do not encourage our young adults to express themselves and if we furthermore fail to give them the tools with which to do so effectively and with discernment; if we do this, we leave them crippled for a lifetime of suppressed or poorly expressed identity and purpose.
In our homeschooling efforts, it is important to keep this vision of ‘inspiring versus requiring’ before us, because our society is ironically (considering the emphasis we put on individuality) one in which we have become accustomed to treating people as though they have no free will, as if they can be led hither and thither, willy nilly, as we prefer. We treat them mechanistically, even though as the old adage says, even horses cannot be treated that way! And these are not horses, but men and women made imago Dei, meant to fulfill God’s purposes for His glory.
Unfortunately, our culture is one in which, even as classical, Christian homeschoolers, we often unconsciously succumb to the idea that in a mechanistic way we can ‘force’ our children to become ‘educated’ simply by setting a list of to-do’s based upon a set of external standards before them (usually standards that have been established by the government—take a look at this article for insight into this) and demanding that they fulfill these requirements and obtain certain numerical scores or letter grades in the process. This is revealed in our obsession with standardized testing: a student who, like a thoroughbred horse has been taken through an obstacle course by his expert ‘rider’ (read ‘teacher), will be able to check off the list of to-do’s and then boast of exemplary, blue-ribbon results. And then that student will be considered ‘educated’ and be set for life in terms of career, salary, and—we mistakenly believe stemming from these—real happiness.
Peter Kreeft expresses this tension brilliantly in his book, The Best Things in Life, which is a dialogue that takes place on a fictitious modern American university campus between the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and two American students. The following excerpt comes from a conversation he is having with a student named Peter Pragma and it is well worth reading 3:
Peter: I’m studying for my exam tomorrow.
Socrates: And why are you doing that?…
Peter: To get a degree, of course.
Socrates: You mean all the time and effort and money you put into your education…is to purchase that little piece of paper?
Peter: That’s the way it is…A college degree is the entrance ticket to a good job…
Socrates: What is a “good job” and why do you want one?
Peter: Money, of course. That’s the answer to…all questions, maybe.
Socrates: I see. And what do you want to do with all the money you make?…
Peter: Everything! Everything I want costs money.
Socrates: For instance?
Peter: Do you know how much it costs to raise a family nowadays?
Socrates: And what would you say is the largest expense in raising a family nowadays?
Peter: Probably sending the kids to college.
Socrates: I see. Let’s review what you have said. You are reading this book to study for your exam, so that you can pass it and your course, to graduate and get a degree, to get a good job, to make a lot of money, to raise a family and send your children to college.
Socrates: And why will they go to college?
Peter: Same reason I’m here. To get good jobs, of course.
Socrates: So they can send their children to college?
Socrates: Have you ever heard the expression “arguing in a circle”?
Peter: No, I never took logic…I’m a practical man. I don’t care about logic, just life.
Socrates: Then perhaps we should call what you are doing “living in a circle.” Have you ever asked yourself a terrifying, threatening question? What is the whole circle there for?
Peter: Hmmm…nobody ever bothered me with that question before…Well, sending kids to college isn’t the only thing I’m working for. I’m working for my own good too. That’s not a circle, is it?…
Socrates: Tell me, what is “your own good”?
Peter: What do you mean?
Socrates: What benefit to yourself do you hope the money from a well-paying job will bring you?
Peter: All sorts of things. The good life. Fun and games. Leisure.
Socrates: I see. And you are now giving up fun and games for some serious studying so that you can pass your exams and your courses and get your degree.
Peter: Right. It’s called “delayed gratification.” I could be watching the football game right now…But I’m putting my time in the bank. It’s an investment for the future. You see, when I’m set up in a good job, I’ll be able to call my own shots.
Socrates: You mean you will then have leisure and be able to watch football games…whenever you wish?
Socrates: Why don’t you just do those things right now?
Socrates: Why do you work instead of play if all you want to do is play? You’re working now so that years from now you can have enough money to afford leisure to play. But you can play now. So why take the long, hard road if you’re already home? It seems to be another circle back to where you started from…
Peter: Are you telling me that I should drop out of school and goof off?
Socrates: No, I am telling you that you should find a good reason to be here.
Peter: All right, wise man, or wise guy, whichever you are. You tell me. Why should I be here? What’s the value of college?…
Socrates: I am not a wise man, only a philos0opher, a lover and a pursuer of wisdom, that divine but elusive goal.
Peter: So you’re not going to teach me the answers?
Socrates: No. I think the most valuable lesson I could teach you is to become your own teacher. Isn’t that one of the things you are here to learn? Isn’t that one of the greatest values of a college education? Have none of your teachers taught you that? What has become of my great invention, [the academy], anyway?
Peter: I guess I never looked at education that way.
Our society has deeply misunderstood as well as misrepresented the purpose of education, and our children are thirsty. They are thirsty to learn: to know who they are, what the world around them is, and what their purpose in it will be. Yet when we approach education mechanistically, we draw them to a well from which most, after even the briefest exposure, have no desire to drink. (How many elementary students routinely proclaim, “I hate school!”?) Often those who do drink find that they do not enjoy the taste and do not reap the benefits promised to them. They discover they are caught in a circular argument which has become their lives. They become cynics who then dismiss any learning that beckons them away from the pragmatic as Sophistry. And we are then stunned that they do not wish to learn, when we have offered them what seems like more than all the centuries of humanity that came before us could. Even more distressing, we are stunned when the best of them, who seemed to have drunk from the fount of rivers of accumulated information, are unable to think creatively, effectively, or wisely about the problems they face. Even after all the years of so-called education they receive, they remain parched with a thirst that they do not even know how to begin to quench.
In in her new book, The Question, the founder of Classical Conversations, Leigh Bortins, writes:
“Education teaches us to rightly assess mankind and the world in which he lives…This requires consistent discipleship or mentoring by a concerned adult over a long period of time…for eventually, the child wants to know why she must learn so much terminology and what to do with what she has learned. These natural questions lead children into dialectic and rhetorical studies, which give them the keys to make wise judgments, unlock complex ideas, and access every realm of human endeavor. In this way, classical education gives our children the tools to know God and to make Him known, no matter what career path they choose to tread”4.
Education does require hard work. It does involve setting standards of excellence. Of course, it requires accomplishing certain to-do lists. But before all of that, education should beckon and entice learners to embrace it because as Socrates said—and it is so true!—“the unexamined life is not worth living.” Pardon the garbled syntax, but education should produce a “life examiner.” It should be a blessing to the one who seeks it. In turn, he then will share its blessings with the community around him. Education is far, far more than a job, a salary, or a social status—education should invite students, wooing them to drink from its deeply beneficial wells. It should satisfy their thirst.
1 Van DeMille, Oliver. A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century. Cedar City, Utah: George Wythe College Press. 2006. 42.
2 You can read the full text of Sayers’ speech in Classical Christian Education Made Approachable.
3 Kreeft, Peter. The Best Things in Life: A Contemporary Socrates Looks at Power, Pleasure, Truth & the Good Life. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. 1984. 17-21.
4 Bortins, Leigh A. The Question: Teaching Your Child the Essentials of Classical Education. Classical Conversations MultiMedia. 2013. 5-7.