My dog is getting old.
When I visited my family at Christmastime he ran up to me, unsteadily, as if somehow the back half of him was drunk, and I saw the hair in his ears had turned white. I was raised around dogs and it is always sad when one dies, but my relationship with this one, more than with any of his predecessors, has taught me much about classical education.
On the way home, I was reflecting on the lessons I have learned from dogs. One lesson a child learns from owning a pet, of course, is the chance to confront death in a manageable context. However, the greatest gift of dog ownership to me has been learning to understand another creature’s nature.
It is my hope to explain what classical educators mean by the term “nature” by giving relatable examples from dog ownership.
Nature is an essential concept in classical education. We treat children according to child-nature when we nurture them as people, not reengineer them like machines. We treat knowledge according to its nature when we teach children that it is a way to know God, not a way to get ahead.
I first learned about nature in childhood, years before I heard the term in a philosophy class, from our dog Pax. I quickly understood that it was Pax’s nature to be upset during thunderstorms, to sleep against the front door when my father was not home, to bark at hot air balloons as they floated over our house, to position herself between me and unfamiliar people, and, occasionally, to eat the sparse Arizona grass until her stomach expelled whatever had upset it. Pax did not think about doing these things; rather, she did them because they are the things German Shepherds do.
There are many behaviors dogs should be disciplined for, so they can live happily with the family: climbing on the furniture, taking food off the table, and so on. These things can change because it is not a dog’s nature to disrespect boundaries such as these—he is only doing so because the boundaries have not been made clear to him.
A dog’s nature, on the contrary, cannot change. For example, it would be foolish to discipline a dog for being nervous during a thunderstorm, to expect a retriever not to get in the water, or to expect a terrier not to dig (though he may need to be trained to do it in a designated area). Attempting to train these things out of a dog would be like cutting him into pieces, since they are the things he has been ordained for.
Respecting dog-nature not only means tolerating certain things about dogs, it also gives us the best tools for training dogs to cooperate. When our current old dog was new we had to make ourselves understood to him. My dad would make him sit quietly while his food was poured, then dad allowed him to eat it—as a pack leader allows pack members to eat a kill. The submissiveness he learned affected every other area of his life with us. When family members returned home, we contrived to let him greet us outside as often as possible so that he could express submission in the natural way (which for a young dog often means urination) without causing a problem.
When he needed to respect human nature by not jumping on house guests, we perfected the move pack-leaders use: catching his head and pushing it to the floor. He would understand the gesture and go apologetically limp. On his walks, squeezing the nerve cluster at the back of his head (placed there by God to aid mother dogs in carrying their puppies), proved the perfect calming agent to help him let other dogs pass unmolested.
Through training this animal, I learned that while you can take dominion over a thing by force, that will only make it your slave and it will not serve you to its fullest capacity. But by taking dominion through an understanding of nature—by using language that creature understands—you make a friend.
Classical education is predicated on statements such as “it is not a child’s nature to learn in compartmentalized class periods.” When we make a statement like that, we are not merely saying that the child won’t like it (though that’s certainly true). We are making a claim that goes much deeper: we are saying that compartmentalized class periods do not work as an approach for teaching children, because that is not how children learn. To state something about a child’s nature is to state something absolute—something to which you must adapt your plans, for your happiness and the child’s, not the other way around.
Just as there is a way that dogs learn (a part of that way is, for example, responding with submission when their heads are softly pushed to the floor), there is a way that children learn. This is what classical educators recognize and what modern educators do not: there is something true about the way children learn, independent of, and sometimes in spite of, the ways that we would like them to learn, and that it is this nature, rather than our own plans, that should determine the way we teach. At any rate, nothing else will work.