Tie them to the Mast
Guest Post by Mandi Gerth
The University of Dallas started the first classical education graduate program, which thankfully now has many partner programs across the country. We have phenomenal students who teach at classical schools, and I have invited them to guest blog through our newsletter about how the liberal arts education has transformed their lives. This first guest post is by Mandi Gerth, who teaches fourth grade at Coram Deo Academy in Dallas, Texas.
Recently, my teenaged son asked me for some time to talk before he left for school. He confided to me that a friend had decided to lead weekly devotions during lunch. During the first meeting, this friend had decried the flatness of his spiritual life, how far away from God he felt, and exhorted his friends to pursue the high that comes from being close to God. My son was confused. He questioned the language his friend had used and what he really meant, because it sounded like his friend was comparing his spiritual life to a drug.
Our conversation replayed in my mind for hours after he had left for school. And I came to see even more clearly how much teenagers, especially, need a liberal arts education—an education which inculcates habits and orders loves and frees a man from himself. This student’s self-proclaimed love for God could be interpreted as exemplary; after all, he was leading a “Bible” study. But my son’s concern, and mine, was that this student talked not about how spiritual disciplines produce holiness or how holiness draws a disciple close to God. Instead, God was a passion. A high. A feeling. Although both these young men attend a classical school, the true fruit of a liberal education was missing in the life of one of them. One had exchanged the object of his appetite toward an end that is socially acceptable at his school.
A few days later, I read an article in The Imaginative Conservative that reinforced the danger to young people of holding up feeling-based religion as an example to emulate. Quoting John Henry Newman’s sermon “Unreal Words,” the author David Deavel writes,
“True faith teaches us to do numberless disagreeable things for Christ’s sake… In most books Christian conduct is made grand, elevated, and splendid; so that any one, who only knows of true religion from books, and not from actual endeavors to be religious, is sure to be offended at religion when he actually comes upon it.”
The grand and elevated and splendid, which this student was encouraging others to chase, is nothing remotely close to true religion. Liberal education offers teenagers soul-saving truth. Holiness is found in the mundane and servile acts we do unto the Lord, not the feeling we get from youth group.
Teachers in the liberal arts tradition must model a life of obedience, humble dependence upon God, and routine acts of piety. We must teach the Great Books and the Great People of our tradition and hold them up as flesh and blood examples of ordinary holiness, lives spent, talents surrendered. A liberal arts education offers real words in striking contrast to contemporary culture’s unreal words. In doing so, we shape hearts and order loves. The sugar-coated lies of this world are based upon consumerism, infatuation with pop culture, and denial of the eternal.
A liberal arts education teaches students that they are not slaves to their desires nor to their culture, that they are part of a tradition that goes way back and will continue long after them. Too many, even among the churched teenagers at my son’s classical school, hear the siren’s song that their life is all about them and how they feel. A true liberal education must be for these teenagers like the rope that tethered Ulysses to the mast.
Mandi recommends the following for parents trying to navigate raising liberally educated children:
The Joke’s on You – Podcast by Joshua Gibbs
Parenting – A book by Paul David Tripp
A Benedictine Education – Essays by John Henry Newman
You are What you Love – A book by James K.A. Smith
If you are enjoying this newsletter, please share it broadly. We welcome guest writers and would be delighted to share content from partner organizations who share our vision of the true, good, and beautiful. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And mark your calendars for next year’s first event, The Fourth Biennial Future of the Catholic Imagination Conference.