Vocation and Virtue:
What’s the Purpose of a School?
For Immanuel Lutheran School’s Back to School night; adapted from a longer essay written Spring 2014.
Our culture pressures us to parent in unhealthy ways. Last Spring, the Washington Post had a feature on the parenting culture that drives children to succeed to the detriment of other values. The Post profiled Wilma Bowers, leader of a movement “that seeks to upend the achievement-at-all costs intensive parent and school culture” in northern Virginia.
“There’s such a status thing here: ‘I went [to] Georgetown. I want my kid to go to Georgetown or better.’ It’s such a rat race,” says Bowers.… “Nobody is taking a step back and asking, ‘Is going to Princeton going to make me happier in the long run? Is this even right for my child?’ Because there are real consequences to living this way.”
Bowers knows it’s a high-stakes parenting arms race in McLean and communities like it. The obsession with grades and college résumés can overwhelm everything.
As Immanuel transitioned in the last decade to a classical school that is both serious about Christianity and demanding academically, we have attracted two kinds of families: those who wanted a rich Christian environment for their children, and those who had aspirations of success for their children with hopes that the classical curriculum could help them achieve that success.
Yet that is too simplistic. The truth is, most of us want both of these – but they can end up in competition with each other.
If you could only choose one for your child: to be a disciple of Jesus, or to have a successful life as the world counts success, which one would you choose?
And now think about that tension a little differently: What kind of life do you hope your child will have? Not what kind of living, measured by money or status, but what kind of life, lived in service to God and neighbor?
I would like to address that question through the lens of virtue and vocation.
Defining Terms: Virtue and Vocation
Virtue is having “an inner disposition to perform morally right acts.” In the plural, virtues includes wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice, as the cardinal virtues, and faith, hope, and love as the theological virtues. (See “VIRTUE,” Pocket Dictionary of Ethics, 125.)
The virtues work together for virtues, doing what is right. We need wisdom to know the right thing, courage to do it, temperance in the face of opposition, and justice in our actions. As Christians, we perform such things with faith in God’s mercy, hope in His redemption, and love for His creation.
Whereas the world pushes us to ask, “How can our children be successful?”, we instead want to ask, “How can we cultivate in them these virtues?”
This is done by teaching them about their callings, the doctrine of vocation.
The secular meaning of Vocation is a job done for money. This is deeply problematic, revealed by the question frequently put to stay-at-home mothers: “Do you work?” “When are you going back to work?” Domestic work, the care of home and family, is not regarded as an authentic calling, authentic vocation.
Christian theology recognizes callings not centered around employment but relationships, centered around home, family, church and neighborhood. From birth we have the first calling from which all others flow: “Honor your father and your mother.” To this is attached other callings to the people with whom we share relationships: brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, neighbors, pastors, then teachers and classmates. Growth in strength and intellect generates new callings: citizen, worker, employer, husband, wife, and as God blesses us, children of our own as we become father, and mother. While the responsibility of a father is different from that of a son, both are summarized by God with a single word, “Love.”
The son loves his father by obeying him. The father loves his son by protecting him, clothing him, feeding him, educating him.
Every vocation is a calling to love.
Where does the school fit into this? The school is not a separate authority, equal to or higher than the parents. Lutheranism understands the pedagog to be acting in loco parentis.
In loco parentis – The Purpose of Parenting
In loco parentis means that the school acts under the authority of the parent. The parent, not the government or church, is the ultimate temporal authority over the child. Before God made church or state, He made the family, the first and highest of all institutions.
The ultimate eternal authority over the child, of course, is God. So the church should tell you what it means to be a parent, what God’s Word says, but the Church should have no police powers to punish you.
So the school acts under the aegis of the parents to help father and mother carry our their vocation, their calling toward their children.
What are these callings? After food, clothing, shelter, and security, we parents need to teach our children to be independent, prepare them to serve their neighbors, and guide them toward the kingdom of God, recognizing that we will one day be separated in this life and they will have to continue their journey without us.
How does the school help you in your vocation to parent your children? There is practical wisdom to be inculcated: germs infect; fire is good for heating and cooking, but must be controlled; you need to sleep; “Stop, look, and listen before you cross the street; use your eyes, use your ears, then use your feet.”
All this is part of the meaning of the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” This is wisdom. But for things to truly “go well,” our children must take in the higher wisdom: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
There are so many things we parents need help with. There’s a reason why the “What to expect…” books are so popular: we need wisdom from those who have been there before, and often an objective look by a person not as emotionally invested. For with the people we love, especially our children, we can panic over the slightest spot on the skin, but also rationalize away serious problems in our child’s mind or heart.
Here is where the Classical Christian school comes in, as a partner with parents in preparing children to fulfill their callings before man and God.
The Classical Christian School: Partnering with Parents to Prepare Children to Fulfill Their Callings before Man and God
The first level of school is typically Kindergarten, “children’s garden.” Our children are like little seedlings, and just like growing things in the soil have enemies in the form of rabbits, bugs, weeds, and disease, so do our children have enemies: a hostile culture, distractions, the infection of sin. Plants need watering and pruning, gardens need weeding, and your children will need a pruning and weeding force in their lives. This is never for the purpose of hurting the plant or the child, but for their growth and fruitfulness.
Parents, and a classical Christian school, take these precious little seeds, and every day water and weed the garden, shepherd and tend them in such a way that they grow into human beings of virtue. We take little boys and girls with the goal of them becoming men and women who know wisdom, and can apply it in the world.
Perhaps you have aspirations for your children to be admitted into a great university and get a great job. That’s not wrong, but must not be your primary aspiration. What they need most is to learn virtue.
For that, you need help from the outside. You know your children best – but you are not able to be entirely objective. The school helps parents in their vocation by identifying strengths and weaknesses that our subjective positions as parents may not see.
We understand this easily with physicians: we bring our worries about this or that medical concern, and he tells us not to worry; but then he finds something else that we did not even see, and guides us to the remedy.
Along with our bodies, our minds and souls need healing. The school serves not only to impart knowledge, but to impart wisdom to use knowledge to good purposes, which is to say, to bring a child to the point where he or she can be virtuous.
I am looking forward to our partnership this year, and may God grant us growth in virtue to fulfill our vocations.