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Learning to love correctly - a call to culture

By Sarah Flynn-O'Dea - posted Thursday, 1 June 2023

Arguably the primary goal of education past, what we may call Classical or Liberal education tradition, was training the heart to love correctly. This concept has not dated well as the modern mindset reels at the idea of being told what to do and how to be, let alone what to love.

However, the training of the heart was viewed as a vital pre-requisite to intellectual development. For only the moral human could fully exercise their intellectual gifts. Today, there are vestiges only of this training in academia, usually framed as 'ethics' studies, sometimes found in biblical or Christian studies. However, ethics is but a small subset of the much wider project - cultivating character and virtue.

Secular education lays claim to a 'values neutral' approach which is prima facie absurd; everyone has an opinion and a value set. Indeed, writers such as Christopher Dawson point out that Secularism was a system of faith unto itself (Jain & Clark,2021). The secular education system, was founded on a set of beliefs that, although not transcendental or explicitly spiritual in nature, nonetheless prescribed virtuous behaviours, attitudes and values for a citizen, that occupy or rather replace the role of religion. More recently a religious off-shoot (of the more zealous kind) from secular education has been repeated waves of activist ideologies founded in 'Social Critical theories'.


The hearts of our young are now being trained along lines that resonate more closely with communist tyrannies than Western democracies.

Paideia is a Greek term used both in biblical and other ancient literature to describe the full enculturation and education of a child. This concept included a partnership between family and society and an agreed upon value set. Paideia included not only training of the body and mind but of the heart and soul. It is by this mechanism that culture is normalised and propagated across time. The Classical education movement is arising at a time when many parents are beginning to question seriously what it is that we are normalising and passing on to our future generations.

The Great books, the great story of humanity encoded in the Classical tradition presents a radically different and exciting proposal for human existence than the fragmented model of modernity. It is one where the human is conceived of as created in the image of God and as such, capable of wonderful act of love and sacrifice. The Classical tradition trains the heart of a child towards the transcendentals of beauty, truth and goodness and teaches them to select for a reality that aligns with these. Imagine for a moment, a classroom where a brave adventure towards these ideals was encouraged over endless critically analysis and deconstruct of every premise.

Whilst I am not suggesting there is no place for critical analysis, it is an invaluable tool for the intellect, I am pointing out that contemporary education is unequally bent towards 'pulling apart' as a sign of cleverness rather than 'building up' or creating and synthesising.

It has been suggested that the privileging of critical theory over creating in our education institutions is one of the core problems at present, the reason for the downfall of university English departments. The 'scientific' type competencies of critical analysis dominate our academic subjects. From English, humanities to sciences (where it actually belongs), critical analysis and its often underlying agenda in critical theory absolutely dominates mainstream curriculum today. The worldview conveyed through this becomes fragmented and negative. It mainly approaches the attainment of knowledge through a students ability to diagnose problems, biases and premises, without ever having to understand the whole.

The book Poetic Knowledge by James S. Taylor (1997) reveals that the poetic mode of learning where the heart was engaged has been largely lost from the modern curriculum. This is a key difference in our approach to Classical education. Poetic knowledge is intimately connected to training a students' loves, animates the imagination, enlivens the body and mind. This is because it presents the transcendentals as things to be trusted and relied upon, rather than critically analysed. From this position of inspiration and imagination, the intellect is stimulated and awakened. Contemporary culture/education increasingly lacks such connection with transcendentals and as a result trains the hearts to love whatever is left in the vacuum; tiktok, the perfect body, makeup, gaming, any immediate gratification of appetites. Loving such hedonistic pursuits, as the ancients tell us is a futile and shallow venture, a recipe for poor mental health one might say.


It is no coincidence that both academic and wellbeing standards are falling in many metrics of mainstream schooling in Australia. From reading levels to wellbeing the system in its current form appears to be perpetuating a culture of dysfunction and ignorance rather than wisdom and virtue. Whilst this is a harsh characterisation, when viewed as a key mechanism of culture, it is clear that we have a problem in education. There is a great irony in advocating for the next research study that will unveil the new evidence-based practice that can provide direction whilst ignoring the heritage of 2000 years in favour of chronological elitism. New is ever better.

However, the fact remains, we as a society were running our education system more effectively not too long ago and many of the ideas and content we have abandoned may be the very things we need to return to. At the heart of these, the Liberal Arts Tradition book, in its final part invites us to answer the call to culture and community. Parents and educators cannot simply choose a new curriculum to be our solution, we must all respond to the call to paideia, to raise up the next generation, to propagate a culture through education that is not shallow, negative or ignorant but rather one that consciously pursues the best loves.


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This article was first published on Logos Australis.

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About the Author

Sarah Flynn-O'Dea is a Queensland teacher and the founder of Logos Australis.

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