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John Ruskin did modern thought a great service when he interpreted for us the harmonious and inspiring presentation of education and philosophy that's recorded on one of the four walls of the Spanish Chapel attached to the Church of St. Maria Novella, in Florence. He calls it the 'Vaulted Book.'
Many of those reading this book have probably studied, with Ruskin's help, the enlightening lessons of the frescoes that cover the roofs and walls. But I don't think any will mind being reminded of the message they reflected on with reverence and awe. 'The descent of the Holy Spirit is on the left (of the roof) as you enter. The Madonna and the Disciples are gathered in an upper room. Underneath them are foreigners such as Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc., all hearing the Disciples as if they're speaking their own language. There are three dogs in the foreground. They symbolize the lower animals made gentle as a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit . . . On this side and the opposite side of the Chapel, the artist has represented the Spirit of God's power to teach, and the saving power of the Son of God working in the world,
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shown according to the understanding of Florence at the time of the fresco.
'Let's look at the intellectual side of the fresco first. In the point of the arch, underneath the outpouring Holy Spirit, are the three Evangelical Virtues [love, faith, hope]. Florence believed that without these, you couldn't have science. Without Love, Hope and Faith, there could be no intelligence. Under these are the four Cardinal Virtues--Moderation, Caution, Fairness and Resoluteness. Underneath these are the great Prophets and Apostles. Under the group of Prophets are the mythic figures of the seven religious sciences and the seven natural sciences, as if they're powers that were summoned by the Prophets' voices. Under the feet of the sciences are the Captain/teachers of those sciences who presented those subjects to the world.'
I hope you will continue to study Ruskin's teaching about 'the Vaulted Book,' which is part of his book, 'Mornings in Florence.' It's full of wonderful teachings and suggestions. But our immediate concern is with the seven mythic figures who represent the natural sciences, and the Captain/teacher of each one. First is Grammar, pictured as a gracious figure teaching three children of Florence. Its Captain/teacher is Priscian. Next is Rhetoric, who is strong, calm and composed. Its Captain/teacher is Cicero, who has a beautiful face. Then comes Logic, with perfect poise and a lovely expression. Her Captain/teacher is Aristotle, who has keen, searching intensity in his half-closed eyes. Next is Music, with her head inclined to one side as she listens intently to the sweet, solemn notes she's playing on her antique instrument. Her Captain/teacher pictures Tubal Cain (not Jubal) as the inventor of harmony. That might be the most marvelous statement that Art has ever created about the impact of a great idea on
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the soul of a man [Tubal Cain] who was only semi-civilized. Astronomy is next. She has a majestic brow and her hand is upraised. Her Captain/teacher is Zoroaster, pictured as exceedingly beautiful, a 'delicate Persian head made even softer with its elaborate crown of silky hair.' Next, Geometry looks down, contemplating some practical geometry problem, with a carpenter's square in her hand. Her Captain/teacher is Euclid. And last is Arithmetic, holding up two fingers as an aid in calculating a sum. Her Captain/teacher is Pythagoras, and he's wrapped up in solving some math problem.
'The thoughts of God are broader than the whole span of man's mind.'
Yet in this fresco, we have minds that are so broad and wide in the sweep of their intelligence, and so profound in their insight, that we're almost startled to realize that, here, pictured on these walls, we see a true measure of the thoughts of God. Now let's take a look at the concept of education in our own time.
First of all, we divide education into religious and secular. Those of us who are more devout insist that religious education be covered as well as secular ['academic'] education. Many people don't mind completely foregoing religious education, and prefer what we label as a 'secular' education, but they limit secular to only this tangible, visible world.
Some Christians expect a little more and have a bit of a higher standard. They recognize that even grammar and arithmetic can be used for God in some vague way. But the truly great thing we need to recognize is that God the Holy Spirit is personally the One who imparts
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knowledge. He is the One who instructs our youth, He inspires genius. This concept is so far lost to us that we think it's irreverent to imagine the Holy Spirit cooperating with us when we teach our child something secular, such as his arithmetic lesson. But the Florentines in the Middle Ages went even beyond this. They believed that, not only the seven Liberal Arts were under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, but every productive idea, every original concept, be it Euclid, grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with no concern about whether the person chosen to disseminate the idea to the world claimed to be a Christian, or even recognized where his inspiration came from. All seven of the captain/teachers are people we'd consider to be pagans, and who would be considered outside the arena of divine inspiration. It's difficult for our minds to wrap themselves around this bold concept about the education of the world, although the people of ancient Florence accepted it in simple faith.
But we shouldn't accept any idea blindly, even an inspiring one. Were these people in the Middle Ages correct in their plan and concept? Plato hints at similar thoughts when he insists that knowledge and virtue are fundamentally the same. Therefore, if virtue has a divine origin, then knowledge must, too. Ancient Egypt was also aware of this concept. 'Pharaoh said to his servants, can we find someone like this, a man who has the Spirit of God within him?' [Gen 41:38] This Egyptian king didn't consider practical discernment, knowledge of everyday matters, and dealing with emergencies, as teachings that were beneath God's Spirit. 'The Spirit
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of God came upon him and he prophesied among them,' the Bible says about Saul, and we can safely believe that this is how it worked with every great invention and every great discovery of Nature's secrets. 'Then David gave his son Solomon the details of everything that he had received from the Holy Spirit pertaining to the courts of the Temple.' This suggests where every concept of beauty that's expressed in the various art forms comes from.
But the Holy Spirit doesn't only concern Himself with exalted matters of science, art and poetry. Sometimes we wonder who first invented the most basic necessities for living. Who first discovered how to produce fire, or nail two pieces of wood together, or shape iron, or plant seeds, or grind corn?
We can't even imagine that we ever lived without knowing these things, yet each of them must have been a great idea when it first came to the person who discovered it. Where did he get the idea from? Fortunately, we're given the answer in an example that's so typical, we can apply it to the others.
'Doesn't the plowman plow all day to prepare for sowing? Doesn't he open and break up the clods of dirt on his land? When he's prepared the ground, he tosses the spelt, scatters the cummin, and plants the wheat, barley and rye in their appropriate places. For his God instructs him wisely and teaches him. Spelt isn't threshed with a threshing machine, and cummin isn't ground with a wheel. No, spelt has to be beaten out with a staff,
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and cummin has to be beat with a rod. Corn meal has to be ground, otherwise you'd be threshing it forever. A wheel would crush it and his horses would ruin it. This knowledge also comes from the Lord of Hosts. It's beautifully wise, and practically effective.' (Isa. 28: 24)
In matters related to science, art and practical living, 'God instructs him and teaches him (or her!) This should be the mother's key to all of education for each boy or girl. I don't mean her children collectively, because the Holy Spirit doesn't work with plural nouns. He works with each individual child. He is infinite, so even the entire world isn't too big a school for this inexhaustible Teacher. And since He's infinite, He's able to give all of His infinite attention for the entire time to each of His many students. We don't rejoice nearly enough in the abundant wealth that God's infinite nature provides for us.
So, what subjects are taught under the direction of this Divine Teacher? Faith, hope, love--we already knew that. Moderation, fairness, discretion, perseverance--we probably could have guessed that. Grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic--we might have forgotten these if the fresco in Florence hadn't reminded us. Practical skills in the use of tools and instruments from silverware to microscopes, and the sensible managing of the affairs of life--these also come from the Lord, and they're beautifully wise and practically effective. For his God instructs him wisely and teaches him. The mother
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should visualize this thought as if it's an illuminated scroll on her infant's T-shirt. She should never contemplate any kind of deliberate instruction for her child, unless it's under the guidance of the Holy Spirit's co-operation. But we need to remember that, in this matter, just like everything else, the infinite and almighty Spirit of God works under certain limitations.
Our cooperation seems to be the one requirement for every work of the Spirit. We recognize that this is true in what we think of as spiritual matters, which means things that relate to how we approach God. But the concept that's new is that subjects like grammar can be taught in such a way that we invite and get the cooperation of the Divine Teacher, or taught in such a way that God's enlightening presence is excluded from the schoolroom. I don't mean that the teacher manifests spiritual virtues and encourages them in her students during the grammar lesson. This is undoubtedly true and worth keeping in mind. But the point I'm talking about is that, by its guiding ideas and simple principles, without an elaborate presentation and long-winded lecture, we believe that the true, direct and simple teaching of even a grammar lesson can be accompanied by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, Who is all knowledge.
The opposite is just as true. Elaborate, long-winded lessons wrap the child's mind in so many words that his own thought can't penetrate it. He gets rules, definitions and tables instead of living ideas. This is the kind of teaching that excludes the Spirit and makes Divine cooperation impossible.
Recognizing this great truth resolves that disjointedness in our lives that
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most of us are aware of. We're willing to subordinate the tangible things of the senses to the things of the spirit. At least, we're willing to make an effort in that direction. We lament our failures and try again, certain that this is like the Armageddon of every person's soul. But that's debatable. Isn't it true that our spiritual life is a real fact, and demands our single-minded interest and focused effort? Yet we have a brain, too, and the demands of the intellectual mind and the aesthetic sense of taste press on us persistently. We need to think, we have to know, we're compelled to appreciate and create beauty. If all the passionate, burning thoughts that stir in the minds of men, and all the beautiful creations they give rise to are things that are separated from God, then we must have a separate life, too--a life separated from God. That would mean that we ourselves are divided into secular and religious, or discord, which implies discord and unrest. I believe that this is the source of the doubt and lack of faith we see today, especially in young, passionate minds. The demands of the intellect are urgent. Our mental life is a necessity that won't let us neglect it. It's impossible for these intense young thinkers to conceive of themselves as having a dual nature. How can they have a dual spirituality? If there's another claim that opposes their intellect, then they reject that claim. Thus, the young person, so full of promise and ability, becomes an agnostic free-thinker, or whatever you want to call him. But once the intimate relationship of Teacher to student in all things of the mind and body is recognized, then our feet are set in a large, spacious room. There's room to develop freely in every direction, and this free, natural joyous growth, whether it's growth of the heart or mind, is recognized as being a step that brings us closer to God.
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Various activities that share a united aim help to bring peace and harmony into our lives. Even more, this perception of how God's Spirit deals intimately with our spirits in intellectual matters as well as moral matters keeps us aware and alert in both areas for any sign of temptation or evil. We become aware that sin is possible in our intellectual lives, not just our moral lives. We see that, even in the area of pure reason, we need to be careful not to enter into temptation. We can rejoice as much in the expanding and evolving of our intellect as we can in the broadening and enlarging of our heart, and the easy freedom we have because we're always in direct contact with the inspiring Teacher who graciously provides infinite stores of learning, wisdom, and virtue for our use.
When we recognize the Holy Spirit's work as mankind's Teacher of intellectual things as well as moral and spiritual things, we have 'new thoughts of God, and new hopes of heaven.' It gives us a sense of harmony in our efforts, and helps us to accept all that we are. So, what is it that prevents us from this realization that could make our lives more blessed? We don't fully see ourselves as spiritual beings who live inside a living, emotional physical body. These bodies, which are sometimes a snare to us, and sometimes a joy, are nothing more than tools and instruments of our spiritual intention. When we realize that, every time we're with a friend, our spirit is dealing with his spirit, and the people who serve us are beings whose spirits connect with our spirits, then we'll understand how constant the communication is between our spirit and the Divine Spirit. That realization will be like when a person stops talking and stops thinking in the
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springtime, only to realize that the world is full of birds singing that he hadn't heard before. In the same way, we'll learn to pause our thoughts, and then we'll hear the clear, sweet, encouraging and inspiring tones of our spiritual Guide in our intellectual and moral beings. I'm not specifically talking about the religious life, or deliberate approaches to God in the form of prayer and praise. Almost all Christians understand these things fairly well. I'm talking about our intellectual mind. Developing children's intellectual minds is the whole aim of our subjects and educational methods.
What if we're willing to recognize this great truth, and to make it our business to accept and invite the Spirit's participation in our children's school lessons every day, and every hour? How should we adjust our own actions to make this Divine cooperation happen, or to even make it possible? We're told that the Spirit is life. So, it follows that anything that's dead, dry as dust, nothing but bare bones devoid of any life, can have no part with Him. All it can do is smother and deaden His life-giving influences. Therefore, the first condition of this Spirit-filled, life-giving teaching is that all the thoughts that we offer to children need to be living thoughts. Mere dry summaries of facts won't do. If children are given the vitalizing ideas, they'll be quite capable of hanging dry facts on those living ideas, which will be like pegs strong enough to hold everything that's needed. We begin by having faith in children as spiritual beings who have unlimited intellectual, moral, and spiritual abilities that can receive and constantly enjoy intuition from intimate communication with the Holy Spirit.
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If we begin with this concept of a child, then we'll realize that whatever seems dull and pointless to us is going to seem dull and pointless to him. Every subject can be taught with a fresh, living approach. Is it time for geography? The child can make discoveries right along with the explorer, go on journeys with the traveler, and receive new, vivid impressions from someone else's mind as his pen records his first impressions. Why should the child receive impressions that have been rendered flat and stale after intermediate editors have filtered through it and put what's left into a textbook? Is he learning history? He has no interest in strings of dates and lists of names, or pleasant little stories that have been dumbed down to their supposed comprehension level. We know better. We realize that his comprehension level is at least as great as our own, although we need to fill in surrounding circumstances and background information as best we can because he doesn't know about them yet.
We recognize that, for the child, history is all about living in the lives of those strong personalities that distinguish themselves in almost every age and every country. But you can't get that from pleasant little history books that have been written specifically for children, whether it's Maria Callcott's Little Arthur's History of England, or someone else's 'Outlines.' [perhaps 'Outlines of English History' by Ince, Ince and Gilbert ?] Instead, we take the child to living sources of history. Even a seven year old can fully understand Plutarch in his own words (translated into English) without any diluting and with very little explanation. If you give the child this kind of living thought, then you make it possible for the Divine Teacher to cooperate in history lessons. The child will progress by leaps and bounds, and you won't be able to pinpoint why. In the same way, when teaching music, if you let him
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understand the beautiful laws of harmony just once, and let him see the personality of the Music from the page of strange little black notes, then his piano lesson won't be a chore to him anymore.
We don't need to go into more details. Every subject has its own living way that it can be approached from. Coleridge says that every subject has 'a guiding idea' at its head. A lesson will only really educate a child when we discover the living way to teach it. No methodical, tidy system will be of any use--the very nature of a system is that it gets stale as it's used. Every subject, every section of each subject, in fact, every lesson needs to be analyzed before it's ever presented to the child to see whether it's living and vital enough to invite the cooperation of the living Intellect of the universe.
There's one more thing that's of vital importance. Children must have books--living books. Even the best books aren't too good for them. Anything less than the best isn't good enough for them. If there's a need to economize, then let all the extra luxuries that contribute to soft, comfortable living be sacrificed first before giving up the obligation of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of fresh books, that are needed to constantly stimulate the child's intellectual life. We don't need to say that the teacher needs to have living thought herself. After all, it's only when a teacher is intellectually alive that he can be effective in the wonderful process that we flippantly call 'education.'