Education and Patience

Van Gogh's painting The Mulberry TreeBelow is an open letter written to current Torrey Academy families. It addresses, for one particular audience, some aspects of a much broader issue: if education should be more than memorization and regurgitation, then what’s it for and what do we do when it gets difficult? 


Dear Torrey Academy community,

As the first quarter of our school year was coming to a close over the past few weeks, I was able to check in with many of you at our campuses and over the phone to hear how the year has been so far. I write now partially to address some of the concerns I’ve heard from you and partially to write out some thoughts on what we’re doing here at Torrey Academy that seem fitting as we get closer to Advent.

Torrey Academy is about the business of going after the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — and of giving students the tools to become mature disciples, thinkers, and lovers along the way. Because we are an academic program, it is truth-seeking that comes to the fore in the way we spend our time. We do this, as Dr. Sanders mentioned at our Orientation this year, by being “Socratic (we ask questions), active (we make the students do most of the talking), and formative (rather than just informative).”

At this point in the year, we start to feel the strain of working hard to seek the truth together. With a few months of hard work behind us and the holidays ahead, our students, parents, and tutors alike often start to feel weary. Our class groups have been together just long enough to begin seeing real progress in discussions, which is also just long enough to get frustrated with this whole thing. At this point in the year — and it will happen again, most likely, in the spring — groups can get on each other’s nerves in that special way that only comes with familiarity, workloads begin to make us feel bogged down, and students find themselves thinking, “We’ve been doing this for 10 weeks; shouldn’t we be able to answer an opening question by now?!”

Socratic, active, and formative is slow, because learning how to seek the truth together is not a quick or an easy job. We could, instead, change course. Instead of showing and helping students ask good questions that urge them towards truth, we could explain the lovely things we think we’ve seen in these texts. Instead of helping students do the labor of learning to think hard themselves, we could just save them from stumbling into errors and exhaustion and just tell them what we think is true. But to do this would be to give in to impatience, and patience might just be the most valuable thing that Torrey Academy can teach.

In the words of St. Gregory the Great, and in the minds of many Church fathers, “Patience is the root and guardian of all the virtues.” If we are Christians, then we believe our lives are lived in response to the grace of God in Christ and in anticipation of his return. We live in relationship to the living one who still speaks and moves, blesses and directs. Without patience, without making space to watch and listen, we miss his gifts and his guidance, and we cannot learn to wait in hope. We cannot grow up into the fullness of Christian maturity unless we have the patience to persevere in pursuit of him.

Socratic, active, and formative is a good school in patience precisely because it is slow. God’s goodness, truth, and beauty are everywhere — in creation, in each other, and in our texts — but we cannot see them fully unless we look long and hard. We keep asking questions because they teach us wonder, curiosity and humility even when they’re hard to answer, and they lead us to new and rich truth when we pursue them patiently. We let students stumble and prod them into continuing to think hard because we know that the mind can’t fully see complexity and beauty unless it’s trained to give reality a good long stare.

So, when we wonder why this is taking so long, why we feel tired at the end of discussions, why our tutors don’t always relieve frustration with answers or let students stop when they’ve reached consensus with a lazy answer, then remember:

We commit to the slow work of formation because we know that loading students up with answers and information can only do so much to prepare them for the beauty, pain, and mystery of a mature life of following Christ. We are playing the long game, because that is what the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty require of us, and because our patient pursuit makes space for God to move and make himself known in unexpected places.

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