In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis summarizes the heart of classical education: “Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” In other words, all true education aims to form students’ affections around virtue. However, many factors in society today threaten this vision of education.
Philosophical factors and pragmatic concerns lead educators to focus less on critical thinking and moral formation and more on progressive indoctrination and utilitarian job training. Pragmatic curriculum choices, student-centered classrooms, a lack of critical engagement with primary sources, fear of memorization—each of these factors militates against the core of classical education. But I believe that because of the moral nature of true education, there is at least one more factor worth considering: the importance of parental involvement.
Within the family, mothers and fathers define the culture in which their children will grow and thrive, and they give children the first models of how they should think and act. Basic growth in virtue for children comes through imitating their parents. We know the power of imitation by experiencing it in other disciplines. In literature, for example, we see the power of mimesis (the representation of reality in art and literature). Through the beauty of story, the great authors instruct us not only in virtue and how it can appear in the world, but they also inspire us with it and compel us to pursue it. In the same way, before children can read, they see their parents acting virtuously, actions they are inspired by and invited to imitate. As children grow, the value of parental example grows as children are educated and encounter new powerful influences.
There is research that indicates that many parents, and more specifically fathers, have abdicated their role as educators and moral instructors, either due to their absence or their mere indifference. There is a clear correlation between the educational performance of a child and the involvement of that child’s father in his education, a finding that is self-evident to those who understand the importance of imitation and the moral nature of education.
Modern educators largely address this issue pragmatically by installing new and innovative programs to act as surrogate parents, and we understand the heart behind what they are trying to do.
God, in his wisdom, has not seen fit to give every child, or family, a father. Sadly, many families face tragedy and difficult financial situations, which make parental involvement in general, much less involvement in education, impossible. But pragmatic solutions, while they might help the problem, will never solve the problem. The problem, while embedded in the difficulties of life, is ultimately an issue of virtue; children who do not have examples of virtue cannot grow in virtue.
Parents, and specifically fathers (for those families that do not have fathers, this applies to mothers, church leaders, and teachers who are father figures), have the opportunity to go beyond mere pragmatic solutions and strive for moral solutions. One way a father can do this is by finding examples worthy of his own imitation. For this reason, I appreciate the phrase Joe Rigney uses in his book Live Like a Narnian: “First in. Last out. Laughing loudest.” Rigney is highlighting a vision of fatherhood best illustrated by Lewis’ character King Lune. In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis describes King Lune this way:
For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land … [to] laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.
This is King Lune’s example: to have enough courage to be the first to run into a burning building, enough fortitude to go down with the ship, and enough joy to laugh when all seems lost.
This same vision can be applied to a father’s involvement in his child’s education. A man of virtue will be the first one to take responsibility for his child’s education, and even when he doesn’t have the practical skill to teach something, he will never abdicate his responsibility in oversight. He will also be the last one to give up on a struggling child. When the student’s teachers, administrators, or specialists throw up their hands in frustration at a child’s inability to process information, a father will return night after night to his child’s side, carefully and patiently navigating his growth in education.
And, through it all, whether the child is reciting hundreds of Latin words and paradigms, memorizing all 70 stanzas of Horatius at the Bridge, struggling to comprehend calculus, or inching through Homer’s Odyssey, a virtuous father will be there to share a contagious joy for learning, excited by his child’s strides and laughing in the face of academic failure. “First in. Last out. Laughing loudest.”