In the Clapham Classroom: Virtue
By Jason Barney, Class Six Teacher
Some have a natural aversion to talk of an emphasis on habits whether in the home or in the classroom. Perhaps personal negative experiences contribute to a feeling that those who focus on training children in habits may start well, but end up judgmental and controlling. The line of reasoning behind such feelings is often fairly simple: focusing on habits is tantamount to focusing on unimportant details and not the heart. We care about the heart, therefore we don’t focus on the little things. As with all half truths, this is initially attractive but over time will bear very bitter fruit. Whether a home or classroom be repressive on the one hand, or laissez faire on the other, it is still not a good situation. God-given authority is still not being stewarded well.
According to the Bible, focusing on the details of habits is essential to cultivating hearts of virtue. Faithfulness in the large matters of the heart, in fact, includes faithfulness in the so called little things: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). This does not mean that every little thing matters as much as every big thing: pushing in your chair matters as much as not cheating on your taxes, etc. It does mean that a host of little things add up the character, the set of virtues, that result in a person’s faithfulness in the large things of life. If you are faithful in the small matters, you will also be faithful in large ones.
An understanding of this relationship between little habits and larger virtues is a key to avoiding the extremes of creating a repressive or laissez faire atmosphere for children under our care. In my classroom this year, I have tried to keep virtues constantly in the air as the goal toward which we are running, and any work on particular habits in their proper places as means to those ends. Virtues and habits are two points to be held in constant suspension with one another. Both, powered by God’s grace, are essential to the formation of Christian character. If we emphasize specific actions, yet have no idea of why we are doing them, they cease to have value in forming character. People often either rebel or become judgmental under such repressive environments. If we talk on about the virtues of our figures, but take no action in the direction of what is good, true or beautiful, stagnation and disinterest will ensue. No virtue is made part of a person’s character without training; no training can be sustained without a proper goal in view.
Children are naturally delighted to talk about virtue. They evaluate figures from history, literature or the Bible with ease and intuit their virtues and vices from their actions. They know without instruction that how someone acts habitually adds up to their character, that if someone commits a major act of cruelty, the vice of cruelty must be present and most likely has been present for a much longer time. In 2 Peter we are exhorted to add to our faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge. Faith, virtue and knowledge are the natural domain of Christian education, if we are not to commit the fallacy of dividing sacred from secular. Christian children should be regularly given the opportunity to talk about virtues and about how people get there (habitual conduct and thought processes). This assumes the underlying power of the Holy Spirit as “his divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). A part of every class should be the continual exploration—in discussions, assignments and essays—of the varied pantheon of virtues and their opposing vices, each in their own sphere. In my own experience, children generally respond very well to a focus on habits in the context of a continual pursuit of virtue. May God grant us all the grace to add virtue to our faith.