originallly posted at The Gadfly
Anyone who has been around classical Christian education long enough knows that there is but one hellish word that many have come to associate with this model of education: rigor. In both the quantity and quality of work, classical Christian education has gotten a wrap for being difficult, for being strenuous, mortifying even. In one way, it is just this. The halls of our classical Christian schools are a great mortuary, one where Americanism, idealism, humanism, modernism, athleticism, and progressivism all come to die. They are a place where our students learn, as Christians, the Gospel bids us all come and die. Our classical Christian classrooms are likewise where we ought to see strewn on autopsy tables the cadavers of such personal monsters as Laziness, Excuse Making, Self-Esteem, Popularity, and Boredom. As a classical Christian educator, I am happy to play mortician. Every monster lying lifeless on my desk is but another felled barrier which once blocked me and my students from Life.
One such monster, unfortunately mistaken as one of the bad guys, regularly expelled from many schools, homeschools, and school districts, is one called Rigor. Rigor may be found awkwardly buried in most school yards, right under the football stadium. Most homes have Rigor buried somewhere between the two car garage and high-def television. The public school districts killed Rigor years ago, only to mummify him and place him in a cheap remake of Weekend at Bernie’s, of course cast by students and put on Youtube for a grade in A.P. Public Speaking. On the other hand, Rigor, for the classical Christian school at least, has been seen as a necessary component to following the biblical mandate to educate our children well. Thus, as was once wisely recognized, “Not all rigor is mortis.” For boys, Rigor is the worst enemy to their greatest dragons, Laziness and Excuse-making. For girls, Rigor is the worst enemy to their greatest villains, Idleness and Anxiety. It is to the latter we now turn.
What is the role of classical Christian education in our daughters’ lives, both the immediate and that which is to come? Are there pitfalls to having such a rigorous curriculum and placing upon them the kinds of academic expectations never before seen in the Church on such a large scale? What is the good kind of rigor we should hope for our kids? What is the kind of rigor which spirals into the wrong kind of fatigue? To answer these questions, we will look at three important characteristics of biblical femininity, common misconceptions of those characteristics, and how classical Christian education ought to be used to mature those characteristics particular to our daughters, these future women.
First, Biblical homemaking is more than French fries and frills. It has long been in the Christian paradigm that the home is the woman’s domain. This kind of idea is often mistaken for what I like to call the ‘Crock of Betty Crocker’. We can all imagine the 1950’s advertisement with the woman standing in the shining kitchen promoting some new utensil, probably showcasing the wonders of plastic. This is not biblical femininity, it is in fact one of the worst kinds of femininity. A stay-at-home mom, or even a woman in the home, doing anything whatsoever (i.e. cooking, cleaning, and sewing) is not necessarily the Biblical picture of a woman. There is more to it than this. Biblical femininity is more than cupcakes and curls. It is this, gloriously, but it is certainly more. We must also consider that a Biblical woman looks something quite similar to a studious woman; a woman who takes diligent care in loving the Lord with her mind, maturing in thought, word, and deed, is likewise a homemaker. There are several false notions of homemaking that have found their way into how we define biblical femininity, and it is important we see these for what they are and guard against promoting them in our own homes, schools, and churches.
Second, Biblical homemaking is an answer to a call. It is, in short, a vocation. It is important that our daughters learn the art of taking care of their God-given responsibilities. And, as we know, those responsibilities tend to take on a slightly different shape as they move through seasons of life. In her younger years, a daughter’s primary responsibility is deeply intertwined with her school work. This ought to be encouraged. It is in her school work she learns to think, read, write, speak, listen, reason, and persevere well. It is where she learns the importance of knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen, thus learning the art of submitting to one’s teaching, as will be required of her in marriage and in the church. It is here she learns valuable lessons of community and friendship. As she matures, her responsibilities might take on other forms, such as taking care of children, showing up to work on time, and serving her local church with her gifts. While some of these certainly overlap through seasons of life, seasons of life tend to concentrate on some areas and not others. This means that her responsibility at thirteen years old, and how she handles that responsibility, will have repercussions for her future faithfulness as a woman, even if the tasks change between now and then. And since her responsibilities as a thirteen year old ought to be academic at their core, this means that her taking care of her responsibilities as a good student is deeply connected to her future homemaking, even if what she does in school does not appear to be acts of homemaking in the proper sense. In short, a girl answering a call to be a good student will become a woman answering a call to be a good wife and mother. We ought to promote in our daughters an ability to, and joy in, answering high callings now, even rigorous callings, so that they are equipped to answer the highest, most rigorous calling later: motherhood.
Third, Biblical homemaking is not at odds with academic rigor. Having been around Christian education for some time, I have often heard parents say that they would rather their children look like Jesus than become some world-renown scholar. While we all should agree with this, it tends to set up a false dichotomy, a separation between two categories where a separation is both not necessary and harmful. It creates a kind of dualism between the spiritual and the intellectual. We ought to avoid this. Nancy Wilson – teacher, mother of three, grandmother of many more, and pastor’s wife - said it this way, “It is not as though Christian parents must choose between academics and character. That is an absurdly false dilemma. Much character is built in students as they work in academics. This is really just a flimsy excuse for laziness…Proverbs teaches that knowledge is character. ‘Fools despise wisdom and instruction.’ (Prove. 1:17) Studying, reading, memorizing, taking tests, figuring out math problems, presenting speeches, writing papers, recopying papers, and researching are all very difficult jobs that require patience, diligence, endurance, faithfulness, self-denial and even sometimes courage. This is what character building is all about.” A rigorous academic curriculum centered on the Word of God and the person of Christ, and a student’s joyful completion of that curriculum, is not separate from that child being a true disciple of Christ, and thus ‘looking like Jesus’. Jesus was educated. He also calls his people to be educated. For the Christian this means several things: studying one’s surrounding culture, knowing God’s Word, living discerningly, maturing the life of the mind, becoming a warrior of words, et cetera.
The contemplative life and the active life have long been put at odds in the western tradition, particularly with the increase of monastic life and the focus of civic duties in the Renaissance man. Even before then, the contrast was apprehended. Cicero once said, “We should not be so taken up in the search for truth, as to neglect the needful duties of active life; for it is only action that gives a true value and commendation to virtue.” There is plenty more where this came from, though I have neither time nor space enough here to give a full review of the matter. What must be said here requires but one simple precept: In the Christian’s life, the contemplative life and the active life are but two manifestations of the same conviction – that we ought to love God with our whole being. We study hard so that we may serve well. As was said to William Wilberforce’s character in Amazing Grace, “Mr. Wilberforce, I understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist. We humbly suggest that you can do both. Surely, the principles of Christianity lead to action as well as meditation.” To our daughters we should say something more like, “Child, I understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of a mother or the work of a good student. We humbly suggest that you can do both. Surely, the principles of motherhood lead to meditation as well as action.”
Likewise, biblical homemaking is deeply bound with biblical discretion, and biblical discretion for us all, especially in our younger years, is quite a difficult thing to find. It is work to sift through ourselves, our immediate culture, our world, and the Lord’s Word in order to find sound discretion, the kind which prevents our women from becoming bedazzled swine (Prov. 11:22). A good education for our daughters ought to seek to instill biblical discretion, which means it ought to be the right kind of rigor. Again, Nancy Wilson is helpful, and worth quoting at length:
“We want our sons to grow up to lead their families and to provide faithfully for them. We want our daughters to grow up to be exceptional helpmeets for godly husbands. This requires much preparation, education, and training…Some suggest that girls really do not need a rigorous education if they are going to assume the duties of wives and mothers. This view can be seen in the homeschool where the girls drop academics early on, and it can be seen in day schools when parents don’t really care if their daughters excel academically, just so long as their sons do. This is very short-sighted and assumes that the men in the Church today do not need wise helpers. Women should be educated as rigorously as possible to prepare them to be women of wisdom and character who will be fine helpmeets for their husbands. If they are called upon to homeschool their own children, the will be prepared to educate their sons and daughters. Uneducated women are not what the Church today needs. Rather, the Church today needs women who are trained to think and act biblically, women who stand head and shoulders above the ‘career women’ of today because they see their education and calling as a means to a very important and significant end.”
Thus, academic rigor is not feminine mortis. We should be encouraging our daughter to creatively weave traditional homemaking service acts with her academic work. To that end, here are a few practical points:
- Have your daughter bring a baked good to her class once a month, thus instilling in her that homemaking is very much a social endeavor, an outward turn rather than an inward turn. And since one of her immediate societies is her school, this is where the fruit of her labor should be smelt and tasted.
- Require that she cook a meal once a weak for the family, or at least a dessert, perhaps on a lighter homework night.
- Guard the Lord’s Day away from academic work, to be used for leisurely time around the home with siblings.
- Have her host a few of her classmates at the house periodically, instilling in her the importance of inviting and hosting.
- When she hosts her classmates, encourage them to study or read together, conversing about the reading and their preparation for class. Isaac Watts tells a short anecdote of Phronissa who knew, “that domestic virtues are the business and the honour of her sex. Nature and history agree to assure her that the conduct of the household is committed to the women, and the precepts and examples of Scripture confirm it. She educated her daughters, therefore, in constant acquaintance with all family affairs, and they knew betimes what belonged to the provisions of the table, and the furniture of every room…They were initiated early in the science of the needle, and were bred up skillful in all the plain and flowery arts of it: but it was never made a task nor a toil to them, nor did they waste their hours in those nice and tedious works which cost our female ancestors seven years of their life, and stitches without number. To render this exercise pleasant, one of them always entertained the company with some useful author while the rest were at work; every one had freedom and encouragement to start what question she pleased, and to make any remarks on the present subject; that reading, working, and conversation, might fill up the hour with variety and delight.” Watts paints a picture quite different than having friends over in order to gab about the latest school gossip.
- Have her read as a future woman, as if that which she reads ought to be informing her of her role as a woman and her understanding of a woman’s beauty. When she reads the Odyssey, have her focus on Penelope. When she reads Dante, have her give a bit more thought to Beatrice. As her thumbs flick through Augustine’s Confessions, encourage her to consider Monica’s passionate pursuit of her son’s salvation.
- Talk regularly about the young men around her at school and her thoughts on their character as future men.
- Consistently remind her of virtues in her academic work which ought to be apparent in her future femininity: decorum, reliability, beauty, grace, patience, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, discretion, vulnerability, receptivity, service, and perseverance.
- Have her apply what she learns in logic class to the rampant feminism which surrounds us in our day.
- Have her apply what she learns in rhetoric to the flourishing infanticide happening to her peers.
- Teach her to more clearly read so that she may more faithfully emulate those righteous women in Scripture and throughout all good literature, that she would discern the heroine from the harlot.
- Guide her in a respect for her male teachers, so that she would have good respect for her father and her Father.
- Teach her to pray as a woman, to affirm with Isaac Watts that “study without prayer is atheism as well as prayer without study is presumption.”
The secular world often faults the Bible’s presentation of femininity, calling it unequal and unjust, misogynistic or even abusive. Classical Christian education takes that criticism and turns it on its head, clarifying and teaching the Biblical role of women in homes and society, and likewise offering our daughters the best opportunity to become the kind of women to which Scripture bids each one of them.
Since I am of the tradition that says women ought to be well-educated, I then have to consider what ‘well-educated’ actually means. And since my sentiments ought to be those of Scripture, I should consider what Scripture says about a well-educated woman. I have said before that illiteracy is no badge of honor for a Christian. This applies to both men and women equally. It then stands to reason that the higher one’s reading ability, the better. This is quite true, though one’s reading ability must also be coupled with one’s God-given responsibilities: to love the Lord God with all our heart soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. We ought to desire that our daughters are well-spoken, well-read, and good thinkers, which means we ought to desire for our daughters a good education, one that requires much of them, one that requires them to be dangerous women, as Nancy Wilson so beautifully articulated in her essay “Dangerous Women”. We should not want all our daughters to be academicians, just as much as we should not to want all of our daughters to be home-confined moms. Even still, raising a daughter Biblically means raising her to be a whole woman, one who rightly handles the Word of God, her emotions, and that which has been entrusted to her care. The best way to mature our daughters in the virtues of Proverbs 31 is to first model it for her, then to teach her how to read Proverbs well, extracting more from the text with each passing year of her life. Don’t waste the rigor.
 Nancy Wilson, Praise Her in the Gates (pp. 85-86)
 Ibid. p. 84, 87
 Isaac Watts, “In Educating a Daughter” in The Improvement of the Mind (p. 365-366)