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Learning in the Age of Martha: The Value of a Classical Christian Education

Distracted from distraction by distraction Filled with fancies and empty of meaning… –T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

We remember Martha as she is described in the Gospel of Luke. It is not a very flattering portrayal. “But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’” Martha’s busyness becomes a lesson to us all, including schools–slow down and take a breath.

I remember a mom (at another school) dropping by my office to discuss how she and her family were at the end of their rope and they were not able to hang on much longer. While seeking some advice, she was also asking the school to cut back on an already streamlined Classical curriculum. The more she spoke the more it occurred to me that they suffered from “Martha’s syndrome.” Both of her children were in the Rhetoric school and taking three AP courses each, both children played in multiple sports, both children were very active in their church’s youth group and both children were in the school play. When I proposed that she cut back on some of the “activities” she was stunned. She said that her children loved being “very busy” and would not know what to do with their time if they were not so busy. The most unusual comment in the conversation was her sense that they “had to be that busy” in their day to day lives.

I recently read a marvelous book on this very rich and deep subject. There were many truths that moved me to further reflection. In the modern world of education, we do not associate leisure with school, but we should, indeed, we must! The truth is that we cannot have school without some leisure or rest. What is historically described as Classical education is essentially restful learning. The Greek skole and Latin schola—classical words meaning “leisure”—are, in fact, the very origin of our English word “school.” Without an education thus imagined, culture would not exist and we are left with meaningless busyness or complete sloth.

The following is from the book The Age of Martha: A Call to Contemplative Learning in a Frenzied Culture by Headmaster, Devin O’Donnell. I hope you are encouraged to get this book and read it in a leisurely manner. We’re always in danger of getting and spending and giving our hearts away, of trading our glimpses of Proteus rising from the sea for glimpses of the latest social-media craze. We have grown so used to our distractions that we have nearly forgotten what leisure is, that divine and gratuitous part of human existence that ennobles life and causes us to pause and reflect, pray and praise, fast as well as feast.

This is why the Scriptures give us the story of Mary and Martha. We can be like Mary, who chose to be still and present for the most important thing. Or we can be like Martha, who chose instead to worry about earthly things and was admonished for her unwillingness to rest. Now, however, it seems there is almost no choice left at all, and we have nearly forgotten what it means for our souls to give attention. Even in our schools and churches—which should be the seats of contemplation—there is little place for the free and “useless” delight of the Transcendent and Divine.

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