Proverbs for Sanity in Education

The 2019 College Admissions Scandal brought to light the poverty of much that passes for college-prep education. Incessant test preparation and self-serving resume building reached their logical end, with parents purchasing test scores and admission to elite colleges. If getting into a “good college to get a good job to make money” is the point of education, why not skip a few steps and buy your way in, and guarantee that you reach your goal.

This pressure-cooker of striving for admission to the “top colleges” affects those who seek to “play the game” rather than simply pay gratuities in advance for favorable treatment. It’s not unusual to read about the “college mental health epidemic.” Studies vary widely, but the American Psychological Association found that one in four of college students is prescribed medication for depression or anxiety.  Certainly, many more are going untreated or are self-medicating.

Many possible explanations exist for this, but one cannot ignore the “fast and furious” pace of much of college-prep education. Parental anxiety over “not having any gaps” in a child’s education, constant assessment, an industry of test preparation, and the endless pressure to “get into a good job so that you can get a good job and become financially secure” cannot help but contribute to the angst of teens and young adults. Rigorous college-prep education is often like the force-feeding of chickens in commercial chicken-houses being fattened up for slaughter.

Education has not always been conducted this way. For most of recorded history, a liberal arts education has been the privilege of those wealthy enough to be able to spend time in contemplation and study. Past history gives us wisdom that a student can become learned, virtuous, and wise without the modern angst that passes for a rigorous education today.

Two habits of classical pedagogy that provide wisdom to today’s educator are “festina lente,” and “multum non multa.” These maxims translate to “make haste slowly,” and “much, not many.”

While “make haste slowly” sounds like the phrase “with all deliberate speed” from the majority opinion of Brown v. Board of Education, there is much to be gained from this proverb. A wise pastor once told me that a universal tendency is to overestimate what one can do in a day, a week, a month, or even a year, but to underestimate what one can do in five or ten years. This gets to the heart of “festina lente.” Festina lente requires that the educator begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Rather than beginning with a utilitarian goal such as helping a student get into a “good college,” Festina lente asks, “what kind of person would I want to encourage this student to become,” and working towards creating such habits of virtue over a long period of time.

Multum non multa,” much, not many, dovetails with this. For example, most of us have more Greek and Hebrew tools available to us on our smartphones than the translators of the King James Bible had access to. But who is wiser? Who is more skilled? Who is more competent in Biblical exegesis, the rhythms of the English language, and written expression? The contemporary person with the tools available on his phone, or the Elizabethan scholar who mastered the tools which were available? One reads the book lists of the Founding Fathers, and one finds that there is a uniformity and what we would call a “narrowness” of reading. Yet, they read deeply enough to be formed by what they studied, rather than consuming books or media.

Ecclesiastes tells us that “of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecc. 12:12). There are many more books worth reading than a person will have time to read in a whole lifetime. It is not possible to provide an education where there are no gaps of content. Festina lente and Multum non multa focus on creating habits of virtue, and teaching students how to think and how to learn. Once armed in this way, a student may step out and learn whatever he desires.

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