As someone who has been a classical educator for the last 6 years, and who has sought to live the kind of reality classical education ought to engender, I’ve spent much of my time thinking about what classical education is. In what follows, I want to argue for what I am calling an enchanted education. This essay forms an introduction to a longer work on education.
What I am calling for is an enchanted education. Yet, what does it mean to say that something is enchanted? This might conjure up for you visions of a wizard or sorcerer casting a spell (whether for good or for ill). Or perhaps you think of a particularly beautiful person with whom everyone is enchanted. Or maybe still you think of the old South Pacific song, “Some enchanted evening”. Alas, I mean none of these, though the first definition there is the closest.
When I use the term enchanted here, I mean an education ordered toward a right way of seeing reality. That is, a vision of reality where the world around us is more than just what our senses can perceived, but that it contains a host of things invisible, not just to the naked eye, but to the mortal eye in general, no matter the technological advancement we might ever make. That ideas such as truth, beauty, and goodness really exist and not just in particular instances. That there are spirits, good and evil, surrounding us at all times. That what we observe is only ever capable of explaining to us what happened, and possibly, at some low level, how it happened, and at some even lower one, why. An enchanted education takes those questions further and deeper. Let us take bees as our example.
Bees are dying off across the world. That certainly tells us what is happening at some level. How is it happening? Well the bees are coming into contact with insecticides that aren’t designed to kill them specifically, but are designed to kill pests that kill crops. Why? Because man needs food. And in order to have that food, we must protect it. To protect it we created insecticides and these insecticides happen to kill the bees. But of course, there is a deeper why and how and they lead to deeper questions. What if the reason we need insecticides is because we are practicing bad farming methods? Or worse, what if it is because we are actively being bad stewards of the garden we were given to till and care for? And if that is happening, then the we are not just looking at the possibility of negligence, but it may be an act of sin. And then the what changes as well. What is happening? Yes, the bees are dying, but more than that, humans are continuing to behave as they long have done, thinking themselves the most important and mistreating the gift that has been given to them.
This is the beginning of an enchanted education. But it would go further. From discussion of bees we would, of course, move to discussions of honey, ecology, economics and more. But an enchanted education would add to it the fact that St. Ambrose is the patron saint of beekeepers, that honey was (and still is) used by the Angles and the Saxons to ferment into mead. And this drink was drunk in Anglo-Saxon mead halls as a scop or poet would take up his instrument and begin to sing. And one of the songs he may well have sung was the story of Beowulf fighting against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon. And this might lead us to questions about what it means to be a good king, which for the Anglo-Saxons included being a good gift giver. This might lead us to the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred, but in turn it might lead us to Arthur or Charlemagne or even Christ the King of the Cosmos.
An enchantment is a spell, woven together by the various strings of reality.1 Humanity’s job is to pull at those strings, not to unravel reality, but to discover it, to understand it, to love it. And like a woven blanket, or perhaps better like a woven spider’s web, each string is attached to all the others. You cannot completely separate it out without destroying the web, destroying the spell. And this is the good spell, or godspell as the Anglo-Saxons would have called it. It is the good news, the good story, that creation is not meaningless. That you are more than a series of utterly disjointed and unhinged molecules that just happened to arrange themselves in a particular way so that, at least for ease of use I can call you you and me me.
The word, enchant, ultimately comes to us from the Latin verb incantare, to sing into, to invoke. Many myths and legends use the notion of singing as an act of creation. Väinämöinen in the Finnish Kalevala is able to sing his creations into existence. Knowing their names allows him even some mastery or control over them. Tolkien and Lewis, also take up this idea and so both Middle-earth and Narnia are sung into existence by their creators. Even Dumbledore admits that music is the greatest magic of all.2 And so an enchanted education is one that is both sung into existence and is itself a continuation of that song. Even our English words spell and grammar betray something of the magical nature of education. Spell of course means to spell, that is to join together letters in order to form a word. But it also mean an act of magic. And grammar suffers the same fate. This word, which in the trivium meant primarily the study of language itself (by virtue of studying a particular language, usually Latin) becomes the root for the word grimoire, a book of spells. Even Lewis’s Coriakin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a magician whose magic book includes many spells, one of which is itself a story. So education is enchanted whether we want it to be or not. Our goal, then, must be to decide do we want to attend to this fact? Do we want to be intentional about how we educate so as not to lose the enchanting nature of education? If we do not, then there is no reason for proceeding further. Education can continue to become a transactional process leading pupils through a factory meant to produce a series of cogs for the great machine of industry. Or we can do away with the whole notion of products and think instead of persons, intentionally formed and shaped not for the purpose of serving society, but for the purpose of becoming more fully human.
1 Not that I’m committing myself to string theory vs. quantum loop theory.
2 Second to love, of course.
David Russell Mosley is a poet and theologian living in Washington state. David currently serves as the Headmaster of the Chesterton Academy of Notre Dame in Spokane, WA. He received his PhD in theology from the University of Nottingham where he worked under Drs. Simon Oliver and Mary Cunningham. David is of the author of, Liturgical Entalnglements, The Green Man, On the Edges of Elfland: A Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups––his first novel––and Being Deified: Poetry and Fantasy on the Path to God. David’s online written works can be found at U. S. Catholic Magazine, The Christian Century, Dappled Things, Ekstasis, Sick Pilgrim, Emerging Scholars, Christian Democracy, and elsewhere. He also has published poetry with Black Bough Magazine, Jesus the Imagination, New Hampshire’s Best Emerging Poets 2019, The Imaginative Conservative, Macrina Magazine, and other places around the web. David is father to twin boys, Theodore and Edwyn, and husband to his wife Lauren.