When I conducted research for my thesis on classical Christian education and the early church fathers, I stumbled across a remarkable letter written by the fourth-century church father Jerome. Written to the mother of a young child named Paula, the letter gives instructions about how to educate the girl. One sentence in particular I found striking:
Let her (Paula) gaze upon and love, let her from her earliest years admire one (her grandmother) whose language and gait and dress are an education in virtue.
He then draws a contrast between his role as her godfather and the role that Aristotle played in the life of Alexander the Great:
Old as I am, I will carry her on my shoulders and train her stammering lips; and my charge will be a far grander one than that of the worldly philosopher; for while he only taught a King of Macedon who was one day to die of Babylonian poison, I shall instruct the handmaid and spouse of Christ (Paula) who must one day be offered to her Lord in heaven.
St. Jerome’s very personal letter offers a model for education of both body and soul that has a view to the Kingdom of heaven, and therefore a curriculum primarily steeped in virtue. The teacher-student relationship is one of mentoring, as the understudy seeks to emulate – and thereby be initiated into – the mature life available only through “the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
We want our vision for education to look always and eerily like our vision for discipleship. However, to educate our children as Jerome suggests, we must be at work cultivating our own virtue for our children to gaze upon and love.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1