Clear thinking first requires imagination that is trained to expect things to make sense. Dragons get defeated, stories end happily ever after, 2 + 2 = 4, truth is objective — all of these ideas make sense to a well-trained imagination. If a person does not expect life to make sense (or, more crippling still, does not care if it makes sense), then “critical thinking” will be just another casualty in the car crash of modern education. Russell Kirk, the 20th century philosopher who drew from Edmund Burke to develop the idea of “conservatism” as we understand it today, defined the moral imagination as that which “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” First Things editor David Mills defines imagination as “the faculty that controls what we, and especially children, think the world is like. It gives us the map by which we plot our course. It gives us our vision of the world about which our mind thinks and on which our will works. It tells us what feels normal, average, to be expected, what feelings should go with what actions.” Unless a person understands and expects that goodness is better than evil, justice better than injustice, innocence better than guilt, how could he clearly evaluate the French Revolution in a history class or To Kill A Mockingbird in a literature class? If this seems abstract, allow Leo Tolstoy to make it concrete.
After 700 pages of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy at last gives the reader a happy ending in the conversion of the staunch materialistic atheist Dmitry Constantine Levin. This sudden pivot is prompted by just despondency in the wake of his brother’s death. In a beautiful world where bees buzz through blossoming lime trees on spring mornings, Levin realizes that death does not make sense! Materialists cannot explain this cosmic inconsistency. Even from more ancient philosophers and others who do care about metaphysics, Levin finds answers which seem to him “without regard for something in life more important than reason” and which are to Levin “a muslin garment without warmth” (Tolstoy, 777). By looking for existential satisfaction in philosophies devoid of Christ, Levin “was in the position of a man seeking food in a toyshop or at a gunsmith’s” (Tolstoy, 775). Yet, this awareness in Levin’s mind and soul — this does not make sense! — rescues Levin from his misguided thinking. As a child, Levin’s moral imagination was trained according to the truth. “He had lived (without being conscious of it) by those spiritual truths which he had imbibed with his mother’s milk, but in thought he had not only not acknowledged those truths, but had studiously evaded them. Now it was clear that he was only able to live thanks to the beliefs in which he had been brought up” (Tolstoy, 785). Even as a non-Christian, Levin notices that his happiest friends are Christians. “All those near to him who lived good lives were people who believed: the old Prince, Lvov, of whom he had grown so fond, Koznyshev, and all the womenfolk” (Tolstoy, 775). Levin knows that, in contrast, he is unhappy not because life is universally devoid of happiness, but rather because something has gone awry in his own soul. In short, Tolstoy declares, Levin “had lived well, but thought badly.” Although Levin was raised to expect sense, truth, order, beauty, and happiness out of life, he has long embraced philosophies which produce nothing more than chaos and futility. Finally, he finds everything that God created him to long for, and he finds it in the person of Christ.
There is a connection, then, between living well and thinking well. The soul’s hopes, will, and imagination permeate and guide the mind’s reason and intellect. Aristotle and Plato believed that the purpose for which human beings exist is happiness, and that happiness is found in virtuous living, without which human beings cannot see things clearly. Albert Nock, a Depression-era thinker on economics and education, directly referencing Plato here, argues that seeing things clearly (which he calls intelligence) is not just an intellectual virtue, but also a moral one (Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States, 8-9). In order to form this moral virtue, Nock argues for a rigorous education that trains disciplined and experienced minds through thoughtful analysis of mankind’s history. This education should “powerfully inculcate the views of life and the demands of life that are appropriate to maturity and that are indeed the specific marks, the outward and visible signs, of the inward and spiritual grace of maturity” (Nock, 52). This discipline, he says, brings human beings into “the feeling of an immense longevity” (Ibid). People who have minds and imaginations trained in this way demand a right answer, and do not settle until they have found it. People trained and disciplined in this way view life not from the narrow, modern lens of moral relativism, but rather with wisdom that comes from a humble but thorough familiarity with a complicated, millennia-old conversation. This conversation, Nock explains, we call the Great Tradition. It is a tradition bent on raising people whose minds and souls have mature perspective that far outstretches the claustrophobic restraints of contemporary thought.
Raising up mature human beings is our lofty goal, yet it begins humbly. In fact, the way it begins makes a lot of sense. This sort of education begins with teaching children that dragons get defeated, stories end happily ever after, and 2 + 2 = 4. In a 2009 interview between Russell Moore and Andrew Peterson entitled “Storytelling and a Child’s Imagination,” Moore notes that kids’ fears about monsters under the bed are not only instinctive, but also reasonable and true: “they instinctively know that they’re living in a universe in which something’s gone awry. It’s not our job — as parents, or as Sunday school teachers — to disengage that. It’s our job to come in and to provide an answer to that.” Not only does Moore caution against disengaging this fear, he affirms it; “your worrying about the monster under the bed isn’t unreasonable; there’s a monster under the fabric of the cosmos.” What, then, should our answer be? In a world full of death, apparent inconsistencies, falsehoods, and dragons, we need more people who believe that those dragons can be defeated. If there are monsters in the fabric of the cosmos, we want the future students of Cedar Classical Academy to fight them. We want them to meet life’s many demands and challenges. We want them to, in turn, demand that life makes sense. We want them to work hard on all of life’s difficult questions until they find the answers. Most importantly, we want our students to expect life to end happily ever after. It will.
Hillsdale Academy’s 25-year celebratory video casts a vision of the legacy a classical school can have.