Every Teacher Is An Art Teacher

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There is a scene in the film A River Runs Through It where the narrator, Norman Maclean, describes his education, saying, “I attended the school of the Reverend Maclean. He taught nothing but reading and writing. And, being a Scot, believed that the art of writing lay in thrift.” The scene flashed to a young Norman handing a paper to his father. His father scans it and hands it back, saying, “Again, half as long.” Norman goes back, writes his paper again, only half as long, and his father reads it again and repeats his instruction, “Again, half as long.”

This is strange instruction to students today who mistake the purpose of writing in school as being more of a quantitative endeavor than a qualitative one.

Many students, I imagine, think the hardest writing assignments are the longest ones, operating on the notion that writing twenty pages is harder than writing five. This theory inspires the thinking that the more they write, the smarter they appear.

But as Eisenhower said, “An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.” What if the Reverend Maclean is right. What if the art of writing lies in thrift—the fewer words the better?

We want students to embody truth, beauty, goodness, wisdom and eloquence. St. Augustine said we educate to “seek to lead the citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven while instilling in them the desire to introduce the values of the heavenly kingdom into the kingdom they presently inhabit.” So we want students not just to know things. We want students to remain students and become teachers. And we want them to be able to teach what they know gracefully and persuasively.

This takes eloquence.

Eloquence is the ability to understand ideas and concepts and then to express them with persuasion and grace. I believe we see this objective outlined in 1 Peter 3:15 “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…”

This verse describes eloquence in its purest sense. First notice that Peter is saying that this kind of speech is honoring to the Lord. Christians honor Him by being prepared to testify of the hope within us. But then notice the two prongs of Peter’s point—that we are to be prepared to give a reasoned defense for the Gospel (PERSUASION), and that we are to do this with gentleness and respect (GRACE). This, I think, is as much an art form as anything. So if you are one who teaches, I submit to you this thesis:

Every teacher is an art teacher. And you should regard you self as such.

As a teacher, do more than impart raw data. You teach young minds to receive that data, process it, comprehend it and grasp how the data they’ve just received comes to bear on the rest of what they know. You want them to know truth, recognize beauty, practice goodness and live wisely.

Why? Of course so that they might glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

But how is this done? Not merely through stowing away all they know. But through “seeking to lead citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven.” The New Testament calls this the Great Commission—to go and make disciples of all the nations, bearing witness to Christ Jesus with our whole lives.

This is an art—balancing grace with persuasion and conviction with love while using words to paint a picture of truth, beauty, goodness and wisdom for all the world to see.

And as it is with all art, some students are naturals at this while others struggle from the start. But every artist, to be good at their craft, must log hours of practice. And they must be taught. They must try and fail. They must savor the two things they get right, even though there are a dozen others they got wrong. They must develop logic and reason. This stuff only comes through practice.

And to do this, they must use words.

So cultivate eloquence in your students by requiring them to trade in the currency of words. Make them write. Make them speak. Give them the gift of the experience of talking in front of an audience, even if they’re terrified. Try to help them understand why this experience is a gift.

As a teacher, you can measure how well your students know the truth you’ve taught them when they can tell you what you’ve taught them. You know they have seen beauty by their expression of it. They will reveal their committment to goodness by the grace employed in their speech, both toward those who agree and those who don’t.

But don’t mistake flowery words for eloquence. Persuasion and eloquence are not the same. Mere persuasion can often be fruit of wearing down of the other side under the weight of the sheer quantity of words.

Trade in the currency of words. Make words count, not by how often they’re used, but by how well. Look for grace and persuasion, for truth, beauty, goodness and wisdom in those words. Help them hone their craft of expression by requiring them to speak, write, and respond with regularity.

And evaluate their work. Be willing to hand it back and say “Again, half as long” in order that they might be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks them for a reason for the hope that is in them—and that they might do it with gentleness and respect.

Grade them on reason. Grade them on rhetoric. But grade them on kindness and humility too.

Reward them not just for the completion of the assignment, but for employing truth, beauty, goodness, and wisdom gently and with respect, lest they lose their hearers as Proverbs 18:19 predicts: “A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.”

May God be pleased to use your investment in these children so that they might spend their lives seeking to “lead the citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven while instilling in them the desire to introduce the values of the heavenly kingdom into the kingdom they presently inhabit.”

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


11 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Russ,

    Whaddaya mean I’m fat?

    Seriously though, your post compels me to cut my words in half and then half again. If there’s anyone guilty of being light on editing, uh, that would be me.

    Like, I’m all, like, going, “{facial expression and hand gesture indicating an inner change of of attitude which will manifest itself in a change of outer behavior}.”

  2. Ryan Boomershine

    Well said and thank you.

    I am starting a school on the north side of Nashville (www.jecanashville.org) and this is the very best sense of what we are trying to do…especially leading up to a life of beautiful, persuasive living.

  3. Tony Heringer

    Russ,

    This topic reminds me of Proverbs 10:19 “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” I know that’s speaking, but the same holds true with writing. Economy in writing is tough as I will demonstrate below.

    I loved this line “They will reveal their commitment to goodness by the grace employ in their speech, both toward those who agree and those who don’t.” I would add “and especially those who don’t.” One finds out what’s inside a man or woman when they are squeezed. The pressure of conflict reveals the fissures in our hearts which I believe the Refiner is using to craft us into the precious stones also discussed in 1 Peter.

    As a side-bar, I loved the “River Runs Through It” reference. It is a coarse film, but one of Redford’s best. Part of what I consider his “lessons in manhood trilogy” which includes “The Natural” and “The Legend Of Bagger Vance”.

    In this film, he seems to be communicating a message about love. Note the references to love and relationships in the film. In particular note the visual references to love (a tattoo on a bare bottom and an engraving behind Reverend Maclean while he preaches are the most obvious). I haven’t settled on what the message is and maybe Redford didn’t either. It is just something that has always touched me about this film.

  4. Caroline

    How ironic that it is the quality and not the quantity of words that is more important, when schools these days emphasize filling up the required number of pages. Sometimes one finishes a five-page essay with only four pages, but even if there is not much else to say, there rests one page to create. Enter the filler paragraphs!

    There was a study released recently that analyzed the scores received on the writing portion of the SAT. Filling out the entire two-page form with the essay, regardless of the level of the writing, was consistently correlated with a higher score. If you wrote a brilliant bit of prose in 1.5 pages, the student who rambled for 2 pages may just score higher. Something about that just doesn’t sit right.

    And in a more recent experience, I found that writing two-page (double-spaced, so literally one page) essays for my Renaissance Revenge seminar last semester quite difficult. Finding a subject narrow enough without being too nuanced was very challenging.

  5. Amy

    Wow, how powerful and timely (in my life). I teach math and physics and I completely agree with what you have written. I try to tell my students as often as possible that I am not teaching them facts, but I am teaching them how to reason and problem solve. Basically, I want them to know how to THINK! They only have a desire for answers. They want to get to the destination, without taking part in the journey. That is why my current teaching position is so difficult.

    My favorite part of this post is: “We want students to remain students and become teachers.” Wow, how powerful! I will be quoting this tomorrow morning:-)

  6. Tag Green

    Russ,

    Thank you for these intriguing and insightful thoughts. I teach 12th grade English, and I emphasize these same truths with my students. Do you mind if I use your post as a reading in class?

  7. Jim Rohde

    Russ, you hit home for me (at one point in my undergrad days, I was *both* an English and an art education major). The hardest part is picking and choosing what words actually say what I/we mean, rather than (as you said in different words) burying those we may disagree with in our words. Jesus’ example was to use analogies, parables, metaphors which blended art and words together. As you said, we can learn from that…

  8. The Third Seed

    “Does one write better than one speaks, or simply pursue the latter to such a degree that by sheer volume, decrease it’s intensity and thus it’s meaning?” – I think so.

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