The Teacher as Muse

The Teacher as Muse

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To a student in third grade, her teacher naturally has great authority. Her teacher is twice as tall as she is, and seems to possess magical powers: she can add numbers in her head, recite bits of poetry, report the names of numerous birds, flowers, trees, and bugs. She can fluently and dramatically read remarkable stories from a large collection of beautiful books (where does she find all those books?) about elves, dwarfs, flying dragons, and voyages over vast oceans.

The third-grade teacher (here only an example for lower school teachers, and teachers at large) takes her students to fairy-land. She is something like what Chesterton calls the “star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition.”[1] This teacher has authority because she has traveled far and learned many delectable secrets. Who wouldn’t want to follow this leader? This teacher has authority because is no mere instructor; she is a muse, and her classroom−and the cosmos with it−is transformed into a kind of living museum.

Certainly, this third-grade teacher is an instructor. If we follow the etymology, she “builds into” the child important ideas, concepts, skills, and knowledge. Put another way, she cultivates and forms the character and disposition of the child. From this perspective, education is formation. One of the German words for education retains this sense directly: bildung. Bildung is education that is life-long human formation. It is related to the Middle English word botl, meaning “house,” and the word bold, meaning (as it still can) “strong.” As an instructor, the teacher seeks to build a strong house of humanity in her students over the course of time.

Chesterton merrily notes that the teacher as instructor “pokes,” while the teacher as educator “pulls.” Our word educator is derived from educere, ”to lead or draw out.” In either case, our teacher must exercise prudent authority, because she gets to decide what to “poke into” the child and want to draw out. Chesterton puts it this way:

The educator drawing out is just as arbitrary and coercive as the instructor pouring in; for he draws out what he chooses. He decides what in the child shall be developed and what shall not be developed. He does not (I suppose) draw out the neglected faculty of forgery. He does not (so far at least) lead out, with timid steps, a shy talent for torture. The only result of all this pompous and precise distinction between the educator and the instructor is that the instructor pokes where he likes and the educator pulls where he likes. [2]

So our third-grade student is sometimes poked and sometimes pulled by her teacher. Often such pulling and poking is a challenge for the student, sometimes she experiences it as hard academic work. But the prudent teacher knows when to poke, when to pull,  how to do so. She is not constantly instructing, and she does not instruct too strenuously or for too long. She does not poke too hard or deeply, and she knows how to pull gently and deftly. And in any case, as long as our teacher remains the “star-appointed priestess of democracy and tradition,” as long as she remains the muse revealing wonder in the world, then our third-grader will endure and even welcome the instruction that accompanies the journey she has joined.

Generally, we teachers know how to be instructors and “educators.” But are we the muses that students naturally yearn for? You might remember the nine muses of Greek mythology and their mother Memory. A muse (from the Greek mousa) brings inspiration and delight to learning and helps us to remember. Every good classical teacher brings “music” into her classroom–music as harmony, wonder, and inspiration. The music brought by such a teacher is the chief antidote to the numbing, spurious education of our time that goes by the name amusement.

A muse brings music and ushers students into a classroom and world that is a collection of wonders–a museum. In the classical tradition, the muse, too, is a teacher.



[2] What’s Wrong with the World,

Dr. Christopher Perrin is an author, consultant, and speaker who specializes in classical education. He is committed to the renewal of the liberal arts tradition. He cofounded and serves full-time as the CEO/publisher at Classical Academic Press, a classical education curriculum, media, and consulting company. Christopher is also a consultant to charter, public, private, and Christian schools across the country. He is the director at the Alcuin Fellowship with the Institute for Classical Schools and the former board vice president of the Society for Classical Learning. He has published numerous articles and lectures that are widely used throughout the United States and the English-speaking world.

Christopher received his BA in history from the University of South Carolina and his MDiv and PhD in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was also a special student in literature at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He has taught at Messiah College and Chesapeake Theological Seminary, and served as the founding headmaster of a classical school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for ten years. He is the author of The Greek Alphabet Code Cracker and Greek for Children and the coauthor of the Latin for Children series, all published by Classical Academic Press.

Christopher has a passion for classical education and is a lover of goodness, truth, and beauty wherever it is found.


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