Within the Christian Classical tradition, there is much talk about virtue formation, and all the necessary skills required for people to learn “how to think” rather than simply “what to think”. These are indeed important qualities for a true education, and a laudable goal of the Church today. In as much as we attend to these qualities, we are largely seeking to develop a skill which neuroscience is (currently) calling “executive attention”. This is the process in which humans assess and make judgements of what they observe. Interestingly though, we cannot simply make judgements from an exclusively rational position. This mental work is infact not exclusively mental. To quote Ken Myers, “We are not, however (and praise God), just brains in vats. We are, to borrow a phrase from Marion Montgomery, created rational souls incarnate. We live in bodies in space and time.” Our abilities then to succeed in the character-forming practices of “judgement”, which are honed in Classical education, are built upon a foundation of prior attentiveness, which is located in visceral experience. These forms of attention are currently termed “focus” ( or “orienting”), and “awareness” (or “alerting”), and together make up the now popular idea of “mindfulness”. How then to develop focus and awareness, (or “mindfulness”) becomes an issue of primacy for anyone seeking to make good use of their classical education heritage. Does classical education address embodied practices of “mindfulness”, or is it time for innovation? What kind of experiences in bodies located in space and time should we seek?
In “The Liberal Arts Tradition” by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain, a wide-scope map of what “Classical Education” is, is laid out with the acronym PGMAPT, which stands for: Piety, Gymnastic, Music, Arts, Philosophy, and Theology. The acronym is helpful in that it serves both by giving a roadmap of what subjects should be sequentially focused on as a person matures, and by laying out the totality that should be present at ALL times of one’s education, (ie: one must begin at piety, but piety must also be in all other areas of education, one is never “done” with it).
With PGMAPT in mind, we observe that before we ever arrive at the Trivium (which one so often associates with Classical Education), we must first put our focus on piety, gymnastic, and music- for both the Trivium and the Quadrivium are represented in the PGMAPT acronym by the term “Arts”. The inclusion of P,G, and M is never finished, nor should they ever be taught in isolation, but they should take the spotlight well before the Trivium ever hits the stage.
Concerning “Gymnastic”, we want to recognize that what is meant here is not gymnastics in the narrowly modern sense, (as is observed in Olympic competitions), but rather it would be better understood more proximally by what we now refer to as “P.E.”, (physical education). To quote Ravi and Kevin: “The whole vision for education in the classical tradition can be summarized in the proposition that education is directed at perfecting inherent human abilities. Human beings are able to do things simply because they are human. Education trains and directs these things; it does not produce them… we have great physical strength and dexterity; that particular part of education called gymnastic harnesses this potential and trains it.”
Thus finally, to answer our original question of whether or not classical education attempts to address the need for embodied attendance, (mindfulness), in order to hone our executive attention skills, the answer is “yes”. However, truly Christian classical education does not do this merely for the pragmatic reason that “strong bodies are the foundation of strong minds”, but rather from the profoundly theological position that “A full curriculum must cultivate the good of the whole person, soul and body.” When the Church recognizes that our physicality is part of the God-given means by which we bear His image, then we desire to develop the body for its own sake-not as a subservient means to a mentally-bound gnostic end.
Though our primary motives for developing our bodies should begin with a desire to glorify God through Coram Deo- it remains true that developing the body IS also necessary for developing the mind. All the executive function attention training used to develop virtue in the Arts of PGMAPT must begin with (in addition to the concerns of piety and music), a foundational focus on the physicality of “gymnastics”. Therefore, bodily training and mental training are not separate pursuits in which we seek to glorify God, but are rather inseparable. Not only does mental training require a foundation in physical training, but even when engaging in it, mental training still occurs within a physical context. Whats more, the physically focused training of gymnastics, ought not to occur without attendance to the mental focuses of the arts, for again the two are inseparable, just as all parts of PGMAPT never occur in true isolation from one another.
So how are we doing? Where do we see Christian classical education programs of gymnastics which recognize the inherent good of the body in Coram Deo, and which recognize that physical training also involves mental training and that mental training also involves bodily training? Do we deliberately attend to these realities? Do we have an observable physical nature to attend to? Is there theology, philosophy, liberal arts, music, and piety to be found within our gymnastics? Do gymnastics come into our pursuits of theology, philosophy, liberal arts, music, and piety? Or are we more products of the dualistic Enlightenment than we wish to admit?…
If we turn to the gymnastic story that the West has been a part of thus far, we find that alot developed during the 19th century in the way of “physical culture”. Some of this was helpful, alot of it was not, and most of it is nowhere within the scope of this essay… Nonetheless, what things are within the scope of this essay are the current products of that history, namely: Swedish Drill, yoga, and Movnat. (One could include Pilates in this same discussion as well.)
Swedish Drill is easily the least known of the three gymnastic concepts under current inspection. It was created by Pehr Henrik Ling, a fencing instructor in southern Sweden. Ling’s interests in restoring public health through exercise were adopted later by another prominent figure in education: Charlotte Mason. Today, where Swedish Drill is still practiced in its orthodoxy, it is practiced by those who carry on the Charlotte Mason method of education.
Yoga has a rather convoluted history. Most people seem to believe that it is an ancient practice which has been carried on for thousands of years. Truth be told, yoga as practiced by most modern people originated sometime within the ruling era of the British Raj. Popularized during America’s “cultural revolution”, it has undergone an immense amount of change since that time, but what is interesting to note is that it shares the same parentage as the Charlotte Mason gymnastics program: Pehr Henrik Ling.
Finally, Movnat is a movement practice of contemporary origin. It was created by a French man named Erwan Le Corre, and though it shares the same formative figure, P.H. Ling, in its history, it attempts to plunder much more of the western heritage of physical education than do Swedish Drill, or the eclectically spirited practices of yoga. Like yoga, (and unlike Swedish Drill), it attempts to acknowledge and implement a philosophical appreciation for the natural world in which we are located. It does this differently than yoga does, but it does it nonetheless.
What can be gained by the Christian classical education movement in observing these three concepts? First, we can recognize the pragmatic benefits found in each of these movement practices. If the proof is in the pudding, then we ought to recognize that astounding physical and mental benefits are attested to by practitioners of all three disciplines. Second, if Christians wish to glorify God in their bodies by training their bodies to do what their God-given nature allows them to do, (ala Coram Deo), then there is something worth our attention in these three contemporary programs which seek to attend to natural human fitness. Third, if the Christian classical education movement desires to appreciate the “Democracy of the Dead”, or to continue the “Great Conversation” as they cultivate their gymnastics pursuits, then these three programs are all at our disposal, as they have strong roots in the history of our own education tradition. And finally, if we desire to bolster our abilities in the mentally-focused pursuits of the Trivium and Quadrivium, then these three disciplines all provide solutions in the way of a physical foundation of mindfulness, (which is so necessary for the executive attention skills honed with such focus in quality academic settings).
Which program then do we choose? Or do we choose all three? Or do we pick-and-choose across these programs? After all, it is undoubtedly of concern to many Christians that yoga is currently being packaged as something which stems from eastern religion and philosophy. Does this have any place in the Western tradition of classical education? And what about Swedish Drill? Unlike yoga and Movnat, it appears to be taught currently in isolation from any natural philosophy and/or theology, (though Charlotte Mason has plenty to say here, which might be better sewn together with Swedish drill practice if one were so inclined). Then there is Movnat, which though it attends to Creation, does so without any subservience to the Creator… It would appear that any move we make toward a “grammar” of gymnastics will require a “plundering of the Egyptians” (to borrow from Augustine). We will need to take what we see as True, Good, or Beautiful and adopt and baptize it in order that we can evolve it toward something that is True, Good, AND Beautiful. Swedish drill, yoga, and Movnat offer a great place to begin such work. Originating in some degree from the same tradition as classical education, possessing demonstrable effectiveness in natural physical and mental cultivation, they offer themselves as a beginning point for human beings who may seek to run, climb, swim, kick a soccer ball, throw a football, dance, wrestle, or even solve a quadratic equation, or vote for president. What stands in our way is not an inability to understand the “best techniques” as much as our inability to develop a “robust doctrine of Creation”. If we will do this work, then we will have much less to concern ourselves with, as we pick through Swedish drill, yoga, and Movnat and beyond.