Educating Narcissus

Orthodox Schools Association

By: Bryan Smith

Several poets of antiquity tell a charming but frightening tale about a young man who saw his own reflection in a pool and became so infatuated that he vowed never to marry. He even ignored the lovely nymph, Echo, who had followed him to that place, leaving her to wander off alone until she at last pined away to nothing but a faint, whispering voice. The young man’s name was Narcissus, and he has become the image of the excess of self-love. When we say that a person is narcissistic, or that we live in an age of narcissism, we are alluding to the self-absorbed young man who sat, day after day, staring at his own reflected features while ignoring the rest of the world around him.

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The story is, of course, a parable of one of the many pitfalls to which humans are susceptible—self-absorption. Though the danger is present to people of all age groups, it is no accident that the Narcissus of fable was a youth. One of the most basic sensibilities a young person forms is that of either looking outside himself for answers or remaining cloistered in the cell of his own psyche; of judging himself and the world around him by something “outside”, or of judging all things according to his own opinions, moods, and natural inclinations. This latter condition is one that, in its full flower, acknowledges no objective truth and can even come to question the validity of perception itself.

As Orthodox Christian teachers we must remember the warnings of St. John Chrysostom who began his lessons on the education of children with stern admonitions against this self-absorbed condition. Anticipating the question as to why such a young man would grow up to follow only the precepts of his appetites, St. John asked, “Did you not marvel at him? Did you not sing his praise? Did you not lead him on to his present state by applause and flattery?”

Unfortunately, we now have behind us several decades of professionally sanctioned educational practices which, in their methods as well as in their results, could be called an education to narcissism. Child-centered learning, whole-language practice, and multiple-intelligence theory have taught countless children that nothing matters which has its origin outside the self.

Though perhaps not overtly, the lesson has, nevertheless, been taught. It has been taught in stream-of-consciousness “journaling” where external forms such as spelling and grammar are of no consequence; it has been taught in anti-knowledge schools where memorization is belittled as “rote learning” and administrators declare openly their inability to predict what children will need to know in the future. It has been taught by teachers telling students there are no right answers, and by the cheap teen novels once hidden from the instructor but now assigned as classroom reading because she believes the young people can “relate” to them better. It has been taught in social studies where students learn nothing of the sacrifices of heroic men and women of the past, but everything of their own personal entitlements. In these and so many other ways, our current “progressive” schools encourage children to gaze no farther than their own adolescent images.

There are many problems with this approach. Most practically, it simply fails as a means of education—a fact by now so well documented that only those with careers rooted in the old theories still echo their empty tenets. Moreover, this approach to education assumes a Romantic optimism about human nature that is unjustified by practical experience, denies the fallen nature, and robs young people of the noblest ideas and examples of human kind while forcing them to wallow in the low, the base, and the mediocre. Furthermore, the progressive approach squanders the best opportunity—that of the early school years—to instill a body of objective factual content that can become a network of epiphanies in later years, and to inculcate habits of diligence in the attention to minute details that must always accompany successes that are not accidental. The most dangerous effect of all, however, may be that this progressive approach to education gives children the idea that the universe orbits around the parochial world of themselves and their peers—that the world will forever reconfigure itself around their desires, moods, and natural inclinations.

Many Christian schools, we must admit, are not guiltless of this pedagogical folly. Caricature Bible stories and cartoon illustrations promote a thought-world for children that is not merely immature but shallow and silly. Teen-conducted youth chapels tell young people that the world of adults is not for them and that their own inclinations to sentimentality and sensuality can be deflected into worship by merely deifying the direct object in a song lyric. Unable to encourage young people to “lay aside childish things” and “grow to full stature” in Christ, many youth pastors (find that in the Bible) create the pitiful spectacle of an older guy strumming a guitar, knitting his brow, and warbling ambiguous praises to stimulate teenagers who could not worship in the absence of electricity. The theology teacher who uses a “Skater’s Bible” has simply lost his way. So it is that many Christian schools fail most egregiously in the process of conversion—of turning children away from themselves. If teachers in Christian schools wish to encourage their students to be “like Christ” let them do so, and let the first lesson be that we know nothing of Christ as an adolescent. What would Jesus do? He would apparently be obedient to his parents as he grew in wisdom and stature—quietly, off-stage, and unknown.

The education offered by Orthodox Christian schools has as one of its intentions to lure Narcissus away from his pool. Our focus on the history of Christian Civilization is an attempt to ground young people outside themselves in a legacy of ideas, actions, and aesthetics that span continents and millennia. We want them to see society as comprising the dead, the living, and those yet unborn. Our studies of great historical personalities are intended to impress upon the students how greatly their own lives and options have been shaped by the prudent foresight of another generation. Even in our study of other cultures we are not so impressed with the insular cults of folk-ways as we are with the common nature all humans share—a nature which universally acknowledges one natural law and so points to the existence of a standard higher than the assumptions of any one self-approving group.

The literary, philosophical, and theological works of the Western canon also act as windows to a wider world, showing young people an incredible spectrum of options for thought and action, while also providing the benefit of an opportunity to reflect at a safe distance on the consequences of many of those actions. Also, as Lewis said, we read “old books” to discover that we are not alone; and it is an indisputable benefit for any student to read in the lines of an old Greek poet the very agonies that torment his young American soul.

Our focus on languages, and especially the highly inflected classical languages, works along with mathematical studies to offset the infection of subjectivity and narcissism. Apart from the practical benefits of improving facility in language, logic, and problem solving, both of these disciplines take the emphasis in education away from the self by demonstrating to students that natural canons exist which are absolute, unchanging, subject to no private interpretation, and belonging to a world not of their own making.

Finally, and most profoundly, our Orthodox Christian identity works to pull students out of themselves by the insistence that God is transcendent, that certain crucial truths and doctrinal definitions rely neither on personal discovery nor on individual inclinations, that it is we who must conform, who must sacrifice the self, and who must declare with the Forerunner: “I must decrease, that He may increase.”

Our nation is rife with schools that would let Narcissus languish by the pool while the teachers ask little more of him than a description of his feelings. We must ask more. We must ask, first of all, that he come away from the pool—that he lift his eyes to better images, and that he open his heart to eternal truths and the tongues of angels.

Byron Smith is a founding member of the Orthodox School Association.