Smith Preparatory Academy: A Truly Christian Education

educationWe are living in tumultuous times. Political and social unrest characterize our culture. Political divisions grip our conscience, propelling us to aggressively embrace or denounce party affiliations. Many people are despairing about the current state of affairs and disillusioned by the violence and protest coming from every side. Most are displeased with the prospect of voting for anyone who is immoral or destitute in character. Socially, we face an identity crisis. Racial bigotry, sexual anarchy, gender controversies, divorce, abortion and an overall sense of despair define our fractured society. It is in this context we must recover a truly Christian education. Only by reestablishing our Christian communities, providing our families with an environment that encourages holiness, and educating our students to consistently live in and interpret the world through biblical principles can we preserve Christian culture.

Christian education shapes our sensibilities and directs our dispositions. It informs our character and cultivates virtue. Christian education applies the Gospel to each student, informing and instructing the whole child to live as becomes a follower of Jesus Christ. It is more than instructing and teaching the deep doctrinal truths of the Scriptures. While it is those things, it is the full application of the Gospel to the whole life of each student.

Smith Preparatory Academy is unapologetically a Christian school within the Reformed tradition. What makes us a Christian school is not only that we require our students to take a Bible class each year or that we pray together during opening and closing assemblies. Rather, Smith Prep is a Christian school because the faculty and staff are committed to the Lordship of Jesus over every academic discipline. Literature, history, science, indeed all subjects are taught in light of the biblical narrative of God’s redemptive purposes. There is simply no area of study that is not subject to the Lord of creation. As the apostle reminds us:

[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

Throughout the course of a student’s progress at Smith Prep, they memorize poems, speeches, timelines, and other foundational works consistent with a classical education. Memorization is a fundamental tool in the training of our students. Starting in Kindergarten, students begin memorizing the Scriptures and are catechized using the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The students carefully read and study both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Our Upper School students formally study biblical theology, systematic theology, and apologetics.

Smith Prep’s Christian commitment is to teaching and training the whole person. The conviction that all human beings are created in God’s Image directs our educational endeavors. Accordingly, we recognize the dignity and significance of each person, and the aim of our education is to cultivate in each student a well-ordered love for all that is true, good, and beautiful. Smith Prep affirms the dignity of the human person because it first affirms the wisdom, grace, and goodness of God, our Creator and Redeemer. We seek truth because God is Truth; we pursue what is good because God is Good; we rejoice in what is beautiful because God is the source of all Beauty.

Our world belongs to God and Jesus is actively saving his people from their sins and renewing this cursed world. The church is eagerly awaiting the second advent of Christ and longing for the full restoration of his kingdom. Until then, Christians are entrusted to be salt and light in a fallen and broken world. We are to be faithfully proclaiming the Gospel and fulfilling the cultural mandate. As image bearers of God we are to be kingdom builders, cultivating the earth in fulfillment of God’s original intent for humanity and in fulfillment of our Lord’s model prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Christian education equips its students with the information, knowledge, and wisdom necessary to complete these tasks.

What does a Christian education offer a world in chaos? Smith Prep’s Christian education provides hope. It provides an environment that seeks to reshape our communities and create a context where we might once again flourish. Our administration often speaks of Smith Prep as an island of preservation, an island that embodies a truly Christian culture. Much like a medieval abby, Smith Prep is teaching, shaping, and sustaining a community where Christian ideas, practices, and sensibilities are cultivated. The Gospel ultimately defines Christian education, and the depth of our understanding of the Gospel directly corresponds to the breadth of our understanding of both our humanity and our world.

Why We Memorize

young_girl_readingMemorization is a dying art. Luckily for our students, Smith Prep is zealously committed to its preservation. We realize this won’t strike all of our students as good luck. But we believe our students will thanks us in the long run.

Memorization used to be a standard component of every student’s education, from the earliest years right through college. But for a variety of reasons, the practice declined over the course of the 20th century. Today, in the age of “just Google it,” it is even more unfashionable than ever to memorize anything. This is a grave mistake.

Writing of education before the decline of memorization, George Steiner observed, “Habits of communication and schooling, moreover, sprang directly from the concentration of memory. So much was learned and known by heart — a term beautifully apposite to the organic, inward presentness of meaning and spoken being within the individual spirit.”

“The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources,” Steiner added, “is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an afterculture.”

It seems obvious enough, of course, that we are commanded in the Bible to commit Scripture to memory. The old-fashioned phrase for this is to “learn it by heart.” This is a telling phrase because only if we learn something by heart have we taken it to heart. In other words, committing words to memory makes those words a part of us in a real and meaningful way.

We understand why this would be important with the Word of God, but why would we want to do this with the work of poets and playwrights? First, while Scripture obviously carries a unique and ultimate authority, it does not follow that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be found, by God’s common grace, in the work of those who bear God’s image.

Secondly, internalizing these poetic and literary patterns of language can help us with our own writing. Not that we would necessarily be writing poetry, but we would be picking up an innate sense of what the English language can do and an instinct for verbal constructions that we might not get any other way. The most common advice for writers given by professional writers tends to be read as much good prose as possible. The second most common piece of advice is to memorize poetry.

Finally, memorization is also about being initiated into a tradition. In this case, it is the tradition of Western civilization. It’s not a flawless tradition, as we know, but there is much in it that is beautiful and glorious and worthy of our attention and devotion.

In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote a popular and controversial article titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The title is misleading, but the article is compelling. If you’ve never read it, you should. Near the end of the essay, Carr quoted the poet Richard Foreman:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

Foreman went on say that we were becoming “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” The trend toward becoming “pancake people” is one that ought to be resisted. The “cathedral-like structure” Foreman described is what we ought to be after. The foundations of that cathedral are laid by committing to memory as much of what has been true, good, and beautiful in our tradition as we can. We help our students make a small start of it at Smith Prep.

You can find poems to memorize, and some advice on how to do it, here: Committed to Memory. See also “In Defense of Memorization” and “On Assigning Books.”

Seven Reasons to Choose Smith Prep

Our Headmaster, Mr. Michael Phillips, discusses the qualities that set Smith Prep apart.

You can find dozens of schools representing various philosophies of education throughout central Florida. Daily we hear of schools offering the newest and greatest technologies and the next best thing in education. Some schools advertise their niche programs enticing families with a narrowly focused curriculum and skill development in a particular area of interest. Other schools might include fine art programs, enrichment programs, athletics programs, and anything else that can catch the interest of students or families looking for a change. Some of these schools are good programs serving students and families well. With registration opening in less than a month why would a family choose Smith Prep over other organizations and institutions offering educational opportunities for their student?

1. We are a Christian School within the Reformed Tradition

Smith Prep is unapologetically a Christian school within the reformed tradition. What makes us a Christian school is not only that we require students to take a Bible class each year or because we pray together during opening and closing assemblies. Rather, it is because the faculty and staff are committed to the Lordship of Jesus over every discipline. Literature, history, science, and all the academic disciplines are taught in light of the biblical narrative of God’s redemptive purposes.

Furthermore, the conviction that all human beings are created in God’s Image directs our educational endeavors. We recognize the dignity and significance of each human being, and the aim of our education is to cultivate in each students a well-ordered love for all that is true, good, and beautiful. In this way we seek to establish a community of virtuous scholars who are advancing God’s kingdom in their community and throughout the world.

Throughout their course of studies at Smith Prep our students are catechized using the Westminster Shorter Catechism and they carefully read and study the Old Testament and the New Testament. Our Upper School also students formally study biblical theology, systematic theology, and apologetics.

2. We are a Classical School

Smith Prep offers a truly classical education. Most people rightly recognize that a classical paradigm of education is a challenging and academically rigorous path. Many also recognize the use of the trivium—Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric—to provide the structure of a classical education. Yet, many people are unable to articulate just how a classical program differs from any other educational paradigm.

Classical education is about the moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation of students. It seeks to shape or cultivate a disposition to the world that is animated by well-ordered loves. While other forms of education promote self-discovery, Smith Prep seeks to cultivate Christian virtue and fit the soul to God. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Education is not a subject, nor does it deal in subjects. It is instead a transfer of a way of life.” This way of life is modeled by our faculty and staff, demonstrated in our curriculum choices, and re-enforced through our yearly trips and activities.

3. We invite our students to the study of Western Civilization and teach them Latin

We introduce our students to the works that have contributed to the Great Conversation that is the Western tradition. Western civilization has a rich heritage of art, architecture, music, literature, and philosophy. The events, people, and ideas it encompasses have formed us and shaped our communities. To know ourselves, to provide an accurate critique of who we are and what we believe, to make informed decisions, and to make personal and informative adjustments in the way we see and respond to the world around us, it is imperative that we engage with the voices of the past that have shaped our present culture.

Latin allows our students to plumb the depths of our heritage. Our students begin Latin studies in 1st grade. In fact, we teach English grammar through Latin studies. Latin serves as the next step that follows on phonics. Once English students know how to read Latin, it will serve to strengthen their ease of reading and retention of reading content. Further, Latin accounts for nearly a third of our English words and provides the root words for nearly all technical vocabulary in the modern sciences. Additionally, Latin is the source language for law, government, logic, and theology. Studying Latin is an indispensable tool that will strengthen a student’s ability to think critically and inform their future participation in society. There are about a half a dozen other reasons we study Latin that you can find here, here, and here.

4. We are a hybrid program with qualified instructors

Over twenty years ago Smith Prep began as a tutoring service for homeschooling families. While we have become a fully accredited private school, we continue to embraces a blended paradigm. Smith Prep combines the best parts of a traditional homeschooling experience with that of a classical private school education. Our school partners with parents to provide a rich educational experience for each student.

Gifted and qualified teachers, who know and love their subject, work with students instructing, encouraging, and engaging them weekly. Students work at home with their parents on the remaining days. This allows for more personalized attention and serves to strengthen an already robust philosophy of classical education. This partnership enables students to flourish beyond what could typically be achieved in a traditional five-day-a-week program.

5. We are an accredited school offering college dual enrollment credits

For over twenty years Smith Prep has enjoyed its partnership with the Trinity School and most recently Veritas Academy. These fully accredited schools have come alongside our students and have provided them with guidance, diplomas, accredited transcripts, and graduation ceremonies. This past year Smith Prep has begun a permanent merger with Veritas Academy of Central Florida, a fully accredited private school. We expect the merger to be completed before this school year (2016-17) is completed.

Being an accredited school gives our school both a higher level of accountability as well as college and university accessibility. It provides nationally recognized credentials and certifies our professional standards. Accreditation assures our families that we are indeed meeting college and states standards.

Given our high standards and quality of instructors we are able to offer dual enrollment classes at our campus through Palm Beach Atlantic University. This provides our students the benefit of continuing their studies at Smith Prep while earning college credits.

6. We are cultivating students of the highest academic quality

Christian classical schools have a proven track record of practical results. SAT scores in Reading, Math, and Writing are over 100 points higher than the national average and 50 points higher than the average independent and religious private school. ACT scores are on average five to seven points higher than the national average in English, Math, Reading, Science, and Composition.

While Smith Prep has not been keeping track of its students statistics until relatively recently, we have seen this trend to be true in our student’s test scores and college enrollment. Last year we had our first student accepted to Air Force Academy and past students have gone on to attend Harvard, Cornell, Baylor, Covenant College, Texas A&M, the University of Florida, Belmont University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Stetson University, New College, and many other fine colleges and universities. Smith Preparatory students are well trained and suited to engage our culture and society.

7. We offer a unique education in Central Florida

There are simply no programs in Central Florida offering the blend of educational benefits available at Smith Preparatory Academy! There are no private schools, hybrid programs, or co-ops in or around Orlando that match Smith Prep’s distinctive culture and commitment to academic excellence. Smith Prep has a tried and proven record. We have served the greater Orlando area since 1995, and as we move forward we are looking forward to many more years serving this community.

For all those looking for alternatives in education I would encourage you to take a closer look at Smith Preparatory Academy. There are several informational meetings coming up. Make an appointment, visit the school, come and talk with our faculty and staff. For those of you who have been attending Smith Preparatory Academy keep up the hard work. I promise, it will pay off!

What is Classical Education?

Picture 276What is a classical education and is it still a good option for students today? A simple answer to the question, “What is classical education?” can be surprisingly difficult to come by. And it many not be obvious what a tradition of education that emerged in the ancient world has to offer students growing up in the digital age.

When seeking to understand classical education, people most often point to the logic of the trivium: the movement from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric. But classical education is more than the trivium. It is also a set of attitudes and dispositions regarding the purpose of education. A classical education is an orientation toward learning that takes wisdom and moral formation as its goal.

You will find among classical educators, homeschool parents included, the conviction that education is a sacred and moral undertaking aimed at something more than earning good money, achieving distinction, or even accumulating knowledge for its own sake. You will find, rather, the conviction that education is about learning to live wisely and becoming the kind of people God made us to be. And this is precisely what classical education offers students in the digital age, a way out of the sea of mere information toward the heights of knowledge and wisdom.

The first stage of the trivium, the grammar stage, is focused on memorization and basic skills. Of course, even after we move into the dialectic and rhetoric stages, we must still learn new facts and skills. Whenever we enter a new area of knowledge, we must learn its grammar.

But we don’t stop with the facts and the basic skills. We then learn to reason about facts and with facts. We enter the dialectic stage. We discover how to make sense of the facts and relate them to one another. We learn logic and we learn the logic of each discipline. We learn what it means to think like an historian, or a mathematician, or a biologist, chemist, poet, etc.

Finally, with the rhetoric stage, we pass into the realm of wisdom and beauty. To begin with, the rhetoric stage is focused on cultivating the ability to communicate effectively. But if we are to avoid being sophists about persuasion, then what we will be doing is learning to communicate effectively about the truth as we have come to recognize and embrace it. In other words, learning to speak well and persuasively about the truth requires that we come to some personal understanding of what is true, and having done that, then working out how to live in light of it.

What’s more, if rhetoric is to be more than brow- beating, we must recognize and appeal to the persuasive power of the beautiful — the beauty of language, the beauty of art, the beauty of the truth. At this point we have passed from the accumulation of information and the construction of knowledge to the life-long endeavor of living in light of the truth.

Think of it this way. The grammar stage concerns Information, what is true about the world. The dialectic stage concerns Knowledge, understanding the relationships among the various kinds of information, making information meaningful. The rhetoric stage concerns Wisdom, learning to live in light of knowledge and rejoicing in the beauty of a life lived in light of the truth.

In this way, the classical model provides an answer to the worst habits of thought that emerge in an era of information overload. It does so by communicating a vision of education directed toward wisdom and moral formation.

Society has lost its faith in the transcendent order that would render knowledge meaningful and underwrite the quest for wisdom. Classical education is poised to resist this trend only to the degree that it is anchored in a biblical and theological vision of a creation and redemption.

We do well to remember that the quest to attain wisdom is premised on the belief that the world is not absurd. We can move past the accumulation of information only if we believe that the world is imbued with meaning and that this meaning reflects the mind of the Creator along with His goodness and beauty. Because we believe that the Triune God has created and ordered the world, we can confidently pursue knowledge and endeavor to live in light of it. It would not be too far from the mark to describe classical education as the work of brining our minds and hearts into harmony with the order of creation, which reflects the character and glory of God.

In Choruses from “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot writes,

“O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

The heart of Christian, classical education lies in the reversal of Eliot’s lament — in finding a way from information to knowledge and from knowledge to wisdom, and thereby finding Life and drawing nearer to God.


Andrew Pudewa, Writing, and Classical Education

Last month, Smith Prep was pleased to host a mini-conference on writing and classical education with Andrew Pudewa. Mr. Pudewa is the founder and director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) and a well-respected and sought-after speaker within the homeschooling community.

Mr. Pudewa delivered two talks and took part in a round table discussion with Mr. Phillips and Mr. Sacasas. You can listen to one of those talks and the round table discussion here.

In the first talk below, Mr. Pudewa discusses the value of imitation and its place in a classical writing curriculum.


In the round table discussion, Mr. Phillips, Mr. Sacasas, and Mr. Pudewa take up the role of technology in writing and classical education.


We trust you will find both of these resources valuable and edifying. We are grateful to Mr. Pudewa for his time and work. Please feel free to share the link.


Disciplined Learning: There Are No Shortcuts to a Good Education

We have the Internet, Instagram, Twitter, smart phones, and an array of assorted technologies giving us quick access to information, communication, and resources at a moments notice. We have online stores that deliver products within hours of ordering. Our lives are ordered by the ease of access we have to friends and family, entertainment, and the conveniences of first world wealth and pleasure. Yet, it is within this context that we must learn patience as we educate our children.

Most worthwhile things within this world take time and discipline to achieve. It takes time to cultivate a garden, to grow the food we eat. The skills to write a beautiful song or compose its accompaniment do not emerge by downloading an app on musical theory. One does not simply become a master painter by watching Bob Ross paint a forest with “happy trees.” It takes years of study, practice, making mistakes, and stumbling across the finish line that make great composers and artists. Great friendships and marriages also take patience and time. You don’t merely happen upon a beautiful marriage. It takes disciplined commitment to cultivate the trust and self-sacrifice that defines a truly good marriage.

What is so often true for so many other activities is also true for education. Today, many schools and families are looking to speed up the process of learning. They are looking for a new curriculum, a new technology, or a magic pill that will ease the burden of discipline and hard work. This is particularly true among homeschooling families. The burdens of running a household coupled with educating children at home, in a culture dominated by consumerism, make it particularly tempting for parents to buy into the lie that there will be an easy path to cultivating virtuous scholars. There are no short cuts. There are no easy paths to take and there is no special curriculum that will remove the challenges that accompany the work of teaching and learning.

Education is more than the teaching of stuff and to be educated is more that than the ability to regurgitate information. Dorothy Sayers once argued “that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” Learning is an art! To be a good learner, like any art, takes discipline, practice and a lot of time.

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Education is not a subject, nor does it deal in subjects. It is instead a transfer of a way of life.” We are educating our humanity! We should not expect moral and spiritual formation to happen simply by the reading of a book, answering questions at the end of a text, watching a video, or downloading the newest app on the computer, tablet, or phone.

Human education requires flesh and blood engagement and work. We have been tasked by God to cultivate a world suitable for his presence. Education equips our humanity to respond to God’s world appropriately and establish God’s kingdom on earth. It is not an easy path, and we must accept the hardships that accompany a truly good education.

As the Headmaster of a Classical Christian School, I am consistently reminding our families that that while many contemporary philosophies of education give in to the consumer ideals of immediacy, we must not give into that temptation and shortchange our children. Education is real work and comes at a real cost. We must count the costs and embrace our own responsibilities and commitments.

Michael Phillips

What is Culture?

The twentieth-century English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott offers the following elegant and insightful description of culture in his essay “A Place of Learning”:

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.”

We would all do well to reflect upon this remarkably humane vision of culture and what it means for the work of education.

What Madeline Can Teach Us About Classical Education

What is classical education? Sometimes our answers to that question are long and elaborate, and sometimes a children’s book puts the matter simply and beautifully. 

In the story of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, we meet twelve girls who lived at a boarding house in Paris, “twelve little girls in two straight lines.” “In two straight lines,” we learn, “they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed.”

And then we read the following: “They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad.”

In the illustrations that accompany these lines we see Madeline and her eleven friends glancing approvingly at a noble woman caring for a horse, glaring disapprovingly at a thief being caught by a policeman, and sadly looking on as a wounded soldier walked before them.  

In that line with its accompanying illustrations we encounter a lovely distillation of the essence of classical education as we understand it at Smith Prep. As simple as it sounds, we would like nothing more than for our students to smile at the good, frown at the bad, and be saddened by suffering.

But is this really the work of education? Are these not subjective feelings that can’t be helped? We don’t believe so. Our subjective responses can be trained and directed, and they should be.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote that “the little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

As fallen creatures we too often admire what is base, mock what is noble, and laugh at what is crass. We fail to be moved by pity for the unfortunate or compassion for the weak. We content ourselves with the trivial and the superficial. Our deepest disorders are often not the result of faulty reasoning or a lack of knowledge but of such immature tastes and misguided loves.

We should, of course, train the mind to think clearly, but our students will not be fully educated if it cannot be said of them that “they smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad.”

Leading Our Children Toward God-Honoring Adulthood

The following remarks were delivered by our Academic Dean during Convocation.  

While reading the Odyssey recently, I was struck by a line to which I had not previously paid very much attention. It comes toward the middle of the book when Odysseus begins to tell his story to the Queen and King of Phaeacia. He begins by describing the geography of Ithaca, his homeland, and he says in passing, “Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons—”

This in turn reminded me of an anecdote I heard long enough ago to have forgotten where I heard it. A farmer who owned a large and prosperous farm that employed many workers also put his own sons to work on the farm. He was asked one day why he put his sons to work raising crops when there was obviously no need for him to do so. “I’m not raising crops,” he replied, “I’m raising sons.”

And if I may, let me supply one more related example. When he was preparing his now famous documentary on the Civil War, Ken Burns was entrusted with a letter from a Union soldier to his wife. It is a deeply moving letter in which the solider confronts the prospect of never seeing his family again. At one point in the letter he writes,

“The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us.”

I mention each of these because they speak to a certain assurance about what exactly constitutes adulthood and how to get there, an assurance that is now noticeably absent in contemporary culture.

As a society, we are at present unsure about how exactly children become adults. Many people are worried that the transition is not happening at all. Some even question whether it is desirable that they do so. It’s been several years now since sociologists coined the phrase “extended adolescence.” And we can gauge the level of concern by the titles of burgeoning genre of books and articles including but not limited to The Vanishing American Adult, The Death of the Grown-Up, The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, and The Infantilization of Society and the Cult of Youth.

We might also point to rise of the unfortunate and inelegant verb, “to adult,” or “adulting.” As in, “I’d love to go out tonight, but I’ve got to adult.” As if being an adult was not something your were but something you did, and only if you had no choice. My own personal favorite data point in the “end of adulthood” genre is the appearance of footie PJs for adults.

These concerns are often manifested, less helpfully in my view, in the form of generational complaint and mockery, chiefly about the so-called Millennial generation. I say that this manifestation of our anxieties about adulthood is less than helpful because it often amounts to a thinly veiled self-righteousness. Like the Pharisee in the temple, we pray loudly, “God, I thank you that I am not like this Millennial.”

I will not attempt anything like a detailed explanation of what exactly is happening or why, but it seems safe to say that there is widespread confusion and anxiety about what it means to be an adult.

This confusion also has a flipside. The late Neil Postman, whose work remains ever-relevant, said that “Without a clear concept of what it means to be an adult, there can be no clear concept of what it means to be a child.”

So alongside vanishing adulthood, we can place the disappearance of childhood. In my way of putting it we are simultaneously witnessing the infantilization of adulthood and the professionalization of childhood.

That these trends have some bearing on the work of education seems obvious enough. What exactly that relationship may be is a little more difficult to pin down. But I’ll offer you, parents and students, a few observations to think about.

In the “death of adulthood” genre, the cure is often framed in terms of independence and self-sufficiency. It’s a reflection of the pseudo-Christian idea that God helps those who help themselves.

One reviewer of a book in the genre offered an alternative vision:

“Suppose adulthood were not synonymous with independence, not synonymous with working, not synonymous with grit or with achievement. Suppose adulthood is instead about accepting dependence, that you can’t take care of everything on your own, that you have limits; suppose the story we need is not the one about the worker who always says yes, but the person who is willing to say no—to the boss, to the job, to work.”

The stress on recognizing our dependence, our mutual dependence, and our limits seems much more in accord with a Christian vision of human flourishing and of the good society.

The idea that adulthood entails learning to say “No” rather than “Yes” is also appealing. Of course, it is not that we say No for the sake of saying No, modern day James Deans, rebels without a cause. Rather it is a matter, in my view, of learning to say No for the sake of saying Yes to what really matters. This is the essence of a disciplined life.

So here, then, are three characteristics of adulthood: dependence acknowledged, limits accepted, and discipline embraced. Let me say a bit more about that last one, with regards to our time and also our attention.

What has our lack of discipline, our inability to say No yielded? Our lives are stuffed, full to the brim, yet no happier. We barrel ahead, sometimes with no clear sense of where we are going, knowing only that we have to do the next thing and then the next. We have said Yes to too much and we have crowded out rest and worship and contemplation and play and joy.

Last year at this event, I asked us to consider the importance of attention. I asked us to view attention as a precious resource and urged us to become stewards of our attention because we lived in a world that had made distraction a matter of habit with devastating consequences for the life of the mind and the state of our souls.

The point, however, was not simply to become misers of attention, to learn only to say No to all of the notifications, vibrations, beeps, rings, and dings that address us constantly. The point, once again, is to say No, so that we might be able to say Yes to things that matter.

Perhaps we can frame maturity or adulthood as a matter of learning what does and does not deserve our attention.

“When I was a child,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Consider again how we have ignored both sides of Paul’s dictum. We have place before our children that for which they are not sufficiently mature. And we have, as adults, refused to put away childish things.

To return to Paul once more, do we, as parents and as teachers, give our attention to whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable. “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise,” Paul urges, “think about these things.” Give your attention to these things.

This entails an ability and willingness to judge. There is a certain irony here. Christians are often fond of pointing out that the only verse in the Bible anybody seems to know anymore is “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” Yet, we too are guilty of a failure to discern: not only between what is true and false and between what is good and what is evil, but also between what is beautiful and what is mediocre and, perhaps more importantly for our theme tonight, between the consequential and the trivial, the meaningful and the superficial.

Not only must we learn how to pay attention to what is noble and beautiful, but maturity also involves learning to pay less attention to ourselves and more attention to others.

The American novelist, David Foster Wallace put it this way in his deservedly famous commencement address at Kenyon College: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Finally, let me return to the idea of limits. The pursuit of endless possibility is one of the marks of our deferred adulthood. Maturity entails not only the acceptance of limits, but also the realization that our flourishing requires the recognition of limits and that our limitations are the conditions of our happiness.

Wendell Berry has put this as well as I have ever seen it put:

“our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible.”

Our places, where we make our home, where we learn, where we worship, each of these can also be a site of inexhaustible satisfaction and joy, but only if we learn to tend it and care for it.

If all of this business about the acceptance of limits, acknowledging our mutual dependence, and learning to give our attention to what is high and noble sounds like a joyless affair, it is not.

Speaking about the seriousness with which we treat our fellow human beings, CS Lewis in The Weight of Glory writes this:

“This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

Likewise, when we set aside our preoccupation with ourselves and our fascination with trivial and superficial pleasures, we will find that in learning to love our neighbor and learning to love what is true and just and noble, we will experience a far deeper joy and satisfaction then we have known.

As we plan for this forthcoming year, let us consider how we might lead our children and our students toward God-honoring adulthood, an adulthood that does not consist in rugged self-sufficiency and autonomy but rather in humble recognition of our dependence–on God and on one another–our limits, and the discipline and judgment to turn our attention to what is noble and praiseworthy.

And for those caring for and teaching little ones for whom adulthood is still a far-off reality, let us guard their childhood, their wonder, and their joy.