Saturday, May 23, 2015

Woolmanomics / "On Schools" / spirit and spirits


Chapter 14 of John Woolman's "A Plea for the Poor" is titled "On Schools."

Its first paragraph consists of two long sentences, which I've broken up into phrases, after the manner of poetry:


When we are thoroughly instructed in the kingdom of God,
         we are content with that use of things
               which his wisdom points out,
both for ourselves and for our children,

and are not concerned to learn them
         the art of getting rich,

but are careful that
         the love of God
         and a right regard for all their fellow creatures
may possess their minds,

and that in all their learning
         their improvements may go forward in pure wisdom.

Christ our Shepherd
         being abundantly able and willing to instruct his family
                   in all things proper for them to know,

it remains to be our duty
         to wait patiently for his help
                   in teaching our families

and not seek to forward them in learning
         by the assistance of that spirit
                   from which he gave his life to redeem us.

This chapter seems to me to have one main "outward" point, namely that teachers ought to live very modestly, so they don't need much pay, so they can teach only small numbers of students and thus give each sufficient attention.   This is typical economics-according-to-Woolman, in which everyone living simply allows plenty of resource for everyone, with no overwork for anyone.

Compare Woolman's ideal to this news story from BBC, about a super-rich entrepreneurial teacher whose income is directly a result of the vast number of students she teaches, not to mention her energetic teaching style:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zXkIVrCsyk

Besides his analysis of how to achieve small class size and so rightly teach the young, however, Woolman also conveys, very subtly, a bit of theology, and spirituality.

Notice the last 2 lines I quoted above, about what people ought NOT do, in teaching:  we ought not "seek to forward them in learning by the assistance of that spirit from which he [Christ our Shepherd] gave his life to redeem us."

Woolman uses the word "spirit" a lot in this chapter, much more than usual for him.  He doesn't name "that spirit" whose assistance we are to avoid; some might call "that spirit" Satan, or evil, or the spirit of worldiness.  It's an interesting theological question, from what, or whom, does Woolman consider Jesus to have saved us?

Here are some other uses of the word "spirit" in this chapter:

"the spirit of pride" [not a good thing to nurture!]
"the pure Spirit" [which we should obey]
"that spirit which seeks honour from men"
"the spirit of this world"
"[the teacher's] spirit and conduct in directing and ordering the children"
"[the teacher should] attend to the spirit and disposition of each individual [child]"
if the teacher has too many students, "the minds of children often suffer and a wrong spirit gains strength"
"the spirit of Truth"
"this good spirit in which [a good teacher] governs"
"the true Christian spirit"
"the spirit of Truth"

I noticed this proliferation of spirit-talk just a day or two after our Quaker Bible Study group read the part of Luke 6 where Jesus heals those "vexed with unclean spirits" (KJV) -- the way John Woolman speaks of spirit and spirits and the Spirit, reminds me of the reality of spirituality... 

May we and our offspring obey the spirit of Truth, and attend to the spirit an disposition of our families and friends, and do our best to avoid strengthening any wrong spirit!

Susan J.