Clapham Christian Classical School

Clapham Journal

The Ideal Teacher

by Zach Ward, Upper School Math and Science / Middle School Art Teacher


The author John Steinbeck once said of teachers,


“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”


To help us prepare for engaging in this art form, the practice of which is to be conducted with such joy and (simultaneously) gravity and seriousness of purpose, we as a staff took some time to read from and discuss an excerpt from David Hick’s treatise on classical education, Norms and Nobility. Hicks’ chapter, “Teaching the Father of the Man,” served to inform our one of our opening discussions for the year through his examination of the virtues embodied in two ideal educator archetypes from the ancient world, Socrates and Isokrates.




In Socrates, the first of these two personified ideals, we find a figure who challenged the Sophist notion that education’s principal aim is utilitarian – that is, its end is the development of good citizens who question little, accept appearances and do what is necessary to “function within the madding city of Athens.” He is the consummate philosopher, one whose life is governed by ideas and in whose life we find the perfect balance of theory and practice. A broad and penetrating curiosity is his constant companion such that he is quick to challenge ideas and observations, habitually asking and provoking questions of no immediate practical value; he is able to entertain a thought, while remaining slow to accept it as incontrovertible.


The second of these exemplary ancient schoolmasters is found in the figure of Isokrates. To his students, Isokrates, like Socrates, appears to be the very incarnation of his lessons, and yet he is more pragmatic than his philosophical counterpart. Whereas Socrates is quick to challenge appearances and the status quo, Isokrates seeks to uncover the good, true and beautiful elements that lie beneath the outer level of appearances. He employs the rich tradition of learning in the sciences, letters and arts to point the way to the just and virtuous life. As Sophist philosophy was contrary to that of Socrates, so is “the romantic school of child psychology” contrary to the ideals and methods of Isokrates. Isokrates’ view of childhood is that it is not so much a state of being, as one of becoming. This line of thought seems to run contrary to the current academic notion of making concessions to the child, lest the rigors of the virtuous life spoil the child’s idyllic world of pleasure. What appears, at first, to be a harsh or indifferent view of the maturing child (especially to the romantic humanist), proves upon closer examination to be reflective of a remarkably perceptive vision of the child’s state of mind. No child, after all, wants to remain a child – the child wants to grow up – of utmost importance in his life are those moments of hard-won progress toward adulthood.


Aristotle and his pupil Alexander the Great


In examining the methods and mindsets of these two classical educators, it strikes me that a balance of their respective approaches is an ideal for which we strive at Clapham. Like Isocrates, we value highly the rich tradition of learning in the arts, letters and sciences. We seek to put the good, true and beautiful before our students in order to inspire them to a virtuous life of service. With the writings of Charlotte Mason informing our practice, we seek to train the affections and habits of our students, like Isokrotes, such that they become flourishing human beings. And as Socrates sought to cultivate, within himself and his students, a life characterized by curiosity and thoughtful questioning, so do we strive to nurture such a posture within ourselves and our students. Finally, as believers, we as a staff at Clapham recognize that in terms of working on what Steinbeck terms to be “the medium [of the] human mind and spirit,” we are actually but tools in the hands of the Creator – unable in and of ourselves to do the work set before us. It is with humility and thankfulness that we recognize what a privilege is given to us: to participate in God’s artistry in the lives of our students.


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