Today I’m going to unpack the third aspect of our school’s mission, which states that “Clapham School inspires students with an education...approached with diligence and joy.”
“Approached with diligence and joy.” That’s an interesting pairing of words, isn’t it? In my experience, positive, joy-filled occasions and good, old-fashioned hard work are often pitted against one another. Everyone here can probably recall an experience of painstaking labor, and, perhaps I’m alone on this one, but my earliest memories of this kind of labor are not necessarily associated with joy.
I’ll never forget the summer my dad decided to repaint our house. This meant him scraping off the old loose paint, scattering thousands of paint chips along the ground and leaving me to pick the chips up, one at a time, in the relentless summer heat. No, I do not have fond memories of the diligence I exhibited that summer. I did not experience joy.
So what does diligence have to do with joy? How can hard work and effort become meaningful and joy-filled? I’m reminded of the Book of Ecclesiastes, the passage in which the Preacher declares hopelessly that everything is meaningless in life, work included. “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?” he laments. Indeed, when one reflects on life today-- with our busy schedules, overflowing inboxes, endless task lists, and relentless smart phone notifications-- it is not difficult to fall into a similar sort of despair.
Likewise, it is easy to observe this threat of meaningless work, and corresponding anxiety, spilling over into education. Both parents and students today are bombarded in most schools with worksheet after worksheet, test after test. “Academically rigorous pre-schools," the high-stakes of standardized testing, and the endless quest for college readiness constantly drive parents, and in turn, our students to anxiety and frustration, leading more than a few to throw their hands up in their air and question whether it’s all really worth it.
Well, at Clapham School, we strive to resist this cultural drift into pointless educational toil and, in doing so, redeem the value and joy of diligence. This comes through engaging in meaningful work together as a community and experiencing sincere delight in one another. Taking our cues from the writings of educator Charlotte Mason, we begin with the principle that our students are persons made in God’s image, whom God created with purpose and worth. They are born with inherent curiosity and a penchant for knowledge. They develop interests and passions, hobbies and skills. They grow deep-seated intuitions for the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. They learn to act and sing, draw and paint, read and write, run and jump, dance and play, and yes, work.
You see, work, in its proper context, is a gift from the Lord given to us that we may bring glory to Him and cultivate goodness, truth, and beauty in His creation. We learn from Genesis that work is not a result of the fall; painful toil is. Work, when viewed and approached properly, is a blessing for creatures and one of the ways God uses to sanctify us and help us grow. It need not be meaningless toil, but instead can be life-giving, if, and this is the key, it is worthy work, that is, if it is befitting of the worker. If it takes into account the personhood of the worker and what she is created for.
This is why at Clapham, students spend their time reading rich literature, listening to stirring musical compositions, discussing beautiful art, and exploring the intricacies of nature. They draw entire maps of continents, like Europe and Africa, by hand. They paint with water colors the plant and animal life they discover outside these doors, imitate the beautiful art they study using oil pastels, and re-tell the inspiring stories they read and hear in class. With all this type of work going on, there simply isn’t time for worksheets. They are too busy feasting together, feasting on living ideas, as Charlotte Mason puts it.
In addition, students master, through diligent practice, the skills necessary for producing worthy work of their own. These skills include reciting poetry and scripture, spelling words properly, writing in cursive, reading fluently, singing on key, solving math problems, and conjugating verbs in Latin. They put in this hard work because, as the classical tradition reminds us, it is through mastering these skills, these tools of learning, that they will one day be able to produce their own works of art, whether it be a persuasive essay, a beautiful drawing, or an articulate lab report.
All this learning takes effort, to be sure, but it is worth it! It leads to real and tangible positive outcomes. While it is common today to lazily credit talent, or one’s natural ability, for achievement, many studies show that it is actually the dynamic combination of passion and perseverance that leads to excellence. This is precisely what Angela Duckworth argues in her 2016 bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. As Clapham students are called to engage diligently in worthy work, they are becoming grittier along the way, thereby becoming equipped for the future challenges they will face throughout life.
So, I’ve talked about diligence quite a bit at this point, but where does the joy come in? Well, as I’ve already hinted at, there is real joy that comes with engaging in worthy work. Joy, in many cases, is the culmination of our hard work. It is the moving experience of summiting the mountain peak, spotting the bald eagle after hours of keenly searching, or putting the finishing touches on a map of North America. Additionally, joy is experienced in the process of learning itself, not just in the end result. Since humans are born with God-given curiosity, we cannot help but become fascinated by creation and its Creator. When we discover knowledge about it for ourselves, through our own diligence, the mind is inspired and overcome with wonder.
But there is another kind of joy that goes on at Clapham School that is subtler. It is the joy of doing life together—peacefully, undistracted, and free of anxiety. You see, joy, fundamentally, is the response to being loved well. It is the experience that “it is truly good to be me here with you.” I’ll tell you what. Our school is not perfect, no school is, but I can tell you that we are a community that strives to delight in and love every single person here: student, teacher, parent, and, yes, grandparent. Every student is loved, treasured, and affirmed by his teacher, and most importantly, God. And when you have a community in which you can be vulnerable about your weaknesses and know that you will be loved regardless, joy is inevitable. Because all of us have weaknesses, some of us just learn how to hide them well. No, the goal isn’t to be a school free from weakness, but instead, to be a community that experiences sincere delight in one another as we journey together in pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. This is when and how diligence and joy embrace.
So while at Clapham School we do have high standards, encouraging students to diligently give their best, all the time, and develop good habits of mind, body, and character, we do so with grace and compassion. This is a difficult tension we hold together, to be sure, but this is the mission to which God has called us. To inspire students with an education that is founded on a Christian worldview, informed by the classical tradition, and yes, approached with diligence and joy.
Well, let me close with where I began: the Book of Ecclesiastes. After questioning the meaning of life and lamenting the futility of toil, the Preacher, somewhat unexpectedly, changes his tune. Inspired by God, he writes,
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God.”
Thanks be to God, the ultimate source of all joy, that Clapham School’s approach to learning is not characterized by picking up discarded paint chips, but feasting on living ideas and engaging in worthy work.
 Ecclesiastes 2:22 (ESV)
 Joy Starts Here, 14.
 Ecclesiastes 2:24-26a (ESV)
Note: This material was originally given as an address at Grandparents and Special Friends Day, November 2018.