By Dr. Matthew Boyleston
The following is a brief introduction to HBU’s freshman composition reader, Writing for Wisdom. This reader was put together by the English Department in order to provide our students with a truly Christian and Classical approach to compositions studies. However, early in the process, we felt that without a proper direction in which to approach their studies, our students would flounder or pursue goals of learning that were inconsistent with or a reduction of the higher principles of Christian education. We found a model, unsurprisingly, in the works of St. Augustine. I offer this introduction as an example of how to inspire students to study rightly and I hope it is of use to our readers.
What does writing for wisdom mean?
Writing for wisdom means moving past mere mechanical skills and rigid forms to use writing as a vehicle for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual wrestling. Writing for wisdom means moving past the kinds of fashionable current event topics normally assigned in Freshmen Composition classes to engage with wider issues and questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? How do I know I am of value? It means carrying on a dialogue with our status as citizens in a deliberative democracy who are called to ponder the nature of the good man, the good life, and the good society. It means, finally, the twin pursuit of knowledge and virtue: seeking not only to define the nature of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, but to realize it in our studies, our choices, and our lives.
Seven Steps to Wisdom (Adapted from Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana):
As Houston Baptist University students, you should be devoted to the acquisition of wisdom as the correct end to the learning of knowledge and skills. This goal is what distinguishes a Christian Liberal Arts education from that of a secular school. To help you keep track of your development, we have adapted St. Augustine’s Seven Steps to Wisdom from his book, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine / Learning/ Teaching). These are sequential steps and should help you monitor your responsibilities as a Christian student and scholar.
1. One must first study under the fear of God. As a Christian, you are responsible for the right use of your gifts, talents, and time. College is a special gift that has been given to you and you must take full advantage of this gift and apply what you have learned here in the proper service of the Lord and your country.
2. One must study with loyal obedience (or faith). You must have faith that we, as your teachers, know what is best for you. The texts we have asked you to read and the exercises we have asked you to complete have been developed over countless generations and represent the best practices in Christian education. You must be loyal to the curriculum and the vision of Houston Baptist University and have faith in your professors and administrators.
3. One must study with scientia or knowledge. Information does not exist in a bubble. To fully understand what you are studying you must acquire knowledge of the entire discipline. Just because you do not take a specific class in English Renaissance Literature does not mean that you may ignore the important contribution of this literature. Study is like an iceberg: only a fraction of what you need to know may be covered in classes. Classes give you the skills so that you may acquire full knowledge of a discipline on your own. Furthermore, the liberal arts should speak with a unified voice. Even if you are an English major, you must also learn every other liberal art. How can you have an accurate picture of the English Civil War without knowledge of the religious, historical, political, literary, and sociological issues involved in this time period?
4. One must study with strength. Good study and scholarship is hard. Often you will need to read works multiple times, rewrite an essay through numerous drafts, and practice an art for innumerable hours. You must study with the strength of best practices as determined through trial-and-error, over generations. Lastly, you must persevere through a discipline even if the discipline leads you into areas where you are not presently comfortable.
5. One must study with good counsel. Good counsel includes reading the best books, citing the best and most reliable sources, and referring to the best commentators and analysts. Your professors offer good counsel. However, you are primarily responsible for your own learning. We offer counsel, but we do not do the work for you.
6. One must study with purity of heart. You must study for the right reasons. Although getting a job, making money, and obtaining skills are all noble pursuits, the main reason a Christian studies is to develop wisdom which he may then put in the service of the Lord and his country. Keep your eye on this goal at all times. Often, if an assignment or a reading does not seem immediately applicable, it may be because the goal is wisdom and not merely a skill-set.
7. Finally, one must study for wisdom. Wisdom sees the full complexity of an issue. Wisdom sees how all the disciplines work together and interact. Wisdom also sees the correct use of the knowledge and skills gained through study. To be wise brings you back to the first step, the fear of the Lord. As the psalmist states, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.
Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1999.
About the Author
Dr. Matthew Boyleston is an associate professor at Houston Baptist University. His book of poems, “Viewed from the Keel of a Canoe”, was published in 2016 by Educe Press. His poems and essays have appeared in over 40 national journals.