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3.05 Movement and Formative Liturgies


Demonstrating respect for one another’s ideas in discussion (especially concerning topics of the deeply philosophical, theological, personal, and sometimes controversial kind) requires a great amount of patience, composure, restraint, self-awareness and self-control. These virtues and skills are not entirely learned through Socratic discussions alone. They are not even first learned through our voices but instead learned through our bodies. This is, in part, why the pedagogy of our tradition includes gymnastics as not only a form of exercise but also a mode of learning. The gymnastics of the ancients trained their bodies as well as their minds – their muscles as well as their intellects.


In their work, The Liberal Arts Tradition, authors and classical educators Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain have described the gymnastics of the ancients as consonant with their larger vision of education to be the perfecting of human abilities. 


Clark and Jain offer us this description of gymnastics: “… we have great physical strength and dexterity; that particular part of education called gymnastic harnesses this potential and trains it. Gymnastic, however, is not undertaken merely with a view to having a healthy and well-trained body. Like musical training, it serves intellectual and moral education as well. We are unions of body and soul, and these two elements are interrelated in everything we do. On the one hand, the physical conditions required for learning are obvious, even if at times neglected. Imagine attempting to read a piece of literature with a headache, or even when overly tired; it is exceedingly difficult at best. Clearly, reading is a work of both mind and body. Similarly, the mental discipline and focus required in athletics has implications for the discipline and mental focus required for academic study. Physical discipline produces self-control, while perseverance through difficult activities produces patience and creates habits of hard work in attaining goals – virtues that are as invaluable in the classroom as they are in an athletic event (Clark and Jain, 2013).”


Reviving the pedagogy of our tradition means recognizing this dynamic relationship between physical and mental discipline, between body and mind. While respect for our tradition alone may be sufficient, we might also look to the recent findings of neuropsychologists and neo-Piagetian theorists to motivate us all the more. Herein, an “emerging” understanding of best practices points us again toward the pedagogy of our tradition. The last thirty or more years of neuropsychology have helped us understand the brain to be incredibly plastic, that is having the ability to rewire its neural networks in response to both physical trauma as well as deliberate and systematic cognitive behavioral therapy. Furthermore, the more recent and potentially paradigm shifting Dynamic Systems Theory of Linda Smith and Esther Thelan, has been grounded upon research demonstrating the dynamic relationship between action and cognition. Cognition develops through repeated cycles of perception and action or movement during which the mind self-organizes and the body seeks equilibriums (Thelen and Smith, 1994). 


Thelen and Smith describe the primacy of movement as follows: “…knowledge is inextricably tied up with action. Movement is not incidental to learning, but part of the perceptual package that is the basis of categorization and re-categorization. What infants know and what they remember is of a piece with what they see, hear, and feel. … knowledge is not constructed from the successive integration of separate modalities or from the elaboration of structures which contain general knowledge schemata. Rather, what infants know and how they act are selected continuously and dynamically from what they encounter and how they act. Sensory integration is the primitive, not the derived, state, and knowledge is limited not primarily by deficits in storage but in the ability to adequately sample and thus categorize the world (Thelen and Smith, 1994).”


In the last fifteen years an undercurrent of nonconventional and very effective clinical practices has emerged in the treatment of children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders or PDDs (Stockman, 2004). In a compilation of medical journal articles titled Movement and Action in Learning and Development, doctor Ida J. Stockman describes the common characteristic of these nonconventional practices to be a focus on movement and action – sensory-tactile-kinesthetic experiences (Stockman, 2004).


What Plato once idealized in his dialogue titled Timaeus, the perfect balance of a sound mind and body, is now what research has confirmed to be a dynamic relationship crucial to the cognitive development of our students.


Reviving this element of our tradition must not be limited to scheduling 45 minutes of weekly physical education classes. Sensory and kinesthetic processing, self-organization and integration for the sake of developing our students’ minds and bodies, in short, learning of the gymnastic kind, should regularly be occurring in our classrooms.


While this certainly challenges any ideation of a grammar school classroom filled with submissive, attentive, perfectly still and postured sponges dutifully consuming facts poured into them through lecture and rote memorization, an integration of sensory and kinesthetic experiences into your classroom needn’t translate into an extreme student-centered Dewian-disaster or Montessorian-makeover. We might carefully begin by increasing the number of manipulatives our students get their hands on, letting students respond physically to our questions, choreographing more motions into our jingles and recitations, skipping down more sidewalks, sitting, standing, kneeling, clapping, and laughing together more often, listening to and moving to music, scheduling collaborative work and play stations, doing more experiments, as well as continuing to defend physical education, art, music, choir, drama, theater, and athletics to be critical and complementary components of a classical school learning experience.


This kind of learning requires time to think, to rest, to run, to listen and to wonder. It is a re-humanizing of the learning experience that doesn’t exactly fit well into the rigid schedules, hurried pace, and ambitious curriculum guides of many of our schools. It is therefore necessary to audit our practices and identify those structures, traditions, and routines that push back against a classical pedagogy.


Many of us would credit James K. A. Smith with introducing us to the idea that our students are “liturgical animals” shaped by formative practices. In Smith’s book Imagining the Kingdom, he traces this idea back to a work of French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu titled Logic of Practice, wherein Bourdieu introduces the notion of “habitus”, a system or structure of embodied traditions, of things that come to me from outside of me often through institutions that I participate in, that grow in me a particular disposition, a particular way of making sense of the world (Smith, 2013).


In the spring of 2007, working in Richmond at a private secular k-12 bells and whistles school, I was chosen by the senior class to be the faculty speaker at a year-end assembly. I decided that my greatest service that I could do through that speech, at that time, was to draw everyone’s attention to the way in which the habitusof the school was shaping all of us. I want to share with you now the speech I shared with them some twelve years ago. 



Marked Not for Human Consumption.


Day One.

Day One.


My locker door is one of two physical barriers I will encounter today that will prevent my eyes from reaching khaki-short-pastel-belt-pink-polo-shirt saturation. The other barrier is a small metal plaque on the restroom wall reminding me of the 40,000 gallons of water that I am saving by not flushing the urinal. 


Over the next closed interval [0, 50 feet] I will pass by an assortment of fine citizens. One will say, “Hey, what’s up?” and I will answer “Not much.” Another will ask me how I am doing and I will say “fine”. One will remember that I was sick earlier this week and then ask me if I am feeling okay. I will assure him that I am “alright”.


The shortest distance between point A, the small blue door of my locker, and point B, the big blue door of my first class, is “not much…fine…alright”. These three phrases keep me close enough to something and at the same time far enough away to keep myself together. I don’t have time and I’m not ready for a breakdown, shake-up, or run-around. The honest answer to their questions does not slide off my tongue with the same ease with which my body slides down into the cusp of my designer-blue-euro-chair. 


One-half of the way through an eighty-five minute block, four of five bars left on a cell phone battery, and 33 and 1/3 percent of a five-page packet of guided notes complete, I break to use the restroom. “You are helping the environment to save 40,000 gallons of…the inverse cosecant of two is pi over six.”  Back in class. Bell rings. Class over.


Bell rings.

Bell rings.

Bell rings.

Bell rings.

Bell rings.

Class over.

School over.


I remember the side of the box as my foot slides into a new pair of shoes. 




Anima Sana in Corpore Sano.

A Latin acronym meaning “a sound mind in a sound body”.


Our route takes us to the end of a dead-end street where a guardrail prevents cars from passing through but not runners. Most runners slow down and jog around the rail. I keep running and jump over it. It is the most dangerous and deliberate action that I will take today and I feel good doing it.


I finish dinner while sweat continues to dry on my face. My shower is rushed by the feeling of the next bell already approaching. My lifeis rushed by the feeling of the next bell already approaching.


I can’t stay awake long enough to feel anything more than “fine” and “alright.”  


I am thankful that not all of my days are like this. 90.437% of the time “fine” and “alright” is precisely whatand allthat I feel.


When I do have time to think about who I am, I think about who I could be, what I could do, what I could have done, what might happen to me, …who I am.


I wonder whether or not I might escape this normality by abandoning it.


“Immediately after graduating, with honors, from Emory University in the summer of 1990, McCandless dropped out of sight. He changed his name, gave the entire balance of his account to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and then he invented a new life for himself, taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society, wandering across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience.”  (Chris McCandless, Into the Wild)


Or perhaps I might escape this reality by momentarily creating my own.


“Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world… Who I am in fight club is not someone my boss knows.  After a night in fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down… You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching… There’s grunting and noise… like the gym…hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.” (Tyler Durden, Fight Club.)


Or perhaps I shouldn’t’ even care.


“Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?”


“Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do.” I thought about it for a minute. “But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess.” (Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye.)


I am stuck in the middle, mundane, monotonous, and mechanical. A championship, blue ribbon, acceptance letter, letter grade, AP, GPA, UVA, does not appeal to me as much as [insert something quick, something trivial, something that will let me feel something, something that grabs me in the gut and shakes me up because it is so real and matters so much…or just something like a grande’-triple-extra-hot-cinnamon latte.]


I remember the scripture read from the pulpit days ago,


“And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor: and this was my portion of all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit…” (Ecclesiastes 2)


Day Two


“What’s up?”

What does he mean? Does he really want to know?


“How are you doing?”

Not so good. But if “not so good” is a subset of “fine” then I guess I am feeling “fine”.


“Are you feeling okay?”



Not even close.



I want to. I want to be a wrench in this system.


But waking up and flicking off the world is not a solution. It never is. 

It is the action to which my self-destruction is the equal and opposite reaction.


Day three.

Day five.

Day eight.


Day thirteen.

Day twenty-one.

Day thirty-four.


Day fifty-five.

Day Fifty-Six


The aisle will not be the conveyor belt that I ride on. 

A decorative hat will not be the last plastic piece at the end of a factory line. 

And my diploma will never be a certificate marking me safe for human consumption.


I am not a letter. 

I am not a number. 

I am not a list of clubs and courses. 

I am…


[insert last name comma first name, 


first name comma last name]


…and today thatis who I will be. Today, when the day ends I will not ask myself what happened tome but rather what part of me was made more real.


Ask not what your country has done to you, 

but what you have done to your country. 


I think. 


Day Fifty-Seven


Between bells I begin to live a little.

Odd ones ring and I hold on to ideas and thoughts that I can be passionate about.

Even ones ring and someone finally finds out that I am feeling something other than “not much”, “fine”, and “alright”.


Day Fifty-Eight


Between and behind the blue doors I am thankful and determined to be more alive.


Day Fifty-Nine


In quiet reflection I conclude that saving 40,000 gallons of water per urinal per year is a good thing. But it’s just one small thing and it’s got me looking for all the others.




I have often wondered what it might look like to give a speech such as this to our students today. What would I say? How are they being shaped by the liturgies, deliberate or otherwise, of our classical Christian institutions?


Be on time. Sit down. Listen up.  Grind it out. Get ‘er done. Read, read, read and read some more. Just say no to drugs and Spark Notes. Don’t talk. Don’t text. Don’t plagiarize, think creatively and think for yourself – just do, it quickly. Sing, eat, pray, and love, but only between your classes. Do your homework and study for your test, aren’t all of your tests important? Take your time and write neatly. Go, get ready, hurry up, and press on through this rigor. Build your resume. Hope you get in. In the words of Anthony Esolen, deliberately gear your life “towards that resume which will gain you admission to Higher Blunting, followed by Prestigious Work, followed by retirement and death (Esolen, 2010). 


Fortunately, the situation is not as bleak as I’ve described and many of ours schools are already doing some good work in this area. This work begins by simply doing less. Drop a book from your curriculum so that you can read another one deeply. Memorize one less passage of scripture so that you can recite and reflect uponanother, lessen the instructional time for one subject area so that you can distribute minutes to another because not all subjects need equal time and not even all of them need to be taught and graded at every level. Insert time for teachers to shepherd and mentor students in smaller groups. Lengthen your lunches. Actively manage, shorten, and closely define your homework expectations. Drop a unit of study so that you can integrate longer Socratic discussions into others. Slow down faculty projects. Make time in your faculty and department meetings for teachers to learn something new together, to listen to one another, and to pray regularly for one another.


Remember that virtue is not cultivated and affections are not turned toward the true, good, and beautiful through rigor of the exasperating kind.


Embody the things you love. Invest in building relationships. Love both your subject andyour students out loud. Awaken your students’ intellects through wonder. Tell memorable and imaginative stories rich in metaphor. Be the midwife of your students’ ideas. Let your students speak and move. Don’t ignore the structures, schedules, traditions, and routines that are shaping them. 


  1. ​How can we incorporate more movement, more sensory-tactile-kinesthetic experiences into our classrooms?

  2. What are the challenges that come with incorporating more movement into the classroom?

  3. How can you effectively manage/navigate these challenges?

  4. How are the practices, traditions, and routines of our institutions shaping the students’ affections and the concept of the good life?



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