The Value of the Non-Practical

In the short story, Luke Baldwin’s Vow, Luke lives with his uncle, who is a very practical and highly successful business man. Luke’s best friend is an old collie that belongs to his uncle. Since the dog is too old to earn his keep, Luke’s practical uncle decides to have him euthanized while Luke is gone. By following the advice of a wise old neighbor, however, Luke manages to work out an agreement with his uncle whereby Luke would pay for the dog’s keep by fetching the neighbor’s cows every day. The story ends with the dog safe and with Luke promising himself that “he would always have some money on hand, no matter what became of him, so that he would be able to protect all that was truly valuable from the practical people in the world.”
The purpose of this little essay is not to degrade the value of being practical. Nor is it to promote that our schools should stop teaching practical skills and start promoting abstract art, or other such-like modern interests. However, I fear at times that we value the practical side of life a little too highly for our own spiritual good. Or perhaps I should say that we tend to deprecate the non-practical side of life a little too much. In this essay, we will try to find a balance which will keep us from falling into this trap.

Some Definitions

 First, let’s decide what we are talking about. I could argue at length for the practicality of some subjects—like algebra, or history—which some of our people consider impractical. But let’s stick to commonly accepted designations for the moment. I have divided these into three categories.

What subjects are practical? The so-called three R’s—reading, “riting,” and “rithmetic”—usually head the list. Or, in more common terms, subjects such as mathematics, literature, spelling, and English. These subjects all teach basic skills necessary for facing life and making a living.
The second category consists of what we could call the semi-practical subjects—subjects that are not quite as important, yet are still part of a basic education. This list would include history and geography, since these help us to understand those around us, and in other lands, who need the Lord. We would include some art, since we need artists for Christian publications. We would also include science, since this teaches us about God’s creation, and helps us appreciate Him, as well as teaching practical knowledge and skills in areas such as physics. And finally, we would include music because singing is an important part of our worship and witnessing activities.
In the third category, we have the non-practical subjects or interests. There are several groups of these. First, there are those subjects that are not immediately or directly useful for most people, but which are mind stimulating or mind stretching. This category would include mathematical disciplines such as geometry, trigonometry, and algebra—all of which are excellent for teaching logical thinking skills. Literature, history, and parts of science could be included here as well, if they are taught properly.
Second, there are those subjects that teach appreciation, understanding, and sympathy for life, nature, and people. We could include teaching literature in this one again—especially poetry—as well as art, music, science, history, geography, and composition.
You will notice that I have included some overlap between practical and non-practical. Subjects such as literature, science, history, geography, art, and music can be—and should be—taught from both perspectives.

Why Would We Bother?

 Is it important for our children to learn to think logically, to appreciate beauty, and to sympathize or empathize with others? Most of us think more in terms of giving our children an education that will help them to serve the Lord, feed their families, and witness to the lost. Will the non-practical subjects benefit them in these areas? Will these subjects make them better Christians, and more useful church members?

It might depend a little on what you consider to be a good Christian, or a useful church member. A few churches seem to have a growing appreciation for members who are “yes-men.” It is considered a virtue by some to simply and almost blindly accept and defend every decision of a group, or its leaders, without further thought. Leaders and congregations who prefer this perspective will naturally prefer to bypass the non-practical subjects, because these subjects teach our children how to think, reason, evaluate, and analyze.
It is true that rebellion is condemned by the Scriptures and that at times we need to submit to the ideas of others. It is also true, however, that the Scriptures honored the people of Berea because they took time to evaluate Paul’s message, and verify it from the Scriptures, rather then just blindly submitting to it. A congregation is strongest when it is filled with people who have studied the issues facing them, and who are following the church’s practice because they have seen from their own evaluation that the church and its leaders are following truth.
The mind stretching non-practical subjects taught by a mature teacher will help to prepare our children for such a life of usefulness. Subjects like algebra and geometry, force the student to apply mathematical laws in a logical fashion, and teach him that there are consequences for not being orderly and logical. Science teaches him that the natural world has similar laws, and shows him the premium that God placed on order. Literature illustrates for him Biblical principles such as sowing and reaping (called cause and effect in literary terms), and teaches him to analyze situations and arguments to see how they fit into true to life scenarios, and Biblical principles.
Most people will see through the value of teaching mind stretching concepts, if they stop to think about it. We want our children to be able to reason and apply logic to everyday life. We do not want a church full of robots, or young people who cannot make decisions that glorify God when they face a situation not mentioned in the standards booklet.
However, what about the subjects that merely teach appreciation?
It seems to me that God loves beauty. If this is a new thought to you, think of the marvelous beauty that God placed in nature. Why did He bother designing the leafs of broadleaf trees to turn into brilliant colors every autumn? Why did He create beautiful flowers, towering mountains, and brilliantly colored birds? Why is snow white instead of gray?
The person who can find and appreciate the beauty that God has surrounded him with will be a better person. The person who blindly forges through life, never thinking of anything but dollar bills and work from early in the morning until late at night loses something very precious.
The same thing is true of the person who cannot enjoy a good book, a beautiful painting, or the harmony of a beautiful song. Some people call these things sensual, and they can become that if we live for them. But God did give us the ability to appreciate beauty in many forms. A good teacher can cultivate this sense of beauty in his students and help the student to see God in many ways that people often overlook.
Certainly, we need to make a living. Dirty dishes must be washed. Laundry needs to be looked after. Hay needs to baled before it gets rained on. But happy the housewife who can pause to enjoy the song of a meadow lark while she is hanging out laundry, and share it with her four-year-old daughter tagging at her heels. And happy the father who can stop for a moment and enjoy the beauty of a rainbow with his ten-year-old son. Happy also, the family who can enjoy a good book together, or take an evening for a picnic beside the river. Happy the students who have a teacher who can teach them the beauty of a butterfly hatching from a cocoon, a bird building a nest, or a mountain silhouetted against a sunset.
Jesus said, “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27). He saw the beauty of the flowers. You will be a better person if you learn to appreciate the beauties that God has placed around us and inside us. Your children will be better people if you can teach them to do the same.
It is true that we must teach the practical subjects to our children. There are many things they need to learn. But don’t grumble the next time that your teacher takes his students from their work to admire a rainbow, or to watch the dark clouds of an approaching storm, or even to take a spontaneous walk in the woods. He might be teaching them a lesson more important than the math class they missed. They can do math tomorrow (and should), but the opportunity to learn to appreciate some beauty around them might not repeat itself.
 [Originally published in The School Builder]

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