Do Not Grow Cancer:
The Problem of Appealing To Pride in Students
There is something repulsive which happens too often between teacher and student. It is something the teacher does to the student. Usually, I believe, the teacher does it with good intentions, goodwill, and the hope of bettering the student. It happens when a student disappoints and breaks the rules. It happens when the student does well and earns a commendation. It happens to whole classes, sometimes for no reason at all. And the devil uses it to ruin souls.
What is it? It is the problem of appealing to pride in a student. (I want us to think through this problem with some help from C.S. Lewis and his chapter in Mere Christianity titled The Great Sin.)
It happens with comments like these: “You’re better than that,” “This is the smartest class,” “I would expect (insert negative) from some other students, but not from you,” “Our school is better than their school” and so on. It can happen in very subtle ways too: any time a teacher communicates that a student’s or school’s value is in superiority to another.
What is wrong with this? It instills the spiritual cancer known as pride in a student. And pride is a vice worse than all others. According to C.S. Lewis, “it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Pride “is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves,” wrote Lewis.
Pride, according to Lewis,
does not come through our animal nature at all [like other vices]. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy’s Pride, or as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity–that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride–just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains [a condition of skin damage from cold or humidity] cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.
I hope you see, fellow teacher, why pride is so awful and why we must not foster it in our students. When we address students’ identity and value, we teach them how to think of their eternal souls. We must remember the value of each soul, created in the image of God, and never dirty it by appealing to this spiritual cancer of pride.
Are some schools actually better than others? Yes! In many ways one school differs from another: in quality of teachers, quality of educational models, spiritual content (or lack thereof), worldview, student-teacher ratio, etc., and we should discern these differences. Are some students actually better than others? Yes! Students have different strengths and weaknesses. One will excel in mathematics while another is a born musician, and so on. We should discern such differences, but how we do so will betray the pride or humility of what one is compared to another.
Is it wrong to praise or chastise a student or a whole class? No. But what matters is how we do so. We should challenge a student to do his best work. We should commend a student when she excels in something. We should correct and train students when they are wrong or lazy or misguided. The problem is not in the act of praising or chastising a student; the problem is in how we do it.
To understand where to draw the line with how we train our students, we have to understand the nature of pride itself. Lewis wrote this,
Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive–is competitive by its very nature… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer or cleverer, or better-looking than others. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of comparison has gone, pride is gone.
Yet we can train children to do their best, to learn and grow and glorify God in academics, athletics, relationships, etc., without appealing to pride. We can teach a child to delight in love for mastery of history or geography or math, and even in the knowledge that he or she does exceptionally well in such an area. However, the delight should come from the child’s best effort and God-given abilities, not from his or her superiority to others. We can train them to do their best in these ways. Before God we must do so.
How do we train children without appealing to pride? Let me offer a few suggestions: first, we must recognize and repent of the sin of pride in our own lives. Second, we must strive for humility by upholding the glory and supremacy of Christ. Third, we must motivate students to delight in the goodness of excellence and what is right from hearts that love God and people. Let me explain each of these.
First, we must recognize the sin of pride in our own lives as teachers. Yes, we are guilty of this sin. Whenever we think highly of ourselves through comparison to anyone else, in conduct or abilities or achievements, we are indulging in the vice of pride. When we do so, should we be surprised that our students follow in our footsteps? As people who have been redeemed by Christ, we should recognize our complete dependence on his grace and not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Lewis: “Whenever we find that our religious life [even as teachers] is making us feel that we are good–above all, that we are better than someone else–I think we may be sure that we are being acted upon, not by God, but by the devil.”
Second, we must strive for humility by upholding the glory and supremacy of Christ. In pride, we seek to glorify ourselves over and above others. In humility, we behold the glory and supremacy of Christ, a vision which burns away our pride; He deserves all praise and it is our joy and honor to give it to him. In pride we are in bondage to always make ourselves better than the rest. In humility we rest in the freedom of a true and honest estimation of ourselves and our abilities–because Christ makes us what we could never live up to by ourselves or through our own efforts. Lewis helps us identify true humility, which comes in the presence of God: “The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”
Third, we must motivate students to delight in the goodness of excellence and of what is right from hearts that love God and people. By God’s grace we should strive for excellence. We should push students to be and do their best. We should hold students to the gloriously high standards of God’s word. We should lead them to love what is right and good and beautiful. By God’s grace we should teach students the goodness of what is right, and to love it from hearts that love God and people. And for students to love what God loves and hate what God hates, God must work regeneration in them. In this way, we should remember that as Christian educators our foremost priority is to make disciples of Christ. When God so works in our students, through our efforts, then our teaching will be marked by inviting students with us to see and enjoy the goodness and excellence of what is right. Then our students will learn and grow for God’s glory. Then what drives our students to excellence will be love, for God and neighbor.
Fellow teacher, please remember this: do not grow cancer in your students.