The Fear of God

I have been contemplating thoughts about educational motivation for some months now, working off this map of motivation.  I have considered external motivations, and have now worked my way through several fears, such as ignorance, materialism and other’s expectations.  So now I turn to one last fear, the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.  As fears go, it is the most preferable as a motivating factor.

I am entering into a discussion of theology here, and must assert my lay amateur status in doing so.  I have a degree in Theology which makes me dangerous, not authoritative.  So please understand that I admit there is lots of room for error.

That being said, I understand the many passages in Scripture that command us to “fear the Lord” and state that this fear is the beginning of wisdom are aiming us at the source of truth, goodness, and beauty.  We cannot be wise (live according to the truth) if we do know the source of wisdom – God.  And we cannot rightly know God without a proper fear or reverence or awe for Who He Is.


So this fear is not the same as the fear considered in previous blogs, as it is proper to see God as One Who is above us, beyond us, sovereign over us.  It may be a lack of courage that causes us to fear for our own well being to the point of fearing ignorance, materialism, or other’s opinions/expectations of us, but fearing God is a legitimate and virtuous thing for all people.

In future meditations I will discuss the motivating factors of love and appetite, but must state that proper love and appetite for learning originate and proceed from this fear.  Thus any teacher seeking to properly motivate learning must direct the student’s heart toward the fear of God.  I don’t think any proper learning will occur without it.  Whatever is gained through learning apart from this fear will end in frustration and ruin.

This idea, of course, can be meditated upon and have corollaries extrapolated from it ad infinitum.  But I will stick to some basic thoughts, questions that come from this concept:

  • This fear is not a call to manipulation – I don’t hold God over a child’s head to scare him into performance. That would not be a fear of God but a fear of punishment.
  • I don’t think this fear can be instilled in a student if it is absent from the teacher. It is not a science inculcated through lecture, but an art caught from observation of others, most notably the parents and teachers.
  • The integration of all learning begins in this fear – God is the source of all Truth, and its only proper end. This is, by the by, a strong argument against the current manner of public education which seeks to educate apart from any reference to God.  As I have said many times before, “Real education is illegal in the American government schools.”
  • This fear is a positive thing, not a negative thing. It comes from and adds to our love for God but is not the same concept.  Loving God includes fearing Him or rightly seeing Him for Who He is.
  • It is impossible to fear both God and man. I think many educational choices boil down to Whom it is that I fear most – God or man.

I am sure there is much more here, but those are my current courses of thought on this huge subject.


Fear of Others Expectations


It is a human desire to please those we love.  It is also quite human to try and please those who have the power to enrich or empower us.

“I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. — These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.” – Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Vol. 1, Ch. 14

In considering how to motivate learners to good learning, I have considered first the external motivations, then have begun to consider the internal motivation of fear, first considering ignorance, than materialism.  So now I turn to this fear, the fear of violating other’s expectations for me.

Parental expectations are probably the most common issue here.  I will not enter into a psychological review of this, but rather admit that many students simply fear upsetting Mom or Dad and thus seek to get good grades in school.  Or they fear what some future employer or a college may expect of them, so they go about earning the diploma or grade they perceive will unlock those future expectations.  But such motivations are temporary at best.  At some point they no longer promote good learning.  I am not sure they ever promote true learning, but push students into the way of an education almost by reluctance.  “I don’t want to really learn, but they want me to, and I want to please them, or at least not get in trouble with them, so I will learn because they want me to.”

Every teacher meets with this regularly, but overcoming it is difficult.  The desire to please is not always bad.  But there are greater motives than this.  Perhaps this issue highlights one aspect of motivation: there is are greater and lesser motives.  The summum bonum, considered regularly on this blog, is the greatest motivation.  To get a good job or keep from getting grounded are good motives.  To obtain a better life by seeking its highest good is a much better motive than the others.

This smaller motive or fear can be overcome by something greater than itself.  And I don’t mean fastening the student on graduate school rather than just a Bachelors.  I mean that the Greatest can overcome the simply Good.  This again is an issue of appetites.  Wanting, desiring, seeking the positively best will help the student overcome fears about the lesser things.

The only help I know for this is to find teachers who love higher things.  A teacher seeking truth is going to spark that passion in others if they get the chance.  A good school will seek such teachers and then seek to keep them, and get them near as many students as they can.  Keeping all the right people properly flattered can then be left for folks like Mr. Collins (may their tribe find an island far away from me).

The Monster of Materialism

Having mapped out a large number of possible motivations for learning, and having then blogged my way through the external motivations, and having started in on the internal ones by addressing the fear of ignorance, I pick up now with a second fear, that of materialism.  By this I mean the fear most of us have of not having enough money to meet our needs, followed closely but differently by the appetite to consume ever more things to find happiness.  The fear of not having enough is dealt with here; the appetitive issue of consumerism will come later.

I believe many students are motivated to learn in order to earn.  I am often faced with the question, “How will I use this in a job?” which is loosely translated into the modern vernacular as, “How can I turn this into money?”  The student is motivated by the earning power of his learning.  To the extent that he is dealing with the fact that they want to grow up and become self-supportive, this is a good motivation.  But it is shortsighted at best.  Some learning is designed to make one a good wage earner, but we used to refer to these abilities and studies as the servile or manual arts.  And they did not require a college education.  They required apprenticing to a master who already knew those specific arts.


The kind of learning that once upon a time sent young people up into the university was the kind which demanded they pursue the liberal or freeing arts: those studies that suited them to professions of leadership, and yes, often good money.  Somewhere along the line we got confused and started thinking a college degree meant better money.  More on that later.

For now it is enough to contemplate that real learning can occur when a student wants the reward of a good job.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be paid well enough to care for himself and those dependent upon him.  But this is a lower goal than that of seeking learning for other even higher and nobler reasons.  These internal motivations will bring about a life that should be able to “make a living” even while living for something more than a paycheck.

As far as it goes, fear of this sort is helpful for keeping a young person focused on his studies, but only as it brings obvious progress toward a good paying job.  The teacher will continue to hear the questions about how learning is associated with earning as long as this is the prevailing motivation for his learning.  Calling the student to something higher and nobler seems the best way to help both student and teacher move the lessons beyond the mere “color of money.”  Our next contemplation will be on the fear of other’s expectations.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

I am continuing a long thread of thoughts concerning the motivation to learn, started here with a chart that is central to my thinking.  The first internal motivation to learn that I wish to address is the general category of “fear.”  As this can be a confusing term, I will first define “fear” then seek to show at least four possible fears that motivate one to learn.

Fear can be both a negative and a positive emotion.  Negatively, it sparks in us the desire to either fight or flee from the scene.  This negative reaction occurs when we face some challenge or circumstance the consequences of which we believe will cause us pain or loss.  When I fearfully stare down or run from a bully, I am afraid because he might physically or socially harm me.  I am up against something capable of “defeating” me and I fear such defeat may harm me.

On a positive note, many of our fears are simply the safety mechanism by which better choices are chosen.  When I fear electrocution while seeking to install a ceiling fan, I am simply giving the power of electricity its due respect.  I would count this as a positive thing, as it is wise to respect something that can in fact harm and even kill me.  To not fear such things would be closer to a negative than the actual fearing of them.

In thinking through motivations to learning, I have listed fear as a major internal motivator.  I sense that fear is a major motivator for many of our modern choices.  I have specifically highlighted four forms of fear that deserve to each be developed with a blog post of their own:  Ignorance, Materialism or the “job fear,” the expectations of others or “mob fear,” and finally the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.  I develop the first three as more or less negative fears and the last one as a positive.  The rest of this post deals with the first one, a fear of ignorance.

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by claiming that “All men by nature desire to know.”  Thus, if he is true, then all men have some fear of “not knowing.”  Some have tried to shorten Thomas Gray’s line from his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, in which he states “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”  They want to state that ignorance is always bliss.  I find little justification for this change, even though there are circumstances in which we would rather not know, as knowledge brings pain and unpleasant duties, nonetheless knowledge is better than ignorance, and more surely leads us to happiness.

So most men are motivated to learn by a fear of being left out, of being left in darkness, of not knowing what might be known.  This is a motivation worthy of some exploration in the classroom.  Asking compelling questions can excite this fear.  The question incites a seeking of the answer because it is something we do not wish to remain ignorant of.  I think this is what is behind a great class to some extent:  the student sees the possibilities of knowledge and is not content with ignorance, rather fears they will be left behind if they don’t find out answers to compelling or “great” questions.  While not a suitable motivation for all learning, this certainly plays its part.


The behaviorist does not seem willing to credit this fear sufficiently.  He wants us to motivate with the fear of punishment and the desire for reward.  Perhaps we would be better served to award a student with acquired knowledge than with a proverbial carrot of some other kind.  The typical student wants to know some things, so let the teacher channel this fear of ignorance into the noon day light of knowledge.

Pushing with Paideia

What external forces can push someone toward an education?  In my last post I simply stated that motivation to learn comes from both external and internal forces.  I think it is easy to defend the thesis that internal motivations far exceed any external ones, but I cannot lightly dismiss the role played by these forces outside the student.  I have indicated in my mind map at least four such forces:  Parents (I might expand this family, as siblings and other relatives can certainly be involved), Government, “School” or what might be called the Academy, and general Culture.

Family paideia

Family is the single greatest external force for education on any student.  This can of course work in both directions.  A family that reads, has conversation, loves the True, Good, and Beautiful, and generally expects a member of itself to be growing in their knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, is pushing its members further into education.  This is almost a universal altruism, although there are certainly exceptions.  But a family which is not the above is not neutral to a student’s education, but often makes the gaining of such very difficult.  I have encountered parents who saw that their family was not what it ought to be seek to make up for that lack by buying into a good education at a great school and finding that their child was ill suited for that environment because they had learned otherwise in their own home.

A government can only use the coercion of law to motivate students.  In America, we decry the rate of high school dropouts, but we have made it law that students only have to attend until they are sixteen years of age.  We recognize the limits of these truancy laws and don’t even make them adequate to our desires (as in requiring a student to attend until completing a high school degree, for instance).  Perceiving that to motivate by law requires adequate law enforcement, our government has chosen to lessen the requirements rather than wage the truancy war it would undoubtedly have to wage if it chose to push the laws to eighteen or completion.  This form of “motivation” frankly just is not one that works well.

When the government is in charge of schooling, as in America, it makes it harder for the Academy to provide its own motivation.  In a land of non-compulsory education, where only those who want to be in school are in school, then the Academy can exert a lot more motivation.  Those who want the benefits of a good education will have to rise up to a school’s expectations.  But when schooling is compulsory, the standards have to be adjusted to what can reasonably be expected from all school aged children, not just those who are enrolled voluntarily.  I think this external pressure is potentially valuable, but thwarted by government intervention in our land.  Making a horse stand at the well is not the same as convincing the horse to come to the well because it is where the water is.  I think you take the compulsory nature of school out of the picture and American education shoots through the roof.

Finally, there is the general culture of a land.  The Greeks understood this pressure to be the culmination of all things in a culture collectively referred to by the almost indefinable and certainly untranslatable paideia.  In short (as I cannot possibly develop well here what it took a man like Werner Jaeger several thousand pages to define), this concept contends that the sum total of our activity as a community moves its members toward some ultimate end.  A strong culture will motivate its members toward gaining as much knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as each can because the culture knows such pursuits are good for all.  American culture presses its young members to pursue education, but the end of such seems more utilitarian than liberal.  It asks its young people, “What is your major?” and then asks “How are you going to make money off that?”  Not a bad end, mind you, just a much lower end than could be sought after.

External motivations can be very powerful and must be considered when discussing student motivation, but they are also much more difficult to change, affect, and influence.  So I turn the rest of my consideration to internal motivations.

What Motivates Learning?

The teacher asks a compelling question (at least he thought it was) and the students just stare.  Or worse, they don’t even hear the question because their minds are far away.  The student called upon dutifully reads from John Donne, but the rest of the class, again, is a million miles away.  One of the basic laws of learning is that the learner must be engaged, attentive, “there” in the class.  How does a teacher bring this basic requirement to pass?  What constitutes the conditions for an attentive student?

Having taught for a quarter of a century, I thought I would have the answer by now.  I thought that with enough experience and experimentation I would find the silver bullet that would set all minds to attentive consideration of the lesson at hand.  But I regularly still see the dull eye, the glazed look, the mind steering the body toward anything other than careful attention to the subject at hand.  While I think there are answers to be considered outside the scope of my own teaching choices, such as the effects of culture, technology, etc., I wish to spend some time in an series of extended meditations on the following brief mind map I have been considering regarding “The Motivation to Learn.”  Input is greatly valued.

Here is the mind map as it stands.  (If I update it, I will change it here.)

151214 mindmap of educational motivations 2

The first dichotomy is between internal and external motives.  There is some overlap even in these large categories.  Some internal motivations are affected by external ones, and vice versa.  I will try to spend some time on the external motivations, but I think the internal ones are significantly more important and harder to clarify, so most of my time will focus on these.  Like many of my blog plans, this may all get set aside at some point, but this is the plan for now.

At the heart of my meditations on motivation is the desire to cultivate virtue in my students.  I want them to want the right things: to love all things rightly.  Some will wonder at the position in my map of “Love” being at the bottom.  But I do believe it to be at the bottom or underlying everything else.  It is the deepest root.  I don’t believe it to be from without, but rather from within the student.  It is necessarily damaged by the damaged nature of the student, but it is there, can be cultivated, and should be meditated upon by those who would teach in a manner aimed at the humanity or soul of the student.  I think it is a meditation that saves the soul of the teacher at least as much as that of the student.  Teaching to glazed eyes kills the soul of the teacher as much as the one with the glazed eyes.




Late every school year things start to whirl out of control.  It is at such moments that many educators start to contemplate the issue of motivation.  I don’t know if any of the following is helpful, but it does help me to line it out…

The Problem:

In order for a student to learn, they must be attentive to the idea being acquired.  Many in our day find attending for an extended time difficult, and many just don’t see the point of learning.  So the problem is seeking to find a way to bring students to prolonged attention upon the lesson before the class.

Considerations and Factors:

  • Few children today are taught to attend either by their parents or their teachers.  This is a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem.
  • Many teachers today form lessons that are hard to attend to, in part due to a changing definition of education and in part because they themselves, working off the model of their own teachers, have a poor education themselves (I include myself in this group, so please don’t be offended, it might not apply to you).
  • Due to our move from normative education (which calls students to a high ideal) to something more akin to vocational training (which calls students to a good paycheck) it is harder to become passionate about education thereby be motivated to excel, because the ideals are gone.
  • At the center of motivation, at least as I understand it, is the heart.  It must be nourished on truth, goodness, and beauty so that it can properly order its affections and steer both the mind’s thoughts and the belly’s appetites toward a high calling (most notably “the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.,” see Phil. 3:14).

Possible Solutions:

To solve this problem of motivation, I see several suggested solutions in our current educational culture:

  1. Move the Standards of Excellence to the middle of the road so students find success redefined in much easier terms.
  2. Continue to press the “money” button as this is the only true motivation of the modern man – study or you won’t “get anywhere” in life.
  3. Carrot and Stick – modify the student’s behaviors by rewarding the grade hound and punishing the losers (ie. the low grade student).
  4. Let’s make learning fun – related to “1” above, this solution calls for us to use games, technology, parties, whatever is at hand and considered “motivating” at the moment to bring short term performance oriented results.
  5. Considering the problem above, one might simply work through the considerations and factors and seek to change some or all of those:
    • Teach the habits of mind that aid in attending – teach the memory, teach the tastes, teach the love of hard work, etc.
    • Focus on developing teachers who develop truly “interesting” or real lesson plans – have them teach from an overflowing and well educated heart, rather than the latest “book” (this will take generations to pull off).
    • Reorient education to norms again (this is why I tout Hick’s Norms and Nobility so much).  This is closely related to Adler’s call for the high school seminar – reorienting the classroom toward ideas away from “bare facts” or “skills” will do much to recover the student’s interest in the lessons taught.
    • But in the end, perhaps the most helpful thought I can share is the recognition that there is no silver bullet – no one “idea” will reform education.  The loss of true education in America was generations ago, and it was a loss of our collective soul, so you can’t simply write, read, preach, workshop, or pull things back into shape.  We must first recover our soul.  And that is a large task that requires supra human help.