An earlier version of this article originally appeared in How to Get A Life: Empowering Wisdom for the Heart and Soul, Lawrence Baines and Daniel McBrayer, editors (Atlanta: Humanics Publishing Group, 2003).

Jacob’s Children and Ours:
Richard of St. Victor’s Curriculum for the Soul

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 2/13/18

There are areas in which public schools cannot do well but public school teachers succeed, and dealing wisely with the soul of a child is probably one of them. Be patient here, please: I am aware of and endorse the constitutional restraints on religion in public schools. I share with my separationist friends a distrust of religious activity by the state and many doubts about government’s ability to deal adequately with issues of faith and morals. But we should remember that not only do the courts forbid any action by government schools not prompted by a “secular primary purpose” or which would “principally and primarily” aid religion; they also forbid any that would inhibit it, and they further require that these conundrums be resolved without creating “excessive entanglement” of government and religion. Much of religious parents’ dissatisfaction with public education undoubtedly arises from concern about the possible negative impact of public schooling on their children’s faith and morals. My argument is that teachers may want to reconsider practices that could inhibit the development of faith in their children, and consider practices of general application that would accommodate grace without overstepping the bounds of law.

Over the past several years the courts have created some interesting possibilities and perils by reducing the perceived hostility of church and state. Under the Clinton administration, tentative moves were made toward government cooperation with religious groups that also provide social services. The careful balance of piety and public service shown by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice-president in 2000, remains impressive. And President George W. Bush’s inauguration speech set what is becoming a new direction: “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and laws.”1

But as we are all aware, we are still a long way from a comfortable relationship between faith and public schools, and the First Amendment can, alas, also be referred to as the Full Employment for Attorneys Act of 1787. Perhaps we can discuss ways in which public school teachers can accommodate faith and education in their own practice, adding the wisdom of the patriarchs to the research of the professors and the experience of the practitioners, and do so without facing prosecution. Obviously, our discussion cannot be comprehensive, but perhaps it can ask some ancient questions in a way that will provoke some fresh answers.

One place to start is the precise junction of monastic and university education, the twelfth-century Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, a few yards down the road from the nascent Sorbonne. As Ivan Illich has described, St. Victor was simultaneously the intellectual and spiritual center of Europe in the last generation or two immediately preceding the founding of the universities.2 Highly regarded by contemplatives but little known to educators is the abbey’s mid-twelfth-century prior, Richard, one of whose books has much to offer us. The Twelve Patriarchs (also referred to as Benjamin Minor) employs a popular medieval literary device, allegory,to tell the story of the Biblical family of Jacob (Gen. 29–50) in a thirteen-step curriculum. The work takes the Christian from fearful penitence to the heights of contemplative spirituality with a pedagogical method similar to that of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and a stage theory similar to those of Piaget and Kohlberg.3 The steps of Richard’s curriculum are, in order:

(1) fear,

(2) the contrition that follows fear,

(3) the hope given upon our repentance,

(4) the love that arises in response,

(5) the prudence with that love looks ahead for dangers,

(6) the disciplined will that arises from prudence,

(7) temperance in prosperity,

(8) patience in hardship,

(9) the radiance that comes with all of the above,

(10) the zeal with which we so often respond to that excitement.

(11) the shame that inevitably follows our making a pig’s breakfast out of our zeal,

(12) the discretion that we learn as a result of that shame, and finally,

(13) contemplation—direct, nondiscursive experience of grace.

It was an extraordinary curriculum, which, combined with the ideas and literary innovations of the other Victorines, led directly to the Scholastic movement and the foundation of the University of Paris. From there developed the European university system, the scientific revolution, modernity, and eventually, our own public K–12 system.

If Richard’s ideas are paralleled in some ways by modern educators, in some ways they are counterintuitive and even antithetical to “current best practice.” The Twelve Patriarchs is a product of a peculiar way of reading, lectio divina, which is quite foreign to those of us brought up to think of the printed word as either informational, to be skimmed quickly, or as something literary or ideological, to be analyzed and criticized. Lectio is a slow reading of texts of lasting or sacred value, in which every line is prized as nutrition for rumination rather than as a target for critique.

This devotional reading of a text is followed by intellectually strenuous meditation, then contemplation in which the mind is quieted in order to hear God. Lectio occasionally results in a wordless experience of God Himself, but more often it elicits thoughts filled with self-revelation (or if you wish, metacognition) and laced with analogy, metaphor, and simile.4 Although some of Richard’s allegorical-analytical stretches do not hold up under modern literary criticism, they have long proved useful to monastics in promoting spiritual formation, and might be useful in preventing educators from inhibiting it.

Richard uses Jacob’s first wife, Leah, as a trope for affection, because of her near-blindness and her status as an emotional outcast—the unloved wife. Rachel, the one Jacob really wanted, was both beautiful and clear-sighted, so Richard accepts the centuries-old tradition that identified her with reason. In view of his native cleverness transformed into wisdom through a life of wrestling with God, Jacob himself is associated with ordered reason.

Fear and Contrition

Popular psychology and many educators tend to see fear as an evil to avoid, forgetting that not all stress is distress. Other educators use fear only as a tool for classroom management. But there is nothing wrong with fear per se. Police officers, soldiers, and principals know that those who are not fearsome cannot be protective. Richard, too, saw the value of appropriate fear as the starting point for positive education.

When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb. Rachel, however, was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Gen. 29:31–32).

A gloss in the New Revised Standard Version translates the Hebrew “Reuben” as “See, a son.” But Richard’s equally plausible translation, “son of vision,” leads to an important point for our warmest and fuzziest educators and also for our coldest and hardest.

It is written:“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”(Ps.110:10). Therefore this offspring is the first of the virtues. Without it you are not able to have others. At Reuben’s birth his mother rightly exclaims,“God has seen my abasement,” because from that time she should begin to see and to be seen; to know God and to be known by God; to see God through the intuition of dread; to be seen by God through the regard of kindness. (VIII, p. 60)

Leah’s “son of vision” was the offspring of that most dreadful of fears—the fear of being unloved—and of the vision of deliverance from that fear. This is, of course, a fear to which young adolescents are especially vulnerable. I wonder if the reader can generate some kindly and constructive uses of fears like this one, which so many kids naturally have, without falling into the “old school” trap of imposing brutality.

For Richard, the next step after fear is sorrow or contrition, which he identifies with Leah’s second son, Simeon (from the Hebrew shm’a -- hearing), whose name refers to the Lord’s “having heard” her sorrow. In spite of preaching to the contrary, this contrition is based in humility rather than guilt. Sadly, much contrition in our schools is misdirected: kids who need humbling are stroked, and those who need building up are torn down, with the result that a lot of kids and teachers have a hard time listening to one another.

In our “progressive” devotion to self-esteem, too many moderns have forgotten that humility is a prerequisite for learning: after all, if a kid thinks he has all the answers, why should he learn? Many “traditionalists” still make the opposite mistake: not humbling kids, but humiliating them. Although it is cruel for teachers to deny praise and support to those whom life has savaged, it is foolish to lavish it on the smug. Richard’s thinking here suggests that we explore (1) when to humble a kid and when to build one up; (2) how we can humble without humiliating; and (3) how we may build up without puffing up.

Hope and Love

The connections between fear and contrition and hope and love are made through Leah’s next two children, Levi and Judah. Richard associates Levi with “hope,” largely through the redemptive role attached to the Levitical priesthood. The Levites’ patronymic, in fact, comes from a root meaning “attached” or “added.” This leads Richard to an important distinction.

The divine word does not call this son “given” but “added,” lest anyone presume to have hope of forgiveness before fear and grief worthy of repentance, for whoever compliments himself with impunity after committing crimes without satisfaction is not so much raised up by hope as he is thrown down by presumption. (X, p. 62)

Is much of the optimism fostered by public school practices just such a presumption, a misplaced hope in ourselves? Much of the philosophy underpinning American public schools for the past century has featured a Promethean belief in the ongoing progress of humanity (compare John Dewey’s Democracy and Education with Jacques Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads), forgetting that the world’s most educated nation gave us Auschwitz and Dachau, and the world’s most successful one gave us Hiroshima and Bhopal.5 How might public school teachers promote a more realistic hope without confusing our discipline with theology on the one hand, or debasing it with despair or cynicism on the other?

The name of Leah’s fourth child, Judah, is translated as “confessing,” but in Richard’s vocabulary confessing is more like praise and adoration for the Creator and His teaching. Psalm 119 expresses it well—not the way Christians usually understand it (as a Pharisaical paean to restrictive kosher laws), but as devout Jews express adoration for Torah. Tevye depicts this love wistfully in Fiddler on the Roof:

If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day
And that would be the sweetest thing of all. . . .

Wouldn’t we be delighted to have such lovers of wisdom among our students? Adoration is a learned behavior, and there are many ways to learn it. In Philippians 4:8, St. Paul suggests beginning with a simple shift of attention:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

As valuable as our schools’ emphasis on critical thinking skills might be, there is also room for convergent thinking. Certainly we should teach the kid to think well, and not to follow every pronouncement of authority or every appeal to sentiment. But one wonders if ultracritical theory,promulgated by some professors who suspect sinister or exploitive or “hegemonic” motives of everyone but themselves, is truly critical or simply hateful, an ancient vice masquerading as a postmodern virtue. Nearly 700 years after Richard, another professor at the Sorbonne put it nicely, encouraging us to view the author as “a partner in truth,” whether we end up agreeing with him or not.6 Educators might well consider how they can revive the medieval goal of teaching children “to love and desire the good.”

Prudence and an Educated Will

Leah’s “blind affection” has proven remarkably fertile. After the birth of Judah (adoration), she feels satisfied. However, Richard explains that an “ordered affection” for God such as that symbolized by Judah motivates us to want to know more about God. At this point our cognitive Rachel resents her affective rival and longs for children, but alas, remains infertile. So she gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah, whom Richard rather imaginatively associates with “imagination.” Bilhah produces two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Richard is on safer ground in translating “Dan” as “judgment” or “prudence,” which he puts next in his scope and sequence: those with good imaginations need good judgment and foresight.

After almost thirty years of teaching young people, many of whom were disconcertingly creative and clever, I have to give Richard’s insight here a hearty if non-Baptist “Amen!” Naphtali means “wrestling” and Richard has to stretch this one for his purposes; just as Jacob is victorious in his wrestling with God, so Naphtali represents a victorious wrestling of the will, because he is the son of Imagination and the Brother of Judgment.

In a synthesis remarkable for an era in which the affective appeal of the Franciscans and Cistercians contended with the intellectual rigor of the Benedictines and Dominicans, Richard depicted affection as leading to intelligence, the two combining to make wisdom. Here he takes after his predecessor Hugh of St. Victor, who gives the ponderous proverb “In all your getting, get wisdom” a delightful twist: “Scientias iucunda non est”: “Knowledge by itself is no fun!” As affect and intellect were in tension for the twelfth-century lover of wisdom, so are freedom and self-control, creative and critical thinking, and spirit and science today. What may we suggest to help young people temper the beginnings of love and the fun of imagination with foresight and restraint?

Temperance and Patience

Once again, Richard provides some good beginnings. Prudence and willpower moderating imagination help us to control our appetites and produce temperance in the midst of abundance and patience in the face of suffering. Richard lays the scriptural basis for that attainment by recounting how Leah, envious of Rachel’s success as an adoptive mother, gives Jacob her servant Zelpha, whom Richard allegorizes as that natural handmaid of affection, sensation. She bears two sons, and poor old Leah declares that she is finally “happy” with little Gad, and “blessed” with his brother Asher. What may we suggest to help young people temper the beginnings of love and the fun of imagination with foresight and restraint?

Anticipating the revival of classical philosophy just down the street a generation later, Richard promotes “moderation in all things” and identifies happiness with “temperance in prosperity.” He gets more Semitic, though, when he denotes Asher as signifying “patience in suffering.” Modern consumerism, though, says this is crazy: to associate moderation with happiness and endurance with blessedness is way out of line with our fast-food culture. At my college, nearly every candidate for a Master’s degree in education begins the oral examination by regaling the faculty with all the delightful methods we have taught to make learning enjoyable. I’m as pleased as my more progressive colleagues, but I often respond: “Okay, that’s great. Now,could you tell us what you do to teach patience, courage, and perseverance?”

It’s an important, oft-forgotten question. Indeed, I sometimes suspect that even some of our best teaching practices, including “quick feedback,” may abet the culture of instant gratification. Deferring the gratification of most desires and even needs is not impossible; we used to call it “civilization.” It is as necessary for our civic life as it is for our immortal souls. Could it be that many educators have so absolutized Maslow’s hierarchy that now we are teaching kids to demand gratification rather than to defer it

Radiance and Zeal

Temperance and patience are usually rewarded; if nothing else, they have salutary effects on one’s personality. For the sage a serenity and for the saint a glow are not uncommon. But for Richard this is just another stage in development. The next child born to Leah is Isaachar, which in Hebrew means “reward.” Isaachar’s tribe will settle in the “sweet land” but become complacent, and ultimately, serve the other tribes. Learners at Isaachar’s stage, according to Richard, are getting a taste of what choirs express in song about “blessed assurance” (what Boethius describes as “the consolations of philosophy”). At the K–12 level, teachers exult when their students enjoy solving problems. It builds intrinsic motivation and a well-grounded self-esteem. When enjoyed rightly, Richard notes, this confidence strengthens the soul for brave things and inclines it toward humble things. Improperly ordered, however, it is contemptible and tacky.

In religion this confidence often manifests itself as an embarrassing enthusiasm for the divine without examination of the self. In school it typically characterizes those insufferable showoffs whose hands and noses are always in the air. As every veteran teacher knows, these kids may learn well, but they are also virtually ineducable. (Of course,that also describes a lot of us professors!) Like most of these wunderkinder, Isaachar ends up in a dumb, happy servitude, but finds that after a while he craves the blessings that lie beyond bliss.

When that next stage hits, many of us try too hard. Such is the next child, Zebulon, whose descendants eventually took up a warlike, defensive position along the Lebanese border, and thus symbolize the (over)protective and (over)corrective.

[Zebulon] grows strong in the hatred of all vices to such an extent that now it is not enough for him not to consent to receive any vices in himself unless he is also zealous to pursue them manfully in others and to strike them with strong chastisement. (XXXIX)

Richard knows that zealous people often become zealots. These are the eternally angry, who love humanity but hate humans. Who hasn’t run afoul of folks who actually believe that absurdity from the 1960s,“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”? That is and always has been the rationale of the terrorist, who doesn’t understand or care that good people may be too busy at their own good callings to take on those of the zealot as well. So how do we encourage social conscience without promoting fanaticism against those who don’t measure up to our ideals? How do we promote zeal without promoting zealotry?

Shame and Discretion

Suddenly we find a disastrous turn in what has heretofore been a positive, even “progressive” scope and sequence. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, shame happens, and according to Richard shame is the natural consequence of self-satisfaction and zealotry. Unfortunately, most education literature is simplistic regarding shame, considering it purely toxic.

Psychology literature is more nuanced -- catharsis is preferable to denial -- but the literature of faith is better yet, and Richard’s treatment is ingenious. Leah’s last child is a girl, Dinah, who grows up lovely and gentle, offsetting her more volatile brothers. But one day, she is noticed by the mayor’s son, Shechem, who is instantly smitten. Tragically, the boy is not accustomed to hearing the word “no,” and he rapes her. Dinah is dishonored by his violence. Her brothers, who should have been protecting her, are shamed by their negligence and the resulting tragedy, and they are not nice people when they are upset. Moderate shame can be a good reaction to a shameful event, but when obsessive shame reaches a critical point, it may very well give way to shamelessness.

As it turns out, Shechem falls in love with Dinah, and is willing to do right by her. Her brothers, however, cunningly add a demanding codicil to the wedding contract: the groom and all his retainers must undergo circumcision. Shechem’s love is so ardent that he agrees. Richard notes that his action is not wrong, but his motivation is not quite right: an act ordained to seal a covenant with God was used by Shechem to gratify carnal (though legitimate) desires. The mixed motives that lie behind most of our heroisms are, for Richard, understandable; he is not a prig.

Unfortunately, on the third day after the circumcision, when the soreness is at its worst, Levi and Simeon murder Shechem and his men,and the rest of the brothers join in pillaging their property, shaming everyone. You’ll recall that in Richard’s tropology, Simeon symbolizes contrition and Levi hope. Contrition gone wrong becomes irrational sadness, depression, morbidity, and rage -- insanity. And if one’s hope rests in human values, retributive justice becomes necessary if one is to believe in justice at all, according to Richard’s way of thinking. The result of both is shameful. Educators usually err when we impose shame on kids, but our blunderings may be nearly as bad when we clumsily manipulate kids’ self-shaming episodes.

Nevertheless, even at this sad stage, Jacob’s family and our students are redeemable, and shame itself can lead to redemption. Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel (whom, we recall, Richard associates with “reason”), finally bears a son, Joseph. Richard associates Joseph with “discretion” in one of his best-supported scriptural allegories: Joseph will truly be a master of wise counsel in Egypt. It is interesting that, in Richard’s view, Joseph becomes successful only after an episode of terrible shame (false imprisonment), prefiguring the “dark night of the soul” of later Christian contemplative literature.7 So how may we use the shame that sometimes occurs in education to teach our kids (and ourselves) discretion? How might we make moral use of shame, without descending into the gloomy claustrophobia of moralism?


Now we come to a point of departure in several respects. The Vulgate’s Psalm 67 (KJV Ps. 68) describes Jacob’s last child, Benjamin, as “a young man in ecstasy of mind...”; hence, for Richard, a trope for contemplation. Richard’s Benjamin marks a departure from the rational, since Rachel dies giving birth to him. Contemplation, as practiced by Christian monastics, is not the same thing as meditation; it is something beyond human reason. It is a nondiscursive but rarely ecstatic experience of God. And at this point we probably depart from what public schools can address.8

But even here Richard may offer some guidance, for many public school teachers deal with religiously devout kids who lay claim to “nonpublic” knowledge -- revelation -- derived from the scriptural or spiritual. Richard hurries past Rachel’s burial place—Bethlehem—and all its New Testament connotations. He, instead, plunges on to Galilee and climbs Mount Tabor, joining the disciples witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration. There is a danger in such direct, powerful experience: in it we are past reason, and can easily misunderstand what we are seeing, just as St. Peter simplemindedly tried to put a roof over God’s head back then.

So here, at his most sublime, Richard becomes conservative: the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah—the law and the prophets -- in attendance on Christ. The scripture doesn’t tell us how they recognize them, Richard notes, because they just do, without signs of any kind. Therefore, Richard says, any private revelations must be confirmed by the clear meaning of the law and the prophets. The master allegorist does not allow us to use allegories to interpret “direct” revelation. Richard is quite prudent regarding the dangers of “private,” supernaturally derived knowedge, and at the very point that many contemplative writers continue on to glory or excess, Richard brings us back to the sorts of knowledge obtained by natural means. That point may be where critical thinking comes in most handy: to challenge our own understandings of the Absolute, and of our relationship to God. Richard’s curriculum brings us back to public knowledge and common sense.

Richard of St.Victor,in the last generation of monastic domination over education, set the stage for secular education, synthesizing the intellect with the affection and reason with revelation. In this article I’ve suggested that his curriculum raises a number of interesting and even troubling challenges to our current practices, and that we may be able to respond without violating the separation of church and state. I invite the reader who is willing to engage with the wisdom of the ancients to consider how teachers may apply these challenges to modern public schooling, while honoring the rights and obligations of those whose faiths they do not share.


1. Tom Raum,“Bush Speech Emphasizes Citizenship,” Associated Press/America Online (January 20, 2000).

2. Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

3. Richard of St. Victor, The Twelve Patriarchs (1153; reprint, translated by Grover A. Zinn, New York: Paulist, 1979).

4. See Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text; and Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (New York: Crossroads, 1998). I would suggest Fr. Luke Dysinger’s website at <> for a quick, highly readable introduction to lectio.

5. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916); Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1916).

6. A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (1920; reprint,Washington,D.C.:Catholic University of America Press,1987).

7. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul (1574; 3rd ed., translated by E. Allison Peers, New York: Image, 1959)

8. Father John Belmonte, S.J., published some interesting exercises in lectio divina with his parochial school students on the now-defunct website at <>. I hope Father John will be able to address this point sometime in the near future.