Applied Symbolism: Chaos and the Classroom Experience

David MathwinSymbolic World Icon
January 26, 2024

I have taught junior high and high school for twenty-six years, and this article will explore how teachers can recognize and deal fruitfully with “Chaos” when one faces it in the classroom. I begin with three stories:

Story 1 . . . 

Very early in my career I taught a Bible class to a combined group of 7th and 8th graders. In one class we explored the deity of Christ, and for a time, anyway, the students had some good questions. I decided to share the Nicene doctrine that Christ is “homoousios” with the Father, that is, the Father and the Son are of the same nature or “substance.” I wrote “homoousios” to help make the point. With my back turned to the class, facing the board, I distinctly remember time stopping as I stared at what I had written. I just had time to say “I’ve made a huge mistake,” inwardly to myself before one of the plucky students in the back row asked, “Are you saying God is a homo?”

Story 2 . . . 

A few years ago, I walked into a different 8th grade class, on a Wednesday morning. Usually I use Wednesdays for “hard” work, but on this day I wanted to change it up. “Clear your desks, everyone. No notes today. We’re doing something different!” An exuberant student stood up at his desk, said, “Yes!” and with a wide sweeping motion of his hand, pushed his notebook off his table. It clattered on the floor, scattering his pens and paper. A few started laughing and immediately looked to me for my reaction. What would I do?

Story 3 . . . 

I have taught Ancient History to 8th graders for about twenty years. To this day it remains one of my favorite classes, and I feel that I have command over the material. After a few early years of fiddling, I arrived at a routine for the first day of school that always seemed to work. Except for one year, when it didn’t. After my opening five minutes I usually see a few quizzical glances and furrowed brows. I know that I’ve set the hook, so to speak. On this occasion, I got nothing at all except dead eyes and blank faces. I moved on to my standard opening questions, which usually put four or five hands in the air. This time, crickets. Their arms remained firmly at their sides.

I fidgeted with my hands a bit. The confident tones in my voice dissipated. I spoke more haltingly. Time slowed to a crawl. I looked at the clock. Surely class was almost over? Alas, no. Thirty-eight minutes left!

We will revisit all of these stories a bit later . . . . 

Amazon’s number one new book in the Education Reform and Policy category entitled, Whatever It Is, I’m Against It takes higher education to task for a variety of failings. The author Brian Rosenberg makes several key assertions, perhaps chief among them, “Why are teachers, in theory committed to the transformative power of education, so entrenched in pedagogical and institutional methods that have hardly changed in several decades?”  

The problems of higher education are harder to hide than ever, with enrollment declining by as much as  1.5–2% per year, to say nothing of dramatic drops in enrollment for young men across the board. A trickle-down effect has started, as we now see very similar enrollment drops in public schools throughout the nation.  

A variety of intelligent voices offer a multitude of reasons for this decline, and no doubt certain particular points have merit. But all around us we see commitment to our institutions declining. Many within the Symbolic World community have pointed out how our society has lurched towards the fringe, and has perhaps already entered a cycle of renewal that can only begin with chaos.

In addition, I have a strong suspicion that our institutional decline involves the exposure of the artificial nature of our educational environment. For all of the strengths of our industrialized approach, hardly any of the great sages we learn from began their school day at 8:00, with seven classes of fifty minutes each, and thirty minutes for lunch. Perhaps we realize, even subconsciously, that the core philosophy and delivery system of modern education has no clothes.

However, the structure of the school day will remain with us for the foreseeable future. We need to make the best of it.

I have spent the entirety of my career within the Classical Christian school movement, which offers much to students and teachers alike. In theory we seek a recovery of ancient ways of learning and living in the world, but often we remain stuck in modern methodologies. The same holds true of every Catholic and Protestant school I know of, and even many, if not most, homeschool environments. In my experience, teachers spend a great deal of time considering what to teach, and much less effort considering how to teach. We talk about accommodating our curriculum to our students’ normal development, but we hardly ever think about how to teach according to the pattern of how the world reveals itself to us. As Marshall McCluhan famously put it, “The medium is the message.” How we teach has at least as much importance as the content we deliver.

In what follows, I claim no great symbolic insight, and I will borrow very heavily from the work of the Pageau brothers about how Time and Space function, and the concepts of the Core, Fringe, and Chaos. I hope to show how understanding these concepts can transform how we teach. Whatever our particular contexts, teachers need to take wise action to lessen the inherent artificiality of our environments. We cannot avoid the mechanized educational setting, and I do not counsel pulling the temple down on our heads. But we can subvert our contexts and provide a platform for greater connection with our students. 

Chaos is inevitable.

Many misperceptions exist about teaching in our culture. Some see teachers as underpaid martyrs. True, teachers will not get wealthy from their profession, but many have reasonable salaries that give them a decent middle class life. Teachers work hard, perhaps harder than some other jobs, but they also get a great deal of time off from work, such as Christmas and summer vacations. Others see teachers as messiah figures, transforming the lives of all they encounter, filling them with empowerment, purpose, and meaning. Teachers are the last people who should entertain such a foolish idea. Above all we should see teaching as a job like many other jobs, one that requires certain knowledge and skills.  

We understand that a chemistry or history teacher needs to know their subject. But teachers also need to know how to act as a mediator of that subject for their students. And, since this mediation means passing something partially abstract like a curriculum through the filter of reality, teachers need the skill of interpreting how time and space reveal themselves to us in a given moment. In this crucial aspect of their jobs teachers receive no training whatsoever. Good teachers have an intuitive sense about how to read situations, but I believe the skill can be learned and improved upon, especially if we know what to look for. When we blend what we seek to communicate with how reality works, we have a much greater chance of connecting that material to students.

As a rule teachers hate chaos, and train themselves to keep it at bay. Certainly teachers must establish order in the classroom, and more importantly, make themselves the focal point of attention for their students. Teachers must then use this attention to establish distinctions and clear expectations. In Genesis 1, we see God forming from the unformed, creating distinctions between evening and morning, sea and dry land, fish and birds, and so forth. As finite beings, mankind cannot take in everything at once. For Adam and Eve to grow in wisdom, God parceled reality out to them in distinguishable, digestible pieces. Teachers should do likewise. Outside in the halls, order dissipates, and everything becomes fluid. Students of course move physically in between classes, and their speech and behavior “moves” as well. But in stepping through the classroom door, students should know that they enter a world formed with care and intention.

Good teachers know how to gather attention from their students and make their classrooms their own mini-cosmos. More effective teachers also know how to return attention back to their audience. The best teachers know how to let the worlds they construct die, sometimes multiple times a week. Without this habit good teachers will see their skills turn against them. They usually burn themselves out after a few years, or worse, become something akin to a cult leader in their classrooms.

The industrialized world isolates us from the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, and our classrooms suffer from this same isolation. Pre-modern societies understood this pattern and incarnated it into their lives. In his classic work The Gift, Marcel Mauss describes how in archaic societies, one could accumulate wealth, but the wealthy eventually had to distribute what they gathered to others or risk courting personal and communal disaster. Jordan Peterson in his Maps of Meaning lectures describes how in ancient Sumeria, on New Year’s Eve, the king would divest himself of all royal regalia and encamp outside the city. Anyone could insult and mock him during this transition. The next day, he returned to the city, reinvested with authority for another year. Anthropologists report similar rituals in tribal societies in modern times.* The wild parties given in the late Roman Republic, though certainly excessive, may reflect a similar understanding of how the powerful must divest themselves of what they hold dear in order to keep it.

Kings had a great deal of security in the medieval period, but they could endanger their thrones by playing favorites and failing to redistribute glory and honor properly. Medieval historian Jean Froissart describes this exact phenomenon with Edward II in his Chronicles. In his Court Society Norbert Elias mentions that even as late as the 17th and early 18th centuries, people expected Spanish aristocrats to gain and lose their wealth over a multi-year cycle, usually culminating in extravagant parties and gestures for the towns and villages they oversaw.   

Having constructed order in the world or in our classroom, our fear of death pushes us to preserve it at all costs. No one questions that death brings trembling to us all. We can practice for it, however, in smaller aspects of our lives, and can hopefully see how the cultural practices mentioned above testify not just to the reality of death, but also to the “stronger magic” of the resurrection.

Teachers have the same instincts as anyone else, and they also fear the dissolution of their order. But if teachers do not reveal their material to students in accordance with how the world reveals itself to us, we cannot expect any real learning to take place. Chaos and death are part of life and must therefore be part of a student’s experience of the classroom. How a teacher deals with chaos can in itself impart a profound lesson to their students.

Teachers often deal poorly with chaos for four main reasons.

First, they tend to believe that the appearance of chaos is always their fault. When things go wrong, responsible and self-reliant teachers seek to fix it as fast as they can. Having a broad definition of chaos helps here. Sleep is a chaotic state, but part of life. In life everyone encounters the unexpected regularly. So too, we cannot always or even often manage and control nature. Chaos will come into classrooms for a variety of reasons because even industrial classrooms take part in the created order. Thus, teachers should stop thinking about themselves, and stop acting surprised when chaos comes. 

Second, many teachers believe that their job involves exclusively maintaining order, which chaos comes to destroy. Instead, teachers should view their task as mediating reality to their students, and whether that part of reality involves science, history, or math, it will also involve chaos. Of course order must form a large part of that reality . . . but not its entirety. 

Third, because teachers tend to think too much about establishing quiet, they may not know how to recognize chaos.

An obvious manifestation of chaos might be something akin to students jabbering all over each other, with several different conversations going on at once. We should broaden our definition. Jonathan Pageau has mentioned several times that chaos involves a fracturing of attention. So X (Twitter), Youtube, and your Netflix home screen all usher us into a chaotic realm devoid of a central point of focus.. A teacher might have the quiet they desire, but if they fail to hold the attention of the room, students will mentally check out and go to their happy places in their minds. This too is chaos, even though it fits with the typical teacher dream of quiet, unobtrusive students. In fact, in such a state several different conversations are taking place, but inaudibly inside students’ heads. We should not imagine anyone learning anything under such conditions.

Fourthly, teachers have no training in how to distinguish between chaos that comes to harm and chaos that comes to offer a gift, or a chance at renewal. Thus, in an ironic way, our lack of discernment makes all forms of chaos “chaotic,” and so we can never make use of it.

Peterson makes another helpful observation in chapter two of his Maps of Meaning, pointing out that chaos manifests itself primarily as “unfamiliar territory,” not so much physically but psychologically. Even in familiar settings, then, students and teachers alike will face disorder when things fail to go as expected, or when something disruptive happens to the classroom environment. In these moments, students need teachers to have a sure hand and calm hearts to help guide them back to comfortable surroundings.

With all this in mind we can revisit the anecdotes from above.  

In the first example above involving the Bible class I forgot myself somewhat. As I mentioned, the teacher’s job involves not just dispensing whatever information they can, but packaging the right information in the right way at the right time. Imagine a parent receiving a question about the birds and bees from their toddler. One could seize the moment and tell them the biological details about where babies come from. In such an instance the parent might not strictly lie, but would certainly flood the child’s mind with thoughts and images beyond their bandwidth, bringing their child into a chaotic state.  

In the same way, no group of thirteen-year-olds I’ve ever met can handle the word “homo” in any form. Would that I had the presence of mind to recall that I too was thirteen once. Introducing “homo” broke the spell of attention, bringing students immediately into a chaotic psychological realm. One student immediately took advantage of the situation to redirect it to himself. This particular young man and I actually had some good moments together during the year. He was a good kid, but one whose mouth at times led him astray. Still, I should absolutely have sent him to the office. His words represented the dragon invading the village coming to destroy all I tried to build. I attribute my failure to send him out to rookie jitters, like a young knight who puffs out his chest but has no experience. When the dragon comes, he freezes up. I think I made some lame remark about his comment being “disrespectful,” and attempted to move on. 

But you can’t “move on” from that!  

The second story presented a different situation and happened later in my career. I intentionally initiated the dissolution of normal order with excitement in my voice. I wanted students to appreciate the change I introduced. In sweeping his notebook onto the floor, the student simply added to the fun, like putting hot fudge on your ice cream. But I had to show the students how to act within the disruption. If the teacher intentionally introduces an anomaly and the students follow along with anomalies of their own, well, we should expect that. Teachers should want students to follow their lead. But the class cannot live in chaos. Fixing the problem here involved leaning into the situation by initiating a somersault towards order. That meant I myself had to join in and laugh.  

That wasn’t hard. What he did was funny. 

The third story involves the more delicate operation of resetting attention. I had quiet students, but no cohesion or central point of focus. One might say the class had become a desert of “death,” where each student separated from me and each other into their own private grains of sand.  

The world is round no doubt for many reasons, and surely the fact of its circular nature means to teach us something. We know that when you have traveled a certain distance, the fastest way back to where you began means not pulling back but pushing forward. So too when a person, a situation, or an argument pulls against you, sometimes you harden its position by trying to yank it back. Perform a jujitsu move, on the other hand, and you regain control. Chaos accumulates power through the attempted imposition of a weak form of order. On that day, I occupied a weak position.

So, I stopped talking, and paused for an awkward length of time. Some of them noticed the silence. Some continued their glassy stare, no doubt content in their happy places.

I then asked, “Did any of your parents get the Aquafresh toothpaste on sale at Costco this week?” 

Costco sells in bulk. Earlier that week Costco had started their new monthly sales, and one could obtain eight tubes of Aquafresh Ultraclean for something like eight dollars. We bought it ourselves. But this particular Aquafresh variety went all out. I’m guessing they badly wanted you to believe that their toothpaste really, truly worked. I suppose that along with enamel and gum lining, it also removed plaque. Using that toothpaste set my mouth aflame, and we had eight tubes of the stuff left to go.  

I could reasonably guess that a variety of my students’ parents went to Costco. And that Aquafresh coupon got pole position in the monthly coupon book, as it’s the kind of product almost every household needs.  

A few hands went up. I had their attention now, but the hands were raised tentatively. I took another step. “Did it, like,” (I had to say “like,” of course) “set your mouth on fire?”

Please, please, please, please, please, please.

“Yes!” Billy blurted out. “I said, ‘Mom, this toothpaste burns my mouth!’ And she was like, ‘I don’t care, use it anyway.’ And I was like, ‘No way Mom, I can’t do that!’” Jenny and Joey joined in with similar comments, and the floodgates burst. Everyone suddenly absolutely needed to tell everyone else about the toothpaste they liked and didn’t like.  

Now in some ways I still had chaos. But now the worm had turned, for they were at least talking about something I had introduced. After a few minutes of this someone asked, “Mr. Mathwin, what does this have to do with history class?” 

I thought for a moment. “Nothing at all. But it was on my mind. And, speaking of things on my mind, history, don’t you know, can be an interesting field of study.” They groaned, but . . . they were groaning, not staring blankly. They had the right reaction for the situation.

Order restored. The rest of class went much like those in previous years.

One can turn a negative number positive, but you can’t just throw positive integers at -458. You need to double down and multiply it with another negative number. When that happens, presto, you turn things right side up once again.

Chaos always destabilizes. When you put something into the earth, darkness surrounds it, and soon it begins to break apart and die. But this chaos also creates an opportunity for something new, and perhaps even something better, to emerge. For the rest of the year, students remembered when “Mr. Mathwin talked about toothpaste in class,” and this cachet carried me a long way with that group. 

In a word . . . chaos.

Those of a conservative stripe bemoan the excessive feminization of our world, and indeed, we see this in the constant speed of cultural change, gender fluidity, and so forth. But as Jonathan Pageau has said many times, we might more accurately state that our world suffers from a hyper-masculinity. Female advocacy groups, for example, put much of their emphasis on getting women the right to behave like men, and surveillance technology grants us unprecedented power to maintain at least the illusion of order and control. One could mention other details familiar to many readers here.

If our institutions suffer from this imbalance, so too will our schools. Indeed, most teachers fully understand the dangers of too much of the feminine, which usually takes the form of attempting the role of the hip, relatable teacher. In time this leads to an excess of equality. However many students enjoy this in the short term, in the long run they rebel fiercely against it. Many good teachers unfortunately swing too far in the other direction of vigilantly maintaining a strict hierarchical order. Even teachers in counter-cultural environments (homeschooling, private school, etc.) unwittingly participate in our hyper-masculine world by holding onto control at all costs, and never letting the order they construct die.  

Teachers who can recognize chaos and show their students how to face death can also show them how descending and ascending are really one and the same. This in itself is a powerful lesson. This is the “trick” inherent in nature when you bury a seed. It is the trick Christ pulled on the devil with His own death. If we keep our heads and get a bit lucky, teachers can use chaos against itself in a similar way to give your classroom new life. This should not surprise us. All of creation is good and bears the stamp of God’s presence. But the sabbath, the day of renewal, is the only day God called holy, “because in it He rested from all his work” (Gen. 2:3).

David Mathwin has taught junior high and high school students at Ad Fontes Academy since 1998, as well as serving as dean of students since 2012. He is the author of  The Classroom as Cosmos: Teaching as Pattern Application, now available at

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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* Footnote:

Symbolic World  contributing author David Brodeur shared with me an example of this pattern from Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, from an account by Du Chaillu (1868, Explorations and adventures in Equatorial Africa): 

It happened that Njogoni, a good friend of my own, was elected. The choice fell on him, in part because he came of a good family, but chiefly because he was a favourite of the people and could get the most votes. I did not think that Njogoni had the slightest suspicion of his elevation. As he was walking on the shore on the morning of the seventh day [after the death of the former king] he was suddenly set upon by the entire populace, who proceeded to a ceremony which is preliminary to the crowning [and must be considered as liminal in the total funerary installation complex of rites] and must deter any but the most ambitious man from aspiring to the crown.

They surrounded him in a dense crowd, and then began to heap upon him every manner of abuse that the worst of mobs could imagine. Some spat in his face; some beat him with their fists; some kicked him; others threw disgusting objects at him; while those unlucky ones who stood on the outside, and could reach the poor fellow only with their voices, assiduously cursed him, his father, his mother, his sisters and brothers, and all his ancestors to the remotest generation. A stranger would not have given a cent for the life of him who was presently to be crowned. Amid all the noise and struggle, I caught the words which explained all this to me; for every few minutes some fellow, administering a specially severe blow or kick, would shout out, “You are not our king yet; for a little while we will do what we please with you. By-and-by we shall have to do your will.” 

Njogoni bore himself like a man and prospective King. He kept his temper, and took all the abuse with a smiling face. When it had lasted about half an hour they took him to the house of the old king. Here he was seated, and became again for a little while the victim of his people's curses. Then all became silent; and the elders of the people rose and said, solemnly (the people repeating after them), “Now we choose you for our king; we engage to listen to you and to obey you.” 

A silence followed, presently the silk hat, which is the emblem of royalty, was brought in and placed on Njogoni’s head. He was then dressed in a red gown, and received the greatest marks of respect from all who had just now abused him.
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