Education has ends and means to those ends. For Catholics the end is ultimately supernatural – heaven. Short of that the ends are those means that lead to the ultimate end, including proper training and education of the mind and will, and to a lesser degree, the body. PE, sports and some health education and biology address the body, with the more delicate aspects left to the parents, who may now reference Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Regarding the mind and will, Aristotle has this to say: “If there is some end of the things we do…will not knowledge of it have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is.” Notice that Aristotle mentions here both knowing and doing – that is, training the intellect and the will. Elsewhere Aristotle, when asked what the difference was between the educated and the uneducated, replied it is like “the difference between the living and the dead.”
Catholic education seeks to transmit the truths of the faith (supernatural truths) and the truths of nature. Why nature – because grace builds on nature. If nature is deformed or absent then grace either cannot effect improvement or with limited effect (except in the case of the miraculous). Supernatural truths are primarily taught in religion or theology classes and are, as the Pope recently mentioned – essential to Catholic education. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium (abbreviated version) form the basis for this education. But how are natural truths to be taught in Catholic schools? The will is moved most by example. So parents and teachers – by their lives – are the primary schools of virtue. Added to living examples are dead examples – the lives of the saints, and their autobiographies (such as the Story of a Soul by the Little Flower), and good biographies of saints and virtuous men and women including pagans such as Socrates. Finally, by the study of bad examples and the resulting evils, such as Anna Karinina by Tolstoy and the Brothers Karamazov by Doestoyevsky. In other words, good literature – of all these types – is critical to a good education, Catholic or otherwise. Ethics needs to be restored as a philosophy course – to order and help students understand and generalize (universalize) these good examples – at least in secondary education.
It has been removed from almost all Catholic and public schools. The results are a lamentable decline in morality and ethical standards. The mind must be formed to be able to appreciate great literature. For this we need to learn to read, write, listen and speak. Thus phonics, grammar, composition, storytelling, discussions, speaking and rhetoric are necessary very early on. Math on through the calculus reveals to the mind in an indubitable way the order of the universe, its comprehensibility, and the precision of truth and its reliability. These tools are necessary to read the works of the absent and the dead, and to understand those present to us in conversation and lecture. Foreign languages, especially ancient Greek and Latin, form the mind to think in patterns like the glorious Greek and Roman sages who founded classical civilization. It is not a mere matter of learning those languages so we can understand English better – no, those languages form our minds to think like those great peoples of the past so that we can fully grasp who we are and how we got to be so, because our culture and civilization is largely founded upon theirs.
Likewise, our Catholic culture began in Greek and Latin as well (Hebrew is far less important, as the only book it is particularly useful for is the Massoretic text of the Old Testament – so it would be important for biblical scholars, but a very distant third even for them). Philosophy is a necessary component of all courses in varying ways, and in itself in courses beginning in 3rd grade and up (Philosophy for Children series) to form the mind to understand the data of sense and early education in properly ordered and organized ways. Why read if one cannot understand, but only sense. That is like watching the movie “The Passion of the Christ” and only being repelled by the bloodshed and cruelty, and not understanding the meaning of it all – as some did indeed complain. Our civilization and culture are transmitted to each generation by our art and our music, but primarily by our literature. One who has not read our great classics from Aesop and Mother Goose to Shakespeare, from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Milton; from Euclid to Einstein, etc. cannot be considered a well-educated person and is unprepared to participate in the great conversation, the on-going dialogue of our culture spanning three millenia. Such a one is like the person that drops in on a conversation nearly over and catches only the occasional word or phrase, gathering glimmers of light but no real enlightenment and making no contribution to the conversation.
From the above, one can easily understand how the liberal arts are oriented to prepare minds for reading and discussing the great masterpieces of our culture (in secondary and tertiary education); math and philosophy for ordering and understanding them. Our teachers may very occasionally be “great” men or women but more likely they will be less than that. But they can be great teachers if they lead us to great authors (and artists), both secular and religious, who in turn open up the natural and supernatural reality to us, unwarped by other personal agendas. Thus literature – particularly the great children’s classics in elementary school and the great books in secondary education, form the backbone of a classical liberal education. This means more than 2 or 3 or 5 books a year. It requires 10-20 good books per year at a minimum, and 30 or so great books per year in high school. Otherwise the result will be more of the only functionally literate, at best, ready perhaps for some particular, narrowly-skilled job but not ready for life.
Thinking will be reduced to processing data, like a computer, not understanding like a man. SAT scores may go up, but wisdom will go down (or, more accurately, never develop). But besides reading, there is discussion – conversation about what is read. This is equally important. Without it one misses much of the meaning revealed in discussions with others. Errors in reading pass by unnoticed and are unconsciously absorbed; the mind is left unsure and unsteady – like the poorly educated Catholics who embrace even Jehovah’s Witness or New Age myths because they never really understood their own faith – they merely parroted back answers not discussed and thus neither grappled with nor understood the deeper realities involved. So Catholic education to achieve its end must utilize the means to do so – the liberal arts and the backbone of a liberal education: the classics of literature (beginning with childrens’ and ending in the greatest). Besides reading them, they must frequently be discussed in a conversational setting – in the same manner we learn most of our day.
Questions must not only be allowed, but actively encouraged to blossom into discussions and debate, so that the mind grapples with truths, refines them and exposes and defangs errors. Mere lectures cannot begin, or rather, can only begin to do this – in any course. Without a serious reading plan of excellent literature, and equally serious encouragement of Socratic discussion, all is in vain. As Mortimer Adler noted so well 60 years ago, Catholic education has a huge advantage in possessing supernatural truths, which it squanders when it neglects the nature of man and treats students as if they were merely memories rather than reasoning beings. Again, grace builds on nature. The Holy Father Pope Bendict XVI has emphasized the importance of Logos – reason and mind – not just memory. Our culture is awash in data, facts, trivia – and almost completely deficient in understanding and wisdom. Education must restore these or utterly fail in its purpose, be it Catholic or otherwise. The model of Catholic education from the post-WWII era largely failed in its purpose. The evidence is all around us. The babyboomer generation is largely lost to the Church or so poorly educated that it cannot understand the faith well and so rejects this or that dogma and accepts this or that error willy-nilly. Understanding and wisdom were neglected in favor or memory. We forgot the doctrine of St. Thomas on understanding and wisdom – on the human person. This error was rooted in our loss of an understanding of what philosophy is. We forgot philosophy is a way, a stance towards reality, initiated by wonder, not merely a body of data or series of principles to memorize. Great literature and frequent Socratic discussion are the natural remedies for this, as is a correct understanding of wonder and philosophy. Our curriculum is completely integrated, K through 12, utilizing these means. One need not utilize our curriculum to reach the end, but “Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should?”
Patrick S.J. Carmack
Pres. The Angelicum Academy