A Feast of Catholic Learning

Kevin Aldrich 2

I just returned from a retreat for Catholic educators sponsored by the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE) and hosted by St. Agatha Academy of Winchester, KY. Thirteen of us spent five days immersed in learning about liberal, or classical, education, and reading works from some of the greatest thinkers in this tradition. The aim was to help us to see again the true meaning of a Catholic liberal education.

Our method was simple. We read and then discussed what we read in Socratic seminars. In a Socratic seminar, the discussion leader poses a question and then the participants respond to it, and to each other, in an attempt to get at what the author is trying to say and whether what he is saying is true.  Our discussion leaders were Dr. Andrew Seeley, a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, and the Executive Director of ICLE, and Mr. Luke Macik, J.D., Headmaster of the Lyceum in South Euclid, Ohio, a classical 5th-12th grade school. Participants included the pastor of a Catholic parish, a parish elementary school principal, a parish school second-grade teacher, a kindergarten and a junior high teacher, each from a different Classical Catholic school, a high school religion teacher at a school operated by a religious order, two religious sisters who administer and teach in a parochial school moving toward a classical model, and a mother who homeschools her children.

To frame our discussions about what Catholic education is, we read Archbishop J. Michael Miller’s essay, The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, and examined his key claim that according to the mind of the Church a Catholic school should be inspired by a supernatural vision, founded on Christian anthropology, animated by communion and community, imbued with a Catholic worldview throughout its curriculum, and sustained by gospel witness (17).

To understand the present state of Catholic education in the United States, we also read and discussed three chapters from Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education. According to Dawson’s analysis, Catholic schools were founded to serve a largely poor immigrant population, and did an admirable job of teaching our forebears the faith and helping them be good citizens. By about 1960, Catholic education in the U.S. had developed to the point that Catholics could finally begin to take their place at the table of the intellectual life of the nation. Catholics could have brought to our culture the fruits of our own 2000-year tradition. What is lamentable is that our schools from the elementary level through higher education discarded this heritage.

Here is a sample of the texts we examined:

  • Plato’s allegory of the cave from Book VII of The Republic, which communicates an amazing insight into how difficult it is for human beings to know the true good.
  • Euclid’s Geometry and how the mind can know some truths with absolute clarity and certainty without the senses.
  • The beginning of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa on how we can know divine truths, both by reason and revelation.
  • Descartes’ Discourse on Method which introduced a profound skepticism into Western intellectual life and which has impacted many aspects of our ordinary lives, mostly for the worse.
  • The naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre and his meticulous observations of instinct at work in the lives of insects, which Charles Darwin struggled to account for.
  • Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar as a profound reflection on the complexities of human psychology.
  • The content and rhetoric of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches ever delivered.
  • And J.R.R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle on how beauty is a call to love God and neighbor.

For me as a Catholic educator, the heart of the week was Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning. This humble essay by a non-professional educator (but formidable popular writer and scholar) somehow launched a modern revival of classical liberal education. Sayers reminds us how the trivium, the first three of the traditional seven liberal arts, are essential for learning anything. Grammar can be seen not just as the grammar and vocabulary of the Latin language, but more broadly as the facts and knowledge belonging to any subject. Logic is how to think properly in any subject area. Rhetoric is how to express yourself effectively in any subject.

That in itself would have be enough, but Sayers had the further insight that these subjects also pertain to developmental levels in youth.

  • The grammatical stage: young children can memorize facts about anything with ease and delight. The most astonishing example of this is learning one’s native language without any instruction at all. Sayers calls this the Poll-Parrot stage.
  • The logical stage: Adolescents delight in argument as their abstract mental abilities emerge. Sayers calls this the Pert stage.
  • The rhetorical stage: Teenagers know enough and can reason well enough to order facts and logic so as to communicate effectively. Sayers calls this the Poetic stage.

The thirteen of us experienced the truth of Archbishop Miller’s claim that a true mark of Catholic education is “communion and community.” This emerged quickly as we spent time together in the classroom examining goodness, truth, and beauty in the seminar readings, as we worshiped God together in daily Mass, the Rosary, and Vespers in the beautiful Mount Saint Francis Chapel, and as we chatted at meals and at other leisure times. One of the fruits of a liberal education was palpable: a true community and communion of persons rejoicing in the truth.

The number of Catholic schools which have adopted a classical Catholic liberal arts model is now in the hundreds. In these schools, children and young persons are learning the wisdom of yesterday in order to be wise tomorrow. These schools and their graduates have the potential to effectively reform both Catholic and even secular education, so as to form 21st Century leaders and innovators.

© 2014. Kevin Aldrich. All rights reserved.

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6 thoughts on “A Feast of Catholic Learning”

  1. Pingback: Sacred Heart & the Purifying of Our Emotions - BigPulpit.com

  2. Thanks for this post. This approach reminds me of a program that toured the country several decades ago using excerpts from the Great Books. Edifying discussion for sure. Your account reflects an even higher encounter with the true, the good, and the beautiful. How wonderful it would be to have a program like you describe brought into our local schools and parishes. I would happily participate. Keep us posted on this reemerging approach.

    1. John, you wrote: “How wonderful it would be to have a program like you describe brought into our local schools and parishes.”

      That is exactly the long-range plan!

    2. John, I agree this was a fine post. I wonder whether high school students would be sufficiently intellectually mature to digest a Great Books program, or even for that matter, whether most college students would. I despair of the culture inflicted on the young by the media.

  3. St. Thomas Aquinas does the Great Books thing, but with a Catholic perspective. It follows the model set by St. John’s College in Annapolis (and Santa Fe), which my son attended. There are no grades, small classes in which the faculty act as fellow students–tutors, and lots of written work. Emphasis on Greek, French, philosophy, swing dancing and croquet (they play the Naval Academy). The science follows an historical approach, using only original papers as texts. (My son, who is not mathematically inclined, was able to speak intelligently about the four Maxwell equations and Bell’s Theorem. as well as Summa Contra Gentiles.) A saying about St. John’s: a college where Jews teach Protestants to become Catholic. (Not altogether true, but it has a nice ring to it.)

    1. My own first exposure to the great books came through three St. John’s College graduates. I personally owe that college and those graduates a great debt of gratitude.

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