Jesse Russell: Catholic education is at a critical crossroad
My friend and former colleague Dr. Jared Staudt recently penned an article “How to Save the Soul of Our Catholic Schools” for Crisis Magazine. Dr. Staudt (as I’ll call him here) made a number of sober and valid points about the need to return to a truly Catholic education. Affirming his belief that “[t]he Catholic faith must be the heart and soul of the school,” I wish to add a few practical points, drawing from the classical tradition in which our own Catholic educational tradition is rooted and extending his discussion to cover postsecondary education (especially Catholic schools and university trying to implement a solid classical education). This classical education, seen in its vigorous fullness, will provide the strength and boldness that is sorely lacking even from those Catholic schools seeking to reclaim their Catholic identity.
Catholic education must be imminently rooted in the classics, which should serve as models for moral virtue. As St. Basil the Great writes in “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” pagan literature supplements the study of the Bible for the educated Christian:
Into the life eternal the Holy Scriptures lead us, which teach us through divine words. But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings, which are not altogether different, and in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors. Thus we imitate those who perform the exercises of military practice, for they acquire skill in gymnastics and in dancing, and then in battle reap the reward of their training. We must believe that the greatest of all battles lies before us, in preparation for which we must do and suffer all things to gain power.
For the Church Fathers and for much of the Church’s history, pagan literature, especially the literature of Greece and Roman, was always serviceable, after careful pruning, for the Christian’s use. This is true because classical literature often describes natural virtues and goods. However, so much of classical Catholic education today is hindered by a fetishizing of the classics in which they are simply imbibed for their prettiness or profundity, without acknowledging these works as a guide to real action in the world. In his Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman rightly highlights how properly educated students can apply their learning after graduation:
For why do we educate, except to prepare for the world? Why do we cultivate the intellect of the many beyond the first elements of knowledge, except for this world? Will it be much matter in the world to come whether our bodily health or our intellectual strength was more or less, except of course as this world is in all its circumstances a trial for the next? If then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes. It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world. We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.
Education for Newman is education for citizenship and action in the world; it is not necessarily purely for the sake of abstract contemplation or aesthetic appreciation. It is this practical application of the Great Ideas that is missing from Catholic education today—from our buzzing kindergarten classrooms to our echoing university lecture halls.
This article continues at [Crisis Magazine] Catholic Education at a Crossroads