The Way of Beauty Catholic Education: 'Charged with the Grandeur of God'

In the late second century, Cyril of Alexandria established a catechetical school in Egypt, the first of its kind.  In addition to theology and philosophy, its curriculum included science, mathematics, logic, Greek and Roman literature, and the arts. The best and brightest pedagogues were invited to teach there. The so-called dark Middle Ages were not as dark as skeptics would have us believe. The facts report that the Church established universities and centers of learning and of attracting prominent scholars to lecture there.

Early in this country’s history, the Franciscan and Dominican friars sought to evangelize those whom they found in native America.  In colonial days when the anti-Catholic bias was actively in play, there were no schools to serve Catholics who had transplanted themselves to a new country.  Today, the Church teaches 3 million students a day in its more than 250 colleges and universities, in its more than 1,200 high schools, and its more than 5,000 elementary school. 

Despite the rising costs of Catholic education, studies consistently find that Catholic-school students do better than their public-school counterparts in reading, writing, verbal skills, and mathematics.  However, education in art and music remains a pressing need that must be addressed. The drop-out rates are lower than those in public schools.  This success is due in large measure to the cooperation among educators, administrators, and families of students.

At the beginning of this new school year, every student, whether in a school overtly Catholic or in a public or charter school, must again grapple with perennial questions of life.  Why am I here? How shall I live? What gives meaning to my life?  What is the purpose of my studies—to get a degree, earn a fine name, a fine position?  Then, what?  What does God expect of me?  In non-sectarian schools, these questions are only implied lest they be interpreted as religiously-motivated. Additional questions confront teachers:  Why have I chosen the profession of teaching? Is it a job?  Or, is it a vocation with the splendid responsibility of forming human beings in the best way I know? Aren’t our students temples of God, unfinished symphonies, gardens of budding flowers?  Aren’t they God’s works of art in-the-making even when they misbehave?

Education:  Quality and Non-Quality

America has some superb schools, public and private, but the dominant tendency leans toward non-quality, applying to intent and effort.  We settle for less when we should be aiming for more. Too many students cannot and do not read. They cannot spell, speak, or write correctly much less do them well, a fact that lends credibility to Henry Higgins’ remark about the use of English in this country:  “In America, they haven’t used it in years!”

According to Barbara Tuchman, the cultural historian, “quality is the investment of the best skill and effort possible to produce the finest and most admirable result possible.  Its presence or absence in some degree characterizes every man-made object, service, skilled or unskilled labor–laying bricks, painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine, shoemaking, scholarship, writing a book. You do it well or you do it half-well. Materials are sound and durable or they are sleazy; . . . .  Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against the sloppy or fraudulent.  It is honesty of purpose as against catering to cheap or sensational sentiment. It does not allow compromise with the second rate. . . . Quality can be attained without genius.” 

Quality is that attribute “inherent in a given work,” and not in the eye of the beholder.  Most people know the difference between what is quality and what is slipshod. We experience it in morals and politics, in labor and culture, in manual, clerical, and bureaucratic work.

General Malaise

A prevailing attitude has seeped in to both teaching and learning.  Learning must be fun; students must be allowed to study what they like.    Young children and high school students fail to value disciplined study.  Homework is frivolous or absent.  Today, the watchword is “Why knock yourself out?”  Though quality is not elitism, fewer are opting for more quality.

Overview of Catholic Education

There is such a thing as a Catholic sensibility, a Catholic way of thinking, a Catholic way of doing things, a Catholic ‘brand.’  While sharing many insights and methods with other educational systems, Catholic education rejects any ideology that sacrifices eternal values to temporal or harmful realities.  Day in and day out, Catholic educators form affective and effective disciples of the Lord. 

Having internalized Catholic principles, our Catholic students are expected to defend the faith, if necessary.  Not just satisfied with their own professional life, they will take an active part in shaping the important issues of life, whether intellectual, social, political, literary, philosophical, or religious. To fail in this vision is to offer an incomplete Catholic education. Today as in the past, our students who belong to other faith-traditions greatly respect the Catholic vision, or they would not come to be educated there.

Jesus the Model Teacher

Jesus was most often seen as a teacher who gave his disciples the mandate to go out to teach (Mt 28:19-20).  In the film, “Son of God,” produced by Mark and Roma Downey, Jesus and his disciples are discussing the future and their mission.  Peter asks, “What are we going to do?” Jesus quips, “We’re going to change the world.” That is, ‘we can and must do it—right now. There is no other time to do it because the present is all we have.’  With our cooperation, the Holy Spirit makes this possible.

The Catholic Educator

The Catholic educator is catholic and Catholic to the core.  This assertion calls for some explanation.  First, God gives to the world beauty of life and the ability to wonder at created things.  Second, all of us can find and contemplate God “in ten thousand places” emerging from the heart of a suffering world.  Our providential God is not only present in our lives but at work there; good can emerge from life’s harsh realities. Last week, the world witnessed the remarkable example of the Foley family in their sorrow. 

More in The Way of Beauty

If we look back on the tragic life of Judy Garland, for example, it reminds us of Hollywood’s abuse of talent for the sake of the dollar sign writ large.  Arguably the greatest entertainer of our time, she made her fans happy because she bonded with them. She sang directly to them; her gift was theirs. She had no home except the stage, and her fans were her family.  Without Judy Garland’s vocal gifts and open heart, the world of entertainment would be much the poorer. The anchoress, Sr. Wendy continues to amaze her audiences by eliciting Christian themes from art works deemed controversial, or worse, pornographic.  Here the Catholic educator can draw lessons from the culture and see it in the light of the Gospel.  Nothing is finally secular. Such is the finding of God in all things—catholic to the core. Here is a theocentric view of life. 

Third, through creation and the Incarnation, all matter comes from God.  Jesus Christ, as the bridge between God and man, embraced all that is human so that it might be returned to God:  Catholic education is Christocentric.  The personal encounter with Christ in prayer is fostered among our students through sacramental and other spiritual activities.  They come to see that the human is intrinsically sacred and Catholic to the core. Finally, our faith-tradition calls us to “walk in beauty” and “to keep all our goings graces” making “the future all ablaze with God springing up everywhere.” 

There is nothing more exhilarating than to delight in a creative, witty, and enthusiastic educator who is consistently well prepared for the sacred mission of education. There is nothing more wonderful than to delight in a Catholic educator who consistently inspires his or her students with the highest ideals by which to live, often quoting Classics of literature and poetry to reinforce a lesson.  For the child or youth, this wonderful person is a thesaurus of knowledge and a treasury of wisdom. This educator stands in the place of Christ who knew all about bringing light to others. This inspiration comes from within the educator who has learned the art of self-discipline, the art of refinement, and the art of communicating the love of learning to his or her charges. Prayer inspires such inspiration.  
Most of us know the pain of sitting in a class led by teachers who were unprepared, disinterested, lethargic, bored and/or boring.  Nemo dat quod non habet, and students are quick to spot those “who can’t give what they haven’t got.”

“I Gotta Be Me”

In the late Sixties, Sammy Davis Jr. popularized the song, “I Gotta Be Me.”  The title reinforced what had already become a rallying cry for, and defense of, liberal individuality, especially among college-age students.  In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa anticipated these lyrics with unapologetic wisdom in his Life of Moses:  “I have to become me, and that me has to become God.  When I am not like God, I am not me.  I have to let the real me shine through.”  Catholic education is

“charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
it gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

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