The Way of Beauty Back to School: The Catholic Philosophy of Education

students in a classroom Students in the classroom. Alvin Trusty via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

"It's back to school," the many ads remind us.  The noble work of education will soon begin anew.  

The word, educate, from the Latin educere, means to lead out of. Educators worthy of the name lead their students out of the darkness of ignorance to the light of truth, knowledge and wisdom. 

The Catholic Philosophy of Education

To realize its Divine mission, the Church has developed a view of education that claims the right over all other agencies to make final decisions about the education of its youth. 

There are several principles of the Catholic philosophy of education that mark it with distinction.  With the obvious age-appropriate adaptations, they affect all ages and academic levels. 

Belief in a Personal God

First, that belief in a personal God is essential to all Catholic thinking in any and every phase of human activity. This includes formal education which proclaims Jesus as its primary Exemplar.  It follows that the Church rejects any philosophy of education or position that sacrifices the eternal and supernatural to the temporal and natural (V.P. Lannie, "Catholic Education IV," The New Encyclopedia 5: 168).

Academic Excellence

Second, Catholic education imparts far more than amassing facts and information.  Scholarship and faith belong together, the whole person, seeking ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  Students should be taught to wonder at the goodness and truth surrounding them. Catholic education builds character. It develops in its students a Catholic moral compass and a Catholic sensibility to understand how society and democracies function. The curriculum's first order of business is academic formation and excellence. Students must learn correct grammar and use language skillfully, even artfully. This means reading well, writing with imagination, precision and power, and speaking the country's predominant language correctly. It is typically true that whoever uses the right word thinks precisely and persuasively as in the famous Hopkins' poetic line, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." 

English is a difficult language to master, but it must be said that immigrants to this country often learn to speak better English than those who are born here. In the musical, "My Fair Lady," the character of Henry Higgins sings, "Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak."  He lampoons Americans' mutiliation of English with the line, "Well, in America, they haven't used it in years." A playful jab, but jab it is.

Catholic and Christian Humanism

Third, in Catholic humanism, God is found not just in the sacred but also in the secular where Christian values and virtue can be uncovered.  The religious and the profane are mutually inclusive, "charged with the grandeur of God." Whatever is human is inherently Christian.  No enterprise, no matter how secular, is merely secular for we live in a universe of grace and promise. 

The humanities are associated with depth, richness, feelings, character and moral development. This is why the literary and refining arts are so important.  Their purpose is to impart wonder and enjoyment, sensitize the feelings of students and eventually influence their behavior.  The humanities are intended for all students and not just for the elite.

The Student and the Educator

Fourth, St. Thomas Aquinas puts it concisely: Education is a lifelong process of self-activity, self-direction, and self-realization. The child is the center of attention, the "principal agent," in the educational process. 

The instructor is the "essential mover" who teaches by the witness of his or her example and consistently brings to their lessons a high degree of preparedness. The teacher's role is critical to Catholic education (Ibid).  The students' real life situations initiate the process of learning.   Educators lead their students out beyond their life setting-their Sitz-im-Leben.  Experience teaches students to discover for themselves by engaging the five senses. This includes, for example, making or doing beautiful art forms or listening to beautiful music. Affectivity must be channeled in socially-accepted ways. For the most part, "Rap" culture exalts anti-social affectivity.

In his apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii nuntiandi," Pope Paul VI reflected: "Today students do not listen seriously to teachers but to witnesses, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses."  

More in The Way of Beauty

Catholic educators teaching in public schools can adapt Catholic principles to the public school curriculum especially when these are also embraced by other faith-traditions.    

The Benedict Effect

At his papal election in 2003, why did Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger take the papal name Benedict?  It was the Benedictine monks, who, systematically and comprehensively, rebuilt Europe after the barbaric invasions of Rome in the 5th century. Some European leaders refuse to acknowledge Europe's Christian roots and, specifically, the Church's role in building on Greco-Roman culture, Christianizing it, and handing it on to future generations. At a time when Europe was cast in darkness, the Church led it out of the darkness; the Church was Europe's light. Not opinion, but fact.

St. Benedict, the Benedictine Order, and the Monastic Centuries

In the middle of the sixth century, a small movement changed the landscape of the European world.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547) introduced a new way of life and thinking that has brought vitality to contemporary men and women. He laid the foundation of Benedictine monastic life with his monks first at Subiaco and Rome, and then at Monte Cassino.  

Benedict composed his Rule of disciplined balance that fostered order and peace.  If "pray and work" (ora et labora) was the Benedictine motto, the way to live it was through beauty, piety, and learning.  Every monastery was built on an expansive tract of land, and  eventually, it became a miniature civic center for the townspeople.  One could say that the monks sacralized the landscape.  

Monastic Schools

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Of the many contributions the Benedictine monks made to European culture, education remained a prominent value. In the Middle Ages, education was conducted within the confines of the monastery by monks, and later, by nuns.  They offered religious and general education to youth who intended to enter the monastic or clerical life and to youth who were preparing for public life.  They lived at home.  Young children of six or seven years of age were taught the basics. The majority, especially potential monks and nuns, were taught to read Latin, writing, chant, arithmetic, and learning how to read time on the sundial. The main text was the Psalter.  From the eighth century onward, students were taught the seven liberal arts, the trivium, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music.  The ideal monastery of the Benedictine Order was that of Saint Gall in present-day Switzerland where the town flourished around the monastery.

In our century, Catholic education continues to flourish across the world in developed and in developing countries.

Conclusion: Catholic Education in the United States

The Encyclopedia of Catholicism asserts that "throughout history, there is likely no more compelling instance of Catholic commitment to education than the school system created by the U.S. Catholic community.  The story of American Catholicism goes back to the very first Catholic settlers in the New World." 

Despite the various declarations of freedom in early American history, anti-Catholicism prevailed through groups such as the Know-Nothing Society of the 1850s.  They existed to eradicate Popery, Jesuitism, and Catholicism.  

Between 1840 and 1900, at least sixty European religious orders of women and men were teaching in this country's parochial schools. 


Finally, the philosophy of Catholic education integrates several aspects of the faith into the curriculum but always in age-appropriate ways: Biblical tradition, Early Christian Church plus heresies and the results,  Spirituality and prayer, Liturgy,  Doctrine, Ecumenism:  a study of the world religions and the Third World.

Today, apologetics is needed more than ever to defend the Church against old and new approaches to anti-Catholicism.  Our students should be taught the art and skill of civil debate-to learn the principles, internalize them, anticipate opposing views, and then defend the principles. 

(This précis of the philosophy of Catholic education has been presented in its ideal conception and not necessarily as it exists with the integrity described.)

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