How one professor is inviting teachers to rethink Catholic education

Empty College Classroom. Credit: Ryan Tyler Smith via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Empty College Classroom. Credit: Ryan Tyler Smith via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

.- Realizing that many educators don't learn the history of teaching before they begin their career, a professor at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts has edited a compendium of selections from writings on education, from Plato to St. Thomas Aquinas, to St. John Paul II.

“In my experience, educators who come out of teacher colleges rarely have a knowledge of the history of their discipline. This is tragic,” Dr. Ryan Topping, editor of Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, told CNA.

“For there to be genuine progress, educators must see their task as essentially conservative in nature. Think of it. To first disagree with anyone you need to know what they said. Apart from a historical knowledge of what the best minds have thought about education, you end up joining the conversation at the 11th hour.”

Topping's book, published earlier this year by The Catholic University of America Press, collects brief selections from thinkers on education both within and without the Catholic tradition. It is arranged in four sections: three dealing with the aim, content, and method of education, and the last demonstrating a contemporary renewal in Catholic education.

“I certainly don't agree with everything said in these selections, but my point was not to advance a single line of thinking. My aim, rather, has been to help students and teachers to equip themselves to join in a noble conversation,” Topping explained.

He noted that “standard texts in the philosophy of education either jump from Plato to the moderns or, even more disastrously, begin with John Dewey. I claimed that the great break was between the moderns and everyone else. By presenting readers with Catholic philosophers from every era of our history I aimed to illustrate this truth.”

Renewing the Mind includes selections from non-Catholics such as C.S. Lewis, the pre-Christian Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the Roman thinker Quintilian, to demonstrate the fundamental continuity and sympathy between the best of classical thought on education, and Catholic education, both of which involve the liberal arts.

“Liberal education is, at heart, an education for freedom. It is an education that teaches one to understand not only the means to survival, but the purposes for life,” Topping said. “In ancient Greece and Rome, such an education was typically confined to wealthy classes. One of the noble ideas that has been nurtured in the West, due particularly to the influence of Christianity, is that all of us have an obligation to love God also with our minds. Therefore, insofar as a boy or a girl wonders: Why am I here? What makes a good friend? And, can I know God loves me? - he or she can benefit from a training in the liberal arts.”

Discussing the continuity between education in the classical world and the Christian, Topping said, “It was the Church that taught the West how to unite head with heart; and it was the Church that took up the conversation about 'what it means to be an educated human being' and added new insights and provided new opportunities.”

While maintaining the value of a liberal arts education as enabling students to think about the purpose to which their profession should be directed, Christian belief in the Incarnation expanded upon this, bringing a new assurance of the eternal purpose of human life, and of man's ability to discover truth.

“At the level of theory, the incarnation gave to philosophy a new confidence in reason, in the logos. At the level of practice, the Church has always been at the forefront of developing institutions that elevate and defend the life of the mind,” Topping reflected. “Specific examples are easy to locate. In the 6th century Benedictine monasteries preserved our texts; in the 13th century scholastic universities developed the scientific method; and in the modern era Jesuits spread parochial schools across the continents.”

Renewing the Mind, Topping wrote in its introduction, is meant in the first place for Catholics in education colleges, as well as homeschooling parents and school teachers and administrators. Beside the both well-known (St. Augustine) and comparatively obscure (H.S. Gerdil) thinkers of the past, the final section includes writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. These include Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Dorothy Sayers, John Senior, Michael O'Brien, and Benedict XVI. Each selection is preceded by a brief introduction by Topping, and is followed by a few questions for review and discussion.

Concluding, he said the importance of a liberal, Catholic education is perpetual, and particularly essential in our contemporary situation.

“With the advent of aggressive secularism in North America, Catholics need to relearn the reasons for their hope. The sanctity of life, the goodness of marriage, the value of limited self-government, the splendor of J.S.Bach and Mozart and Rembrandt are among the goods that are no longer evident to our fellow citizens. Our civilization has entered into a night of forgetfulness. Catholic education aspires to theological aims. But it also aims to ennoble our experience of the 'human things,' to remind men and women of what is beautiful and true in this world.”
 

Tags: Catholic education, Education

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