But at Prince of Peace Catholic School, a Kindergarten to 8th grade member school of the Diocese of Charleston, SC, we are finding ways to offer children an education that finds its principle of order focused on classical liberal education in ways that make us seem innovative even though we don’t identify ourselves as a classical school of liberal arts.
Prince of Peace’s principal, Dr. Michael Pennell, begins with Dr. Rollin Lasseter’s broad understanding of the first art of learning, grammar. Learning grammar, Dr. Lasseter said, is “learning a language, its structure, its nature, how it’s put together and why it works the way it does. More essentially, it is learning to understand and respond to order.”
Grammar leads us immediately to language – in our case learning English and Latin. In the early grades, our students study phonics as they learn to read. They see that letters represent sounds which, when combined, form words which have meaning – sometimes multiple meanings – as they correspond to realities in the world. We think of phonics not as a “strategy” simply but as a mode of the art of grammar. In some schools, guessing or looking at pictures is also a reading strategy. Not so with phonics. In addition, our 5th and 6th grade students begin studying Latin to teach them the structure of the sentence, its grammar, its vocabulary. This Latin study supports and leads to English grammar studies (including sentence diagramming) making possible by 8th grade the grasping, pondering, and expressing in coherent and cogent sentences (whether spoken or written) human knowledge. A sentence has a subject and predicate. It is an assertion about the world – the way the world is. When properly studied, elementary and middle school grammar lay the groundwork for a philosophy of realism – a study which will come upon thoughtful maturity in high school and perhaps college.
When we understand grammar broadly, we can apply it to the other subjects as well. What is the grammar of the cell? Can we draw a diagram and label its parts? Perhaps we can even observe it and describe what we see. What about the grammar of our Constitution? What is a “branch” as in “the legislative branch?” Who are its members? What are their powers? How does it all work? Our students in second grade can tell you!
Without this serious attention to grammar – broadly understood – children will not be able to speak intelligently and intelligibly about the world they live in and what is ultimately at stake in it – what is true and what is false. Dr. Pennell believes that grammar studies are best achieved through direct instruction; that is, a teacher – trained and knowledgeable – instructs the student in the art of grammar in whatever subject he or she teaches.
Beginning in 4th grade at Prince of Peace, our students read literature – poems, stories, and novels. They read whole, intact, and unedited original works. Some are biographies, some history, some fiction. It is almost a novelty to say that the works our students read are almost always of a reading level higher than the students’ ability to understand them on their own. Because of the recent invention of the “Literature Textbook,” original works are frequently edited to be grade-level appropriate according to research-based standards of average reading ability. In reading daily, our students imbibe almost intuitively the structure and nuance of language well articulated. It is no surprise, then, that the highest testing students on any national standardized test in reading comprehension are the students who read – not the ones who necessarily and dutifully get all their homework done or complete all the worksheets of “higher order thinking skills.” It is not a surprise, then, that our class averages in reading comprehension by middle school are consistently above grade level. Besides, when did you (as an adult) last speak to a friend who told you the latest book he enjoyed was the thoroughly exciting fourth grade Lit text?
At Prince of Peace, we teach the Ward Method of music. Music as a liberal art forms and trains the intellect, will, and emotions. On the Musica Sacrawebsite, one will find this thought about music expressed by Fr. Thomas Shields: “the real foundations of character are not to be found in the intellect, but in the emotions and the will properly enlightened through the intellect, and it is through music . . . that the imagination and the emotions may be reached and effectively developed.” The strength of the Ward Method for a Catholic school is not only in its education of the child in music theory and composition, but in training the child to sing especially the vast repertoire of sacred music that is part of the Church’s tradition. Attending to the sacred leads us to the sacramental life.
Because we are a diocesan school – a school belonging to a parish and directed by a pastor – our children are cultivated in the sacramental life. Our pastor says mass for our school children once each week, and they can receive Holy Communion and may go to sacramental confession. The form of confession goes hand-in-hand with liberal arts training: that we ask our 7-year olds to examine their lives, measure them against a gospel standard, to see where they are wanting in order to approach Christ and ask for forgiveness, and to resolve never to sin again . . . that’s the fruit of Catholic education! The pastor’s consistent message to the children is the message that encompasses not only our whole education but our whole lives: be holy! Pursue holiness.
At the culmination of a child’s education at Prince of Peace, it is our hope that the purpose of education becomes apparent. Josef Pieper says “leisure is the basis of culture” and leisure leads to contemplation of the divine, but more than that to a relationship with God the Father that ends with our worship of him according to his own will. Leisure, and therefore Catholic education, lead us to sacred worship – to lives of goodness, truth, and beauty – to lives of holiness.