In The Case for Catholic Education, Ryan Topping argues that the core of the crisis in Catholic education “is born chiefly of our lack of confidence in truth.” The direct result of this lack of confidence, Topping says, is the “uninspired and uninspiring view of the human person.” Secular progressive educational models have injected a listlessness that even the overlay of religion classes and daily prayer cannot fully overcome. For many schools, this listless spirit is revealed in declining enrollment.
In the winter of 2010, I was the principal of a Catholic school that was facing its own imminent existential crisis: on the brink of closure, the Archdiocese of Washington directed St. Jerome Parish to raise money and develop a sustainable Catholic school, or begin the process of closing a school that had been founded in 1943. This crisis presented us the opportunity to re-imagine and rebuild our parish school. The St. Jerome Academy Curriculum Committee met for the first time in January, 2010.
This led directly to the next question: What is Catholic education? We had agreed that education was formation, so what is the Catholic way of forming children? First, it is that the Truth we seek is not simply an ethereal concept but the very person of Jesus Christ. This, in turn, means that our academic approach must be ordered in such a way that this pursuit of Truth is embedded in the both the curriculum and pedagogy of the school, as well as its extracurricular and social programs.
In one sense, our new approach called us to re-think the concept of Catholic identity. Certainly, a Catholic school would engage in daily prayer, frequent celebration of Holy Mass, and the visible presence of sacramental (crucifixes, Bibles, devotional art, etc.). The question remained for us: how does our Catholic identity influence our academic program and intellectual formation?
A vital part of the Catholic “way” of teaching would be centered on the importance of curiosity and wonder. In her book The Religious Potential of the Child, Sofia Cavaletti states that “the aim of an ‘elementary school’ is not to steer the students toward ever wider spheres of speculation and application. The aim is to open their eyes to the most basic elements of reality, a reality which is without bounds and, thus, is capable of attracting them and stirring their curiosity so that they will want to explore it.”
Deepening Catholic identity, then, means developing a program that first embraces truth (and sees that truth is valuable in its own right), while allowing the pursuit of truth to foster a sense of wonder in the created world.
1. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: This experiential, contemplative approach to faith formation seeks to foster joy in the discovery of God. Children hear Scripture stories while having the opportunity to work and play with materials that represent the story. The program centers on Holy Mass, and the “Atrium” (classroom space in which the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd occurs) is equipped with a small altar and all of the vessels and vestments that are part of the sacred liturgy. This focus, in turn, helps children to better understand Mass, and thus to be more attentive and involved. At one school Mass, I was seated next to a 4-year old Montessori student, who, at exactly the right place in the Mass, loudly proclaimed “Epiclesis!”
2. History as a Coherent Story
In secular curricula, “social studies” is concentrically arranged with the student at the center. This means that the early studies “My neighborhood”, “My state”, etc. are predicated on the principle that the child is the center of his world. How damaging this has been to our children and to our culture! The joyful pursuit of truth is better ordered to history that is taught as a coherent, exciting story that has a different person at the center – the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. The arcs of both Salvation History and Western Civilization are chock-full of people and events that highlight both the human condition, the importance of virtue, and our perpetual reliance on providence. Primary sources, literature, and works such as Eva March Tappan’s histories for children keep the drama and interest of history alive.
3. The Use of Good Books
Literature wields great power in forming our imaginations and even our intellects. The books we read as children linger in our hearts and memories, often with greater impact than more recent works. The Educational Plan of St Jerome Academy addresses this very well:
Reading well therefore means reading efficiently, but it also means reading insightfully. The study of language and stories is therefore an introduction to basic human questions. Students should learn how to question a story and be questioned by it. With the right literature, even young students can be made to consider the ‘worthiness’ of a character’s choices, the consequences of their actions, and the importance of truth. They can be asked to consider whether a story or a character is fair or just, whether it is beautiful and why. What are the elements of this and its effect? Does it make the student happy or sad? Can a story be beautiful and sad? They can begin to recognize the significance of symbols and foreshadowing.
No other disciplines in the curriculum offer the student the opportunity to come face to face with the wonder and mystery of the created world quite as sharply as math and science. The habits and skills of these subjects, such as observation, rendering, classifying, and labeling, offer an opportunity to sharpen and train the mind to understand greater complexity in their later studies. Teachers of these subjects should seek ways for students to explore their connection to nature (Fibonacci sequence), music, art (Golden ratio), and even history (mathematicians and scientists as figures of history).
5. The Importance of a Beautiful Environment
Joseph Pieper has said that in its original sense beauty is “the glow of the true and good irradiating from every ordered state of being.” Schools should strive to develop an atmosphere that evokes a sense of beauty. In the last few decades, classroom spaces have grown chaotic with brightly colored materials affixed to every wall and even dangling from the ceiling. A more ordered classroom environment encourages the contemplation that is a critical part of the learning process. Here are some simple ways to incorporate beauty in the environment, courtesy of the Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy:
- Beautiful art, both religious and non-religious, can be purchased and framed at low cost. Art beautifies the classroom and reflects God’s goodness and truth. It can also serve as an explicit teaching tool.
- For younger children, choose simple scenes that they would be naturally interested in; hang artwork at their eye level.
- Consider choosing art related to the themes for the year.
- God is the first and best Artist! Incorporate God’s creation into the classroom in organic and tasteful ways. For example, plants help create a more peaceful and attractive environment. Orchids, for example, are surprisingly easy to care for and the blooms last a long time. Animals, such as hamsters, tortoises, and fish provide delight and fun for children. The remains of animals, such as taxidermist-stuffed birds, bones, or fossils, provide an opportunity for wonder and inquiry. Seashells and interesting rocks can be creatively incorporated into decorating the classroom, and also serve as learning tools.