Culture is inseparable from education, since education in the widest sense of the word is what the anthropologists term “enculturation,” i.e., the process by which culture is handed on by the society and acquired by the individual. Christopher Dawson, Crisis of Western Education
Catholic education culminates in handing on the rich Catholic treasury of thought and beauty. The development of the student’s powers of thought, expression, imagination and wonder prepares him to receive and appreciate his cultural birthright.
Over 2000 years, the Catholic Church has encountered a dizzying variety of religions, philosophies, political systems, fine art, architecture, literature. According to the Incarnational principle, she has discerned the good from the evil in each case, absorbing and transforming what is worthy. The Church has used these talents to develop the deposit of faith received from her Lord, Jesus Christ.
As Pope Benedict has indicated, Providence chose the Hellenistic civilization as the first home for the coming of the Incarnate Word and the early growth of the Church. Schools today are right to introduce their students to the best in non-Western cultures. Yet, the central importance of Greco-Roman culture to Christianithy must not be lost.
In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was apreliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed.
(Benedict XVI, Lecture at the University of Regensburg, Sept. 2006.)
Catholic schools hand on to their students what they have received – the great stories of History and Literature, the beauty of the Fine Arts, the wisdom of Philosophy and Theology.
History properly told plays a central role in the Classical curriculum. Serious learning begins with a deep knowledge of the past, from which we gain inspiration, warning, wisdom, understanding. Students should come to see themselves as part of the unfolding story of man, fallen but not completely corrupted, redeemed but always in continual need of redemption, loved and cared for by Divine Providence.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
History should never be a series of facts and dates memorized for passing an AP test. Herodotus, the father of history, believed the present owes a debt of glory to those who accomplished great deeds:
These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on recordwhat were their grounds of feuds.
The greatness of the stories of history naturally awakens admiration and wonder, along with detestation of betrayals, tyrannies, luxuries and other vices:
This I hold to be the chief duty and office of the historian, to judge the actions of men, to the end that the good and the worthy may meet with the rewards due to eminent virtue, and that pernicious citizens may be deterred by the condemnation that waits on evil deeds at the tribunal of posterity. (Tacitus)
History should never pretend to be “objective”, if that means refusing to praise or blame the actions or customs of those we study. Nor should a study of the techniques of historians cause students to lose sight of the story and its importance.
The stories of history arouse wonder, and wonder leads to questions. “Was George Washington really a great leader, or just a figurehead?” “Why did St. Bernard of Clairveaux preach in favor of the Crusades?” “What led the pagan Three Hundred to sacrifice their lives at Thermopylae?”
History is a important context in which to develop students’ reasoning powers. Students should come to expect the actions of great men to have reasons, and not be motivated by simple passion or custom. In history, they encounter prime examples of prudential, experienced judgement.
Other questions should arise concerning historical accounts: What view is the historian putting forth? What evidence does he have? How certain is his position?
Generally, students are better served by historical accounts that are clearly arguing for positions rather than those that present their views as “just the facts”.
God always watches over all people, and His Church in particular. Students should learn to reflect on the providential significance of events they read about.
And the telling of history from a Catholic point of view is to see that human beings are, first and foremost, religious creatures who are given, what we call in our Catholic Schools Textbook Project textbooks, opportunities in time for choosing “grace-filled” change, providential evolution, if you will. Dr. Rollin Lasseter
Therefore, I want to invite you to think about history and the teaching of history not as a clinical record of the facts of the past or as meaningless events in the sequence of ages, but as a lifting of a curtain on a great drama, an invitation to step--with imagination, thought and will--into the revelation of God in human history, to lift the curtain on the greatest drama in the cosmos: Salvation history. For it was not in myth or in “Once-upon- a-time in a galaxy far, far away,” it was not in some “Land before Time,” but instead at a moment in our own, our real human history, that God took flesh in the womb of His blessed mother, Mary. Lived. Spoke. Suffered, died, and rose from death for the salvation of all mankind. In this drama of salvation history, we see the hand of God in all ages -- His hand in the advances of human technology and science and in the everyday joys, sorrows, and miseries as well.
But can they really think that Homer, or Pindar, or Shakespeare, or Dryden, or Walter Scott, were accustomed to aim at diction for its own sake, instead of being inspired with their subject, and pouring forth beautiful words because they had beautiful thoughts? This is surely too great a paradox to be borne. Rather, it is the fire within the author's breast which overflows in the torrent of his burning, irresistible eloquence; it is the poetry of his inner soul, which relieves itself in the Ode or the Elegy; and his mental attitude and bearing, the beauty of his moral countenance, the force and keenness of his logic, are imaged in the tenderness, or energy, or richness of his language.
- John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University
The classics of literature are classics because they have inspired, moved, taught generation after generation of men. Homer did not compose his works so that they could become an example of epic poetry in dactyllic hexameter for high school or university students; he aimed to hold spellbound a hall of Greek nobility and leave them clamoring for more.
Summon also the inspired singer Demodokos, for to him the god gave song surpassing in power to please, whenever the spirit moves him to singing.
- The Odyssey, VIII.43.
John Adams’ generation learned Latin so that they could read Plutarch, Virgil, Tacitus, and Terence. They read them so carefully and deeply that they really grew to know the minds and hearts of these great men.
As Catholic educators, we must approach literature with a similar intention. As in many other areas, standardized tests shy away from meaning and focus on techniques. But our primary goal must be to introduce our students to authors and works worthy of knowing and help them to be moved as the author intended. We need not ignore teaching them the compositional techniques that great authors used successfully, but that study should be aid in the fundamental activity of teaching them to read well.
A classic approach begins the process in the early years by developing the taste for stories, by telling the mythical and historical stories that inspired many great authors. Memorization of passages from the Scriptures, poetry, great speeches, even Shakespeare, develops the sense of the rhythms, cadences and vocabulary that make reading the classics in later years easier.
High school literature courses can make use of seminar discussions to accustom students to thinking about the meaning of what they are reading, and to the close reading that these authors’ mastery of language demands. As they look more closely to the words of the author, they will be ready to appreciate the deftness of the techniques which each author uses to make his points, his images, his stories more powerful.
Of course, literature includes essays, speeches and works of non-fiction. Literature courses should include the great speeches of Lincoln, the delightful paradoxes of Chesterton, the sermons of St. Augustine or Cardinal Newman.
But we must look for those craftsmen who by the happy gift of nature are capable of following the trail of true beauty and grace, that our young men, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, may receive benefit from all things about them, whence the influence that emanates from works of beauty may waft itself to eye or ear like a breeze that brings from wholesome places health, and so from earliest childhood insensibly guide them to likeness, to friendship, to harmony with beautiful reason.
– Plato Republic 401c
Plato expressed a strong Greek belief that early education ought to consist primarily in training youth in the fine arts, the arts that present beauty and grace in works of imitation addressed to the senses. Exposure to beautiful works of music, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture develops in souls a powerful instinctive taste for what is beautiful; the ugly and banal causes pain. Youthful love for the beautiful naturally leads to a desire to become beautiful through a virtuous life. As the mind awakens in adolescence, the predisposition toward what is beautiful will arouse wonder and delight in understanding, for fine art is akin to “beautiful reason.”
Plato’s vision might not have taken into account man’s fallen nature, but it does hit on a natural truth: encouraging students to strive for moral goodness and noble understanding is hampered if their souls have tastes only for what is merely popular, fun, harsh, or ugly.
Pope Benedict recently emphasized the apologetic power of the Church’s treasury of beautiful works:
In the same way, if we contemplate the beautiful works of art created by the faith, they represent, I would simply say, the living proof of the faith. If I look at thisbeautiful cathedral, it is a living proclamation! It speaks to us, and starting from the beauty of the cathedral we can visually proclaim God, Christ, and all God’s mysteries: here they have taken form, and they look at us. All the great works of art, the cathedrals – the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches – are a luminous sign of God, and thus are truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God.
– Question and answer with priests, August 6, 2008.
Music is particularly important. No work of art reaches into the soul more powerfully than music, which forms tastes and passions. No other kind of art pervades our life the way that music does.
“And is it not for this reason, Glaucon,” said I, “that education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace, if one is rightly trained, and otherwise the contrary?”
– Plato, Republic 401d
Men and women whose soul can be thrilled by Palestrina, Bach and Mozart have an experience of divine beauty lost to the majority of our fellow citizens.
Listening to all these works – the Passion of Bach, his Mass in B Minor, and the great spiritual compositions of the polyphony of the 16th century, the Viennese school, all the great music even of minor composers – suddenly we feel: ‘It’s true!’ Where things such as these works are born, there’s the truth. Without an intuition about the true creative center of the world, such beauty cannot be born.
– Benedict XVI, Q&A
Catholic schools should devote a good deal of their time and attention to the beautiful. Students should be immersed beautiful music, poetry and art, especially those inspired by the faith. Formal classes in listening to great music and studying great paintings play an important, though not exclusive, role. Teachers should first aim to have students learn to enjoy great art, then to distinguish among different styles and artists, and even learn some of the compositional techniques employed.
Other avenues for experience the beautiful are as important. Mandatory choir in which students learn to sing chant, polyphony and traditional harmonic hymns should be the norm. Textbooks that have beautiful, inspiring images should be preferred to those with banal, busy, flashy, substanceless pictures. The school should be adorned with beautiful works of art. Above all, the celebration of the Mass must be an experience of divine beauty.
If Catholic schools are to be true to their identity, they should try to suffuse their environment with this delight in the sacramental. Therefore they should express physically and visibly the external signs of Catholic culture through images, signs, symbols, icons and other objects of traditional devotion. A chapel, classroom crucifixes and statues, signage, celebrations and other sacramental reminders of Catholic ecclesial life, including good art which is not explicitly religious in its subject matter, should be evident.
- Archbishop Michael Miller, The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools
Theology and Philosophy
In the beginning was the Word....
Christian studies culminate in Theology, the ordered study of what God has revealed about Himself. The Catholic Church has always believed that God transcends any thought of man, yet through careful thought man can grow ever deeper in penetrating the sacred mysteries.
Theology is intrinsically a discipline more suited for higher education. But Catholic schools can give their students some experience of the wisdom that the Church possesses through the Holy Spirit and the great Fathers and Doctors.
The entire education finds it fulfillment in the study of Theology. The trivial mastery of words and thought is brought to bear in understanding the wisdom and power and beauty of Sacred Scripture. The experience of truth and clarity found in mathematics, the careful study of the natural world, the taste of beauty through the arts, the knowledge of history and story all bring richness, eagerness and depth to theological study.
Students learn that Theology, far from being a matter of mere emotion, is reason’s highest achievement. They become accustomed to raising serious questions, hearing old and new challenges to the faith, and anticipating that their faith will deepened through learning the Church’s answers.
Theology frequently employs philosophical arguments, showing how many important truths about God can be known even without revelation. Philosophy also develops the powers of the mind so that it is better able to approach the infinitely richer, but infinitely more mysterious matters proper to Theology.
The Culture page of the CatholicCulture.org website has great resources for Catholic educators:
Classic Catholic, Dr. Robert Gotcher’s blog.
The Profound Effects of Music on Life presents research regarding the profound neurological benefits of playing a musical instrument at a young age and the advantages of having the right kind of music in a child’s environment.
greatbuildings.com is an excellent site for presentations of architecture, classical as well as modern.
Art Renewal International does is devoted to classical art (which was not always modest).
Folk music of the British Isles has lyrics and midi files for hundreds of folk tunes. Lovely site, too.
Theology and Philosophy
Catholic Culture Resources
(bookmark links for the above)
Beyond the Test, the Institute Newsletter (September 2008, on Catholic Culture, Part I)
Beyond the Test, the Institute Newsletter (October 2008, on Catholic Culture, Part II)