Shedding Light on Classical Education

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I worked in media for years before becoming a mom. As a writer/producer, I learned the importance of simplicity and brevity in crafting a message. In film school,  I was trained in the art of delivering the mythical elevator pitch—a famous director bumps their grocery cart into yours while perusing the organic fruits section—you better be ready to summarize your idea in a concise, persuasive manner before they finish selecting their non-GMO, pesticide-free dragon fruit. Otherwise, your amazing script idea is DOA. (In case you’re wondering, the opportunity to wow Martin Scorsese never actually materialized. I’ve also never laid eyes on a unicorn.) With experience, I’ve gotten better at pitching ideas to people. Often, I hit the mark, other times—not so much.

Ever since my kids started their Catholic Classical school I have assumed the role of unofficial spokesperson. I may not be on the payroll, but my love for Classical education inclines me to share with everyone I encounter, much to the annoyance of friends and family. For those willing to listen to how amazing my kids’ school is, the natural follow-up question is, “So, what is classical education?”  Easy enough, right?

Gulp. Spontaneous sweating. This leads to uncomfortable stammering and stuttering. Now the bad jokes kick in. “Good question! Do you have a few hours?”… Then, “Ya know, If I were classically trained I could probably answer that question, but since I wasn’t…ha ha!”  Not even a smile. In a fit of panic, I start blurting out random words: Socrates… the humanities… integration… true, good, beautiful! At this point, my listener wonders why I’m off my medication.

The former TV producer in me is still frustrated that there’s no quickie soundbite to sum it all up, but I have stumbled on an effective comparison. I liken modern education to our medical industry. We have loads of specialized doctors, a doctor for lungs, one for heart, one who specializes in operating on particular organs, and one who treats cancer in certain body parts. Rather than look at us as a whole individual, some physicians may begin to view us as the particular organ or function they are treating, not as the whole person our human dignity requires. They may offer a pill to fix insomnia, rather than looking deeper for the source of the problem, or encourage us to to take an anti-depressant when more exercise and community could help. They may prescribe medication that is good for our heart, but bad for our mental health.

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In the same way, modern education can miss the boat. Students are much more than their gray matter. Yet, all too often our education system is focused on priming brains to merely pass tests. Classical education, however, ministers to the whole person—body, mind, and soul. As our faith instructs, we are so much more than our brains. Education should speak to the soul. Are your kids regularly exposed to poetry? If not, how will they approach holy scripture? Do they explore great literature that touches the heart and will influence their choices for a lifetime? We must consider the brain’s needs, but we must also attend to the eternal part of every human being, the soul. Classical is a holistic approach to education which fosters a deeper love for learning. My message is slowly sharpening, but it is still a work-in-progress. If only I could carry a couple classically educated 8th graders in my purse. Want to know more? Meet these pocket-sized spokespeople!

My husband and I recently attended our school’s fundraising gala. Two poised 8th graders delivered beautiful testimony about their classical education. Their stories are much more convincing than any elevator pitch I could ever muster. I was so touched by their words that I felt compelled to share. The following is an excerpt from one of the speeches.

8th Grader Catholic Classical Speech

Most have heard the phrase, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for his life.” In fact, you have probably heard this cliché quote all too often, so often that it has begun to lose its meaning. I am here to tell you that my time here at Lourdes has taught me the profound truth of this statement. It is indeed a great analogy for what a truly classical education aims to achieve.

In most schools, including some of the previous schools I attended, too often education is reduced to merely obtaining a set of facts, or knowledge, or skills. And why learn those? Well… so that we can obtain some other set of facts, or knowledge, or skills…of course, at that point we have likely forgotten the first set of facts and knowledge, and skills…and probably the second set…or third…wait? Where was I again? Which grade am I in?

This is like coming back every single day to the river of truth only to watch our teachers catch one little fish for us, so we have just enough energy to come back the next day to watch them…catch one more little fish…and so on.

Classical education, on the other hand, has not just given us fish, rather it has taught us to fish. We have been taught that the importance is not so much what we have learned (and don’t get me wrong, that is still very important!) but that we have become intrinsic learners (learners for life). We have not been merely given one truth and been asked to reproduce it on tests or essays. We have done that, and that is a fine fish…for a day…but we have been taught to seek after truth – to pursue it where it leads, to be challenged by it, and to hopefully come to the right answers, and sometimes, more importantly, the right questions. This is fishing. And sometimes, it’s difficult. Sometimes it’s so difficult that it feels like we’re going hungry. But that hunger brings us back; pushes us to try even harder and overcome obstacles. And on those good days along our journey, we catch more fish than we can count. And it is so meaningful, productive and joyful.

In the Gospel of John, after a long night of fishing and failing to catch a single fish, some of the apostles were giving up for the day and going back to shore. Jesus saw them and asked them if they had caught anything, but they didn’t know it was Jesus. They replied to Him, “No.” He then told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, and they thought He was crazy. Despite their doubt, they followed His instructions and caught a great amount of fish. As students receiving a classical education, I can’t help but think that I have come to understand what those disciples felt. Classical education is difficult. It is not just getting the right answer, or filling out endless worksheets, or solving countless problems, or checking another thing off the list and moving on to what’s next. It is a journey in coming to recognize our desperate need and want for the Truth. And that cannot be accomplished or caught easily. We have to rely upon our teachers – our actual teachers here at Lourdes, and those teachers who have gone before us, and our parents who were our first teachers. From the books we have read to the ideas we have encountered here at Lourdes, we have come to trust the great teachers and fishers of truth of ​the Western Tradition and allowed them to speak into our lives. But most importantly, we have encountered TRUTH itself, the True Teacher, Jesus Christ. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places!” So that wherever we pursue Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, we are pursuing Him. Or maybe more accurately, He is pursuing us.

For He is not only the true teacher, but he is also the true fisherman. And the final goal of our classical education is to feast with Him on all the fish we have caught. Or more correctly, that He has taught us to catch. To remind us always of this final goal, at Lourdes we write AMDG on all of our papers. AMDG stands for the Latin “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.” For the greater glory of God. Our classical education here at Our Lady of Lourdes has equipped us to truly offer all that we do for the Greater Glory of God.

Lourdes has not just given me fish, but has taught me to fish and will feed me for life.

You can read another student’s fantastic speech here. It makes me hopeful for our future! Read more about Our Lady of Lourdes and Catholic Classical Education here. Check out this great talk on classical education delivered by Dr. Brian Phillips of the CIRCE Institute.  And if you’ve got an elevator pitch that prevents more social awkwardness, contact me!

 

*1st Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

*2nd Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

One thought on “Shedding Light on Classical Education”

  1. Dear Mary Jo (if I may),

    As a history professor and as a father of four, I very much appreciated this post. You probably already know this line, but since you asked for elevator pitch material, I thought I’d extend my sympathy. As a professor a small liberal arts college, I very frequently think about how I can make a better pitch for the liberal arts. Recently, I’ve been finding it useful to think about a liberal education (or a classical education) as an antidote to our contemporary materialism.

    I love this passage from Plato’s Apology (we could replace “Athens” with “United States”):

    “O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this? […] For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed.”

    I’d love to be in touch. God bless you.

    Like

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