The question of how we ought to educate seems, paradoxically, both a hot topic and one that no one really wants to discuss deeply. A few pithy phrases or digs at the public educational establishment down the street often suffice for many Christians. Yet this is a fundamental issue lying right at the heart of the life of the Church. Without answering the question of how we ought to educate, we leave behind another generation unequipped to build God’s kingdom after us. Statistics about young people’s leaving the Church after high school show that the Church in America is in trouble. A quick perusal of teenage culture—within the Church—will tell us the same thing. What’s to be done?
As the headmaster of a classical school, I might be expected to say that studies of the Christian students ought to be more aggressive, harder, and more challenging, and that their minds must be formed by the study of Latin and Greek, higher math, Formal Logic, and Rhetoric.
As a priest, I might be expected to say that the moral theology of the students’ education must be intensified, and we should be more concerned with helping our young people through the ethical dilemmas they will likely face in our culture.
As a parent, I might be expected to say that a student’s relationship with God should be emphasized and a student should be taught how to find an alternative teenage culture to participate in.
What I propose as the simple answer to the question is neither new nor original. But it is, I believe, somewhat shocking to our modern culture. The answer is quite simple. It does not necessarily exclude all the suggestions above, which are excellent in themselves; but it does come before them.
The simple answer is that we must educate our young people in the beauty of holiness. By this I don’t mean just that we teach them “this is holy,” or “this is beautiful,”—though no good education ought to omit this. What I mean is that our students should experience the beauty of holiness every time they come to school. Furthermore, the primary place for this experience is not the classroom, but the chapel.
Worship is the real foundation of the education we want our children to have. Worship is the real foundation of a life lived for the glory of God. We want our students to become disciples of Jesus, and this occurs most effectively in the life of worship lived around the throne of God. Incarnational and Catholic education is education which is experienced; to have a Christian education, we must first experience Christ, not just in our heads or our rational thoughts, as good and important as that is, but in our lives and with our knees.
This means that we connect with God as a community each school morning. It means that we understand every student in our school community to be a human created in the likeness and image of God. It means we must not treat our students as cogs in a machine, or as material just needing to be stamped with the stamp of “a good Christian education.”
Rather, each student is a unique person with gifts and talents and weaknesses, all of which need shaping, discipline, practice, correction, modeling, and forming. Thus, education is not, at heart, so much about facts and figures, spelling lists and readers, as it is about spiritual formation.
At our school, our students work hard at Math, Grammar, Reading, and philosophical discussion. The higher calling on all of our students, however, is to model their lives—including their academic lives—after the Master. That means that the masters of the school—the teachers—must be modeling their own lives after the Master, so that we might say with St. Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
This education is no easy task. It is much simpler to come up with a checklist to turn out the perfect brand-name, factory-stamped student. The problem is that this type of education just doesn’t work. The factory model of education—run them through the factory, adding pieces as they go—has failed miserably. So we’re left with the kind of teaching we see Jesus doing—challenging, telling stories, calling to higher purposes, explaining, loving, forming. It’s a lot harder, but, with God’s blessing, produces the kind of kingdom citizens whom the Church needs to be about her business.
Originally published in the original email/print journal Earth & Altar, in the Late Trinity, 2008 edition.