Back to Schooling

The art of education is under a cloud in this country, largely because it is treated as a science. Schools are not research institutions. They are not data mills. They are conservatories of culture. In the current anti-cultural climate how can teachers, especially Catholic teachers, ensure that students learn the rudiments of culture—and the rudiments of the Faith? Given the widespread admission of the failure of education, mainstream strategies attempt to solve the problem by asking, “Where are we going and how are we to get there?” Objectives are set. Diagrams are created. Catholic educators also try to solve the problem of the failure of catechesis with curricula and lesson plans of their own.

But teachers should resist this perfunctory, utilitarian, and ultimately Gradgrindian approach. There exists in this a reactionary belief that schools should return to something like the classics but not the classics; or something like the catechism, but not the catechism. The preferred route is a textbook with predetermined points, lesson plans, and worksheets. Real education, on the contrary, commands: “Go to the source”; and that source is mystery, not information that is learned only to be forgotten. The problem in education today is that education is dealt with as a problem instead of as a pleasure.

Liberal vs. Servile
The Common Core has not cracked the case of education because education is simply not a means of getting along in the world. It is a good in itself, not an instrument to success. The secret of education is that there is no method, manual, system, or program to implement or follow in the formation of human beings. Educators and schools today are accustomed to a highly structured approach to classes, tending towards materials that are very systematic, with a table of contents, an index, and a step-by-step track that moves in a fixed and scientific manner. This is not the mode of education—the mode of drawing out, as the etymology suggests. It is a dwelling within a prearranged set of boundaries. Education happens where there is a free, interpersonal consideration of those works and ideas that are eternal, experiencing them purely on their own merits, without outlines, guides, or textbooks. Education arises from conversation, not from commentaries—from the transmission of experiences and impressions from one person to another. People learn from people, not from SMART boards. The error of today is the emphasis on new-fangled technique and technology, and the de-emphasis on old-fashioned teaching.

Modern-day expectations and customs have become deeply rooted in the lesson-plan format, which is exactly what a conversation is not. Teaching that is conversational—that is unstructured—is more dynamic, more engaging, and therefore, more educational. Conversation is antithetical to the idea of an outline designating certain points to be covered. This turns a conversation piece into a specimen. Conversation—which means to turn with something, to circle a subject with someone—implies togetherness, a personal cooperation, or friendship. Friendship (which is central to the pedagogical philosophies of Plato and St. John Bosco—and Our Lord Himself) is not a science; and thus scientific principles should be avoided in seeking a true educational ethos. If teaching is to be personal, it has to be relatively unplanned. It has to be organic. It has to be human. A scientific method is not what human interaction is about. The scientific method is a way of registering means—thinking about things in terms of their utility or their action. Nowadays there is a great movement to classify and categorize the art of education, but it does education a grave injustice. Education that is systematized is just for the sake of an exam, not for spontaneous human communication and experience. Education is truly an art; and art, as a species of poetry, is not science, as Cardinal Newman asserted.

Society is overrun by a type of scientism, according to an inheritance from Descartes, positing that a mathematical protocol will produce the truth in every subject—but this idea does not belong in a comprehensive educational approach. Education is not an equation. Learning cannot be programmed. Real teaching is beyond outlines, because the teacher must be a necessary and irreplaceable component to the teaching experience. This is why teachers should not depend on, or be limited by, systems or structures that manipulate means without addressing ultimate ends. Teaching and learning at their best are free from the servile, considering those things that can be known and enjoyed for their own sake. Such things are the best things—mysteries that are good, true, and beautiful.

Keep the Faith
The Catholic Faith lends itself strongly to the consideration, contemplation, and enjoyment of mystery. When the Faith is introduced into a topic, the conversation can render it more justice, for the subject of conversation is a mystery, not a problem. Problems have solutions. Conversations do not—they are about mysteries that cannot be approached in a direct way, like a problem can. Mysteries cannot be solved in a direct way, because it makes a problem out of something that is not a problem to begin with. The direct approach is always the wrong approach when dealing with the mysteries of existence. The inclusion of religion in all disciplines is, of course, something done with practice, requiring creativity and imagination where mysteries are circled rather than solved.

Delinquency and the failure of the current educational systems can be blamed heavily for removing religious and moral instruction from schools. But part of this blame must fall to teachers who have never tried to break free of their structures. Don Bosco insisted upon the necessity of religion to battle the inclinations of fallen nature, without which, no one can hope to form students properly. And such consideration requires conversation if it is to be truly affective. Catholic teachers can foster a religious mindset by referring to the Faith whenever they can, allowing it to drift in and out of the stream of talk. All truth is really one, so it is not difficult to integrate religion in everything taught—if a teacher is willing to give it room to exist, and to follow instead of lead. Catholic educators will then teach not only the Faith but also reveal how the Faith can and does pervade and influence all thinking and all being.

Plan Less, Trust More
The art education is not a gnostic acquisition. It is obvious, dealing with basic human interaction and happiness. Teaching requires faith, together with an open heart, a good will, a love of subject, and facility in conversation. Teachers should appeal to their students’ senses, and then let their senses have their way. They should challenge them to approach the material as people, not as programs following a closed system. They should remind them not to worry about arriving at a definite conclusion. They should invite students to enjoy the material with them, talking about what they think, like, and do not like. And they should never hesitate to cultivate intellectual darkness, otherwise known as wonder. They should allow subjects to mingle, using blackboards instead of screens. Above all, their plan should be to have no plan—only trust. Only faith can bring about the culmination of education: the perfection of each person at the hands of another person.

Schools will not be restored until teachers first learn that what they should teach is primarily themselves—they should teach their own personal observations, thoughts, and queries in the context of a particular subject they are passionate about. Teachers can only give what they possess, and no power-point presentation can come close to the power of a person willing to share his loves and his life.

The term for enjoyment in Latin is fruor, which provides the root for fruition, or fruitfulness: a kind of perfection. Today, enjoyment in education is replaced by career-mentality, where measurable practices and processes are preferred to ends for their own sake. Perfection is what teachers should strive to enjoy with their students, and approaching the subject honestly and earnestly is the only way to do this. No guide should (or could, for that matter) tell anyone how to feel or think when beholding a thing of beauty. Perfection is to be enjoyed, to be received as it is. The art of education involves pointing out the mystery of perfection in things, identifying them as such, and enjoying them with students. Only with such artists, such teachers, will students go back to schooling when they go back to school, and advance towards perfection through the art of education.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “A Reading from Homer” was painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1885.

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The classical curriculum of the Seven Liberal Arts was primarily concerned with imparting skills. The Trivium – Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric – was about the use of language. The Quadrivium – Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music – was about the use of number, pure, extended, mobile and applied.

    I was educated by schoolmasters in the 1950s, who insisted that we learned how to parse, scan and translate the ancient authors; appreciation of their content being left to us. That, perhaps, was wise. As Bl John Henry Newman says,

    “Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical commonplaces, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival. Perhaps this is the reason of the medieval opinion about Virgil, as if a prophet or magician; his single words and phrases, his pathetic half lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time.”

    • The trouble being that all of those skills are not marketable in an information age where looking them up on google can make one quite proficient at those skills.

      • John Albertson

        Googling can teach what to think, but not how to think. So you casually dismiss what Newman called “Universal Knowledge.” The
        fact that you say what you do so blithely, shows how badly educated our
        society has become. Anyone, regardless of background or finances, who
        measures the worth of a thing by its utility and “marketability”, who can only ask, “How useful is it?” is a slave.

        Prostitutes are marketable and lovers are not – and here I mean
        the difference between those who sell intelligence rather than loving
        it. It is possible for someone to be a slave even if one is
        technically advanced, enjoys political advantages and even wealth.
        The liberal arts are called such because they are the skills that free
        the mind. To say that liberal education is for the dilettante, is to say that
        civilization itself, is superficial. Welcome Brave New
        World, and welcome drones instead of men.

        • “Anyone, regardless of background or finances, who measures the worth of a thing by its utility and “marketability”, who can only ask, “How useful is it?” is a slave.”

          Exactly right. Middle Class Americans are slaves to capitalism, and it is impossible to raise a family in the United States without being beholden either to the market or to government.

          “To say that liberal education is for the dilettante, is to say that
          civilization itself, is superficial.”

          That is because civilization itself is superficial; not far below the right to life is abandoned in favor of the right to retaliation, which is the primary mode of the Islamic.

          • DE-173

            “Exactly right. Middle Class Americans are slaves to capitalism, and it is impossible to raise a family in the United States without being beholden either to the market or to government.”

            We haven’t had anthing like a free market (capitalism is a word used by those who haven’t yet learned one of the few useful things said by Keynes’ about being slaves to some defunct economist- in this case a pseudo-economist, Marx) in over a century.

            Even the Amish need markets and market processes to peddle their wares.

            • “Freedom from markets means absolute personal responsibility for one’s material well-being-which means privation, since just about everybody is among the least competent at something and it occurs only when one is forcibly isolated from others, in a shipwreck scenario or something similar.”

              True. But isn’t poverty holy?

              BTW, I never said that capitalism was a free market; only a market. I’ve never seen a free market of the form the Austrians describe, and neither has anybody else outside of countries that have descended into anarchy.

              • DE-173

                “True. But isn’t poverty holy?”

                Apparently not, since we are constantly exhorted to eliminate (you can alleviate it, relieve it or mitigate it, but elimination is a fool’s errand) poverty, often by clerics, even though “the poor you shall always have with you”.

                “BTW, I never said that capitalism was a free market; only a market. I’ve never seen a free market of the form the Austrians describe, and neither has anybody else outside of countries that have descended into anarchy. ”

                There are no markets in anarchy. Markets require things like trust, contracts, a rule of law and a judiciary or other forum to settle disputes.

                Capitalism isn’t an economic system, it’s a pejorative rhetorical abstraction invented by Marx. It means nothing, except to those who are influenced by Marx.

            • Andkaras

              one might even say of the Amish that now they are quite fancy and we are quite plain.

      • R. K. Ich

        The information age hasn’t produced one Petrarch or Johnson or Tolkien or Lewis. For all its blessed advantages it cannot build civilization.

        • Yep, but why should we expect it to?

          • R. K. Ich

            We shouldn’t. But every time I hear somebody lauding the age of science, technology, industry, and information, as if that’s Man’s primary business (not that this is you necessarily), I have to ask whether we have not just become sophisticated pack mules, beasts of burden, for no cause nobler than merely stuffing our bellies and bank accounts.

            We should restore the liberal arts as the foundation to true knowledge. For those who can do so, they ought to become liberally educated, as they are more fully able to see themselves, beyond themselves, and for the rest.

            I can’t imagine we would disagree too much in this, no?

            • “I have to ask whether we have not just become sophisticated pack mules, beasts of burden, for no cause nobler than merely stuffing our bellies and bank accounts.”

              There’s any doubt? There is none in my mind. That is exactly what we have become.

              I don’t think it is POSSIBLE to restore the liberal arts at this point in time. Any attempt to do so will just degrade into hedonism. Liberty is too abused.

              • R. K. Ich

                I think we agree more than disagree. It must begin with the Church. Secular charter schools which promote themselves as classical are a step up, but still misses the mark due to the religion of the State holding sway over what is finally taught. True liberal learning is by definition against deathly hedonism (for if Man has no telos beyond his own superficial consructs, he must needs be hedonistic in this fashion), and the Church has the Revelation that informs us of the true end of Man.

                • And yet it appears that when given a liberal education, far too many clergy themselves succumb to a libertine faith, rather than a faith in God. Locally to me the Jesuits offer the best in liberal education at institutions such as Gonzaga, but they also offer the most eloquent arguments for gay marriage, euthanasia, and abortion. I do not see a liberal education as being against deadly hedonism so much as for it.

                  It is incredibly hard to study pagans and atheists without adopting some of the behaviors of pagans and atheists; few are capable of it.

        • fredx2

          Nor will it produce any of those. Reading is devalued, and replaced with 2 minute videos. Schools emphasize that you don’t need to know anything, since you can look everything up. Therefore we are left with a culture that breeds Simple Simon Legrees, who are hooked on porn.

          • R. K. Ich

            Very well stated!

      • Funny – I am very well compensated at a job in high tech I have because of skills gained through a Great Books education. Whipper-snappers educated through Google are not snapping at my heals. How did such a thing come to pass?

        • I guarantee you young whipper snappers educated at India Institute of Technology are waiting to take your job, by the millions.

          • Ironically (if that’s the right word) even as I type this I sit in a building full of very sharp Indian developers. I’m here to help them successfully complete a hairy IT project. There are plenty of them who are really bright and talented – yet, they hire me to do the particular job of making sense out of what the business people are trying to accomplish via this project. Not one of them could do my job. Not even close.

            The skill set required was developed by reading and discussing the likes of Aristotle and Hegel. I’ve been doing this for around 20 years. No techie has come within a mile of supplanting me in that time. No matter how technically competent you are, you will still need somebody who knows what’s going. Big picture.

            • I do that all the time, with NO philosophy classes in college at all. 18 years in the industry doing it. It’s not that hard.

  • A liberal education is for the dilettante, who has a family member with a practical education paying his expenses. This is no longer affordible to the average American. We no longer have a leisure class capable of such a lack of industry.

    • Cap America

      I think there are two comments I’d add: first, with the end of the Cold War came a great deemphasis institutionally on the liberal arts—the value of freedom and liberty no longer needed defense internationally; and at the same time, the liberal arts gave up on the search for truth and simply became sociological analysis and propagandists.

      Second, major corporations no longer looked for liberal arts graduates, finding that specialized big institutions were turning out people with various technical degree-style majors. Before this (a nice look is the Sears history “the Big Store”) corporations were congenial to liberal arts graduates.

      So why be a liberals arts major when (a) your own professors have given up on the quest, and (b) no one wants to hire you or look at you?

      • NormChouinard

        A) The professors at the schools in the Newman Guide clearly have not given up. Giving up is not an option for the Catholic education of our world. B) I will give you partial credit here. In the sciences, hiring corporations for the most part do not care about the humanities. That does them no long term good but those types are focused in the next quarter’s balance sheet. But in the services industries, college experience is trumped by proof of practical ability and attitude which is taught well by a classical Catholic humanities education. Ask an HR professional. They mostly say they hire for attitude and train for skills.

      • DE-173

        Your pseudonym must be driving poster “Augustine” into a spasms.

    • R. K. Ich

      That great Thomist luminary, Josef Pieper, wrote a great little work, Leisure the Basis of Culture. It’s a great antidote to the idols of industry and utility worthy of any Catholic’s consideration. The slave economy of our time is arguably due to a loss of liberal education. We have more gadgets and information and conveniences and money: but culture is dead by and large, no thanks in small part to secularism, narcissism, statism, and consumerism — with the Church largely in lock step with these ills.

      • And leisure itself, has become a luxury few can afford.

        • R. K. Ich

          Not all men can equally be trained in the liberal arts, this is true. But Americans can afford a liberal education on a scale unheard of in history. We can afford leisure; we just have taught generations that it is a waste of money and time – that pinhead faux conservative, Rush Limbaugh, denounced liberal arts as a waste. It’s no wonder the neocons follow suit since man’s end is economic liberty, not virtue.

          • The sad part of being of lower class birth in a wealthy country, is that the wealthier the country is, the more expensive it is to merely live.

            There’s a reason a liberal arts degree holder graduates with $80,000 in debt and no job prospects.

            • Rob B.

              The question becomes whether or not that “liberal arts education” has taught the student how to think. In my experience, many “liberal arts” degrees do nothing of the kind.

              • DE-173

                Witness how liberal arts graduates start some discussion with “I FEEL that..”

    • Jude

      I disagree. My children are homeschooled and receiving a liberal education. This way I don’t have to pay for a four year liberal arts college. They study Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Science, Rhetoric, Logic, and a Great Books program.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;
    What teaching LOOKS like, giving yourself utterly. The original The Browning Version: repentance, forgiveness, love. One of the great scenes in world film.

  • Fred

    Good article Sean, and a tough one. As an aside, my heart goes out to most teachers because I think that most start out with the noblest of intentions but then are ground down by a system that trivializes the value of their contributions while burdening them with administration and lack of support. It is truly a miraculous situation when any teacher survives even a handful of years being able to retain their original compassion and good natured sensibilities. Regarding curriculum though, public schools mostly stopped dispensing education once they became unionized and managed by central administrative bureaucracies. They’ve become little more than a babysitting service and processing centers with a view of college as being something little more than a path to some higher paying job. Quite a few have had to come to terms with that false advertising under this administration, and with a mountain of debt. It’s funny how we all know it’s the most precious resource we have yet we do them the biggest disservice by entrusting their development to a centralized, nameless, faceless, bureaucratic, metric driven, secular enterprise. Everyone remembers what Cleon Skousen’s said was goal number 32, right? I think it can be declared “accomplished”. The only way we’re going to have any hope for changing their future and ours I think is through building up strong networks of homeschooling, pooling the talent and resources of those who are able and caring. Maybe then we can get back to the issue of making learning pleasurable and not see it as a problem.

  • Watosh

    No matter what the subject, it should be used to demonstrate the truth of the Catholic life view. All subjects can reveal the wonder of God’s creation and the how we are to relate to it, and this should always be in the background in every subject. I was disappointed when in attending the University of Detroit Graduate School, many, many years ago that the professors simply taught the body of knowledge, in my case, Mathematics, and as I pointed out to them, the only sign this was a Catholic school was that there were crosses in the classroom, otherwise it was undistinguished from what I encountered in secular schools. There are things in mathematics that have a religious significance, many mysteries, the idea of limits, irrational numbers, the calculus, degrees of infinity etc.

  • montanajack1948

    I am not unsympathetic to wholesale critiques of our education system. I believe our schooling at every level (and our society as a whole) would benefit from asking, “What are people for?” before the experts go about setting up learning factories, designing standardized tests, and programming an alleged Common Core.

    That said, these three things stand out:

    (1) “They [schools] are conservatories of culture.” Is that all they are, or should they also be places in which culture can be interrogated and in which alternatives can be considered? (Of course, we’ll need committees to determine what counts as “culture” and what is worth being conserved in the first place…)

    (2) “Education is simply not a means of getting along in the world. It is a good in itself, not an instrument to success.” I assume it can be both? If not, then how do we prohibit employers from requiring proof of–not real education, I grant you–completion of a particular amount of schooling, and compensating more highly those who produce such proof? Or should we just tell students that education has nothing to do with getting on in the world, then let them find out for themselves that the world thinks otherwise?

    (3) “Schools will not be restored until teachers first learn that what they should teach is primarily themselves—they should teach their own personal observations, thoughts, and queries in the context of a particular subject they are passionate about.” Are you really sure that’s true, or even desirable? A teacher’s personality, passion, and charisma are no doubt important elements, but might there be some concern about reducing education to a cult of personality? I agree that no amount of technical expertise or knowledge will replace a teacher’s passion, enthusiasm, and dedication; but I’d like to hope we can have, or at least strive for, both.

    It goes without saying that much of what we currently call “education” is something else entirely–“career training,” perhaps, or “job qualification”? Thank you for suggesting some ways in which we can get back on the right track.

  • Fil_D

    For anyone interested in understanding how American schooling has become what it is today, I highly recommend any of John Taylor Gatto’s books. You may wish to start with the book Dumbing Us Down, progress on to Weapons of Mass Instruction, and finish with The Underground History of American Education.

    • musicacre

      Don’t forget to include Cloning of the American Mind.

  • OperaticFanatic

    And it’s a Platonic approach to education too.

  • CatholicSchoolParent

    This article reminds me a bit of the Confucian saying, “Leaning without thought is labor lost; though without learning is perilous.”

    • CatholicSchoolParent

      Ugh! “Learning”

  • ForChristAlone

    It all boils down to the question, “Who is man?”. The choice is: a) man as machine or b) man as Imago Dei.

  • profling

    Utor, fruor, fungor, potior, and vescor. Who remembers what they have in common?

    • Jude

      They use the ablative of means or instrument. But I had to look it up.

  • Edward

    Mr. Fitzpatrick,

    I appreciate your writing. You have given me food for thought.

    Nevertheless, when we consider Christ Jesus do we not see in him a teacher with a plan? He is the teacher par excellence, the Plan, and the Planner all in one.

    He had lessons, his parables. I have no doubt that many of them were planned with great meditation and reflection.

    He had other lessons, his miracles. These reflect the parables and are orderly since they all correspond to human nature, the nature that he planned.

    Christ the Divine Teacher taught in an orderly manner.

    I ask my students, Where should we start our exploration of Jesus Christ?

    I hear answers such as, Mary, Jesus’ birth, Pentecost, Moses, Abraham, the Jews. All true in their own way.

    I ask them the same question again. Where do we start?

    John’s answer: In the beginning… the Creator creates a cosmos. In the beginning was the Word… the Logos, the Conversation starter.

  • Thank you for the insightful essay. I couldn’t agree more
    with your reframing of education as a conversation between friends, and
    including the eternal ideas as present in the Great Books. My children have
    been spared K-12 ‘education’ and are pursuing, as they come of age, a liberal
    education at Catholic colleges (two at your alma mater). One quibble:

    The only sense in which modern schooling is scientific – a claim made repeatedly by the 19th and early 20th century proponents of the current classroom model – is the sense in which the teachings of Hegel (and all his spawn) are ‘science’. Hegel held what we normally think of as ‘science’ in contempt – it was the realm of logic and math, subjects suitable for craftsman but unworthy of true philosophers. The unfolding of the Spirit in the dialectic is not knowable through those means.

    It would be a mercy indeed if the science of, say, Feynman, were applied to education. Then, at least, we could say: this approach results in kids who can read better than this approach, or that this much homework adds to learning at this point, but more homework detracts. Nope, we don’t even do that, because our betters – e.g., William Torey Harris (US Commissioner of Education, 1889 – 1906) – were devotees of Hegel, and not beholden to the little people who give science the honor it is due.

    No, the fundamental problem is not that education is treated as a science – if only! – but rather it has been designed and managed by social engineers who conceive of themselves as beyond the reach of science. The goal was never to pass on a culture, but to exterminate the flawed current cultures and replace them with an ideal – and ideally managed – one. Fichte, the godfather of all modern state-run education, is explicit in this regard.

    And the culture they most wanted dead was Catholic.

    But yes, we are to pretend that education is scientific. We are not to notice that it’s Cargo Cult science. We are also not to notice that more true education takes place in a conversation between friends than in years of schooling, that anything of value can be learned much more quickly outside the classroom than in it.