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.