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Monday, August 28, 2017

Toward a Catholic Philosophy of Education



While doing some housekeeping chores today, I turned on Catholic Radio and happily encountered a discussion on Catholic education. Unfortunately I missed some of it, but I was able to tune into large portions of the show over the hour. I didn't catch the name of the man being interviewed, but he was someone in charge of the St. Augustine homeschooling enrichment program in the Toledo, Ohio area. 

He said something that amazed me: The Mass is the center of a Catholic liberal arts education. I'd never heard it put this way before. Homeschoolers who take their children to daily Mass are on the right track! 

This program guest discussed the need for Catholic schools to return to a classical method of education. In one sense, he said, the purpose of classical education is the cultivation of virtue, the idea of how to live fully as a human being. He listed philosophy, theology, history, literature, mathematics, and the sciences as traditional liberal arts subjects. I think foreign language study was also included. I may be leaving something out, but that's what I remember. What we are talking about is the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty for their own sake.

He explained that some people think that Socratic dialogue is classical education; but what that really entailed was Socrates talking at great length and then his listeners either agreeing or disagreeing with him! A liberal arts education more accurately draws the learner out with questions on the material, and subsequent discussions develop from them.

I have mentioned this point in previous posts as being at odds with Charlotte Mason, who did not believe in putting questions to the child. To be sure, we do not want to take on a quizzing attitude, but I think we do need to incorporate a few well-chosen questions now and again, while focusing on the conversational aspect. This would be a very Thomas Aquinas style approach.

I personally prefer the term "liberal arts" to "classical", simply because it encompasses a broader definition than the exclusively Trivium-focused or Latin-centered styles in vogue today. And I believe that a liberal arts education can be achieved whether one uses a traditional curriculum package, such as Seton Home Study; a guide to books and lesson plans which implements classical teaching techniques, such as Mother of Divine Grace; or a self-designed course of study such as that outlined in Elizabeth Foss's Real Learning. Catholic Heritage Curricula incorporates both "traditional" and "classical" education methods and is Charlotte Mason friendly.

The fine arts were also mentioned in the radio program as those pursuits which bring the joy of being human into our lives.

I find it very telling regarding the dubious course of modern American education, that entire majors in the humanities, such as philosophy, are being removed from universities, and others, such as English, are being drastically reduced. This is most likely in response to the Common Core Curriculum standards which are dumbing down education in America's schools. While technological and trade skills are immensely advantageous in finding a good job, as Charlotte Mason stressed, a liberal arts education should be the foundation for making one the best person possible, no matter what field one enters. 

From what I've been able to discern from extensive reading on the subject over the summer, and what the radio show helped to click into place, an authentically Catholic education could be summed up with three basic principles: 

1. Parents are the primary and principle educators of their children. 

2. The Catholic Faith must permeate the entire curriculum via an organized, liberal arts framework, serving to educate the whole person. 

3. A broad and general sense of what we need to know as human beings is transferred in a shared body of knowledge and wisdom, both in terms of what we can understand via human reason and what we learn from divine revelation. 

These principles could be elaborated upon, but I think that is the crux of the matter. They explain what is meant by scholasticism, the marriage of faith and reason which characterizes a classic Catholic education. I have to agree with Charlotte Mason in that the course of study should not be directed by the child's interests, though plenty of time is left in the day to explore those. I think in this respect, CM's philosophy is perfectly in line with Catholic teaching. Naturally, as the Church teaches, children will be allowed a gradual increase in independence and decision-making as they mature.

Last night I was listening to a podcast on youtube featuring Dr. Mary Hood on the topic of relaxed homeschooling. She put the obtaining of knowledge at the bottom of her educational goals. This would not be in line with a liberal arts education, and Charlotte Mason would certainly disagree. Charlotte believed that a broad and generous curriculum of knowledge was the very thing children needed to feed their minds and souls. They should be educated on the ideas of the best minds, chiefly through living books, but also by way of direct experiences and observations. 

What Mary Hood and Miss Mason would likely agree upon is the necessity of cultivating communication skills. Dr. Hood stated these as reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. All of these are fostered in a liberal arts education. 

Can textbooks fit into this liberal arts picture? I think a combination of classical methods, using original sources and living books, along with some judiciously chosen, traditional text/workbooks is ideal. It helps to have a framework around which to build the course of study, especially if one wishes to base it upon historical periods. As the historical worldview needs to be specifically Catholic according to the Church, a selection of Catholic history text/workbooks is exceedingly helpful to the busy homeschooling parent. However, each of us will find the best combination of resources for our homeschools. My idea is but one among many.

In the homeschool enrichment program that the man on the radio directs, children learn about four blocks of history in a four-year rotation; so children of different ages are learning through the same period of history, but at different levels. Children of multiple ages in the same family can then discuss the ideas and facts being learned together! This sounds a lot like the history-based unit studies approach I am implementing this year. 

While you might have to dig a little harder to get a firm grasp on an authentic Catholic pedagogy, as opposed to the proliferation of material on various homeschooling methods, the Church does provide us with the only philosophy we really need in her catechism and papal encyclicals on education, parenting, and family life. We have the stories of the Bible and the saints to guide us in virtue. We can utilize a few classical techniques and choose from a number of Catholic curriculum providers (and the library!) to help us achieve our goals for our children. We can tailor the education to the individual child and to our unique family situations.

Most of all we need confidence as Catholic homeschoolers that we are doing the very best thing for our children, and Holy Mother Church gives this to us. The best thing we can do is to know our Faith well and to study the teachings of the Church on education. An excellent overview is given on these teachings in Catholic Home Schooling by Mary Kay Clark, founder of Seton Home Study School. 

What I'm hoping to accomplish with all this is to encourage Catholic home educators to let go of obsessing over philosophies and methods and to focus instead on being Catholic. "Liberal arts" does not have to become yet another label. If you are teaching and living the Faith with your children and providing them with a Catholic worldview in the curriculum, and giving them a broad and generous course of study oriented toward virtue, you can't really go wrong. And though it might seem counterintuitive, even a minimalist curriculum approach can thoroughly reflect the liberal and fine arts. But that's a topic for next time!!