Rooted in the classical world of Greek thought and Thomistic philosophy, Catholic education is not shaped by trends, fashions, and fads but founded on a great tradition that has passed the test of time. It teaches all subjects in their integrity, according to their first principles, the logos that conforms to the structure of reality and the nature of things–whether it is the grammar that governs language, the reasoning that underlies arithmetic and geometry, or the revealed truths that form the basis of theology. Catholic education is founded on universal truths derived from all spheres of knowledge, that is, the unchangeable laws, the eternal truths, and the perennial wisdom that form the food of the mind and the life of the soul. Catholic education does not dilute, oversimplify, or “dumb down” subject matter to accommodate students but teaches them how to rise to the level of demand required by a particular discipline such as grammar, theology, Latin, or chemistry.
Like its moral teaching that inspires moral excellence and an imitation of Christ, Catholic education holds high ideals for its students and instills a love of learning because of man’s innate desire for knowledge —a love of truth that climaxes in a sense of wonder at God’s created and supernatural order and His revealed truths. This authentic education does not lower its standards or commit grade inflation. Recalling the words of St. Thomas Aquinas that “All truth, whoever said it, comes from the Holy Spirit,” it cultivates in the mind openness and love of truth to “all that is,” that is, the truths that come from all bodies of learning, both the arts and the sciences. All these fields of knowledge illuminate some attribute of God’s nature as goodness, love wisdom, justice, beauty, mercy, or power.
Catholic education has its heritage in the liberal arts that pass on the wisdom of the past and the venerable traditions of Western civilization known as The Perennial Philosophy—what is universally true for all people, in all times, in all places (“the best that has been thought and said” in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase). Thus it rejects the doctrines of moral relativism, political correctness, indoctrination, and ideology by educating the mind to detect lies, propaganda, and heresies in all their various disguises. It embraces what Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France refers to as the accumulated knowledge of the human experience that transcends one person’s “private stock of reason” and encompasses “the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.”
Catholic education recognizes that just as there is a health of the body and a perfection of the soul, there is also an excellence of the intellect, both the knowledge of the head and the knowledge of the heart—the ability to read, write, speak, and listen; the skill to observe, calculate, and think logically; and the sensitivity to respond to the wonder of beauty and appreciate the virtues of the heart: kindness, charity, mercy, gratitude, loyalty, and hospitality. This education does not ignore man’s social or emotional nature, and therefore it cultivates manners, courtesy, tact, and propriety in speech, behavior, and clothing, recognizing that the beautiful or gracious is the attractive aspect of the good. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Glory be to God for dappled things–/For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;/For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings.” Catholic education, then, integrates and sees the unity between all bodies of knowledge ordered to to a greater understanding of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty as objects of the mind to know and contemplate with wonder, love, and gratitude and then to incorporate in one’s own life.
Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman best describes this ideal of Catholic and liberal education in these words from The Idea of a University that define the nature of intellectual excellence at its highest: “the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things”:
It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.
It is common to hear students dismiss certain fields of knowledge as useless to their profession and career. Why should a student majoring in information technology, accounting, music, or biology study philosophy, literature, or Latin? Surely they will not need this knowledge in their specialized, technical fields of study. The courses designated as “liberal arts” have no practical, utilitarian value for many professions that require skills acquired only in that particular discipline. Business majors need to study accounting, economics, and statistics to become expert in their field, and pre-medical students benefit more from the study of the sciences than the humanities.
Newman, however, addressed this very question during the Victorian Age when trade schools and technical training established respectability as models of education essential for the Industrial Age centered upon the importance of manufacturing and the progress of science. Thus Newman’s age made the common distinction between “the good” and “the useful,” separating the two ideas as exclusive. While the useful was good, the good was not useful or “utilitarian” as it was defined in that period. For something to be classified as “good” or beneficial, it needed to have immediate results and produce tangible benefits. As Sir Francis Bacon argued, knowledge is power. An education that led to a job was useful; work that resulted in good income was useful; the income that improved a person’s standard of living was useful. The useful, then, was measured in quantitative ways and seen in materialistic advantages.
A bone fide classical or Catholic education, however, is not utilitarian, a form of training in a marketable skill motivated by economic considerations for the sole purpose of earning a livelihood. It is a love of learning for its own sake, a desire for truth as an end in itself and as a great good that suffuses all areas of life. Classical education views the study of the liberal arts as a pursuit that resembles the habit of worship, the cultivation of friendship, the appreciation of beauty, the enjoyment of play, and a love of learning as activities that are intrinsically good in and of themselves. They lift the heart, animate the spirit, and inspire a love of life and of the goodness of creation. As Newman explains, the good, while not utilitarian, is always useful. The good is “not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.”
Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of all around it. Good is prolific . . . . A great good will impart a great good.
In short, if there is no limit to all the good a blessing, a gift, power, an act of love, or a precious treasure can add to the world or to the life of one person and if there is no limit to the overflow of goodness that communicates and diffuses itself everywhere and touches many lives, a Catholic education is the most useful of educations because of all the practical, real good that abounds for all who receive this goodness and transmit it in a generous, charitable sharing way for all to know, love, and perpetuate.