Award-Winning Theology Teacher Wants Students to See Truth in All Things
“All the other disciplines are necessary to do theology,” said Kenneth Scheiber, teaches at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown, Md.
“I think oftentimes, at the high school level, students don’t understand why we study things if they’re not necessarily, obviously useful right away,” he told the Newman Society. “They don’t see that there are objective not subjective reasons why we’re studying this. The reality is we need to be able to show how all things are interconnected as a larger whole.”
A teacher at St. Mary’s since 2009, Scheiber was one of 10 teachers in the Archdiocese of Washington honored with the Golden Apple Award for professional excellence, leadership, commitment to Catholic values, and devotion to teaching. The award was created by Jack Donahue, a generous supporter of Catholic education who died last week.
Scheiber is a graduate of two Newman Guide colleges: he earned his master’s in theology from Christendom College in 2010 and his master’s in world politics from The Catholic University of America in 2011. In addition to teaching theology, Scheiber is the cross country coach and assistant junior varsity baseball coach at St. Mary’s.
He said, “It would be difficult for me to teach anywhere other than a Catholic school.”
The following is a transcript of the interview.
Newman Society: Why did you choose Christendom for your graduate work?
Scheiber: I was interested in applying to grad schools in theology, and there were a couple things I was looking at. I knew that, if I took a degree in theology, I’d be interested in teaching somewhere, so I wanted to go to a place where I wasn’t going to be studying esoteric aspects of theology but those that are more apologetic and catechetical in nature.
I knew that Christendom could be counted on for its orthodoxy. I wanted to make sure that I was going to be learning – in the Thomist sense – not having to second guess whether what the professor was saying was in line with the Catechism, having that going on subconsciously in my classes.
Newman Society: How does the education you received at Christendom inform the way you teach?
Scheiber: I would say that one of the most important things about Catholic education of any kind is trying to make sure that everything that is taught in Catholic schools is somehow able to help us understand to a greater extent the world as God created it.
That’s something I took away from my experience at Christendom where I concentrated in systematic theology. I had not had much experience with systematic theology before, and I liked that understanding of everything as part of a systematic whole, not compartmentalized disciplines that were each studied on their own.
Not doing theology as an isolated discipline was an important thing I took away from my experience at Christendom.
I think oftentimes at the high school level, students don’t understand why we study things if they’re not necessarily, obviously useful right away. They don’t see that there are objective, not subjective, reasons why we’re studying this. The reality is we need to be able to show how all things are interconnected as a larger whole.
Newman Society: Why did you choose to teach at a Catholic high school? Why teach theology?
Scheiber: I was public school educated from kindergarten through my undergraduate degree. My first job out of college was at an Episcopal boarding school. In my two years there, the first thing that occurred to me was that I wanted to be working for the Catholic Church, the organization that had actually preserved the right teachings of Jesus. I knew I wanted to be working for the Catholic Church in some sense in an environment where I could teach the truth of Jesus Christ, where an education valued the pursuit of truth above everything else, and where people saw human reason and divine revelation in harmony.
Newman Society: What is the most important thing you want your students to know?
Scheiber: There are three things I want them to walk away with, and if they take away a combo of the three, I’m happy.
- Relativism is wrong, and that there is a true way to understand the universe and a human being’s role within that universe. Not everything is subjective; there is an objective reality.
- A sense of vocation. Students need to grapple with the questions: Do we exist on purpose and, if we do exist on purpose, what is my specific role on earth? The answer gives them a sense of the reality of God at work.
- Idea of faith and reason. True religious belief is never going to be incompatible with the principles of reason properly applied. Human reason and divine revelation will always lead us to the same place.
With these three things, students will be successful in their endeavors.
Newman Society: Why is it important for high schoolers to study theology?
Scheiber: It’s the queen of the disciplines. All the other disciplines are necessary to do theology. In a certain sense, it’s important because it reveals the interconnectedness of human knowledge.
There are truths that can’t be quantified. Not because they’re not important, but because they’re more important, things that go beyond human comprehension. We can use human reason to show the student there’s a way of living that involves more than just human reason. This can show the limits of skepticism, and students will be more likely to make great acts of faith which will govern the rest of their lives.
Newman Society: What makes a good teacher?
Scheiber: Approachability. So often students come into class and are pre-programmed to have certain assumptions about things that they haven’t even realized they’ve made those assumptions. Teachers need to make students realize they’ve made those assumptions.
I try to make the atmosphere in the classroom approachable enough so that the students are comfortable asking questions and thinking deeply about things, and hopefully making them realize they haven’t thought through their own assumptions.
Setting the tone is, therefore, really important. Then students will feel comfortable asking questions and really thinking, not just having the answer they think you want them to have.
Another thing: always, always, always trying to tie back how the material goes back into the larger question of truth. That’s really where education hinges: the teacher’s ability to address the question of truth in the mind of the student. If you can’t help the student understand how this will help him understand the universe better, that’s a problem.
That’s why schools face problems in cheating and plagiarism, because students think that it doesn’t matter in the long run. That breakdown occurs in the inability to apprehend the objective importance of learning.
Teachers have to address what the subject shows us about human existence in such a way that it’ll be compelling to the mind of the students.
In a Catholic school, the question of why are we here is a question every person deals with at some point. Any of the disciplines can go back to that same question, and there’s a way of making that the overarching theme of the class, even if you’re teaching math or physics.
Newman Society: Teachers – and theology teachers, especially – play an important role in the evangelization of young people. How do you evangelize to the students in your classroom?
Scheiber: By providing internal and external answers.
One way is by our example, by how much the students think that we ourselves are living a Christian life and how similar and different that is from their own experience.
I could be teaching all the right information and providing all the best possible arguments, but if the students don’t think my heart is in the right place, they won’t internalize it.
That aspect is irrelevant if you’re not finding a way to teach the thought process and logical method of understanding the truth around us. Having the students analyze human experience and learn different logical arguments for God’s existence or believing in Christianity, those things have to be front and center in education.
There’s also elements of overt evangelization. If the Catholic Church has properly preserved Christianity, I shouldn’t have any difficulty in providing an argument to my students.
It’s more about saying, “Let’s approach this in an open-minded way: what is the most reasonable?” Jesus is always going to be the answer.
Newman Society: How to can teachers apply this inclusion of both faith and reason to elementary school classrooms?
Scheiber: It’s not so much about teaching arguments and content in elementary schools. It’s more about giving people good examples to follow. Show students examples that are age-appropriate about the natural law at work. For example, showing what a good Christian marriage looks like, what forgiveness means, what devotion is, what prudent behavior is.
So often in elementary schools we say students are too young to teach real content, and I think that attitude could very easily result in our high school students coming in without the best formation.
Ideally what you want is a Catholic school that is more vertically integrated, from the elementary through the middle school to the high school. There generally isn’t a system of Catholic education like there is in the public school system. The more things we can do to make the parents’ and students’ lives at home interact well with previous Catholic school experience, there will be a greater impact on the culture as a whole.