Conference: The Church ‘Transforms Education From Mere Facts’ Towards Salvation

The current state of K-12 Catholic education in America and the role of classical liberal arts in education were the focus of a conference held in Boston, Mass., this week entitled “The Life You Save: Catholic Schooling and the Liberal Arts in the 21st Century.” The event, which was organized by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, featured a number of impressive speakers, but two of the most striking presentations were delivered by author and TV host Father George Rutler and Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College.

Both of these speakers talked about how Catholic education goes beyond teaching mere facts to lift up the minds and souls of students towards greater purposes through instruction that is rooted “in love and by love and for love.”

Fr. Rutler, pastor of the Church of St. Michael in New York City, author of 21 books and host of a weekly television program on EWTN, gave the introductory remarks at the conference.

“The church is a repository of universal knowledge,” Fr. Rutler told the participants. “Not just facts, but how knowledge unites facts, the very ground of culture.”

Fr. Rutler cited Pope Sylvester as the exemplar of encouraging the liberal arts in education.

“Veritas vos liberabit.” This was a motto of pope Sylvester: “The truth will set you free.” Facts do not free us from ignorance. It is the vision of God that frees us from ignorance. We can have a lot of facts and not know what to do with them. We can do a lot of very bad things with facts. This vision [of God] was summed up during the Middle Ages in the trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic. The vision of the Church … transforms education from mere facts to the intuition of salvation.

The elements that make up education are, fundamentally “an analysis of the order of creation,” the priest asserted. “All of this roots us in an understanding of history. I would suggest the great gift of the Catholic vision is the meaning of history.” Catholic education, Fr. Rutler emphasized, “shows us something much larger than what is just written on the blackboard.”

Fr. Rutler denounced education that fails to promote “the choice of the good over the convenient, and the commitment to the true over the plausible.”

“Any civilization that is so wrapped up in itself that it settles for the lowest common denominator quickly bottoms out and rarely rises again,” Fr. Rutler warned. He also cautioned against the prevalence of cynicism and political correctness that have “infected Catholic education at all levels” and “helped destroy Catholic education in our country” in the wake of the disastrous Land O’ Lakes Conference in 1967.

Educating for Love

Esolen, who teaches English literature at Providence College and is the translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, told the audience at the conference that a truly Catholic education in the liberal arts has the capability of lifting students’ souls above the politics of the day.

In his presentation, Esolen criticized the inadequacies of the controversial Common Core State Standards in seeking to foster a Catholic liberal arts education, such as their limited focus on empirical knowledge and inherent scientism.

The many failures of Common Core and its use in Catholic schools were the subject of the report After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core, published last month by the Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project. Esolen was a co-author of the report, along with Cardinal Newman Society Director of K-12 Education Programs Dr. Dan Guernsey, the report’s lead author. Esolen was also a contributor to the Newman Society’s recently released Catholic School Curriculum Standards.

Curricula developers seem to suggest that that the only way to come to knowledge is by empirical investigation, Esolen lamented during his presentation, denouncing the “crass and ultimately useless utilitarianism of such things as the Common [Core].” Esolen remarked:

How do they know, then, that they love a person that they have just met? Is that also subject to trial and error? That doesn’t seem to make any sense. In fact, all the most important things in life are not the results of hypothesis and testing. After all, that is just a very narrow way, a way to come to knowledge about certain things but most knowledge leaves that far behind. … I’ve wondered aloud whether the authors of [Common Core have] ever known what wonder was, so intent have they been to be shut up in a closet.

“All the noblest thoughts and aspirations of the human soul” are omitted from the insufficient Common Core standards. Catholic education, on the other hand, is about more than just empirical knowledge; it is, by Esolen’s assessment, an instruction “in love and by love and for love.”

Esolen cited his recent troubles at Providence College as evidence of a disparate understanding of education between “teachers who like me love the liberal arts … and those whose utilitarianism or whose inverted religion has taken the form of ‘identity politics.’”

Esolen demonstrated this divide with an example from his own life. It had never occurred to him, he explained, that “the grandson of coal miners in American could not lay claim to Dante or Shakespeare or Caravaggio or Aristotle or any artist or thinker or mystical seer just because these people lived long ago [and] came from another part of the world. … I did not need these works to affirm my identity.”

His students, however, “have no such grounding.” Esolen echoed the concerns of Fr. Rutler that it is not surprising, in lieu of a foundational understanding of history and culture, that young people and their professors desperately cling to some marker of identity.

He further explained that an education rooted in love, as only Catholic education is, invites us “to be raised up beyond the petty and transient concerns of the day,” “to know [one]self,” and “to be capable of knowing others … without pigeonholing them into groups designated by the politics of the day.”

Optimism for the Future of Catholic Education

During the question and answer part of the program, Esolen recommended as an immediate response to the state of education that professors should “put something beautiful in front of [your students] and show them it’s a legitimate object of their love and wonder to crack open the preoccupations that have been instilled in them from 12 years of bad [public] education.”

Esolen also noted that the growth of classical Christian schools is a hopeful sign of the renewal of Catholic education, and that established Catholic schools with a traditional liberal arts curriculum are experiencing big spikes in enrollment.

Fr. Rutler shared his optimism for the future of Catholic education. “Hope,” he said, “is knowing good things will come to pass if we cooperate with the Lord.” Fr. Rutler also recommended Blessed John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University as a blueprint for educators because he too was dealing with people who “only had a small idea of Catholic education.”

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