Clear, deep, and accurate thinking about reality, both natural and supernatural, is the essential skill the student must develop. However, without the help of dedicated and proficient teachers and a robust community of learning, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to acquire true knowledge of both self and creation.
We may assert without any paradox that every branch of science pursued home would lead to the other sciences, science to poetry, poetry and science to ethics, and then to politics and even to religion on its human side. Everything is in everything, and partitions are only possible by abstraction. . . . When one knows something thoroughly, provided one has some inkling of the rest, this rest in its full extent gains by the probing of its depths. All abysses resemble one another, and all foundations have communicating passages.
—Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life
The Catholic Faith informs, illuminates, guides, corrects, and perfects reason, and thus is the alpha and omega of any Catholic curriculum and community; being is knowable—as it really is, not merely as represented (Kant, modern science)—and in its depths and causes; knowledge is integral, hierarchical, and unified, and the human and divine sciences of wisdom, namely, metaphysics and Sacra Doctrina, are the culminating disciplines by and to which all others are ordered; the study of St. Thomas is at the heart as well as throughout the extremities of any authentic Catholic formation program; and the ideal teacher is the tutor, characteristically a humble inquirer into and midwife of wisdom, not the lecturer.
The two most important qualities that a tutor can help develop in a student are self-knowledge and clear, deep, and accurate thinking about reality. By self-knowledge, I do not mean just a greater capacity for self-reflection and a greater awareness of one’s individuality, though these are, of course, important educational objectives for a teacher to meet. What is just as important is the student’s capacity to grasp the historical, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual influences that shape his or her individuality and provide the context in which he can develop his personal identity, meaning, and vocation. Clear, deep, and accurate thinking about reality, both natural and supernatural, is the essential skill the student must develop, and thus he obtains great benefit from deep and prolonged exposure to examples of clear, deep, and accurate thinking about reality in the classic philosophical, theological, literary, historical, and scientific texts that constitute the Catholic intellectual tradition.
However, without the help of dedicated and proficient teachers and a robust community of learning, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to acquire true knowledge of both self and creation. Education into a tradition of rationality is a craft, as Alasdair MacIntyre has rightly described it, and a craft requires masters and apprentices. Today’s typical students live in an intellectual climate where sound-bytes, superficiality, and sentimentality are what passes for rational discourse, and where anomie suffuses the air their souls breathe. To combat this, students must be deeply immersed in the works of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Above all, they need teachers who have made these works their own in that unique, irreplaceable infusing of personal, concrete experience and universal, abstract truth that alone renders the fruitful transmission of ideas possible.
What is essential for this transmission to occur is the fruitful combination of Socratic questioning and conversational interaction between professor and student, and student and student. Socratic questioning best enables the student to transcend uninformed opinion to obtain justified knowledge; the most effective mode of teaching is, all things being equal, the Socratic tutorial. But it is indispensable for students often to engage each other in a peer-to-peer format, and not just be personally questioned by the professor in the tutorial format. The student must develop the complex art of intelligent conversation, and this is the complementary and indispensable role of seminar. As Plato taught, while instruction can occur through the written word, education is made possible only through conversation.
By employing the tutorial and seminar modes of teaching, sometimes along with informative and well-prepared lectures to impart necessary contextual information and extended argumentation, the professor can inform the students’ minds, facilitate conversation among them, and discern exactly where they are, as it were, with regard to the subject matter to help carry them to a higher level. This may be simply a movement from confusion to comprehension about the literal meaning of an actual text, or, at the next level, from a state of unsubstantiated opinion to justified knowledge about the idea the text is about. At a higher level, the movement would be from unclear or superficial knowledge to a clear and profound understanding. At the highest level, it would be from a profound understanding of truths to a comprehensive vision of the whole Truth, the big picture to which the most sublime ideas can only inadequately point.
The liberal arts are ends in themselves, surely, but not all liberal arts are equal, and this should also manifest itself pedagogically: grammar must be ordered to logic, grammar and logic to rhetoric, the trivium to the quadrivium, all seven liberal arts to philosophy, and philosophy ordered to and practiced in the light of revealed theology. In turn, theology must be fecundated, enlivened, purified, and penetrated by philosophy and dialectics—indeed by all the liberal arts. That which is lower than theology should not be glossed over and given short shrift due to immoderate religious zeal or an orthodoxy-at-all-costs mentality, for this suggests a fanatical and eminently unphilosophical mindset.
If either Socrates or Christ is banished from the curriculum and pedagogy of the Catholic educational institution or the soul of the philosopher, the result is theological totalitarianism or a dictatorship of relativism, on the one hand, and fanaticism or dilettantism, on the other. Both extremes display an anti-dialectical, reactionary, answers-without-questions ethos, whether the answers are the true ones of Divine Revelation or false ones of secular ideology. Such an institution, if Catholic in affiliation and confession, may offer true answers to its students, but at the expense of the necessary dialectical questioning and Socratic ethos that is indispensable to render true answers, the answers to real questions in their hearts. Similarly, on the personal level, such a philosophical “answer-man” might possess true answers, but they would be poisonous to his soul, a bulwark for his spiritual pride and gnostic, inner-circle certainty. Neil Postman suggests the right balance:
Knowledge is produced in response to questions; and new knowledge results from the asking of new questions; quite often new questions about old questions. Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.
Just as philosophy and theology must be held in the right balance, the curriculum must also hold in fruitful tension the poetic and the philosophical. The humanities must neither be seen as mere poetic fodder for Aristotelian philosophy or Thomistic theology, nor must the humanities become hegemonic and all-encompassing, with philosophy dismissed as so much useless and pride-inducing abstract speculation, only good for the poetic meat one can glean from its otherwise scanty bones. To secure the right balance of the poetic and the philosophical is a complex matter, as Plato’s ironic yet unassumingly sophisticated and nuanced treatment of it in the Republic reveals, but, as Peter Redpath has suggested, without the right balance, philosophy becomes ungrounded, becoming neo-Protagorean, mythopoetic sophistry under the aegis of political ideology, and poetry fails its charge to keep both systematic philosophy and theology in touch with the earthly realities of man’s senses and imagination, through which all human knowledge has its origin and in the excessive detachment from which the human intellect becomes unmoored, delusional, and dangerous.
The late Fr. James Schall has written:
The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of the mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.
Although the Real exceeds anything I or anyone else can ever say about it, there are truths we can and do know; thus, the knowledge of truth, which is constitutive of wisdom, must be the ultimate educational desideratum. But it is better, all other things being equal, to become those who love, for this is true wisdom. Moreover, while seeing reality as a philosophical and theological whole is a great good, inquiry into each part and aspect of reality according to its particular mode of being requires a study of all the disciplines, taught on their own terms and with a high level of rigor and specificity. Developing the power of intellectus, the intuitive receptor of integral truth, so to speak, is as important for the gaining of wisdom as developing the power of analytic ratio. Ultimately, we desire not mere knowledge about, but union with, the Real, and this requires, not just rigorous philosophical and theological thinking, but a charged and enchanted imagination, visceral experience of both sensible and spiritual reality, and the cultivation of eros.
The overall goal for the teacher in Catholic education and formation, then, is to help the student both to conform his mind to reality, both natural and supernatural, and effectively to enquire about and communicate this truth accurately and creatively. Through the rigorous absorption, analysis, and discussion of the works and ideas constituting the ancient and medieval philosophia perennis, the theological and spiritual riches of Catholic Tradition, as well as those modern thinkers who opposed and articulated formidable alternatives to it, the imagination and intellect of the students can be purified and illuminated, converted and expanded, so that they will think, feel, and see to some extent as the great thinkers did, to acquire their perennial wisdom so as to better understand themselves and their relation to God.
On the supernatural level, God and His Church are the teachers, and on the natural level, the teacher is reality itself, helped by human teachers. At best, we can point to it, help identify inadequate or counterfeit images, and introduce the students to its most trustworthy guides. But students must reach out and embrace reality on their own. Thus, not only guided Socratic tutorial, but also the more open-ended dialectic and cooperative student-led inquiry have a vital place in education, for they not only teach students how to become independent truth-seekers and knowers, but help reveal the ignorance of both themselves and their teachers—a necessary prelude to wisdom and wonder.
Students who are merely instructed are not thereby educated, and thus not well equipped for the path to wisdom, a wisdom that must deal with the complex situations and human beings in the world that desperately need a versatile, living, loving, receptive, vulnerable, and sacrificial response and model. Integral wisdom, to me, is above all knowing intimately our radical inadequacy in the face of the Real, and our inability—as long as we insist on our self-sufficiency—to fulfill our sacred charge as teachers. We must have the wisdom to know that we are mere unworthy and tarnished vessels of Christ the Teacher.
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The featured image is “The Geography Lesson” (1883) by Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma (1856-1909) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.