Affirmed in Purpose: Reflections on Classical Education

I had the privilege of attending the 6th Annual National Catholic Classical Schools Conference this summer, hosted at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. After reflecting on the experience, I wanted to share my thoughts.

It has been a long time since I was away from my family for several days. The only other time I was away for school-related purposes was a two-week marketing trip to China in 2012. My daughter Jubilee was barely six months old at the time. I vividly recall standing in my hotel room, longing to attend Mass, but quite uncertain as to how to find a legitimate Mass in a country where there is a difference (which I cannot pretend to comprehend) between the underground Catholic faithful and the state-controlled (bishops appointed by the Chinese government) Catholic church.

The contrast at our nation’s capital was unmistakable; in fact, in the opening address of the conference President John Garvey, of CUA, referenced that the surrounding campus of CUA was often referred to as ‘little Rome’. There was a Mass available at virtually all hours of the day. Daily, I was fortunate enough to receive the Eucharist in the crypt of the National Basilica.

This brings to me to post-conference reflections concerning classical education, which emanate from authentic human freedom. What is true human freedom? Is it the license to choose whatever idea or action we feel like choosing? Or is it the power to choose the good, and choose it always?

Below are seven elements of a classical Catholic education which together illustrate the unequivocal maxim: “The truth shall set you free.”

  • The way we teach always assumes how we perceive the human person. Classical education believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, which is cultivated in a life of virtue.
  • Knowledge of truth is never only informative, but rather performative, and ultimately— transformative. Classical education does not simply fill the mind with facts, but fills the soul with the transformative power of God’s truth and grace.
  • Children need paeida, the ancient Greek practice of molding youth into the ideals of beauty and goodness, by way of the liberal arts, for the purposes of active and noble citizenship. This formation includes contemplative learning, and emphasizing quality over quantity, so as to penetrate the depth and richness of the human experience.
  • Narratives are not things of the past, but encounters that provide understanding of our own experiences. Entering into dialogue with the great minds of the past increases our sense of connectedness with one another.
  • The mind of a child expects coherence: there is a certain givenness what we can know and deem reasonable. The continuity of a classical education manifests coherence; children clearly detect the rational or lack thereof in stories.
  • Socratic and mimetic questioning encourages authentic freedom by exciting and empowering the learner to do for themselves what they can and should do.
  • Inspired by the model of parents as primary educators, a classical education emulates the model educator: Mary, the Mother of God. Mary was principally interested in her vocation; her life was centered on the Logos-Incarnate, since the mystery of humanity is full revealed in Christ.

For many years I have grappled with the question of how to measure success in this endeavor of classical education. Should we consult standardized test scores as is customary in public schools? Do we compare the moral fiber or religious devotion of our students against the secular forces around us?  Should we tout scholarship awards or college acceptances as indicators of adequate success?

It was only recently that I found my answer. Michael Van Hecke, the President of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and Headmaster of St. Augustine Academy, suggested that the measure of success should be evident in the commencement speeches. Who gives the final words of wisdom as the graduates begin anew? What do the graduates themselves have to say about their experiences? What is the worldview students have found for themselves due to this education?

We only have to look back to the 2018 Commencement. Professor Scott Sollom of Franciscan University cleverly incorporated the Eucharist into his address, illustrating how the Eucharist provides nourishment to begin anew every time we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. I think also about the student addresses from Peter Thibault and Kolbe Bocko, both of whom clearly embraced the reverence of duty from the Greeks, and the gratuitous implications of the Gospel.

As we enter into our 25th anniversary year, we should be thankful that Mount Royal Academy continues to be a beacon of hope for the future of Catholic education.

Please join in praying for all the good God has done for us.

Yours Truly in Christ,

Derek Tremblay, Headmaster