By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
About twenty years ago, a young lady entered my Year Twelve Economics class having been pulled out of an academically select school to move into the school I was working in – a school also known for high academic achievement. All I knew about her was her name, let us call her Sally, and the school she had come from. In the truest sense of the word, this young lady struck me as a sweetheart – very quietly spoken, very polite, and very obedient. Nothing was abrasive about her character. I could not understand why she had left her previous school, or for that matter, why they had agreed to let her go. Her results were extremely high, and character-wise, she was exemplary. Then as I sat in class one day, I looked at her. She always had her jumper pulled over her fingers. It was very strange. Then I began to notice how her uniform seemed always to be too big for her. I went to the College counsellor, he told me that she had transferred to our school because she was suffering from anorexia. She wanted a fresh start. I kept this to myself, but later looked at her results from her previous school; none of the results for any of her subjects had been below 90%. By the end of Semester One, her result for Economics with me, had fallen to 80%. Parent-Teacher evening came, and her mother had booked a time to see me. I was expecting the mother to ask me to explain the 14% drop in the Economics result. Instead the mother was so very happy. Her daughter now had a good boyfriend, and was not pushing herself to destruction; she was putting on more weight – and she enjoyed my classes immensely. The mother hadn’t seen her daughter this happy for many years. All she wanted for her daughter, was for her to be happy again. How different this was to another parent I had seen immediately prior to this interview, who in front of me, berated her daughter for a 94% result in her examination, when she should have got 100%. I can recall seeing this second young lady sitting cross-legged in a school corridor, head down weeping bitterly a few days later. Two children in the same class – two vastly different parenting styles and expectations.
In what is considered by many to be a classic but controversial study of modern education, Allan Bloom in his Closing of the American Mind (1987), paints a picture of the education system of the United States, and for that matter, much of the western world, losing its way. Among the many ideas that Bloom discusses, is what exactly is the purpose of education. There exists a wide diversity of educational institutions in the world today, and most, if league-table results are any indication, tend to place their highest objective on the ‘academic result’. But what does this result mean? Does achieving an ‘A’ indicate that one is educated, or has an educated mind? Bloom would clearly suggest that there is a lot more to being educated, than the final result; especially so, if the courses that are being studied, are those which do not allow the student to discuss and be immersed in the big and important ideas of world and historical thought. Bloom reflects on the peripatetic schools of Ancient Greece, where a student had to engage various minds. To Bloom, education is the pursuit of wisdom. Bloom’s study echoes much of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s thesis from The Idea of a University (1852 and 1858). Newman in The Idea of a University, spoke at length about his alma mater, the University of Oxford; noting that when Oxford was at its materially poorest in the 19th Century, it seemed to be at its academic best. Why was this so? Newman concluded that the students who were at the University at this time, where on fire with ideas, and that they inspired one another. They were educating one another through the sharpening of each others minds by way of conversation; discussing ideas as if these ideas really mattered. How different this is, to what today we call education. Many a teacher will tell you that the students they teach, often ask the question: “Will this be in the examination?” If the reply by the teacher is in the negative – whatever faint light that may have been in the student’s eyes quickly seems to dull. It is almost as if we are breeding in our educational institutions, mercenaries: “I am paying money to pass an examination, so cut to the chase, please”; “Don’t talk to me about Truth, if the Truth won’t appear on the examination paper!” Moreover how many of us can relate to Newman’s description of students talking over meals about the ideas they had learned in class? Is it not more the case, that after class we go and do something we want to do, and leave the drudgery of learning for later?
Part of this ‘drudgery’ of learning is based for some on education being compulsory. But a good part of the problem belongs to the fact that education today is seen to be commensurate with passing assignments, examinations and units. Once this is done, then we worry about academic rankings. Once the rankings are done, then we worry about job choices. Once job choices are done, then we worry about employment and income. Once income is sorted – then we look for a mortgage, superannuation, a retirement village, and then a grave, the latter hopefully with a good view. For many education is therefore no longer about the motto, “Seek Wisdom”, (although we may have this in neon-lights glowing on campus) but about the catch-phrase, “Be Productive”. Education has morphed since the Industrial Revolution into a production line mentality. In many, if not most of our educational institutions, we instruct so as to make our citizens fit neatly into the production process. This is exactly Bloom’s thesis; how many educators and educational institutions are today concerned about teaching their students about the search for Truth, or providing education that teaches about the virtuous life? What we have today, if Bloom is correct, is the fulfilment of the instruction in Charles Dickens’, Hard Times: “‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.’” These ‘Facts’ are those which will help us pass the examination; and the examination has been specifically sculpted so as to fit the simple end goal, of gauging how well these Facts have been memorized. We thus dispassionately memorize the facts. We read Shakespeare with the same passion that we read the side of a Corn Flakes packet at breakfast, and study important historical documents of World War II, with the same enthusiasm, or perhaps even less, of how we read the television guide. The most disheartening part of this ‘business’ of education, is how, after years of treating the beauty of study in such a cynical fashion, we become cynical about beauty; “Have you read Romeo and Juliet?” we are asked, “Yeh, I did it at high school!”, we reply. We did ‘It’; the word ‘It’ signifying anything from a brick to the life-cycle of a puffin.
So let me return to Sally.
Her mother told me that Sally’s previous school had separated the girls in each of her classes into two groups – those who could achieve, and thus bring for the school academic awards, and those who could not be expected to do so. For the brighter girls, the teacher would instruct them – at a ratio of 1:6; for the others the teacher would set work for them to do, private study. Sally wanted to be taught, so she crammed hard to be part of this small group. She worked herself into illness, because she wanted to achieve – achievement – a virtuous thing to desire. But the end goal of true education, is not achievement, but wisdom; the correct use of knowledge and experience. Scoring highly on an examination paper, may indicate hours put in (sometimes it does not), but it cannot gauge whether you are educated; as oftentimes, many a student who has done well in an examination, cannot tell you a few years after this examination, what they studied – as if they studied only for a brief moment, and once that moment had passed, the knowledge became dead to them. A matter of: I needed to know in order to jump through the hoop, not in order to know.
If you were asked as to the marques of education, very few would reply, high examination results. Rather, wouldn’t we all agree that the educated mind is typified by the pursuit of truth and justice; open-mindedness; willingness to engage other minds regarding the great ideas; self-control and the love of wisdom. If we agree here, now let us ask the question, and which courses teach these marques and how are these marques to be taught? This is the central distinction of a Catholic Education from that of a secular education – that everything we learn is placed within the context of a Higher reality. We learn to know that we are not alone; that there exists a Truth; that life has meaning – for everyone; that study is important – but life and loving more so; that ambition is good – but it is not all; that excellence should be striven for – but that one’s best is all that God requires. A true Catholic Education, is in essence a call from God, for self-realization, and not a nebulous journey toward self-interest and cynicism. Catholic Education in its fullest sense is about the love of God, and the getting and not forgetting of Wisdom.
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