December 3, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Everyone says that “education is the key to the future, the solution to our problems, the only way to form the nation’s destiny.” But who anymore is clued into what education is really about?
For government bureaucrats, it’s often a buzzword that means: spend a lot of money on self-serving professionals with vested interests, even though surveys show that students are getting stupider all the time, having no cultural literacy and reasoning ability — indeed, not even legible handwriting, correct spelling, or rudimentary grammar. And that’s not even looking at the rampant immorality being pushed by “educators” and legislators, who evidently want society to be filled with hordes of men and women who are slaves to their passions.
Education, from the Latin ex-ducere, means “to lead out” — so the logical question is, lead out from what? From ignorance, error, and sin, into knowledge, truth, and holiness. It should reflect the journey of Israel, led from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan. True education presupposes the Christian revelation of man’s fallen plight and of the wisdom from above that can heal him and elevate him. This, indeed, is the most basic meaning of the Advent season with which the Catholic Church in its Western rites begins each new liturgical year: we start over, again and again, from the centuries-old longing for redemption from captivity, which is our longing, too. “We know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now,” says St. Paul, “and not only it, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:22–23).
Admittedly, there is no merely human teacher, however intelligent or well-intentioned, who is altogether free from ignorance, error, and sin. But some sins are qualitatively worse than others; some errors are more massive and pernicious than others; and some kinds of ignorance are far more terrible than others. Teachers do not have to be already perfect to be effective guides to the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom that stands beyond all of us. As long as they are tethered to the truth that sets us free, as long as they hint at the beauty of holiness, as long as they exemplify a hunger and thirst for reality, their students will be blessed; these students will catch a glimpse of what it means to be fully alive in Christ.
On December 15, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI gave a homily to university students of Rome at a Vespers service in which, taking James 5:7 (“Be steadfast, brothers, until the coming of the Lord”) as his point of departure, he spoke of the “the inner attitude for preparing ourselves to hear and welcome once again the proclamation of the Redeemer’s birth in the Bethlehem Grotto, an ineffable mystery of light, love and grace.” As a teacher, I have often been struck by how much patience, dedication, and care is required of both faculty and students in order to develop the inner attitude of receptivity to the astonishing truth that the Eternal Word of the Father, the Divine Wisdom in whom and for whom all things exist, has become man, so that we might become like God (“divinized”) through His grace.
This is the crowning truth of our salvation, the core message of the Christian religion. Each Advent reminds us of our need for help from outside — not only from other people, but more fundamentally, from another source than fallen humanity or anything of the order of nature. Each Christmas reminds us of the ineffable goodness of God toward us, not because of our merits, but because of our neediness. It is a truth that anyone, no matter how simple, poor, or illiterate, can hear, believe, welcome, and rejoice in.
It is, alas, also a truth that the world, the flesh, and the devil hate to hear and strive unceasingly to suppress with a variety of tools — progressive government programs, compulsory secularist indoctrination, social disgrace, professional contempt, sophistical refutations, specious alternatives, violent threats, or plain old silence. This is why every age has needed and will always need educated Catholics as teachers, preachers, apologists, writers, witnesses, beacons, leaders. There will be no formation of such Catholics without the same kind of hard labor and patient endurance that characterizes the farmer spoken of in the Epistle of James.
St. Augustine, one of the greatest preachers and teachers of all time, grasped very clearly that to attain even a basic understanding of the mysteries of divine Revelation, one must devote oneself to a whole host of disciples with constancy, energy, and concentration. The work is both gratifying and wearying to our human nature; we often do not see what is ahead, where we have come from, or how we will succeed. Pope Benedict said to the university students in the aforementioned homily:
The Apostle’s exhortation to patient perseverance, which in our time might leave us somewhat perplexed, is in fact the way to accept the question of God in depth, the meaning He has in life and in history, because it is actually by patience, fidelity, and constancy in seeking God and openness to Him that He reveals His Face. We do not need a generic, indefinite god but rather the living, true God who unfolds the horizon of man’s future to a prospect of firm, well-founded hope — a hope rich in eternity that enables us to face the present courageously in all its aspects.
Surely this is what our age needs: the revelation of God’s Face, so that we may have hope. The world, so loved by God yet so opposed to Him, will not get what it needs without men and women who have been formed as seekers of God, lovers of His face, alive with His life, ablaze with His promises — and, at the same time, equipped to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Pt 3:15).
The words of our Holy Father are vital to bear in mind as we proceed with the “farming” of the intellectual life, where results are not instantaneous, and where technology cannot substitute for character and wisdom:
Patience is the virtue of those who entrust themselves to this (divine) presence in history, who do not allow themselves to succumb to the temptation to put all their hope in the immediate, in a purely horizontal perspective or in projects that are technically perfect but far from the most profound reality, the one that gives the human person the loftiest dignity: the transcendent dimension, that of being a creature in the image and likeness of God and of carrying in our heart the desire to ascend to Him.
The point of liberal education is not to form perfect beings on the model of already perfect beings but to initiate a lifetime of apprenticeship to the one true Master, Jesus Christ, freeing the mind from the debris of a collapsing civilization and freeing the heart from the chafing shackles of confined and self-centered desire. Students who receive such an education are granted the opportunity to find a spiritual freedom that is more precious than all the riches of this world.
Today, it is the newer, usually very small and independent Catholic schools — whether grammar schools, high schools, or colleges such as Thomas Aquinas College and Wyoming Catholic College — that offer their students a Catholic environment conducive to prayer and discernment, a worthwhile curriculum with dedicated teachers, the opportunity for honorable friendships, and an inspiration to seek those ultimate truths about God, man, and the world without which we perish in the misery of our material comforts and our existential despair.
When Nathanael poses his skeptical question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46), Philip, in responding, doesn’t start an argument; he makes an invitation, even a challenge: “Come and see.” Yes, come and see what these schools are doing for children, for adolescents, for young adults, for future spouses, priests, religious. They are heeding the call represented by the season of Advent: practice a patient, faithful, steadfast cultivation of hearts and minds, for the good of souls and the glory of God.