Jesus, Primary Education, and a Return to the Liberal Arts

The following is not my own (but truth belongs to no one except by participation, except truth Himself, which “just so happens” to be the point of my sharing this).  It is from an old work no longer in print (if I am wrong about this, please let me know, and I will purchase a new physical copy) by Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., on the Liberal Arts:

After giving an account of learning, the practical and recreational arts from Genesis and from ancient cultures:

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THE ONE TRUE TEACHER

The attempts of savage people to restore paradise on earth by their corrupt arts had ended in such disasters as the flood. The attempts of the great ancient cities to restore paradise on earth had ended in warfare and vain schemes like the Tower of Babel. The search of the Greeks after wisdom seemed at first to succeed, but it too came to an end when the Romans established a world empire in which wisdom became only a tool to gain power and wealth. In Rome the emperor was made a god, and Rome began to go down to the same destruction that had followed all the foolish pride of previous civilizations.

Of all the people in the world only the Jews had kept the true idea of God, of his law, of the relation of man to nature; but they kept themselves pure only by remaining narrow. The fate of their great wise man Solomon had shown them the danger of mixing with foreign nations, and they knew no way to combine the wisdom of the Greeks with the truth contained in their own Bible. This truth that the whole world needed was stored up in Jerusalem, and, like grain that is kept too long in storage, it had begun to mildew. Who would open the granaries of truth and feed the famished nations?
Mankind had proved that by itself it could not restore paradise. Then from a most unlikely place the true teacher of mankind, the second Adam of the human race, appeared. He seemed to be only a poor young workman, a carpenter of the Jewish nation. He was not a student of the philosophy of the Greeks. Nor was he a king like Solomon. He was the Son of God, who had become a man like us to save us and to teach all men by his example and his preaching.

Jesus Christ was not a student of the philosophers. He was the supreme philosopher and teacher who required no one to teach him. He gave an example to those who practice the useful arts by himself working for years as a carpenter. He gave an example also of fitting recreation, for he did not hesitate to come to the banquets of the people. In his teaching he used stories which are masterpieces of poetics and of rhetoric. He corrected our understanding of nature when he showed how all things in the world follow the law of God’s providence and how man has a dignity above all other visible creatures. He also corrected our understanding of life and society by teaching that all law, is summed up in the love of God and neighbor. Finally, he revealed to us the supreme secret about God himself, that he is one God in three divine Persons, a truth hidden (except in shadowy outlines) from all ancient thinkers.

Now that Jesus Christ has shown us the true way we need never be in any doubt as to where to find the truth. He taught us all the great truths we will ever need. Until he comes again, we have only to remain faithful to that truth, strive to understand it better, and use it as a guide in our search for the lesser truths that will complete the picture. Our Lord has even provided the Church and the help of his grace to guide us in remaining faithful to his teaching. When he ascended into heaven he left this Church, headed by his apostles and their successors, the bishops, to educate the whole human race.

He warned his apostles, however, that this work of educating the world would be a difficult task which would not be completed before he comes again. Many would not understand what the Church was trying to do and would claim that the bishops were trying to suppress the truth, because they were correcting teachings which were only partly true.
Jesus promised that gradually the Church would go on gathering together the fragments of truth wherever they were to be found, cleansing them of error, and fitting them into the broad framework of his own teaching.

CHRISTIAN EDUCATION

In order to bring the truth of Christ to the world, the Church had to overcome three great efforts of the forces of darkness to put out the light which she held so high.

The first threat was the effort of pagan Rome to absorb the Christians, when it found that it could not destroy them by persecution. The pagan philosophers tried to water down the truth of Christ’s teaching and turn it into a mere form of pagan philosophy. The great Fathers of the Church — teachers like St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome — defeated this threat by showing how much greater was the teaching of Christ than that of the philosophers, although whatever was true in philosophy might be used in Christian education.

The second great threat was the period of disorder called the Dark Ages. The Roman government, weakened by its failure to accept Christianity wholeheartedly, collapsed under the onrush of Germanic barbarians from the north and Mohammedan barbarians from the south. During this dark time of war and confusion the Church kept patiently at work building the foundations of a new civilization. It was in the monastery schools, especially those of the Order of St. Benedict, that the ancient education was not only kept alive, but purified of its paganism and given a new and truer form based on the study of the Sacred Scriptures.

Gradually peace was restored in Europe; many of the barbarians were converted, others were driven back. The Church at last was able to establish the great schools called the universities. Here the wisdom of the Lyceum and the Museum was restored, except that now on the throne of wisdom sat a new queen, no longer natural theology, but Sacred Theology based on the teaching of Christ. In the beautiful cathedrals of the Middle Ages we see Sacred Theology portrayed in stone, surrounded by all the arts and sciences which made up medieval education. They are symbolized as follows:

I. THE LIBERAL ARTS:

A. The Trivium or three ways to knowledge:

1. Grammar (and with it poetics), symbolized by the figure of Donatus, a Roman teacher who wrote the Latin grammar book used in all medieval schools.

2. Rhetoric, symbolized by the figure of Cicero, the great Roman orator.

3. Logic (including both demonstrative and dialectical logic), symbolized by the figure of Aristotle.

B. The Quadrivium or four ways to knowledge:

1. Arithmetic or algebra, symbolized by the figure of Pythagoras.

2. Geometry, symbolized by the figure of Euclid.

3. Music, symbolized by the figure of Tubalcain (rather than his brother Jubal, because in the Middle Ages bells were a favorite musical instrument and Tubalcain was the inventor of metal work).

4. Astronomy, symbolized by the figure of Ptolemy.

II. PHILOSOPHY (science), symbolized by a noble woman with her head in the clouds and her feet on the earth:

A. Natural science and with it medicine, sometimes symbolized by the figure of Galen, the great Greek doctor and disciple of Aristotle.

B. Social or moral science and with it law, sometimes symbolized by the figure of Justinian, the Christian Emperor who codified the Roman law.

C. Metaphysics or natural theology, represented by Plato, who was regarded by the earlier Middle Ages as the great pagan theologian.

III.SACRED THEOLOGY, symbolized by a queen holding the Sacred Scriptures, or later by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor of the Church.

This system of education was perfected by the great Doctors of the Church (of whom St. Thomas Aquinas was the chief, along with St. Bonaventure and St. Anthony of Padua, St. Albert the Great, and later St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Peter Canisius) and by educators like St. Ignatius Loyola, St. John Baptist de la Salle, and St. Angela Merici. It remains the foundation of all education today, even of that given in non-Catholic schools.

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Faith in Christ does not excuse us from learning, but rather compels us to seek Wisdom, and to have confidence that, guided and corrected by Christ and His Church, we may find it, on earth through prayer and study, enjoying a taste of eternity, when we will contemplate Truth face to face.

The progress in art, in science, in invention, and in geographical exploration were all achievements which had their roots in the education given Europe by the Church, but men forgot this and began to attack the Church as the enemy of progress.

When teaching our children (which we all must do) and monitoring what they are learning in the schools we send them to for EXTRA education (parents are responsible to be the PRIMARY educators of their children, Canon 226-2) we should ask ourselves where we stand on such a statement as this:

Those who conceive of the high school program in terms of a body of information to be inculcated and who make high school education into a pocket edition of college education. emphasizing surveys of facts or the acquisition of some particular vocational skill do not understand the needs and opportunities of our times. The chief task of the high school is, on the contrary, to equip the student with a developed ability to learn on his own.

 

 

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