November 11, 2011

Classical Education, Contemplation and Wonder

Classical education is oriented towards the wisdom of contemplation, and because of this, such education opens students up to the possibility of living a wonderful life. It is precisely that we might live life to the full that the Lord came. The life giving quality of classical education is born in the culture of life and civilization of love the blood of Christ once made possible and still makes possible today.  It is a kind of education in which human dignity, truth and virtue are integrated to prepare someone for the search for God and in finding Him, to cleave to Him. Through this kind of education we learn like St. Bernard that no matter how much we find Him, there is always more to be sought and in cleaving to Him there is always more to find. Because it so well equipped students for this journey of life, a classical approach to education at one time well served not only Catholic colleges and universities but even elementary schools and high schools as culture enriching institutions. More often than not, whenever classical education was wholesale abandonned, not only the Catholic identity of the institution but also the cultural enrichment it once provided to the broader society was also diminished. What would happen if this kind of education were ever rediscovered?


I am not sure why this approach to education was abandoned to the extent it has been, but any genuine renewal of the Church in America will require an examination of conscience in this regard.  Archbishop Chaput suggests that the Catholic witness to the wider culture has been "bleached out" in part because of a growing sense of insecurity in the face of scientific skepticism. Perhaps Catholic educators still find themselves compelled by thinkers like Robert Merton who looked on contemplation as anachronistic and even dangerous for society. Ironically, the spirit of scientific investigation itself should have caused us to question whether contemplation really is as opposed to science and progress as he and many others suggested, and still suggest. Why did we not apply a little skepticism to such skepticism?  Why did we not inquire into the biases and assumptions standing under such doubt?

As people of faith, we are too passive in the conversations taking place in the public square.  In failing to question the questioners, we allow doubt and ignorance to rob not only us but our children of the rich patrimony our civilization has cultivated. The wisdom of contemplation, to which all good education opens, is worth promoting and in fact vitally needed in the face of the dehumanizing forces unrestrained in our society.  The human mind is so great and vast that, besides scientific thought, it stands to reason our intelligence is also ordered to the enjoyment of other kinds of knowledge. There are certain things that science limited to the observation of merely measurable data cannot know and unfathomable mysteries that no verifiable hypothesis can explain away.  Indeed, a man has not yet lived if he has never tasted those deeper levels of knowledge which touch what is most noble, true and beautiful about our humanity.

Given the current state of our culture, do we not as educators and people of prayer have a responsibility to reconsider the rich synthesis of knowledge sketched out by great intellectuals like Jacques Maritain or Dietrich von Hildebrand?   Rather than narrow-minded doubt, such thinkers not only beautifully magnified the scope of human knowledge, the scope of the truth in which human dignity is rooted, but in contemplating the light of truth they also discovered the living secret to which human wonder is open, a secret so relevant in the face of the dying culture of these dark days. Even now, especially now, when so many are looking for a word of hope, through classical education and contemplation, universities and other educational communities can still help lead students into the discovery that the wonder of life is what makes life wonderful.