Andrew Seeley, director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, tells a story of a Catholic high school whose students found a puzzling passage in a history book.
“It described how Catholic missionaries faced pagan magicians with the claim that, ‘We have a stronger magic,’ meaning the Eucharist. When the students asked their history teacher about it, saying that they had been taught in theology class that the Eucharist wasn’t magic, he responded: ‘That’s theology. This is history.’”
End of story. But it shouldn’t be, says Seeley, whose institute was established to help Catholic primary and secondary schools, as well as home-schoolers, “to integrate all the subjects so that students get a whole view of the truth.”
There was a time when religious orders like the Jesuits ran many, if not most, Catholic high schools. And they, says Seeley, could be relied on to provide a classical, Catholic education, which integrated the curriculum into a united view of the truth. But for decades, most teachers at all levels have been laypeople trained in secular education faculties and teachers’ colleges with a view of knowledge that is secular and divided into isolated subjects.
That leads many students to value knowledge only as a means to getting high marks.
“We want teachers and students to look beyond tests, to pull back from that and look at truth and falsity in the subject matter, to study the proper methods to arrive at the truth,” Seeley said.
In the case of the history teacher confronted with conflicting messages about the Eucharist, says Seeley, this conflict should have been resolved before it reached the classroom. Perhaps, says Seeley, the history teacher might have researched what the Catholic Church actually teaches about the Eucharist and about magic.
Seeley has been practicing what the institute preaches at Thomas Aquinas College in California for 20 years. Eschewing textbooks and lectures, classes spend their time discussing the “Great Books” of Western civilization from Aristotle to Einstein.
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education’s co-director, Michael Van Hecke, does the same at the high-school level: He is headmaster at St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, Calif., where the curriculum follows the classical trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric, followed by the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy from kindergarten to grade 12. In addition, there are literature, geography, history and natural science courses, but a decided dearth of options — for good reason.
“When I taught at a high school in Virginia,” Van Hecke recalled, “I counted 168 course options. How can you teach with that?”
In the classical model, the early years of school are for memorization, at an age when students find this both challenging and fun. In history, for example, this means dates, names and stories. By grade eight at St. Augustine, the students have cycled through ancient, medieval, modern and American history once more, this time addressing the common threads, the virtues at play, the vices at play, geography and economics at play. In a final cycle in high school, history teaches about human nature, politics and a deeper understanding of economics.
But history is more than a tool, says Van Hecke. In the classical approach, the content of each subject has intrinsic value. And beyond the content are the goals of the school: the pursuit of “heaven, the truth and the good.”
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education promotes the classical model with its annual summer retreat for teachers at Holy Cross College in Indiana, as well as in-school workshops.
Van Hecke started the institute in 1999 with a view to create a series of history books for Catholic schools and home-schoolers. Five years later, when Seeley came to him with the idea of an institute promoting the classical educational model to the parochial and private Catholic schools across the U.S., Van Hecke admitted, “I’ve already started it.”
That first effort, now under the name The Catholic Schools Textbook Project, has published three histories, with a fourth near publication, covering grades five to nine. Science texts will be next. Ignatius Press and Ave Maria University are partners in the project.
With textbooks in a separate enterprise, the two men focused the institute on providing support for the private Catholic schools and individual home-schoolers who already were pursuing the classical model — and on promoting it among those who weren’t.
“The parochial schools are seeing their enrollments fall,” says Seeley. “This could give them a marketing edge.”
One school that is seeking just that edge is St. Jerome’s, a parochial K-8 school in Hyattsville, Md. Principal Mary Pat Donoghue says her school’s enrollment was shrinking so much that its survival was threatened. Challenged by the diocese to increase numbers, the parish membership pushed for it to become a classical school. “We had parents and parishioners from Catholic University,” she said. They not only pushed, they assisted the school staff — as did the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education — in creating a “history-based” curriculum, implemented this year.
“Already,” said Donoghue, “we’ve seen some home-school families enroll their kids.”
The curriculum outline explains: “Rooting history in the understanding of the human person as a creature with a natural desire for God also orients those cultures toward the coming of Christ, after which they are taken up, transformed, into a new Christian culture in which the deepest of human longings and the highest of human aspirations are met by a gift from God which surpasses all these.” At St. Jerome’s, history becomes the framework for studying literary classics, art, music and science.
The institute also promotes the idea of the school as a preserver of Catholic culture. At St. Jerome’s this is being done with the introduction of devotions such as Eucharistic adoration. The school held a procession through its neighborhood on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. One of the latest initiatives at the institute, says Seeley, is “the Catholic Memory Program,” which encourages students to memorize such hymns as “The Church’s One Foundation” or “Jerusalem, Our Happy Home,” passages from Scripture, definitions from the Catechism and material from the Liturgy of the Hours, for the doctrinal content as well as their beauty.
The classically educated student identifies with the Catholic Church, says Seeley, and is able to understand the mistakes that its human members have made in its name: “Our students should be able to say, ‘We’re Catholics; we’re sorry for the things we’ve done wrong. But mostly, we are proud of what the Church has been and done.’”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.