St. Jerome and Classical Catholic Education in Our Era of Tribulation
“A liberal arts Socratic teacher is in the business of soul-crafting. This is precisely what the upside down and adrift world needs.”
As a veteran Catholic educator and advocate for faithful Catholic education, I enjoy learning about, and sharing, positive news about what is going on in various Catholic schools around the nation and world.
A few months ago, amid an era of global pandemic, on the cusp of national upheaval in the United States over racial discord, and seeing the news of myriad other crises around the globe, I reached out to two colleagues in Catholic education: Principal Danny Flynn of the K-8 Saint Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, and Headmaster Peter Crawford of the [similarly named, but differently instituted] secondary-level Saint Jerome Institute in Washington, D.C. I asked them the same five questions in order to learn what their respective institutions were doing during such a uniquely challenging epoch on various fronts. Please be fair in noting that some responses preceded certain episodes on the global stage, therefore inhibiting their coverage of them. I thank both gentlemen for their timely and thoughtful asynchronous responses, the transcript of which appears below.
1.) How has your Catholic classical institution approached remote learning amidst the global coronavirus situation?
Flynn: We have tried to be prudent about the use of technology while also being aware of screen time and the age appropriateness of our students. Additionally, after the first week of distance learning, we had parents complete a survey and we used these results to shape our plan moving forward. We are using Google Classroom to post work and communicate with families. The teachers have been recording themselves teaching lessons, and many teachers have held weekly Zoom meetings to check in with the class. The goal is to offer instruction that can be done during the course of a week — all work is due on Fridays, but there is no penalty for late work — and completed on the family’s own time. We wanted to let families choose when the distance learning worked best for them throughout the week. The students have Religion, History, Literature and Math on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they have Nature Studies, Latin, Grammar, Art and Music.
Crawford: While it is true that the campus closures in the wake of COVID-19 posed real challenges for meaningful education, at the Saint Jerome Institute, we knew that such challenges were given to us in the broader context of Providence. We sought to rise to these challenges with grace and hope, confident in Christ’s good plan for us. Our question from the beginning was how do you take this beautiful community and create something meaningful for it in remote circumstances? We had to maintain the integrity of our school’s unique vision, and also be nimble enough to meet the challenges that were given to us. Our primary focus was less about how to get through all of our material, and more about how to give students a purpose-filled, structured remote school experience during a time when we saw the risk of them feeling listless and alienated. I was absolutely blown away by the joy and energy that faculty and students brought to their modified work, as if it were a new adventure they were being invited to embark upon. We took our singing of the Morning Lauds, the real bedrock of our school day, and sang it each morning online with the students. In their mathematics seminars, they were able to joyfully wrestle with a rigorous series on parabolas. The students had joyful discussions in Humanities, where we read texts like Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, The Song of Roland, Acts of the Apostles, and Plato’s Phaedo. They translated difficult works in Latin, such as excerpts from The Voyage of Saint Brendan. They worked on a pressure unit in Natural Philosophy that resulted in a remote rocket launch viewing. Even the sorts of classes that might be most tempting to cancel, such as in the Arts or Gymnasium, we offered in a modified form, because we thought these subjects were essential for student happiness during this difficult time. Looking back at the tremendous artwork that students made, I know this was the right choice. When we finally got to our end of school remote assembly on June 5, the excitement, the joy, and the pride on the students’ faces were all the proof we needed that we had successfully completed the school year.
2.) What does Catholic classical/liberal arts education have to contribute to a world that increasingly seems upside-down and adrift from the truth?
Flynn: This is a hard one. I think what is shining through for us is our content. We are not merely grabbing websites or software off the web and encouraging families to just do something. We are continuing to offer our rich educational plan, which integrates subject matters and is most pronounced through the historical arc that each grade studies. Everything from Latin to music to literature all circles back to their time period.
Crawford: We must recognize that the many challenges that face our culture are most fundamentally rooted in the human heart and in cultural, communal dysfunction. For this reason, our root problems will not be solved by legislature, politics, or social systems. If the problem is a human problem, a communal problem, the response must be taken to these deep levels. Education has the power to form human persons. Indeed, one might argue that many of our current struggles are a result of a miseducation, which has disconnected persons from perceiving their true destiny in Christ and fostering a love of what is good, as well as a hatred of what is false. Education, especially high school education, poses a powerful opportunity to form the minds, hearts, and souls of people. While many educational institutions view their role as generating knowledge expertise in their students, a true liberal arts education understands its formative role. It seeks to form the full spectrum of heart, mind and body of the students in its care. In other words, a liberal arts Socratic teacher is in the business of soul-crafting. This is precisely what the upside down and adrift world needs.
3.) Your school is named after Saint Jerome. Now, 1,600 years after his entry into eternal life, how do you think Saint Jerome might view the present age and its ills?
Flynn: Good question. Saint Jerome is described by us post-moderns as being cantankerous. Perhaps he may even have liked this quarantine, and been totally fine with it. He probably would not have even noticed it was going on. After all, he lived in a cave for years working on the Vulgate Bible. In terms of society at large, I’m not sure what he would think. Perhaps he’d be skeptical or disappointed.
Crawford: Well, I imagine he might have some gruff words for us — Saint Jerome could be a bit grumpy when riled up! I would say that Saint Jerome would recognize the patterns of a fallen world that were as present in his life as in our time, but I also think he would recognize the unique challenge that faces our culture today as we risk dehumanization. Ultimately, Saint Jerome would surely have great hope in the good Lord’s plan for us.
4.) How has your community — faculty/staff, and students alike — continued to proclaim the goodness, truth and beauty of Christ’s Gospel during a steadily challenging era?
Flynn: Joy. One thing that has been pronounced in every recorded video lesson I have watched of our staff is the joy that they have shared through their expressions, their delivery, their tone, and also their content. Several of our teachers have recorded themselves singing for the students. It’s increasingly difficult to be a full witness when you can’t see your audience. So you have to be very positive upbeat and as authentic as possible. This is challenging, but I feel as though we’re capturing this pretty well.
Crawford: The first step in the proclamation of the Gospel is, of course, to know it — which means reading it! Students at the Saint Jerome Institute will have been fully immersed in the Gospel, as well as the rich theological tradition surrounding, it by the time that they graduate. Next, they must come to love and serve the Gospel, and this requires action. For example, students need to personally engage the challenge of the Beatitudes — to serve others, even those who frighten or disturb us, as Christ. Sometimes, service projects are a bit abstract or distant from those whom we are asked to serve, but students at the Saint Jerome Institute will come face to face with those in need, so that even as they give and serve, they themselves are being formed. Finally, students will be trained to be powerful witnesses of the Gospel, so that they can heed the call: “Go out and teach all nations!” (Matthew 28:18-20).
5.) What signs of hope have you seen for the future of the Church, including in light of the Catholic classical/liberal arts approach to forming the whole person in the image of God?
Flynn: The hope that will see you through this process is students’ ability to liberate themselves from rote learning, where they merely tell you what a textbook tells them is important. Our students ponder and wonder real truths that are tangible for them. They make connections, and they draw conclusions with real answers. They are not caught up on memorizing disjointed facts, but by the time they graduate, they can tell you the story of Western civilization, but they can also explain to you why things are the way they are as a result. Hopefully, when they leave us, they continue to choose the good.
Crawford: I see hope in the great need of our world — a need that only the Church can fulfill. It is in times of need that heroes arise. Our Catholic history and tradition has always borne such heroic spirit in times of great calamity. That we are in a time of challenge bears the promise of heroic saintly action. I also see hope in children. As a culture and society, we have fundamentally underestimated our children and their ability not only to wrestle with great truths, but also their capacity for love of the True and Beautiful: Christ. I have seen the evidence over many years that a true classical liberal arts education is able to fruitfully build on such potential. That there is a growing national awareness that we all have a stake in meaningful education, the bedrock of the future of our culture, gives me hope as well. Eventually, our hope must lie in Christ and the possibility of union with him — no challenges that we face today can tarnish his redemptive act for us.
- st. jerome