The Teacher as Artist

An educational group in England known as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has told British schools that they will no longer have to teach children right from wrong as a “core value” of the curriculum (see LifeSiteNews, Aug. 1, 2006).

Support for increased cultural relativism and moral ambiguity is not entirely surprising, given the vigorous involvement of the National Union of Teachers in promoting homosexual relationships as being normal.

And yet this novel educational mandate seems to be at odds with people’s experience in general.

Because of recent events in England and in other parts of the world since Sept. 11, 2001, most people outside of education have come to appreciate more acutely the fundamental importance of distinguishing between right and wrong.

Terrorists are adamant about the many things they judge to be wrong about the West, while Westerners are passionately united in their conviction that terrorism itself is wrong. It is hardly the time for educators to shelve the issue of right and wrong. Indeed, learning to distinguish between right and wrong is forever timely.

A member of the Campaign for Real Education is outraged by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s mandate: “I’m shocked,” he told the Daily Mail, “that they are suggesting moving toward a value-free curriculum that I believe would be disastrous for future generations.”

An ombudsman of the minister of education has stated that many are horrified at the education group’s position and that “ministers must engage with the public so that this type of nonsense is not allowed to prevail.”

Those who look to education to find solutions to many of today’s problems might look to education to find their source. The British group’s proposal represents an extreme consequence of a philosophy of education that is inherently defective, but not in a way that may be entirely obvious to many people.

A teacher is an artist.

But we must remember that there are two radically different kinds of artists because there are two radically different kinds of art. On the one hand, there is the artist who works like a sculptor or painter and manipulates his material in order to make it a work of art. His operation is solely from the outside.

In this case, a form is imposed on passive material. The clay is shapeless until the artist gives it shape.

On the other hand, there are arts such as medicine, in which the artist-doctor deals with a living being that possesses an inner vitality.

In this instance, the doctor attempts to heal by reviving, through diet and advice, the capacity for health that remains alive within his subject. The artist of this second kind does not impose.

He ministers, awakens, restores, revitalizes. He brings to the fore something that is already there, but in an incomplete or latent state.

The teacher is an artist of this second type.

His artistry is to awaken something that is in the student. He brings something forth or e-duces, as the etymology of the word education denotes. He appeals to the human nature of his student wherein is a natural desire to know what is true, to discover what is good, and to enjoy what is beautiful.

In the words of the great physicist, Albert Einstein, “It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good.”

The Christian educator believes that man is created in the image of God and therefore has an innate and unquenchable desire to know what is true, what is right and what is beautiful. He is not in the least interested in molding his students in accordance with the political demands of his society.

The true educator is primarily concerned about his student. And this is because, as Jacques Maritain has enunciated in Education at the Crossroads, “the principal agent in education, the primary dynamic factor or propelling force, is the internal vital principle in the one to be educated.”

Education should not begin with a political image that serves as a model for the child’s formation.

Many educators today begin with a political notion, such as: sexual orientations are equal, men and women are not complementary but equally autonomous or abortion is neither right nor wrong. They then apply their technique the way a sculptor works on his marble, with the aim of fabricating a citizen who is the perfect embodiment of political correctness.

We should be wary of teachers of the first type.

Beneath their misapplied art is a fear that human beings will actually figure out for themselves a few things about right and wrong and this will lead them to make (heaven forbid!) value judgments (perhaps that homosexual relations are not normal after all).

As Mark Twain once quipped, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

The true educator is confident that each student possesses an innate orientation to the true, the good and the beautiful. Therefore, he wants to awaken what is already in them so that his students can be more conscious of who they are and so they can be better prepared to serve neighbor and country.

Being a parent is very much like being a doctor or an educator.

One cannot “pound sense” into his children any more than a doctor can “bang health” into his patients. Yet teachers are sometimes tempted to mold their students without any regard for the personal essence that is the student’s inner and emerging reality.

This is traitorous to the student, as well as unproductive to the state.

The Catholic educator, laboring in a post-Christian world, will find a great deal of opposition to practicing his art in the proper way. Britain’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority seems oblivious to the fact that it has adopted the wrong philosophy of education. The more it tries to implement it, the more evident it becomes that its members have been wrong from the start.

At any rate, the errors of the QCA need not be imitated and can serve as a model of how not to approach education.

A child has a right to be educated. This means that, in a negative sense, he has a right not to be treated as inanimate clay for a socio-political purpose, and positively, a right to be respected for who he is and to be given the opportunity to develop in accordance with his own inner substance that is his emerging reality.

This principle should be understood as a canon of social justice.

Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor

at Holy Apostles College and Seminary

in Cromwell, Connecticut.