One of the causes of the chaos of modern schools and homeschools is false thinking about the goal of education. The goal of education is not to lead students to practice the skills of wise men or successful professionals, but to teach them the objective content of the arts and sciences needed to do so if and when they choose to. In classical Catholic education, we avoid the errors of modern schools and homeschool programs that reach beyond the mission of schools.
To get this right, let’s ask some basic questions most never ask.
Understanding the Student
A student is normally a child, being prepared by adults for his future life. The child is growing and developing, gaining experience in life without which he cannot even begin to understand prudence and virtue. The child has no ability to judge what he will do in life, or how he might specialize professionally in a complex and competitive modern market. The student is a growing plant, from which no fruit is expected. However, the child is more than a growing plant, for he has free will and, unlike a plant, can choose evil if he wishes. He is a responsible agent whose decisions in life will affect what he can or cannot do in the end.
The Role of the Teacher
The teacher, whether a school teacher or homeschooling parent, is an adult who possesses the knowledge and skills a student needs to learn. The teacher is not God, and cannot infuse graces needed into the souls of the children to cause them to be other than they are. The teacher is not an engineer building a robot, or a programmer entrering commands to be executed by a computer. The teacher is like a gardener working to prepare a young plant to become something it doesn’t understand and may choose not to be.
The Role of the School
The school, whether outside or inside the home, is like a nursery for the young plant. It is a place where evil influences are removed and conditions created where the tender plant can establish good habits and grow without injury. Yet, it serves a plant that is capable of movement, which can choose to injure and even destroy itself, or help itself grow. The school is, in fact, only a temporary home for the plant, which must move out from its gentle and nurturing environment into the “real world” where conditions are not to.
The Role of the Curriculum
The curriculum is the objective content of the care the young plant receives–the recipe for the potting soil, the quality and timing of the lighting, the contents of the fertilizers, the quantities and times of the waterings, the proper temperature settings for the greenhouse, etc.. The curriculum is made up of the objective details of care the plant needs to thrive according to its nature.
The Goal of Education
With these comparisons in mind, we can think rightly about the goal of education. The goal of education is not to produce wise men or successful professionals. That is beyond the powers of any teacher, school or curriculum. Before any such results can be found, the child must choose to embrace the instruction he has received and put it into practice, freely. That is not in the control of the teachers, school or curriculum.
The goal of education is to provide the student with the knowledge he needs when he chooses to be wise and good. This is the objective content of the arts and sciences, beginning with the liberal arts and extending to the principles of the philosophical sciences and theology. Education teaches a child what to do if he chooses to live well, and how to recover if he chooses to live badly for a time. This is true not only in religion, where it is most clearly seen in the sacramental life of the Church, but in all areas of life.
In the study of Sacred Scripture, the goal is not to teach a child the interpretation of God’s Word, which is manifold, nor to attempt to make all necessary personal applications of the Scriptures to the child’s life. This is impossible. The goal is simply to teach the child the literal content of Sacred Scripture, and develop his mastery of it through effective, objective, assessments.
In the study of Composition, the goal is not to make a student a great writer. This is beyond the teacher’s power and is only possible when the students wills to be so and does the necessary work to master the art. The goal of education is to teach the student the principles of the art of composition and help develop the student’s mastery of them by assessment. If the student chooses to pursue writing, he will know the art and can put it into practice.
In the study of Geometry, the goal is not to make a studen think deductively as a Geometrician in life. This is beyond the power of the school. The goal of education is to teach the student the elements of the art–the definitions, the postulates, the axioms and propositions–and to develop the student’s mastery of them through challenging assessments. If the student chooses to think deductively in life, he will know the principles of the art by which he may do so.
In the study of the Catholic faith, the goal is not to “raise saints”, because that’s not in our power as parents or teachers. We can teach our children how to pray, and what to pray, but we cannot make them pray with attention, reverence and devotion as they should. Our duty is to provide a home that nurtures faith and good habits, to initiate our children ito the life of the parish, and to provide formal catchesis. To become saints, they must will it.
When a student is rightly instructed, if the student, after years of neglect and foolishness, chooses to amend his ways, he will know how to do so.
This is the goal of education: to furnish students with the knowledge of the arts and sciences that they may pursue them when they choose to do so.
In modern schools, we see the errors that arise when teachers and schools attempt to go beyond their limits. Rather than providing simple, objective instruction that is good for every student in the school or family, the school attempts to impart the actual skills to the students and, as said, above, ends up failing to provide both. Students end up with neither the skills nor the objective knowledge of the arts. In ancient schools, we see effort invested in arranging the contents of the arts to be learned primarily by memorization, which is wise and good for all. In modern schools, we see no arrangements of arts at all, no systematic instruction, but attempts to practice skills that are impossible for students. We’ve all been in these modern writing courses where students who have not learned the objective, measurable content of the arts grammar or reasoning or rhetoric, or world chronology, and have read no significant philosophical or religious texts which have influenced all that we see around us today, are asked to write as if they already have this knowledge–or as if it is all unnecessary. We’ve heard modern teachers criticize “rote memorizaiton” and claim that they will, instead, lead students to “understand” the subjects. This never happens and students are simply left without the objective knowledge that would have helped them.
In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we enjoy the simple task of serving the true goal of education: teaching children the objective, measurable content of the liberal arts, classical philosophy and Catholic theology. When we get the goal of education right, schooling becomes beneficial for all.
William C. Michael Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy
Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. He graduated from Rutgers University with an honors degree in Classics & Ancient History and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the National Association of Scholars. Mr. Michael has worked in private education as a Classics teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is a Roman Catholic homeschooling father of ten children, and keeper of a quiet family farm in North Carolina. Mr. Michael enjoys studying ancient natural philosophy, gardening, and running.