The Difference between Mastery and Familiarity in Education

Investigating the natural worldIn our studies, there’s a difference between having a good, general education and having an education that prepares us for our duties in life.  We must pursue both simultaneously, and that requires that we understand the difference between mastery and familiarity in our studies.

When we consider the chief end of our lives, to save our souls, we can see pretty quickly that some subjects need to be studied for mastery.  These would include Scripture and Catechism, Ethics, Grammar, Reasoning and Rhetoric.  We want to master those subjects so that we can benefit from the use of them.  This pursuit of mastery is a personal matter, and the world is not going to reward us for this mastery.   We have to challenge ourselves to seek mastery for God’s sake, for our soul’s sake and for the good of our neighbor.  When we see that no one around us is doing the work that needs to be done, we must not settle for their standards or use their failures as an excuse to do less, but work to do the work that needs to be done for the benefit of others and the glory of God.

If God leads us to a certain vocation or occupation in life, we will need to master whatever arts or sciences are required for success in that work.  This will vary from one student to another, and will become clearer as each gets older and divine providence unfolds in time.    Many speak of desiring religious life or a learned profession, but do none of the work required for that vocation and then, in the end, make excuses for themselves.  Many speak of noble works, but do nothing that separates them from the vulgar crowd.  It is not good for a student to invest the time and energy needed to master a particular science that he will not need to live well, and we must resist the modern pride in academics that fills transcripts with course titles and grades but leaves us unprepared for our actual lives before God.  To have the time and energy to study what we need to, we must choose what things we will be ignorant of.  Solomon advised this:

“Of making many books there is no end: and much study is an affliction of the flesh…Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the duty of man.”  (Ecclesiastes 12)

We must also understand the benefit of familiarity in many subjects.  Familiarity allows us to know what a subject consists of without our necessarily mastering that material.  If, in the future, we have a need for some calculation in business, or illustration in our writing, we can recall things we’re familiar with and look them up.  Also, being familiar with things that others may master gives us some ability to communicate effectively enough with them to serve our purposes–and avoid being duped.  We should all be familiar with foreign languages, philosophy, history, literature, modern sciences, higher mathematics, fine arts, other religions, and so on.

A good education leads us to mastery in the necessary subjects and familiarity with the helpful subjects.  This relates to the different kinds of benefits in life.  Seneca speaks of these as follows:

“Of benefits, there are several sorts; as necessary, profitable, and delightful. Some things there are, without which we cannot live; others without which we ought not to live; and some, again, without which we will not live.” (Morals)

We must distinguish between such benefits as we work through our studies.  Many today are masters of subjects that are useless and completely ignorant of subjects that are necessary for life.  How many children, for example, know more about Jupiter than their own souls, or sports than their own anatomy?  Clearly priorities are wrong in many schools today, and we must avoid these errors.  Consider the Lord’s own warning in Sirach:

“Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious.  For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid.  In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive.” (Sirach 3)

Furthermore, we  must distinguish good academic records from education itself.  The business of academic records is tricky because the standards of well-educated Christians is not the standard in modern academic circles.  We must make sure that when modern students are given credits for familiarity, we receive the same recognition when we attain such.  Thus, merely reading through a subject may give a CLAA student more familiarity with a subject than a student in a modern school has with a “B” on his report card.  We must be careful to document student work accurately because familiarity is often the standard.

I am happy to help students and parents sort through these things as we look at transcripts and courses.  Please contact me if you’d like to determine what your best course of study might be.

God bless,

William Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

Leave a Comment