An Academic Culture of Truth

“What is the purpose of your education?”

Celebrating Catholic Schools Week calls to mind my immense gratitude for my own Catholic education, from kindergarten to graduate school, and beyond that, nearly a decade spent teaching theology and philosophy at Catholic high schools. I often began a new class with this question. It had the power to bring to light the kind of formation and education the students had received up to that point, which is necessary for a class that will touch on deep and existential thought.

Education must pay regard to the formation of the whole person, so that all may attain their eternal destiny and at the same time promote the common good of society. Children and young persons are therefore to be cared for in such a way that their physical, moral and intellectual talents may develop in a harmonious manner, so that they may attain a greater sense of responsibility and a right use of freedom, and be formed to take an active part in social life.

Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church, canon 795

My students answered easily. They would say: “To graduate and go to college” or “To get a career and make money” or “Because my parents make me.” My response to them was a simple, “And then what?” As they began to trace out their next steps after college, which entailed work, travel, marriage, children, and dreams of vacation homes, I followed each step with the same question. “And then what?” We eventually arrived at the event none of us can escape, death. I explained to my students what I myself had inherited from my own Catholic education: we learn so that when we die we will have lived a meaningful and purposeful life. For it is only in light of our death that we will know how to live and to live well.

I knew from their responses that there was a lot of learning to be done. More than that, I realized how much un-learning there was to be done.

During his Apostolic visit to the United States in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a message to Catholic educators, in which he detailed the purpose of a Catholic education. He identified several points that encapsulate the purpose of a Catholic school—to know and have a relationship with Jesus, to nurture a holistic academic culture aimed at the truth, and to understand and live according to the virtues. Catholic education has been a cornerstone of education throughout the centuries—we invented the university, after all. The Church has educated more children than any other scholarly or religious institution. It is an education that spans centuries, founded in Christ and the Apostles themselves. We must therefore ensure our Catholic schools are faithful in every way to their call and purpose.

My students’ answers did not echo the words of the Holy Father, but I am not certain they should be held responsible. After all, they live in a culture that prizes and supports a strictly utilitarian conception of learning. But college and career readiness, while important, should not be the main goal of a Catholic education. In this environment, education loses its luster; the quest to grasp faith, happiness, morals, and meaning is no longer central. I believe Catholic schools must sincerely consider whether their approach to college preparation and standardized testing supports this attitude among students and parents. If our use of these tests (defined by public school standards like Common Core which have little to do with Catholic formation) is solely for college entrance purposes, are we implicitly teaching our students that their education matters only to the extent it gets them into college?

With the exception of religion classes, Catholic high schools across the country have largely followed state guidelines for their curriculum. Parents would do well to inquire on the origin of the school’s curriculum, textbooks, and teachers’ educational formation. The material our math, science, English, and history departments teach is just as critical as the religion department’s curriculum; these classes have immense power to promote, or detract from, our Catholic identity and worldview. It prompts the question of why parents should finance an education that may differ from that of the local public school in little but name and tradition.

If Catholic schools are to fulfill their mission—to be places of an encounter with the Gospel that shapes hearts and minds—there is an immense amount of learning and unlearning to be done, not only by students, but by parents, faculty, and staff. Our schools must become places where Christ, the Logos, is at the center of every aspect of the school’s life. We must ensure we are honestly asking the necessary questions: does Christ impact what we teachand howwe teach it? Are our faculty and staff people of virtue who are faithful to the Church and whom our students can imitate? Do we inculcate a curiosity toward the world that is mirrored in our academics, assessments, and standards? Do we not only teach to the standards, but instill a love for faith, wisdom, and truth? Are the dignity of the human person and the common good promoted and respected within our walls?

Ask your students: “What is the purpose of your education?” It will make things crystal clear.

Ashley Brashear earned a BA from Francsican University of Steubenville and a Master in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington DC; she spent the last decade teaching Catholic high school theology and philosophy.  Miss Brashear now serves as the Director of Secondary Partnerships at the Classic Learning Test.


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other posts here on the blog, like our author bank profiles of figures from Plato to Thomas Hobbes to Charlotte Brontë. You may also enjoy our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our CEO and founder Jeremy Tate.

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