Written by Alanna Tran, presented at the Catholic Classical School Soiree, Oct. 2, 2021
I will open with a quote from the Pearson Program, “To be a student is to be alive to intelligence, and the beginning of such a life is wonder.”
I can think of no being more capable of wonder than a young child newly encountering the wider world. They are easily delighted by what they physically find, and they believe, joyfully, the intangible Mysteries we present to them.
The senses, the aspects of ourselves with which we encounter reality, may be taught to recognize the good, the true, and the beautiful, just as the heart may be taught to love them. Ultimately, it is the eyes of faith that we seek to enlighten, and this is done by teaching true things in a way that children love what they are learning.
My Lucy famously came home from kindergarten one day and declared, “I am a scholar, Mommy. Do you know for why I am a scholar? I don’t just learn things, I love to learn things.” That is the goal, to love learning. Love grants understanding and, we hope, virtue.
What does this kind of academic love look like tangibly in a child? When Ambrose, our oldest, was in kindergarten, he wore leg braces and suffered chronic pain, and his academic potential was utterly unknown. He wasn’t old enough yet to be tested for the myriad of learning disabilities lurking behind a future diagnosis, but he was old enough to be connected to our physical reality by a gentle piece of poetry. On a very rainy day, we were waiting in the car in downtown Wichita and Ambrose looked out the window and said:
The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.
He had recited “Rain” by Robert Louis Stevenson, which he’d learned in school. He was quietly delighted with his poem and very innocently grasped the connection between the classroom and the wider world. I hope when he is an adult he retains a gentle love of real rain and simple poetry for the joy they brought him as a child.
There are a limitless number of such connections that may be made. In a classical classroom we are uniting history with present reality and tying them into young minds with the delight that breeds a hunger for more and makes the work its own reward. Several years later, then in fifth grade, Ambrose would proceed in defiance of his new diagnosis to memorize the seventy stanza epic poem “Horatius at the Bridge.” After weeks of listening to him practice, I can still hear his rousing recitation:
Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods.
As Ambrose recited, his speech slowly became unintelligible as the muscles in his tongue twisted with such heavy use, and there were tears of frustration as his body failed him. But the heart never wavered. The text was real and powerful, and he followed its hero to the end. He longed to achieve his goal, and the joy he took in its completion was extraordinary. This is the kind of content that inspires the love of learning and, in turn, leads to virtue.
Why is the classical approach particularly suited to Catholic education? Because the goal is not children who are capable of working math problems, reciting historical facts, and testing well. The goal is children who love God above all and who have learned by extension to love education– both its ends and its processes, because it increases their understanding of God and their place in God’s world.
We desire fully formed young people capable of processing reality informed by philosophy and theology: the love of wisdom and the knowledge of God. The most successful way of achieving this is not by having philosophy and theology classes in addition to reading, writing, and mathematics (although in older grades this does become appropriate). The way in which this is most beautifully achieved is by integrating the courses together into a cohesive system in keeping with the natural development of the child.
We chose to send our, currently five, school-age children to Christ the Savior Academy, the Orthodox classical school attached to St. George Cathedral, because we truly felt that the methodology of classical education and liturgical practice would fully form our children’s minds to face the world with faith and confidence.
Our children study literature, history, math, science, astronomy, religion, Greek, Latin, art and music. But none of these things are studied in isolation.
They learn to chart their place among the planets while they learn the history and mythology of the people who named the stars and developed theories in mathematics, physics, and philosophy that are still studied today. They learn color, dimension, and perspective in art alongside the practice of reading the symbols in ancient Christian iconography.
Our children learn the Paschal troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” in English, Greek, and Arabic. They sing Christmas carols in German and folk songs in Russian. They learn the Our Father in Latin and the Nicene Creed in Greek, the language in which it was written by the Fathers. These are our connections to the roots of the faith and the generations that went before us. Such knowledge and confidence of who they are will carry them forward, with steadfast hearts and the cumulative knowledge of the ages at their backs to guide them, toward truth, beauty, and goodness on the long and narrow road home. What we want, what we are asking for, is a Catholic school that will cultivate this. Classical education is available in Wichita seated in Orthodox and Protestant churches, and in individual families, and we are grateful. Yet we long to see the classical model brought home, in its fullness, to the Catholic community in a Catholic school filled with our children.