Each Monday morning between 10 and 20 families take a walk around the school grounds here at Salesian College, observing what we have to offer and to ponder the educational possibilities on offer for their sons. We delightfully show them the newly refurbished Science and Arts Wings, brag about the wide-open spaces we enjoy, speak proudly about the 1100 boys entrusted into our care and spruik just how wonderful they are. Just over an hour after we start our tour, we end up in the College Chapel, quite deliberately, to emphasise the fact that choosing Salesian College means choosing something special, it means choosing a school that educates boys in a Catholic and Salesian tradition. We then spend a very brief time unpacking what that might mean. Unfortunately, I think we leave them short as we tend to describe the practical aspects of what it means to choose a Catholic education, like attending Mass and undertaking Religious Education, without really giving people a true sense of what a Catholic Education really is, why it’s different, and, why what we do is so important. This blog is my attempt to unpack Catholic Education more fully, to explain what it is, why it has to be different and to sing its praises.
The Catholic Church has been a great sponsor of education in the western world for over 2000 years, establishing great universities and thinking institutions like the great monasteries. The Catholic Church became the largest education provider in the world at some point in this history. It can be argued that Catholic Education began on the hillside in Jerusalem 2000 years ago (Mt 28: 16 – 20) when Jesus was believed to have said “go make disciples and teach them”. Contemporary Catholic education has built on this rich history, taking snippets from the past 2000 years of tradition since that first teaching encounter, and building on them. It’s not simply a repeat of what has happened in the past, but a learning and adaptation for contemporary culture and times.
So what is it about Catholic Education that makes it different? At its essence is the values that underpin every aspect of what we do. Now many could/would argue that these values are universal values, which in some way is true, however, it is the fact that these values are raised out of faith, out of a spirituality and therefore are expected and non-negotiable. Each individual member of our communities are expected to live those values on a daily basis.
The foundation for Catholic education is the dignity of the human person, formed in the image of God. In this light, Catholic education is holistic by nature, looking to nurture all elements or aspects of the human person. Thomas Groome refers to a Catholic intellectual tradition (CIT) where he contends that it is both/and, a holistic way of knowing. This is maintained by Clement of Alexandria’s (150AD – 215AD) proclamation that Christ the educator taught body, mind and spirit, his work was a work of salvation, he educated to save souls (whole person). Catholic education endeavours to enrich personhood, to inform, form and transform people’s being. Catholic Education puts a faith tradition on education. Education in this light has two life positions, the imminent and the transcendent, that is, we educate for this life, for what is needed in the now as well as educating for a greater reason or purpose.
The imminent position, the preeminent focus of secular education concentrates on the experiences and needs here on this planet only, believing that there is nothing beyond the life we have, there is nothing else. An education built solely on this premise logically focuses on, for and by self. Whilst there is a vital need for educating for the now and that is very much a part of a Catholic Education we have a second focus and that is on the greater good and the life beyond this world. This transcendent position has a higher purpose and very much centers on the other. This is an education that includes transcendentness, encourages students to develop an understanding and commitment to the need for consideration of the greater good. It moves them to challenge the secular view of imminence, the focus on the here and now. We are of the firm belief that all in society need faith, a commitment to transcendence. Thomas Groome postulates that it is innate in us, we all have an inner desire for something more, something beyond the imminent. In the absence of a spirituality or faith, we can tend towards other gods or worships. Whether it be our God or worship of other worldlier things like wealth, alcohol or any of the other vices on offer in our society, we are all searching for something. This transcendent framework offers hope and direction for this aspect of our lives.
Many secular scribes are happy to challenge religion and the need for it, often describing it as superstitious. Some may go further and argue that many of the wrongs or the ills of the world can be attributed to religion. To further their attack, they will often negatively highlight the stance religions takes on a particular issues that they don’t like, don’t agree with or they feel are out of step with modern thinking. At a recent conference, Thomas Groome contended that whilst people, often fanatics, can use religion to distort a truth or use it as a source of power, these incidents remain the actions of individuals or groups within a religion and we should not allow the views or actions of these individuals to diminish the valuable role religion plays in individual people’s lives or in society. Thomas reasoned that there exists a hierarchy of truths within any religion and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get caught up on what he describes as ‘little league truths’ or ‘AusKick truths’, in the Australian vernacular, and focus more on the ‘major league truths’ or the ‘AFL truths’. What he is describing as the higher order truths are the core beliefs, such as our belief in a single creator God who loves us and is with us, or the belief in the historical and divine Jesus. We should focus on these higher order truths, rather than focusing on the Churches position on sexuality or women ordination. Whilst important, issues such as these can distract from the beauty of our faith and it is this beauty we have to bring to our students.
We live in tough times with regard to passing on our faith. The secular world in which we live is not only an alternative, there are many voices in the secular world ready to criticise and demean religion and its tradition at every opportunity. We also battle against the fact that people don’t need God like they used to. Modernity has filled some of the voids once filled entirely by faith, leading some to believe that the need for religion and faith is gone. Our position, however, is that it is dangerous to presume that we don’t need God. We have to convince our students that a Godless culture doesn’t exist. At the same time, we too must remember our world is never cultureless and that we must remain in dialect with our world to ensure we remain relevant, as we believe religion and culture feed each other. God’s message is mediated through human language, culture and experience. Faith and reason are interdependent, for faith without reason can be very dangerous and reason without faith becomes ideology or relativism. Augustine suggested that Catholics have to be open to the truth wherever it can be found.
The person of Jesus provides an interpretive lens through which we come to understand all other symbols. Jesus is the ultimate model for Catholic teachers. Jesus accompanied and mentored his students, an example mirrored in the Salesian tradition, where it is expected that as educators we maintain a real presence for our students. John Bosco regularly proclaimed that not only should the boys be loved, they need to know they are loved. Jesus prayed and participated in ritual as part of his teaching, practices which form a central part of Catholic teaching today. He demonstrated love and compassion for his followers, continually unpacking the covenant of God for them. These are traits we see regularly in Don Bosco’s Oratory stories, where he had three pillars; reason, religion and loving kindness to inform how he and his confreres worked with his boys
In 1520, Luther used German Nobles to sponsor the first public schools and set about de-faithing education. Secular education devoid of a faith base can become impoverished epistemology with its only focus on the immanent. It can become a technical rationality, merely training for jobs. It can reinforce positions of self, where what we do is for and by self.
Catholic Education supports secular education, as we believe, as Origin of Alexandria (184AD – 253AD) suggested, “Secular subjects are ladders to reach the sky of the Gospel”. We believe that revelation and science both have wonderful truths and support each other. This is reinforced when one looks at the great scientists of history who tended to be men of great faith. It appears the more they studied, the more they discovered the mysteries of creation. When combined in a faith based education we obtain both wisdom and knowledge, we gain both experience and scholarship and we learn to combine our hearts desires with critical thinking by being both practical and theoretical.
A true Catholic education uses as its basis the belief that each individual, created in the image and likeness of God, is innately good and has limitless potential. It is holistic in nature, providing hope for all. An education in the Catholic tradition reminds us that we are made for each other, we are social beings. Epistemology enacted in a community of conversation and participation, engages people in their lives, allowing them to find the generative themes in their lives. Students are taught to attend to the data of the world, to understand it and finally make judgement to inform decision-making.
Catholic teachers give persuasive access to the Christian story and vision. Through story, questions, answering questions, listening, accompanying and being present and walking with them, just as Jesus did 2000 years ago, we give our students an education in life and for life. Contemporary Catholic teaching is lived, modelled and brought into the modern context, it engages the ordinary of people’s lives using the student’s reality to get them to reflect. It is taught with authority and integrity, it encourages people to see for themselves it’s an invitation.
Christian, Catholic and Salesian traditions are at the centre of everything we undertake at Salesian College Chadstone. I hope that after reading this article, students, parents, members of the College Community and staff realise that they are all major players in the giving and receiving of a Catholic Education. Understanding the reasons behind everything we do assists us in the gaining of knowledge, the passing on of knowledge and providing the basis for understanding who we are in a world that often questions the value of religion in our lives.