Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Interview with Howard Clark, President of the Gregory the Great Academy

In desire to spread the message of the work of the Gregory the Great Academy and speak also on the topic of Catholic Education, Mr. Howard Clark has agreed to a two part interview with this publication.  We thank him for his thoughtful and relevant responses.


BCL:  For those unfamiliar with the school, Gregory the Great Academy is a school unlike most, if not all, other Catholic schools- what makes the Academy so distinct in its nature and aim?

HC: I think we can talk about the distinctiveness of GGA from two perspectives: first, from the perspective of its structure or outward make-up, and second from a perspective that looks more to its interiority or vision. For the more metaphysically inclined these two perspectives are roughly equivalent to the matter and form of the Academy.

So beginning with the make-up: the Academy is somewhat distinctive in three ways (the real distinctiveness comes with the informing vision, but the the vision and the make-up are intimately related): it is a Catholic, all-boys, boarding school. The movement from Catholic to boarding school is a movement from less distinctive to more distinctive in the sense that there are more Catholic schools than there are Catholic all-boys schools and more Catholic all-boys schools than there are Catholic all-boys boarding schools.

The vision that informs the school has often been called “poetic education”, but it can be given other names as well, for example, “education according to the Muses.” The first thing to note about this kind of education is that it is an approach to the liberal arts. What is essential to education in the liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) is that it aims to produce a free man (The Latin artes liberales means arts befitting a free man.) In this context, the  “freedom” being sought after is a freedom from the constraints of worldly ends, or, stated positively, a freedom to pursue man's ultimate end or goal which is eternal beatitude.

Poetic education differs from other kinds of liberal arts education in a number of ways, but I want to focus on three that interpenetrate and reinforce each other: First, it gives precedence to synthesis over analysis, in other words, it values the whole over the part. This may seem like common sense, but in fact most schools, at least implicitly, value the part over the whole. They do this by emphasizing the acquisition of analytical skills which allow their possessors to break down wholes into comprehensible parts. The unspoken premise is that truth is to be found in the part, or, more fundamentally still, that matter is higher than form or that form does not even exits.

Of course it is necessary to acquire analytical skills, and the Academy teaches such skills. The problem lies not with analyzing, but with taking analysis as the end of the activity of knowing. In coming to know, we only distinguish in order to unite. Analysis must have a complementary and completing movement which re-situates and views the analyzed parts in the context of the whole. The human mind naturally desires to see the whole, that's why there are scenic overlooks on the side of highways. As St. Augustine said, “Our whole reward is seeing.”

A second way that poetic education differs from the usual liberal arts curriculum is in the precedence it gives to experience over what might be called “remoteness.” This remoteness takes any number of forms, but three examples are textbooks, scientific experiments, and the increasing use of communications technology in the classroom.

Textbooks are an attempt to present complex, wide-ranging and difficult subjects in an attractive and easily accessible form. The problem with this is that it short circuits the learning process and often deceives the student as to the true nature of the subject. It is far better for the student to wrestle with Hamlet or the Odyssey in all their difficulty, profundity and beauty than to encounter them predigested and excerpted in an anthology. This principle applies across the curriculum. Better to study the daises in your own backyard than to read about the exotic orchids that only grow half a world away.

Experiments have their place in an advanced science curriculum, but they cannot replace a basic experience of the natural world. A moment’s reflection reveals how ridiculous it is to dissect embalmed frogs in a lab when the student has never experienced a living frog in its environment. What does he really learn about frogs from such an activity? Experiments are designed to isolate the experimenter, his tools, and his subject from the world at-large. However, the results of the experiment only have meaning when they are interpreted in terms of the very world from which they have been isolated.

Many different kinds of digital technology are being enthusiastically introduced into schools. Most of this is communications technology, or what is called “media.” It is important to remember that all human knowing is mediated, and therefore, in some sense uses “media.” Our senses mediate between their objects and our brains, and our bodies mediate between the world around us and our souls. Further, Our Lord Jesus Christ mediates between the Church and Our Father in heaven. So there is no question of rejecting mediation in general.

However, it is important to critically examine the messenger, in other words, we must ask, “does this communications technology communicate?” In the case of the computer, which is the most prevalent form of communications technology being used in schools, there are serious problems. When we look at the computer, as it is functions in the “real world”, day-to-day life of the school, what jumps out is its power to distract. Thus, even before we question the capacity of the computer to mediate objects effectively, we see that its versatility as a platform for many kinds of tasks makes it an ideal tool for  never getting to those objects, for never completing a given task. This power to distract strikes at the very heart of education which is concerned to build up a habitus, whether a science or moral virtue, through a continual engagement with a given object.

A third characteristic that distinguishes poetic education from other liberal arts education is the centrality of the liturgy. (As Jean Leclercq notes in his book, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, the liturgy itself is a kind of poem.) There are many ways to look at the liturgy and many things we can learn from it. Being a work of the Holy Spirit it is inexhaustible and of a transcendent integrity that resist all analysis. So what I have to say is in no way exhaustive, I just want to point out two things.

First, the liturgy is the end or purpose of the Christian life made present in time, or, looked at in another way, the liturgy brings us into the presence of the end of the Christian life; it is a participation, already on earth, in the life of the blessed. Now, as I’ve already mentioned, the end of the liberal arts is to free men from the seeming urgency and finality of worldly ends so that they may pursue beatitude. Thus the liturgy is intimately connected to the liberal arts. (Historically this is the case since the tradition of the liberal arts began with Plato’s Academy, and the Academy was an association established to worship the Muses.) It has an irreplaceably centrality in a liberal arts school since only the liturgy can open the school to the divine world, thus protecting it from the everyday world which continually threatens to enclose it.

A second thing to note about the liturgy is that it is a school of praise. The book of the Apocalypse, which lifts the veil on the heavenly liturgy, gives us a glimpse of the praise of the angels and saints. They praise God as both creator and redeemer of the world.  The philosopher Josef Pieper entitled one of his books, Only the Lover Sings, taking the phrase from St. Augustine. What does the lover sing? He sings praises. He praises God and his whole creation—women, wine, the deeds of great men, dappled things—everything under the sun and above the moon. It is here that we are closest to the heart of poetic education. All the great poets are lovers. It’s their love that gives them eyes to see and tongues to sing with. Poetic educations aims to open its student’s eyes to the True, the Good and the Beautiful, not as dead subjects in a textbook, but as objects worthy of praise.

 BCL:  Why have just boys, and why have it be a boarding type school? 

HC: There is a long tradition of single sex education. This wisdom teaches us that boys and girls fare better when they are educated separately especially after they reach adolescence. This is both because they are different and deserve different approaches, pacing and even different courses of study, and because when educated together they greatly distract one another. This is especially true for boys.

Boarding schools are especially appropriate for boys since the male trajectory involves breaking away from home to search for adventure and to make a way in the world. Chesterton tells the story of the man who left England on a great sea-faring adventure and found himself on the shores of a strange and wonderful island. The island turned out to be England but he only came to see it in all its truth and beauty by leaving it.

BCL:  Do those two elements specifically play into the nature of what you are doing?

HC: A boarding school works well for poetic education because it allows for a certain withdraw from the surrounding culture and the creation of a new culture reinforced by peers. As I’ve already emphasized, poetic education aims to educate the whole man. To do this effectively there has to be a certain asceticism, a withdraw from technology, media, and popular culture in general.  Music is especially important since it speaks to the heart.

Certainly the parents are the primary educators of their children and the home and family provide the first culture of the child. A boarding school cannot replace this, but it can complement and complete it to some extent. When children become adolescents they become much more aware of, and in need of, the social life of their peers. At its best a boarding school provides a wholesome “micro-culture” in which students reinforce each other in the formation in virtue given by the school. This prepares them to enter the wider culture outside of the school.

BCL:  Why is this mode of education and its content so vital to the future of the Catholic child?

HC: To say that poetic education is “vital to the future of the Catholic child” is to make quite a claim! This type of education is not a substitute for mother’s milk or the Eucharist. However I would say that there is a need for the positivity and hope of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful that poetic education provides. Children can only grow and thrive when they are given high ideals and the hope that they can brings these ideals into being in their world. Neither careerism nor the sly cynicism and nihilism of the culture of death provide this.

BCL:  Where should the Catholic men of tomorrow (the children of the Catholic families today) take our Culture, Country, and Church?

HC: That’s a big question! If I could adequately answer it I would probably quit my job and run for President. Generally I would say that in all of these areas there is a need to return to the wisdom of tradition. Doing this does not mean holding on to  particular historical forms, but recovering what is essential in historical forms, returning to eternal principles. For example, the same truth can be expressed in many different languages, in many different places, at many different times. Of course some languages may express this truth better than others, but still the same truth is expressed.

In popular culture today there is a continual polemic against tradition and authority. Often this is cloaked by a storyline or by the sheer repetition of these themes, but the message is communicated on the level of images and attitudes. Against this we need to defend the wisdom of tradition and show its relevance, beauty and vitality.

BCL:  What people, experiences, and texts have shaped the way you think and speak about Catholicism, Education, and Culture?

HC: Gregory the Great Academy has its roots in the Integrated Humanities Program at The University of Kansas. The leading lights of this program were professors John Senior, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nellick. Three of Dr. Senior’s books have been especially influential in forming the philosophy of Gregory the Great Academy: The Death of Christian Culture, The Restoration of Christian Culture, and The Restoration of Innocence: An Idea of a School. (This last text was never published.) Late in his life Dr. Quinn published a book, which summed up a lot of his thought, called Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder.

These three professors occasionally talked about books that greatly influenced them and the program they founded. Leaving aside the classics such as Plato’s Republic, the Rule of St. Benedict, and the Bible, three come to mind: The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean Leclercq, O.S.B. (which I’ve already mentioned); Leisure the Basis of Culture by the German Thomist, Josef Pieper; and Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture.

In addition, there are two recent books by Stratford Caldecott that recommend a kind of  education very similar to what we are doing, but which also offer fresh approaches and resources. These are: Beauty for Truth Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education and Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education.  

PART 2 of the Interview is forthcoming...

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