Thursday, August 15, 2013

Part II: Interview with Howard Clark, President of the Gregory the Great Academy


BCL:  Where is current public and Catholic education headed right now?

Howard Clark: It is difficult to generalize about where all public and Catholic education is headed. While most education is in a state of decadence, there are signs of health in both public and Catholic education. In public education the charter school movement is giving parents back the control that is rightfully theirs and greatly improving the quality of school curricula. In spite of this, it must be said plainly that all public education is a poor second to a truly integral Catholic education. All education that is integrally true is integrally Catholic because the Catholic faith is integral truth. It is the whole truth about God, man and the world.

In Catholic education there are many schools, both diocesan and private, that are striving to reestablish orthodoxy in doctrine and excellence in teaching and curricula. A big difficulty that everyone faces is that the decadence we are fighting is deeply rooted. In many ways we are like men living among magnificent ruins without even an idea of what they were, or men searching for the lost key that would open the door of wisdom.

At Gregory the Great Academy we realize that there is much work that still needs to by done. An essential principle of the poetic approach to education is that there is a knowledge deeper than reason which is not to denigrate reason, but simply to state a fact realized by the great poets and philosophers. (One thinks of Paul Claudel's Parable of Animus and Anima and St. Thomas' distinction between ratio and intellectus, a distinction that is not unique to him.) If the fledgling renaissance in Catholic education is to take root and flourish this principle and its consequences have to be acknowledged. A blind and reactive insistence on a kind of rationalist fundamentalism may be attractive in the short term, but will ultimately lead to failure because it does not speak to what Scripture calls the heart, the deepest spring of reason and desire. 

BCL:  Is Gregory the Great Academy model what is needed on the whole in education today, or is it possible to bring modern public education out from the dredge into which it has steadily fallen?

Howard Clark: When we consider all the aspects of the model of Gregory the Great Academy, we can't say that it should be the model for all of education. After all, girls need to be educated too, and there is a place for day schools. However, if we consider it more formally, i.e. if we consider whether poetic education should be the model for all education, I would say, yes it should. A short route to why this is so is by way of the liberal arts tradition. If we agree that all education worthy of the name follows this tradition, then we must affirm that all education should be poetic or, in a broad sense, liturgical or musical. The cultures of Greece and Rome and Christian Europe that gave us the liberal arts were deeply imbued with this ethos, some principles of which I have already tried to give. They did not teach the liberal arts in isolation from one another, nor in the cultural and religious impoverishment characteristic of today. The people of those times lived and learned in what might be called a liturgical or poetic culture.

BCL:  So many Catholic families have had to resort to homeschooling in the absence of any real, viable Catholic school option - why has it gotten to this point and is it possible for parents navigate the waters of educating their children in the same way that the Academy does?

Howard Clark: In his Templeton address, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn recalls that when he was young, the older Russians would explain the calamity of Revolution with the simple but profound explanation: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”  It is the same for us. All of our problems stem from the same cause: we have forgotten God.

There are many things that parents can do to educate their children the way the Academy does. They can follow the principles that I talked about in reply to your first question. Also the books I mentioned above will help, especially the two by Stratford Caldecott, which are more practical, then the others.

But finally I think that a good school can do a better job of educating than homeschooling. The homeschooling movement itself points to this. Homeschooling companies function to some extent as remote schools by providing curricula, advice and grading. In addition homeschooling families tend to pool their resources by forming co-ops that are a step in the direction of a school. The problem is that it is difficult for one person (usually the mother) to master all the subjects and keep children on task. This tends to become more difficult as children get older.

But all of this is a matter of balance. For many families homeschooling is the best option. The homeschooling movement, the liturgical movement and the plethora of good microbreweries are some of the most hopeful signs in our mostly bleak culture.

BCL:  What role does the liturgy play in a solid education for Catholic children, especially boys?

Howard Clark: Thinking again of Solzhenitsyn's diagnosis, the liturgy is the place where man remembers God. Like the monastery of which it is the heart, the liturgy is a “school for the service of the Lord,” a school of Christian life. So the role of the liturgy in Catholic education is central. It is the school within the school. As I've tried to indicate already, because the liturgy represents the presence of the divine world in our world, it witnesses to our world's incompleteness, and thus to the relevance and need for the liberal arts.

BCL:  Do you feel as though vocations to the priesthood are more likely in an environment such as the Academy and if so or if not- why?

Howard Clark: A vocation to the priesthood is a grace and call from God, but God always works through mediation. (Priests themselves are mediators.) In our world that means mainly other human beings. Thus the key to cultivating vocations is the example of the priest. Boys need a model that they are attracted to and want to emulate. They need to see the job of the priest as important, serious, and worth-doing. No boy that is worth anything aspires to the life of an ineffectual nice guy. In the boarding school this means that the example of the chaplain is all-important. A chaplain that is manly and truly dedicated to God and the good of others can plant seeds that will come to fruition years later as a boys matures and thinks more seriously about the direction his life will take.

BCL:  Great historians and cultural thinkers such as Christopher Dawson have stressed that the foundational piece to culture is religion.  What must accompany a solid religious experience in order to foster a truly Catholic Culture?

Howard Clark: There are a number of things. Two that are very important are care for the natural world and the cultivation of language. The world of human culture is built on the natural world even as the plants the farmer cultivates depend on good soil. Continued misuse and disregard for God's creation cannot help but undermine this foundation of human culture. Language is even more central to culture than the natural world, and like the natural world it too is being degraded. The source and re-generator of language is poetry. The poets are the ones that coin the new worlds and phrases that maintain the freshness and vitality of a culture's language.

BCL:  How can adults live and foster the same spirit of education embodied by Gregory the Great Academy in their own, everyday lives?

Howard Clark: There are both negative and positive things that can be done. In his essay “Learning to See Again” (collected in Only the Lover Sings) Josef Pieper addresses the problem of distraction and the way it has undermined our ability to perceive the world around us. This very short essay is well worth reading and meditating on.

In a similar vein, my teacher John Senior offers some tonic advice in his book The Restoration of Christian Culture:

“First, negatively, smash the television set. The Catholic Church is not opposed to violence; only to unjust violence: so smash the television set. And, positively, put the time and money you now spend on such entertainment into a piano so that music is restored to your home, common, ordinary Christian music, much of which is very simple to play. Anybody can learn the songs of Steven Foster, Robert Burns, the Irish and Italian airs, after even a few hours' instruction and practice. And then families will be together at home of an evening and love will grow again without thinking about it, because they are moving in harmony together. There is nothing more disintegrating of love than artificial attempts to foster it at encounter groups and the like: Love only grows; it cannot be manufactured or forced; and it only grows on the sweet sound of music.”

BCL:  Do you mind if we ask what is on your current reading list?

Howard Clark: Currently I am rereading Stratford Caldecott's Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education and Sister Miriam Joseph's The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. On a different register I'm working on The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Last, but certainly not least, The Bible, an inexhaustible source of wisdom, which I try to read everyday. 

Books that I hope to read soon include: Stratford Caldecott's latest book, The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity; The Progymnasmata; and The Golden Key by George Macdonald.

BCL:  How can interested persons best assist you and the Academy in your efforts?

Howard Clark: There are three things that I would ask of anyone who is interested in our mission: pray for us, spread the word amongst your acquaintances, and—if you are able—give us your financial support. Anyone interested in donating or downloading admissions information can find more information by visiting our website at

BCL:  What parting thoughts would you like to share with those who are reading this interview?

Howard Clark: Perhaps I could end the interview by going back to your first question about the uniqueness of Gregory the Great Academy. I find that there is an element that I didn’t mention and that I would like to bring up here because of its importance: the mode of discipline used at Gregory the Great. St. John Bosco made a distinction between repressive system of discipline and the preventive system. The repressive system is the one used by most schools and other organizations. It consists in publishing rules, waiting until the rules are broken and then punishing the ruler breakers. (The headmaster in the French movie Les Choriste often hilariously portrays this system. His motto for discipline is “action-reaction.”) The preventive method is much more difficult to implement, but much more effective in the long run. The key component in this method is that those in charge of the boys must constantly be with them, sharing in their life in a friendly way, guiding them, reasoning with them, showing them the goodness of following healthy rules so that they are prevented from ever breaking them. While this method is very difficult and is sometimes misunderstood by outsiders, it is far more effective.

I would like to thank Mr. Howard Clark, Mr. Sean Fitzpatrick for facilitating the setup of the interview, and the Gregory the Great Academy for all they are doing for Catholic Culture and Education!

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