|01-09-2008 - Traces, n. 8
Welcome to the first national Education Conference: fifty educators, a weekend of work, and a challenge that is now extended to all the States. Born of the initiative and needs of a group of teacher friends, this event promises to be
an annual meeting ground for years to come
by Dino D’Agata
In the past twenty to thirty years, certain buzzwords have pervaded the dialogue surrounding what everyone acknowledges to be the crisis in education. Various terms have been coined, such as “constructivism,” which posits that individual students “construct” their own knowledge, and “multiple intelligences,” Harvard education Professor Howard Gardner’s 1983 theory which claims that there are different types of intelligence that must be addressed in the classroom, from “linguistic,” to “bodily-kinesthetic,” to “intrapersonal,” to “naturalist.”
Yet schools continue to fail and teachers, like their students, sink into disillusionment, even after all of the theories have been filtered down through college and university education programs and applied to classroom settings. So what is the actual root of the crisis?
It was this that more than fifty educators and administrators from all over the United States sought to address in posing the question, “What does it mean to educate?” during the weekend of July 11–14 in Portland, Maine, when the Human Adventure Corporation, in conjunction with Crossroads Cultural Center, the John Paul II Center for Theology and Environmental Studies, the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Education, and Our Sunday Visitor magazine sponsored the first national conference, entitled, “The Risk of Educating: Verifying a Viewpoint.”
“I know that many teachers crave an understanding of the nature of teaching itself,” says Annemarie Bacich, who spent a year pulling the conference together. “In the marsh of methodologies and educational theories, what is lacking is an understanding of the human subject–both the educator and the student.” The initiative began as a small, almost informal gathering of friends during the summer of 2007 to work on curriculum for the next year. “The event was so helpful to people who had participated that I began to ponder whether this could become an ongoing dialogue, perhaps at the national level, sometime in the future. Fr. José Medina, a high school principal in Boston, insisted that our educational proposal was something for the whole country. So I began work organizing the conference for this.”
It was Medina himself who gave the opening speech. “To educate,” he said, “one must put forth a viewpoint, a workable hypothesis that the student can test in his or her free time–one that is valid for any problem in life the student faces.”
the person from the citizen
According to Medina, the goal of modern liberal, democratic education as theorized by key proponents of American public education (John Dewey, Horace Mann–going even as far back as Thomas Jefferson) has been that of creating ideal American citizens to serve the economy, and perhaps this is the most telling detail in the attempt to explain the apathy and passivity seen in many students today, since what is proposed to them, instead of exalting their humanity, subordinates the core needs of the person in favor of utilitarian efficiency.
Sad to say, Catholic education has often been complicit in this. Although the goals stated in Vatican II documents regarding education point out that Christian education has a responsibility to facilitate in students’ minds the link between all of the academic and cultural disciplines and the good news that One entered history who is the answer to the core needs of our lives, what has tended to happen instead has been an assimilation of the methods of public education in Catholic schools: that is, schools that in form and in content contribute to the suppression of the heart by continuing to prepare ideal citizens of the state, albeit “catholicized” ones.
In order to counter this, Medina stated, “This worldview needs to permeate everything we do–not only the classes we teach, but also the way in which we teach them; every aspect from the tests and the assessments we use, to the extracurricular activities we have. That is, we are to schedule our school around the event of Christ, if Christ as the keystone is the true viewpoint.”
In a panel discussion following Medina’s speech, theologian Connie Lasher, Director of the John Paul II Center for Theology and Environmental Studies, underscored some of Medina’s ideas when she spoke about eliciting in students the “natural sense of metaphysical wonder… made known in Christ” and how “beauty is a natural tutorial” since it is “the radiance of the truth.”
Need and fascination
Christopher Bacich, national responsible of Communion and Liberation, added that students, with the guidance of a teacher, must understand “the connection between [their] desires as persons and the object in reality. The fidelity to the attractiveness of any piece of reality will inevitably lead, always, to the same Person at the end of the road.”
Bacich further stressed that students must have a reason for the correspondence between what they are being taught and their lives in the here and now. “The indifference kids have toward education,” he commented, “is a human response” to this lack of a sense that what they are being educated to urgently corresponds to their elementary needs in the present.
It was Bacich, in fact, who in his speech given Sunday morning on the role of freedom in education, spoke of how his own method of educating begins with “the attractiveness of a human presence.” He went on to state, “My goal is that a student who learns from me can deal with anything,” and he cited how one of the reasons for which the Church in the United States, after Vatican II, was not able to hold out against the dominant mentality was precisely the fact that people adhered to its rules and tenets without understanding the correspondence of Christ to their elementary needs. The result was a “Catholic enclave” that had to protect itself from the culture because it had not verified a human experience of Christ that corresponds to the person in a far greater way than, say, the libertarianism of the sexual revolution.
The core of Bacich’s speech was that of elucidating in practice the two key components of freedom Giussani mentions in The Risk of Education: firstly, the need for happiness that constitutes us–something that cannot be excised from the nature of the person; secondly, the ability to make conscious choices that move us toward this happiness. Bacich further challenged participants by asking, “Can we present our Christian experience as the best bet for fulfillment, one that is better than the culture at large?”–and he stressed how we must insist on this work, first among ourselves and then among the students. “A gratuitous, eternal love,” he said, “is the only one adequate to the person. We must pose the question to our students as to how human this is, and whether they have found anything better, since only through a judgment like this can a person reach a conviction about the event of Christ.”
The closing speech was given by Fr. Richard Veras, also a responsible of Communion and Liberation and its high school component, GS. Veras cited Giussani’s The Journey to Truth is an Experience, pointing out how culture issues forth from “a true encounter with Jesus Christ.” He stressed how, in his Regensburg speech, Pope Benedict mentioned that it was not by chance that “the fact of Christ came into the world of Greek culture,” alluding to how the Greek “need for reason,” and the ability to hold the Christian faith up to reason, has been part of Divine pedagogy in history. Quoting The Risk of Education, Veras stated, “The global horizon cannot be conceived of as a result of the educational process, but must, on the contrary, be its very premise.”
On Friday evening, pianist Chris Vath offered a concert consisting of everything from a Bach to four Rachmaninoff preludes, and on Saturday evening, Massimo Robberto, a senior scientist working with the Hubble telescope, fixed the audience’s gaze on multiple galaxies in a presentation of photographs from the telescope itself.
Break-out sessions were held on Saturday and Sunday according to various disciplines.
Bishop Richard Malone of the Archdiocese of Portland joined the participants. His Excellency thanked the participants for their work in education, mentioning how the conference was “a relief” from all of the other meetings he is required to attend.
Did the conference cut through the fragmentation wrought by ideological education theories? Did it offer educators a new way to approach their work?
Paige Smith, who will be teaching high school English and theology this coming fall in Arlington, states: “I both studied and worked in Catholic education but often felt limited by a presentation of pedagogy reduced to utility and determined by state standards and benchmarks rather than the human heart. The conference was a refreshing experience.”
Matt McGuiness, a veteran English teacher at a public high school in Denver, Colorado, had this to say: “Overall, I was reminded that being a Catholic Christian educator isn’t a matter of trying to add Jesus on to what I’m doing, but of recognizing Christ as the origin of everything I do. If He lives in me, it doesn’t matter if I can utter ‘Jesus’ with my lips or not.”
A question of freedom
Christina Dehan, a novice teacher of theology from Austin, Texas, commented, “I was struck by two thoughts: first of all, that the crisis in education is not a crisis of technology, but a crisis of the teacher. It is much easier for us to command than invite, to ‘indoctrinate’ than to propose; yet, the only way our students will ever come to truly embrace reality, to embrace Christ, is if we allow them the freedom to do so. This is the painful element of freedom: to watch our students choose what is contrary to the deepest needs of their hearts. But isn’t that what Christ did so many times with those he encountered? And isn’t that what He still does with each of us?”
The novelty of this conference was summed up in the words of participant Sr. Marie Pappas, Superintendent of Schools for the New York Archdiocese: “Catholics who educate in public schools and in Catholic institutions have a common task: to educate with authenticity–an approach that verifies the truth with compelling attractiveness. The conference was an organic expression of faith, culture, and truth wrapped in a community spirit of genuine humanity.”