The Relevance of a Classical Catholic Education in the 21st Century

kid staring out a window looking at a galaxy in the night sky

Education in the 21st Century is undergoing a significant transformation as our culture continues down a path of fragmentation caused by secularism—i.e. the attempt to build a society independent of public discourse and commitment to God.  For example, secularism’s fragmentation of thought caused by its denial of Truth–replacing it with relativism’s ‘each one’s truth’, destroys the basis of human reason’s search to know—ultimately, to know the one God in which all creation is synthesized in one Truth.

This cultural fragmentation has similarly fragmented the purpose of modern education into that of ‘equipping’ the child with particular knowledge and skills used to perform a specific task.  Education thus becomes methodized and measured, with curricular texts, pedagogy, assessments, and grading being characterized by the principle that knowledge is a means to an end.  In the 21st Century when Truth is valued for what it does over what it is, education becomes mechanized and so does the learning child.

And yet the Catholic Church has always been the source of a revolutionary leaven that challenges our world.  And so it is with education today.  Drawing from centuries of wisdom, learning, educating and informing culture—thus the term classical–the Church today offers an alternative to 21st-century principles of education.

As Catholic, a Catholic education is not merely religious instruction, or the availability of the sacraments, nor an environment of children with a shared Catholic heritage.  A Catholic education is in its essence a worldview that understands learning as the development of a relationship between the child, the created world, and God.  This relationship is nothing less than what a child was created for—their soul is meant to learn in an environment where their unity with the world and with God is continually spoken, demonstrated, encountered and explored throughout the school day.  Without a Catholic worldview, education quickly becomes a means to an end, and Truth, Beauty, and Goodness simply relative to the learner.  In a classical Catholic education, learning is an end in itself.  It is a relationship of wonder and awe of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and a vulnerability to being changed and inspired by them—an inspiration that will lead a child to God.

In a truly Catholic education of mathematics, of reading and literature, of nature studies and history, of each of the arts, of socialization and service, the revelation of an eternal unity in the temporal is always on the horizon.  Its curriculum, pedagogy, spoken and visual environment, and organization are all intentionally dedicated to bringing a child into an ever-growing awareness, experience, and appreciation of the holy unity of their self, the world, and God.  Creation is sacramental, and education is meant to lead a child to encounter God within and beyond it. Through an education grounded in inspiration, a child’s heart comes to desire the Good, their reason seeks the True, and their imagination delights in the Beautiful.  When education leads a child to participate in this unity, through disciplined thought, creative imagination, and a courageous heart, a child can become who they truly are:  Human.  This is the relevance of a classical Catholic education in the 21st century.

What is a Classical Catholic Education?

The authentic education of a child is ordered towards their happiness.  True happiness is achieved when a child knows who they are and achieves the end for which they exist.  A classical Catholic education is dedicated to forming a child to understand his or her self, the world around them and to respond to the voice of God who created them and calls them to Himself.  This nature and purpose of a child’s life must be the foundation of their education—the depth and breadth of the humanity of a child.  A classical Catholic education is thereby dedicated in its method, content, and structure to respect and nurture this humanity, to awaken a love for Truth, to desire to experience clarity, and to perseverance in seeking knowledge and understanding. The classical Catholic learning environment, while promoting these habits of mind, is also enriched with the profound Catholic understanding of reality, inspiration from a rich cultural heritage of heroism and beauty, and sacramental grace which together form a child’s conscience, virtue, and prayer.  The learning environment of a classical Catholic education, therefore:

  1. Intends the integral formation of the whole human person–body, mind, and spirit in the dignity of being created in the image and likeness of God.
  2. Seeks to understand objective reality and to recognize the Good, True and Beautiful as revelations of reality’s origin and end in God.
  3. Attains a synthesis of faith, life, and culture incorporating the child into Christ and His Catholic Church.

St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School