Thursday, February 27, 2014
A Liberating Education
I wrote this a couple of years ago at the request of Sue Elvis for the blog Australian Catholic Families. I forgot I had written it until I was reading the latest section of Desiring the Kingdom and realized this had a bit to do with the subject of liturgical education. So I am reposting it here.
A little while ago, my friend-from-the-other-side-of-the-world Sue Elvis asked me to write about the Catholic college my daughter is attending. I had described bits of it in a comment on her blog -- how in the classes the young men and women wear collared shirts and nice slacks, not jeans (if young men) and dresses or skirts (if young women), how they address each other as Mr and Miss during class time, and how I thought that contributed to a culture of respect and seriousness as they read great books of the Catholic tradition and discuss them in seminar format.
Besides that, I wasn’t sure what else to say! What would interest Australian Catholic readers in hearing about a small Great Books college in California? (Well, Cardinal Pell did come to this same college to deliver a commencement address, but besides that too?) Could I say anything that wasn’t already over there on the college’s site?
While I was thinking about it, I could hear strains of music floating up from the kitchen where my daughter was enjoying her summer break by cooking something. The music was a CD of a concert that one of her tutors had performed on campus during the school year. He has a beautiful low tenor or baritone and was singing a wide variety of songs, including a rendition of On the Road to Mandalay, a Victorian song based on the poem by Kipling, which keeps running through my head as I type! The college schedules a series of concerts every year and often draws on the talent within its own bounds, since many of the students and faculty are musically gifted.
From many things my daughter has said to me, one of the best parts of college to her is getting to know adults (and some fellow students, too) who are not only intelligent and devout in the practice of their faith, but also interesting human beings. And more than that, lifelong learners. This particular tutor is taking voice lessons. Other tutors raise tarantulas or climb mountains during their holiday breaks. The school psychologist and his wife have raised a large family who are all talented Irish dancers, singers and violinists who have toured professionally. .
Some of the tutors are college alumni, and some of the students attending the college are the children or siblings of alumni. Many of the graduates from the college have gone on to do noteworthy things -- some went on to further scholarly work in different fields, some are writers, some founded Catholic elementary or secondary schools, a significant number took religious vows or entered the priesthood, and many others are mothers or fathers of families. The influence of the learning environment ripples outward just the way I now have some old songs running through my head even though I do not know Clare’s musical tutor personally and was not there to hear him sing.
This made me think about what learning is about and what we hope for when we send our children to college. Surely we hope that while there, they will be supported in their faith, that they will be treated with dignity, that they will learn how the parts (the subjects) fits in with the whole, and that they will move closer to being the people that God wants them to become. Class time is only a part of this project of emerging from childhood into adult life. There are many ways, of course, for this to happen, and not everyone needs to go to college, particularly not to a particular tiny college in the California foothills. Yet the fact that there is an option like this is encouraging to those who are interested in Catholic formation.
To some, having a dress code for classes and meals, and a requirement of addressing each other by honorific prefixes, might seem restrictive and old-fashioned, especially in informal places like southern California. Yet you can see it another way. Dressing well and speaking with courtesy is what adults do to show respect for each other and to themselves.
And to some, learning ends when you graduate from school, whenever that might be; learning ends when you have your “ticket” out into the job market. Maybe you might take some classes to keep up in your profession or industry, but many will give up any thought of continuing to read seriously outside of their field, or learn a new skill, or develop a latent talent.
Yet surely one of the most important things we can teach our young people is how rich life is -- how life is about more than just making money and passing time; it is about learning to be a human, and that learning is lifelong and deeply related to Christian themes of seeking for wisdom and sharing it with others. We all benefit when someone near us gets passionately interested in something and shares this interest with us. It broadens our world. It is like a seed planted, or a gift given.
At my daughter’s college, the tutors, and the grown alumni, and other adults, are inviting the students to see that learning is not just about assimilating what the “experts” pass down, until you can become an expert yourself. It’s about engaging in real things, things of lasting value, and acknowledging that you bachelor of arts degree is just a beginning, not an end, to lifelong learning.