What is Education? by Julie Machado

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By Julie Machado, Catholic Stand, 17 March AD 2019

I urge you to answer this question for yourself before you read on. I myself am constantly reformulating my answer and expanding on what is education and how we can do it, as I watch my children grow.

If you are reading this article, on a Catholic site, you probably already have a broader and more spiritual notion of education. You probably already know what education is not. Education is not job training, although it might include it. It is not just studying in elementary to pass to secondary to pass to university to pass to a “good job”. It is not an opening of the head of a passive student and dumping in information, even if it is with an interesting and eloquent talk or a captivating video. Here are some ideas about what education is.

Education is Attention

I have worked as a teacher at several schools and I know how hard it is to get kids’ attention. I have witnessed the solution at many teacher meetings of stimulant medications, such as Ritalin, for misbehaved children who won’t pay attention. I have also seen different approaches to try to get students to concentrate and actually learn something: stay in at recess, stay after school, get individual tutoring, take more homework home, etc.

I think this lack of motivation is the tip of an iceberg. This iceberg is much more profound and started forming from when the child was a baby, which is when education starts. You can’t force someone to learn. You can’t force someone to assimilate information like a computer, even if you drug them still.

Learning starts with an idea. Charlotte Mason, a British educator from the last century, says in her section “What is an Idea?”:

We say of an idea that is strikes us, impresses us, seizes us, takes possession of us, rules us; and our common speech is, as usual truer to the fact than the conscious thought which it expresses. We do not in the least exaggerate in ascribing this sort of action and power to an idea. We form an ideal – a, so to speak, embodied idea – and our ideal exercises the very strongest formative influence upon us. Why do you devote yourself to this pursuit, that cause? ‘Because twenty years ago such and such an idea struckme,’ is the sort of history which might be given of every purposeful life- every life devoted to the working out of an idea.

How we learn, our motivation and our capacity for attention is something that can be formed through academic subjects but touches on the entire meaning of our life here on earth and our capacity for God. The author Stratford Caldecott says in his book Beauty in the Word:

Attention is desire; it is the desire for light, for truth, for understanding, for possession. It follows, according to [Simone] Weil, that the intelligence ‘grows and bears fruit in joy,’ and that the promise or anticipation of joy is what arouses the effort of attention: it is what makes students of us.

Making known to the child or student the special way of ‘waiting on truth’ in every problem, whether in language or mathematics or any other subject, is what Weil identifies as the first duty of the teacher. For this makes it an exercise in ‘waiting on God,’ which God will one day reward with tenderness.  ‘Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.’ School studies have a higher purpose than the acquisition of information or worldly skills. These acquisitions will follow, but they are subordinate to the orienting of the soul to God, implicit in the act of attention.” (pg 30-31)

Education is Conversation

My oldest daughter is not yet five years old, but I have received a lot of pressure and criticism about her not being in school. I often feel guilty about her being at home because she receives so little attention of mine while I am usually very busy with housework. However, one day I read in an article that talking to your child is the best way for them to ”develop” and it has laid my conscience at ease ever since.

My daughter is at home (with her two younger brothers) and we might not have time to do a lot of preschool activities (we do some), but we do have a lot of conversations. Her being at home facilitates that. She’ll be eating her breakfast and suddenly ask me what would happen if a thief came into our house, which I could see came from her having seen parts of the movie Home Alone the day before. Or we’ll be driving somewhere and she will ask something profoundly theological, as if a family member she loves and hasn’t seen for a while is in Heaven. Or she’ll ask me something I don’t know, which happened yesterday while we were driving too, what the marker balls on powerlines were for.

There are some people that never open up their hearts, even to themselves, and when they talk to you they are more spewing out their negative emotions. In that case, listening is an act of love. Children, however, always open up their hearts and every conversation can be an opportunity for a heart-to-heart and for growth.

Education is Culture

My favorite definition of education that I’ve ever heard is from the great G.K. Chesterton: “What is education? Properly speaking, there is no such thing as education. Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”

This quote backs up my intuition of why I don’t think it would be better for my four-year-old to be in an artificially-lit room with twenty-year-old teachers with very “technical” and advanced childhood training to learn her numbers and letters. I think it’s better for her to hear more stories from her grandparents. I think it’s better for her to read more books with me, to go on more trips and hikes as a family, to celebrate the liturgical year, to celebrate seasons and holidays.

Leila Lawler often defends on her blog, likemotherlikedaughter.org, that she is just trying to recover a sense of the “collective memory” when it comes to the formation of family and education of children. We don’t have to radically cut off the past, including the closer past of our parents and grandparents, just because we have better technology and “more information”. The greatest things never change. The greatest ideas always get carried on.

Education is Worship

This podcast with Dr. Christopher Perrin is the best I have ever heard and it introduced to me the concept of “scholé”. Scholé comes from a Greek concept in which leisure was not just mindless entertainment (like it often is today), but a restful conversation around a meal with friends, in nature, reading a book. It can be an exchange of ideas and communion.

God commands us to rest one day out of seven and Dr. Christopher Perrin suggests in the podcast that maybe we should rest one hour out of seven, too. It is hard to rest. It is hard to stop. It is hard to pray! However, we are not cogs in a machine or replaceable factory workers. We are made in the image and likeness of God, we have God’s creative power, we yearn for God’s loving communion.

Education is not just a technical formation for the material and economic parts of life. Education is helping people to do what they were made for- worship.

Religion is not just one subject within the curriculum, but the key to its unity and integration. The cosmos is an ordered, unified whole because it is created in Christ – ‘in whom all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). Belief in God as our Father and the world as His beautiful and rational creation binds faith and reason, nature and culture, art and science, morality and reality into a coherent and integrated unity. This unified view reaches its summit in worship, which is the highest form of knowledge and thus the end goal of true education.” (The Educational Plan of St. Jerome Classical School, 2010, www.stjeromes.org/stjeromeschool.htm and quoted in Stratford Caldecott’s book Beauty in the Word.

Education is an Encounter With the Truth

“The knowledge of God is the principal knowledge and the chief end of education”, said Charlotte Mason. Those ideas, which I referred to in the first subheading, that strike us and seize us, all come from God, according to Charlotte Mason. When we are sensitive and attentive to ideas and to the Truth, we allow ourselves to be changed. Jesus is ultimately “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) and he created us, the world and Revelation in an intelligible way. Theology was said to be the queen of all studies in the middle ages, as in all other studies end in theology. Education is an encounter with the Truth and in that encounter, no one can leave unchanged.