Defined by Our Love: A School Dedicated to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
Back-to-School Night provides a welcome opportunity to devote attention to the most important thing that happens within these walls—the learning that goes on in every classroom, every day. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the ancillary and peripheral features of the life of a school, whether artwork, new basketball nets, or lunch vendors. So, tonight we will spend some time thinking about that for the sake of which everything else is done. Said differently, tonight we will reflect on the essence of why we are here.
Seeking Our Perfection – the Path to Happiness
St. Augustine tells us that we are known by what we love, that what we love distinguishes and defines us. Of course, he had in mind ultimate questions of value, devotion, and purpose. In this way, he is consistent with a vision of existential meaning shared by ancient Christians and pagans, alike. For the ancients, our end (telos) makes us to be what we are. That end expresses our nature and reveals our perfection. Accordingly, what we love reveals what we aim for, what we aspire to be, and what we consider our perfection. This orientation to an end that perfects and completes us provides clear moral implications: If we love the right things and pursue them in the right ways, then we are living well. To pursue them is not only the path of rectitude, but the way to happiness.
It seems to me that this applies to institutions as well as to people. It certainly applies to a school—we really are defined by what we love, and what we love charts the path that we should follow.
As you can imagine, at a time and place when (unlike Our Lady of Mount Carmel) most Catholic schools are enduring declining enrollment, Catholic-school principals devote a lot of attention to marketing. I’m always struck by what we consider to be appealing and how it relates specifically to our work as a school. I’ve said, and I believe, that there are many good reasons to send a child to OLMC School. But there are a lot of characteristics of good and great schools that are necessary but insufficient justifications for enrollment.
What Is a School?
We often hear that one of the things that parents look for in a school is a loving and nurturing environment. I think that parents have every right to expect that their children will be treasured and cared for by their teachers and school administrators. But it’s obvious that while a warm and welcoming atmosphere may be a good indicator of the kind of people in a school, it is an inadequate reason to entrust that school with a child’s academic formation. There has to be something distinct and specific to a school that parents can’t find in another loving and nurturing environment to justify trusting that institution with a child’s education.
Along with a loving and nurturing environment, sadly too often these days we hear about parents’ appropriate concern for safety and security. Again, these are clearly necessary conditions; a school has an imperative to be safe and secure. But they are insufficient; safety and security do not in themselves a school make.
What then makes a school worthy? Said differently, what makes a school excellent? It seems to me that it must be its animating spirit, its love, and its consistent execution in fidelity to that love.
Sadly, the most common “positive” justification I hear for choosing a school is usually some form of preparing children to go to college and get jobs. Essentially, a school has little, if any, intrinsic value. In effect, schooling is taken for granted and the characteristics that distinguish one school from another are relatively superficial. In fact, I’ve even heard from some school administrators a rendition of the refrain that since children are required to go to school, parents can at least take comfort in knowing that the school is dedicated to keeping the worst things that plague American adolescents to a minimum while providing as many entertaining extracurricular offerings as resources will permit. Elite and wealthy schools celebrate their ability to provide an inside track on admission to elite colleges by dint of connections and reputation for achievement.
It’s no wonder that children are disenchanted with school. By treating education as something to be endured for benefits that are entirely extrinsic to their experience of learning, who can blame them for falling prey to cynicism. If we invite children to engage in a cost-benefit analysis in which the uncertain pay-off for years of hard work is postponed for many years, we cannot reasonably expect our children to be passionately invested in the pursuit of truth. When, in fact, was the last time a school discussed the relationship of learning to truth in any meaningful way?
At the end of the day, the prevailing view of school in the educational establishment is as a kind of jobs program interwoven with competing elements of meritocracy and egalitarianism. Not only is this a catastrophically inefficient and expensive approach to job training, it prepares young people to approach learning without any intrinsically meaningful sense of purpose.
At OLMC School, I think it is fair to say that we are animated by a somewhat different spirit.
Education and the Transmission of Culture
Here, we love what we teach and we love sharing it with our students. As Catholics, Americans, and citizens of a civilizational tradition, we have inherited the single most life-giving, edifying, transformative vision for human well-being that the world has ever known. This is our patrimony and it is your children’s birthright! Ours is an educational tradition that built Western Civilization, forged conditions for widespread health, social vitality, and communicated a vision for justice tempered by mercy. It is a tradition that has helped us to think through the imperative to live out the ethos of the kingdom of God here in anticipation of eternity.
These are not simply fine-spun theoretical speculations. The world your children have inherited is the consequence of centuries of reflection upon the nature of man in relationship to God and neighbor. The world we live in would be unrecognizable without them.
As inheritors of those insights, we know that the idea of human rights without reference to man’s sharing in the divine image is vain and hollow. It is no accident that it emerged from meditation upon the full implications of personhood as a consequence of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.
We know, with the pioneer researcher of the Human Genome Project, that man is unintelligible as purely material; that our faculty of thought and our capacity to love reveals something unique to mankind, demonstrable evidence of our spiritual nature. In fact, in light of this spiritual nature, Christian anthropology elevates and dignifies our material being and creates a mandate to safeguard and honor it.
We know that math is more than just a tool for calculating interest rates but is rather an ordered framework for encountering and thinking about the world and reality itself, a conceptual structure for making sense of shape, quantity, and arrangement. Math underlies art, music, architecture, sport, and systems of human exchange—to say nothing of understanding weather, the patterns of the heavens, and the path into them.
We know that Cinderella and Peter Pan are more than just diversions for children. Rather, we recognize that the truly great stories of our tradition form our appreciation for friendship and help us to develop our love for our true hope and home in this life and the next.
We know that Homer’s Iliad is more than just a poem about a regional war over a pretty face but rather an account of the vanity of justice in this life, the greatness of the human soul, and the perils of vice
We know that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is more than a fictionalized rendering of the murder of a Roman general but a meditation upon magnanimity, humility, loyalty, honor, and citizenship.
We know that Bach’s "St. Matthew’s Passion" is more than an entertaining composition. It is a work of staggering beauty that deepens our appreciation for the pivotal moment of all of history, awakening in us a longing for resurrection and communion with God for all of eternity.
The artifacts of culture are the results of ideas that are rooted in fundamental convictions of faith and reason, both. Today, we see a cultural forgetfulness that presents us with the very real danger of those convictions being lost. Consequently, we risk losing not only the inspiration for these cultural achievements, but the achievements themselves.
It is simply intolerable that your children would be deprived of these inestimable riches. And if they are not presented to students by teachers who love them for what they are, they will not be received for what they are. And that’s if they are introduced at all!
Our commitment to teaching these things that we love is eminently practical. Albert Einstein was right: "The value of an education in liberal arts...is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned in textbooks." The world needs people who are not only prepared to jump through contemporary hoops, it needs people who are prepared to answer questions that puzzle us—not to mention questions we have not yet thought to ask.
For these principled and practical reasons, we are convinced that OLMC School is an excellent place for your children to learn. But as noble and as high-minded as it sounds, this is not just about the future of our civilization. This is also the very practical matter of educating each infinitely precious soul entrusted to us. The stakes are very high, indeed. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it:
“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”
Our responsibility as a school is to provide our students with live-giving and inspiring encounters with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Our teachers facilitate those encounters in ways that honor and are worthy of a child’s natural sense of wonder. Every child in this school is capable of great and beautiful things. Every single one. We cannot sell them short. We will not deprive them.
These years at OLMC School are a very enviable time. We are privileged to enjoy time with your children when they have not become jaded, when their wonder is pure and potent. Every day with our students reminds us that this is what human beings are made to do. They yearn to learn, and so we are eager to teach.
As a school, we love to share these things that we are made to know, to grapple with, to be shaped by with young people. We believe that this is what we are all made to do. We believe this is an essential part of being human and helps walk the path to authentic fulfillment. In the end, you could say that we do this because we are committed to our students’ happiness. We know that Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are not just platitudes; they are fully realized in the Divine. But it is here, even in the humble classrooms of our school, that we prepare ourselves to know, to admire, and to love—for now, and for eternity.