Too often in our systems of education we seek to educate only the mind (and that, somewhat poorly!) to the exclusion of the other human faculties, which we leave to develop as they will, by circumstance or chance. In the following reflections, Alan Hicks and Howard Clark explain the importance of the proper cultivation of the imagination, first through direct contact with reality, but also indirectly by means of the imaginative arts, thereby providing a propaedutic or groundwork for the development of man’s higher cognitive faculty.
A Return to Things
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!He, too, is no mean preacher:Come forth into the light of things,Let Nature be your teacher.-Wordsworth
In the United States we are in the midst of an educational crisis. Students are graduating from high school unable to read standard English prose or to write on the most basic level. They lack a proper appreciation of the cultural heritage of western civilization and cannot date or place even the most significant historical events. They struggle to make logical distinctions, to adequately define their terms, to follow a simple line of argument or detect one that is fallacious. But what is most distressing is the corruption of character and the dearth of moral virtue, to say nothing of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Even the Catholic schools, once the pride of the American Church, are not immune from the academic, cultural, and moral degradation observable in their secular counterparts.
This state of affairs, while cause for alarm, should not be a cause for despair. Rather, it should be seen as an occasion for good Catholic men and women to assume more personal responsibility. For too long we have been content to let the institutions of either the Church or State determine the formation of our children. It is therefore heartening to see the efforts of numerous parents who have said, “enough is enough,” and have pulled their children from discredited educational institutions and have begun, with much sacrifice, to teach them at home. Yet with all the advantages homeschooling may offer there are obvious limitations, and is hardly an option for some. In response to continuing needs unfulfilled by the option of the home school, many small private Catholic schools have sprung up throughout the nation. Thus it was that St. Gregory’s Academy was founded, as one response to the educational crisis in the Church and society.
With the initial support of the Fraternity of St. Peter, with the generous help of benefactors and our income from tuition, we were able to put St. Gregory’s on a secure financial foundation. Yet the purpose of St. Gregory’s was not to meet a budget but to educate young men. It was here that our most serious difficulties began. For how do you educate boys who suffer from the deficiencies and defects common to the minds of modern students? How do you correct a problem that has been years in the making and is now deeply engrained? Certainly we could increase the rigors of scholarship in the various disciplines of the school. We could demand that our students speak and write with grammatical correctness and clarity. We could requre them to exercise their memories and analytic powers in history, science, math and logic. We could exhort them to read and reread great literature and biography. And yet such efforts, though fine and well, are not enough, for the defects inherent in modern education do mot merely consist in subjects badly presented; the problem is not merely one of methodology. Nor is it merely a case of inadequate demands placed on the student. For there is a deeper problem that underlies and undermines serious educational efforts and any real and lasting solution must then be equally deep and must reach to the very roots of the educational experience.
Now the intellectual life of man is perfected in truth, which is the adequation of the mind to what is–to reality. But our first, our most intimate, and indeed our only contact with things in their concrete existence is through the senses. The sensible presence of externaly reality is what first awakens man’s cognitive power, and our experience is the root of all subsequent conceptual understanding. The intellect of man is, accordingly, grounded in the senses and the imagination, which preserves, correlates, and orders impressions of the external world received through sensation. Without this grounding the higher rational facilities are grievously impaired. We may learn the language of philosophy or a science; learn to manipulate the words with sytactical dexterity and grammatical correctness. But without experience of the real our expressions are backed with little true insight into the reality that those words represent.
In our day this ground has been seriously undermined by a technology and lifestyle that removes us in large measure from direct contact with the elemental things of creation. When you add to that the distorting influence of television, video games, and popular music, the result is a retarded and deformed imagination, inclined more to the world of bizarre fantasy than to the world of the real. Yet contrary to popular opinion, the imagination is a faculty ordered not to fantasy but to the real. The only way to correct this deformation, therefore, is to place children in an environment that is open to reality, and where the influences on the imagination are such that they become receptive to reality in all its goodness and beauty.
This was a fundamental goal at St. Gregory’s Academy, and was the prime reason we sought a location in the country, where the boys could experience what Jean-Henry Fabre called “the laboratory of the open field.” Of course this had the added advantage of removing them from the shopping mall and the banalities of teenage culture. The effect was that we removed the boys from the mind-numbing influence of modern media and gave them the pleasure, for instance, of sleeping around a camp fire with their friends. They even began to go winter camping, protected from the bitter winds in shelters made of snow! What better way to experience the reality of winter.
No amount of reading of formal studies can substitute for this direct experience. As Wordsworth says, we must “come forth into the light of things.” However, through our participation in imaginative arts such as poetry, literature, and music we become sensitized to the light of reality and receptive to the mystery of being. Through this development of the imagination man is open to wonder, the beginning and sustaining principle of wisdom. Consequently, the boys at St. Gregory’s memorized and recited poetry, they sung songs from heart, they attended operas ands symphonies, and were immersed in good literature.
The crown of this effort was the reverent contact with the sacred poetry of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offered in our chapel in the immemorial Latin words and gestures of the traditional Roman rite. Just as secular poetry provides us with new imaginative experiences of objects we may not have previously encountered, so the Catholic poetry of the liturgy gives us imaginative experiences of supernatural realities and sacred truths. These become the living basis of our intellectual act of faith. St. Gregory’s was not a school that happened to have the old Mass instead of the new; rather, the traditional Mass was an essential part of our education that, together with our secular studies and recreation, was integral to the formation of the boys.
The Happy Warrior
One of the fronts of attack on all things male is the very structure or moral order that is presented in the literary works of our Western culture. Carol Gilligan, first professor of Gender Studies at Harvard, was not long ago cited in Atlantic Monthly advocating that young men need to be protected from a culture that “valorizes heroism, honor, war, and competition” which is the root cause of the “out of control and out of touch behavior” that many young men exhibit today. Common sense suggests otherwise. Has the portrayal of the Happy Warrior in his many guises in over two thousand years of Western literary tradition really been the culprit for a generation of disillusioned, violent young men, or rather, has it been the neglect of our literary heritage that has proven traumatic and damaging to them?
The Knights of the Round Table who swore to uphold the code of chivalry are far from the muscle-bound knuckleheads of today’s television and film. The answer to this crisis is not a wholesale rejection of masculinity, but a return to Christian manhood as embodied in this code in which the knight swears to be “gentle of deed, true in friendship, and faithful in love.”
But first, teachers of literature have to face a daunting labor: to inspire a love of reading in a generation of boys who are not so much illiterate as alliterate. The trick is to find a classic that will set its hook into the imagination of the reader. A perennial favorite like Robin Hood or Treasure Island that will seize the reader if given half chance. To witness the miraculous encounter between living text and willing mind is one of the humbling joys of teaching. It’s humbling because the teacher doesn’t do much more than suggest, “Take up and read.” Indeed, some of the best teaching is knowing when to simply step aside and allow the magic of the language and the story to work its spell.
At St Gregory’s we engaged our students in numerous activities for the sole purpose of enjoying the literature: reading aloud, retelling stories, memorizing poems, performing skits. Conversations spring up when a class talks about characters and events as if they were real and sometimes clashes of opinions break out. “Roland was reckless-he should have blown his horn!” The rule of thumb is first things first: delight before dissection. Dissection of a work can murder delight, before delight is born.
Certainly young men must be taught the grammar of each subject. What is a noun? A verb? An object? Students must know the terminology of the trade: setting, conflict, crisis, theme; assonance and alliteration; irony and paradox; blank verse and free. But before defining a ballad, let them get “Sir Patrick Spence” by heart. Before learning the concept of “an epic,” let them join Odysseus on his epic journey home (and teach the phrase “in medias res” when they recognize how craftily Homer chose to tell his story). Before considering the characteristics of romance, let them thrill in the achievement of Arthur drawing “the sword of success from the iron of circumstance.” Unless delight be granted primary consideration in the teaching of literature, the love of learning that sustains all education will never begin.
The ability to read thoughtfully, to write clearly, and to speak intelligently are the arms we strove to equip our graduates with, so they could then face the tasks of real life. But even this, good though it may be, is not enough. Young men need literature that inspires “the plan that pleased their boyish thoughts.” Howard Pyle, author of numerous books which serve that end quite admirable, wrote in his foreword to King Arthur and His Knights:
“For when in pursuing this history I have come to consider the high nobility of spirit that moved these excellent men to act as they did, I have felt they afforded such a perfect example of courage and humility that anyone might do exceedingly well to follow after their manner of behavior in such measure as he is able to do.”
Pyle is speaking within the tradition of the bard who seeks not only to preserve the memory of glorious deeds for posterity, but to educate as well by providing glowing examples for imitation. Much of the literature read at St. Gregory’s Academy flows from this tradition and seeks the same end.
Boys are naturally drawn to challenges of high endeavor, quests for fame, journeys into the unknown; they are ready to give their hearts away if provided a dream of boyish thoughts. So by presenting the arduous labors of Hercules, Jason’s quest for the golden fleece, and Aeneas’s struggle to reach a far-off land called Italy, we hope to provide examples of courage and humility for praise, inspiration, and imitation.
If a man is to accomplish the dreams that pleased his boyish thoughts, he must first have been a dreaming boy. To give one’s heart away, there must be an object worthy of that love. One cannot become a generous Spirit or a happy Warrior without a cause to sacrifice to or fight for. But perhaps it is not a worthy object that is lacking, but a presentation of that object. As Chesterton said, it is not that Christianity has been tried and found lacking, but rather that it has not been tried. If Christianity is to raise again a race of heroes and saints, we must strive to regain our traditions and hand them on in all their purity and beauty.