The Purpose of Education, Classical and Catechetical

Contemplation as the Aim of Education

Having surveyed a brief history of classical education in the previous post, and said something of its key themes, we can now draw the distinctions more clearly between ancient and modern modes of education. Above all, the difference is this: whereas we prize education for practical purposes, the ancients prized education for contemplative ones. 

One of the basic premises of classical education is that the Liberal Arts tradition (the Trivium and Quadrivium) is ordered to a higher form of discipline: namely, philosophy and theology. Learning grammar, logic, mathematics, etc., were all things one learned so that one could study the higher arts of theology (hence the old saying "theology is queen of the sciences"). This means that philosophy and theology were not simply subjects learned alongside others, they were ones that needed a basic kind of learning in order to comprehend them. Stratford Caldecott puts it bluntly: "We had to become capable of them, and the Liberal Arts were our preparation" (Beauty for Truth's Sake, 21).

Summarizing Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Caldecott writes:

"the reduction of the liberal to the servile arts would mean the proletarianization of the world. At the heart of any culture worthy of the name is not work but leisure, schole in Greek, a word that lies at the root of the English word 'school.' At its highest, leisure is contemplation. It is an activity that is its own justification, the pure expression of what it is to be human. It is what we do. The 'purpose' of the quadrivium was to prepare us to contemplate God in an ordered fashion, to take delight in the source of all truth, beauty, and goodness, while the purpose of the trivium was to prepare us for the quadrivium. The 'purpose' of the Liberal Arts is therefore to purify the soul, to discipline the attention so that it becomes capable of devotion to God; that is, prayer" (Caldecott, 90, summarizing Pieper Leisure, 22). 

Implications for Catechesis

While we shouldn't be under the illusion that classical education is catechesis, we would be foolish not to glean from this tradition. We especially need to recover the integration of learning and contemplation, which presumes a certain kind of sacramentality. The world is knowable and ordered to a higher good. And so we teach the "basics" of the Christian faith (the "Trivium" of the Creed, Lord's Prayer, and Decalogue, perhaps?) with an ultimate aim of preparing those we teach to see the face of God. 

Without a sacramental ontology, and so a contemplative telos, our catechesis is bound to be dutifully pragmatist, and all too susceptible of aping "proletariat" modern education rather than recovering the genius of the Christian tradition. We could say, as well, then, that the purpose of catechesis is "to purify the soul, to discipline the attention so that it becomes capable of devotion to God; that is, prayer."