Wisdom has built her house…

The new academic year is underway in every city, town, and hamlet. With the reappearance of yellow school busses and practice fields lit well into the evening comes the stark realization that the long, lazy days of summer have been replaced by a flurry of projects, deadlines, schedules, conferences, co-curricular activities, and social events.

What was once a row of empty, white squares on the calendar is now a multi-colored maze of inked-in appointments that spill illegibly into the margins. If this sudden re-engagement (although we have known this was coming for months!) leaves us with a feeling of having lost a balance that was maintained, if briefly, during the summer months, we might take a deeper look into this autumnal ritual that has once again reinserted its own brand of “chaos,” where there was once order, stability and peace.

In truth, this return to campus, the classroom, or the cooperative is part of an annual invitation to reengage our minds, souls, and bodies in the hard work of being liberated from the chaos that lies within.

. . . and she has set up its seven pillars (Proverbs 9:1)

The ancients knew that an authentic formation for young students depended upon the clear exposition of a defined, cohesive understanding of the universe and its parts. The final formula for this comprehensive understanding has been handed down to us as the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. Although our curriculum has changed considerably since this original formulation, elements of it remain and the salutary effects witnessed by the ancients are still in effect today.

When a young person is introduced to part or the whole of the liberal arts, a fullness and a flourishing takes place and its effects remain as a positive interference in the life of a young person. If this formation is allowed to develop, it elicits the best in human nature: clear thinking, confidence in expression, an engaged imagination, respect for the present through what has been bequeathed from the past, empathy for friends and strangers, magnanimity toward detractors, an interior rule of life, and, of course, humor.

Alcuin of York, commonly considered to be one of the most influential forces of the Carolingian Renaissance, understood this. When Alcuin established a curriculum at the request of Charlemagne at Aachen in the 780s, he identified the seven liberal arts as the seven pillars of learning that would “constitute a ladder of ascent” upon which all seekers of truth could fashion their lives.

Not only did the liberal arts systematically address the inherent chaos within young students, they fulfilled a spiritual, transformational dimension in their connection to the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. These seven liberal arts or seven “pillars” equipped the mind in the natural way to cooperate with the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, enabling the student to become whole through the work of divine grace.

When the student gives himself or herself over to this ascent toward truth and collaborates with the Holy Spirit, he or she attains wisdom which makes his or her mind whole through divine grace. The liberal arts furnish the mind of the present by appropriating the riches of the past, and ultimately equip the student with the necessary tools to withstand the ravages of fragile human existence. The pursuit of truth gives hope. In the increasingly fractured experience of modern life, this framework can still be accessed and still provides a philosophy of life by which the young person can be opened to truth, engage the imagination for the good, and experience happiness in this world as he prepares himself for entry into the next.

Maria Montessori once astutely observed that the three-year-old still carries within the burden of a heavy chaos (Spontaneous Activity in Education, 1917). Anyone who has seen a three-year-old overdue for a nap has certainly witnessed this phenomenon! If a three-year-old still carries within him a certain chaos, how much more the young adolescent in the throes of a social-media-saturated culture or the young adult trying to navigate the nuances of the office or the board room for the first time? It is the work of the educator to provide context for the chaos, to “unroll the scroll,” and to reveal a logical structure of interrelated and corresponding realities that make sense of the world, provide stability against imbalances, and remove limits to true freedom and happiness.

Connecting nothing with nothing

John Dewey, the second-most influential educator of the last century (who died just a few weeks after Maria Montessori), maintained among other things, that “the teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child” (My Pedagogic Creed, 1929). In other words, let the child unroll the scroll of his or her reality when he or she deems best, without any positive interference from outside influences.

But doesn’t this position of non-interference in the life of the three-year-old (or the 13- or 30-year-old) support a stance of benign neglect that ultimately abandons the child to the misery of his or her own chaos? Doesn’t this lack of involvement, of connectivity and engagement leave the young person in the same league with T.S Eliot’s languid spectator in the Waste Land who can connect “nothing with nothing”? What little league coach would hand his players a bat and a ball and send them out to the field without first providing instructions about field position, how to catch, throw, or hit the ball? What sort of success could anyone expect from a team of players whose coach left his players to discover the game for themselves, not wishing to “impose certain ideas or to form certain habits” upon his little leaguers?

The challenge for anyone engaged in the work of education is to connect seemingly disparate fragments of knowledge and experience and present them in such a way that guides young people in their quest to make sense of their world. This challenge is heightened in what is becoming an objectively confusing and contradictory culture. The educator’s work is to take these seemingly disparate parts and reveal the Divine Imprint that lies just beneath the surface, that informs all of reality and communicates order, intelligence, and beauty in the unfolding relationship between God, the world, and every creature entrusted to His care.

In the seeming imbalance that is presented by endless projects, deadlines, and activities, there lies a deeper continuity, which goes beyond the ordinary work of arranging schedules. Our direct or indirect participation in the formation of young people allows us to communicate a framework for understanding all of life. When we do this, we cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in making ourselves and those entrusted to our care, whole.

SISTER MARY SARAH GALBRAITH is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, Nashville, Tenn., a community dedicated to serving the needs of Catholic education from pre-kindergarten to adult learners in over 50 schools in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe.

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