The uncommon core of a Saint Mary’s education

In this Common Core era, Saint Mary’s Catholic High School stands out. To discover what makes the school so unique, one only needs to look at our mission statement: “The mission of Saint Mary’s Catholic High School is to provide a Liberal Arts education that forms virtuous young men and women who know the Truth and love the Good.”

Like every other college preparatory high school, we make sure our students are ready for whichever university they choose to attend, but our primary concern is not “career and college readiness” or the “challenges of a 21st century world.” On the contrary, our first concern is man’s last end. Everything we do at Saint Mary’s—our courses, our campus ministry, our athletic competitions, everything—is oriented to this end. This is because we understand a fundamental truth that is too easily and too often forgotten: Man was not created for career and college; he was created for happiness.

The happiness for which we have all been made is not the fleeting, superficial happiness of pleasure or wealth or power or fame. This happiness is the eternal happiness that comes only from fulfilling one’s true purpose, of becoming, as Pope St. John Paul II would say, “who we are.” This is why our mission statement speaks of virtue and the liberal arts, but not of career and college readiness. Virtue and the liberal arts are at the heart of our mission, and together they constitute the “uncommon core” of a Saint Mary’s education. Understanding these terms is essential to understanding the formation Saint Mary’s offers its students.

Virtue is often defined as “a habitual disposition to do good,” but it can also be understood to mean “excellence.” In the intellectual realm, the good to which we are disposed is truth. Aristotle tells us in his Metaphysics that all men by nature desire to know the truth. This—seeking and finding truth—is what intellects are for. Good intellects—that is, well-formed minds—do this excellently and habitually, with ease and with pleasure. In the moral sphere, the good to which our wills are drawn is goodness itself. Well-formed hearts love the good and habitually choose what is good for themselves and for others.

In order to habitually and excellently know truth and love the good, people must be free to fully exercise their intellectual and moral faculties. Those arts which enable men to do so are called the liberal arts. Today, when people refer to a “liberal arts education,” they usually mean “not-STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). However, that is a very superficial understanding of the term.

Traditionally, there were seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These arts were divided between the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium (Latin for “three ways”) consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the so-called “language arts.” These arts are not subjects, per se, but are rather the prerequisite tools of language that must be mastered before specialized study can begin. In order to make sense of the world, one must be able to talk intelligently about it.

The first of the liberal arts, grammar, is concerned with how to communicate—how to make sense when using words to describe reality. The second, logic, deals with the arrangement of grammatically correct statements into arguments that are true. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. It teaches how to arrange and present grammatically correct statements and logical arguments in the way most likely to convince an audience to agree with the speaker or do what he wishes.

At Saint Mary’s, students explicitly study the trivium as freshmen in their “Grammar & Composition” class and as sophomores in “Speech & Rhetoric” class. But because language is the foundation of learning, they employ these liberal arts in all their classes, most especially in their “Seat of Wisdom” seminar classes, which integrate the study of history and literature while making extensive use of Socratic discussions.

In contrast to the trivium—which deals primarily with language and the communication of ideas—the quadrivium (i.e. “four ways”) equips students to quantify and measure the material world. The quadrivium is concerned with number (arithmetic), volume (geometry), extension in time (music), and extension in space (astronomy). These arts help students recognize patterns that occur in nature and in art and prepare students for all areas of study that make use of pattern recognition such as medicine, law, finance, all the sciences, and even sports. Most importantly, the quadrivium shows students clearly that truth exists and that it can be known with certainty.

Collectively, these seven arts form the basis upon which all other study is made possible. Through the study of the liberal arts, students learn how to think and how to communicate, how to recognize patterns and how to make connections between subjects.

These habits are essential to being a well-formed human being, who not only knows facts and can perform certain functions, but who understands facts and sees their significance in relation to other truths. In other words, these habits help men become wise, not just smart. Animals can be trained, but only humans can be educated. The liberal arts help men and women as men and women become the best versions of themselves they can be.

Of course, a liberal arts education alone is insufficient for bringing man to his final, beatific end. As Pope Leo XIII writes in Divini Illius Magistri (1929), “every method of education founded, wholly or in part, on the denial or forgetfulness of original sin and of grace, and relying on the sole powers of human nature, is unsound.” To achieve ultimate happiness, one needs God’s grace, which comes to us through the Church and her sacraments. Thankfully, Saint Mary’s is imbued with the sacramental life, and students can receive that grace every day.

Saint Mary’s is uniquely capable of educating the whole child. By providing an education that forms the hearts, minds, and souls of the young in virtue, Saint Mary’s prepares young men and women to be receptive to God’s grace and to recognize Him at work in all things that are good, true, and beautiful.

ROB DRAPEAU, M.A.Ed., is director of communications for Saint Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, Arizona, which has been recognized by The Cardinal Newman Society for its strong Catholic identity by inclusion in the Catholic Education Honor Roll. The former dean of academics at Saint Mary’s, Drapeau established the school’s Seat of Wisdom Integrated Studies program.

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