Integration, Love, and Teaching

students pray at Mary statue

Human beings possess a hierarchy of powers. We experience the world first physically through our senses, we respond emotionally to what we sense, we conform our will to love the good, true, and beautiful or hate the evil, false, and ugly, and we reason about meaning and our place in God’s world. The complete man must not ignore any aspect of this hierarchy. 

At Gregory the Great Academy, teachers point to wondrous things, showing the boys in what way things are wonderful, and giving things the esteem that is their due. In this way, students gain an integrated vision of the world, with each of its parts ordered toward mutual dependence on the Creator. First, the students experience with their senses. Subjective experience is not disparaged at the Academy, and boys cannot help but respond emotionally to beauty in the world, goodness in the saints, truth in our holy Faith. These first steps in knowledge seem natural, but must be encouraged and put in their right order. Emotions move students to conform their wills to goodness, truth, and beauty. Finally, teachers themselves reason with their students about the place every created thing has in the world God made.

Parts only make sense in view of the whole, and every whole is just another part in God’s creation. Seeing the world thus integrated is the goal of liberal education, an education which grants a willing learner “the power of viewing many things at once as a whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values and determining their mutual dependence,” as Cardinal Newman says. Ultimately, this integrated vision leads to Christ.

As one cannot teach what he himself does not have, one of our primary academic requirements for our teachers has been that they themselves have this integral vision of things. When a teacher has this vision the same will be reflected in his teaching. With a grounding in just sentiments for the reality of truth and goodness as manifested in Creation, teachers are a driving force which make students thirst for learning and for Christ. 

Plato taught that teaching is a species of friendship, whose highest degree is love, in which persons see each other as integral parts of something greater than themselves—a marriage, a family, a school, a nation, a faith. In the pursuit of happiness while involved in any type of friendship, we have to ask what the whole thing is: what are all those activities and commitments part of? What is the integer? What is the whole? If a student forgets everything he learned at school or college, he had best remember this one question. It will be on the very final examination that his own conscience will make at the last hour of his life: in the pursuit of horizons—of horizontal things—have you failed to raise your eyes and mind and heart up to the stars, to the reason for things, and beyond, as Dante says at the top of the tower in his poem:

The love which moves the sun
And all the other stars?”

A Natural Order of Living

Boys at Gregory the Great Academy discover Truth every living day. They wake to the sounds of nature and of man in harmony with nature: birdsong from an open window, a prefect’s call to Morning Prayer, the bustle of roommates readying themselves for the day. The natural world and their place in it is constantly present, never mediated by some electronic device.

Without first perceiving reality through the senses, a boy would find the abstractions of religion and philosophy extremely difficult. That is why we place such an emphasis on developing the imagination through three means: technological poverty, good (as well as Great) books, and time.

The natural order of learning directs us first to experience the real, to take delight in beauty and goodness, to discover truth, then to wonder at the meaning of each thing and how it fits into the wholeness of Creation. The only way to experience the sensible world is to encounter it with the senses; one can then add a little knowledge about things through learning what others think, but first a student must submit himself to Nature itself, unmediated by anything artificial. Gregory the Great Academy sits on nearly two hundred acres of woods and fields. Students are liberated by our policy of technological poverty and are encouraged to heed Wordsworth’s exhortation to “Come forth into the light of things / Let Nature be your teacher!” Having seen the glory and beauty of nature with their own senses, they cannot help but wonder at and begin to understand God’s love. This is fertile ground for further learning.

The second means to develop the imagination is through good as well as great books, read with delight and taught by imaginative teachers who are in love with them. Imaginative literature opens the mind to truths about human nature as well as the natural world. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robin Hood, foundational books for Freshman Literature, introduce boys to wonderful descriptions of nature and to the way human beings act in the world. A teacher who loves these books brings them to life; our freshman literature class is always rocking with laughter, thirsting for adventure, or pensive with “the tears of things” because they learn to reflect on the good, the true, and the beautiful. The good books, the habit of reflection, and the training of the imagination are the best preparation for the great books taken up in junior and senior humanities classes. But without time for reflection, little progress in this soul-training could happen.

Unlike many modern schools, including some that espouse Classical training, Gregory the Great Academy does not offer a plethora of courses. Each student in each grade takes the same classes with all his classmates and is thus liberated from the necessity of choosing a track at an early age. We leave the college courses, such as calculus and chemistry, to college, choosing instead to give high school boys time for their minds to expand and flower, time for them to grow and learn how to make big decisions (such as a life’s course). But most of all, we give the boys time to hike in our fields, time to build a campsite down by our creek, time to play board games and ping pong on cold, rainy days, time to build friendships that last a lifetime.

Over and over we hear that true friendship is built at the Academy, and that it is time and the freedom from technology that made it possible. In these days of shallow online influencers replacing friendship, this gift of time might be the very best gift we can provide young men.

Experiential Learning

robin hood days archery competition

Learning the Trees

One of the characteristics of the educational method at Gregory the Great Academy is that learning is experiential. At first glance, one might think that that only means we teach our boys to learn by doing, or that we ask them to reenact historical or literary events to get a feel for the context of the times. Although our boys do engage in cardboard boat races in very loose emulation of the Battle of Lepanto, and they quaff root beer, shoot arrows, cook over a fire, and drub each other in quarter-staff battles during Robin Hood Days, this is not what we mean by experiential. These are delightful activities with no aim other than the fun of the thing.

Experiential learning is the development of a habit of reflection as a student learns by doing. “Habit of reflection” is the operative term. The value of doing is enhanced and fostered when a boy wonders, when he asks questions. Reflection causes a student to be active in his own learning and to desire it because he wants his own questions answered.

Aristotle says that we learn by doing the things we have to learn, even before we can do them. In other words, with the guidance of a master we perform a task before we know about it, then we reflect on what we learned in its performance and we begin to know what still must be learned, and we learn how to make it our own. This works beautifully in subjects such as Rhetoric, but the habit of reflection while doing can be employed in any subject. As opposed to purely academic or didactic learning, a great deal of what boys learn experientially is up to them.

For example, in Natural History the boys read about tree identification, providing them a little knowledge, a little academic learning. Now they must go out to the fields and woods and identify the trees they have been learning. This requires them to reflect about what they learned in a book, to question what they still do not know when they come upon a real tree which may not exactly fit the pattern, and to inquire more deeply into how to find out what it is. They discover the answer by keenly observing, by reading, and by consulting with each other and with their teacher. There is happiness, often joy, in this way of learning, and we never forget that the end of any learning, of any doing, is happiness both here and in eternity.