By Abriana Chilelli
Associate Superintendent of Academic Renewal
When teaching high school-level Humanities at public schools here in Colorado, I hung a sign on the wall of my classroom. I made the sign after reading an interview with Dr. Joseph Almeida, a professor at Franciscan University, during my days there as a student, long before I became a teacher. The sign quoted Dr. Almeida: “There’s a statement in Plato’s Republic that education is a way of turning the soul so that it is in the best position to perceive reality. That notion of education has never left me. It helps me see the pursuit of knowledge as a way of life that’s connected with the human soul. It’s not about information gathering or pragmatic success. It’s about becoming more human.”
At the time, as a young teacher, I had a sense of what Dr. Almeida meant, but didn’t fully grasp the profundity of his words. The last line: “[Education] is about becoming more human” has been something I’ve been reflecting on since those days I’d glance over and reread this line while teaching or lesson planning.
The reflection for me has been a pursuit of the question: what does it mean to become more human?
It’s significant that I read the interview during my own conversion: a time of falling in love with the Jesus I met in the Gospels, learning to pray while sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament. In those months, Jesus became the person I wanted to follow. And yet at the same time, this reflection on what it means to be human began to sprout in my mind. Why did a friendship with Jesus Christ inspire this question of who I was as a human person?
When I moved from teaching in public schools to Catholic schools, it was because I had chosen Catholic schools for my own children and began to experience the beauty of Catholic education for the formation of my children. Yet, I thought academics sat next to discipleship as separate and distinct aims of the school, that “academic excellence” served some utilitarian end to send students out in the world to do something, but that spiritual formation was just a separate extra. Now, after five years in Catholic education, I know: that which we teach and study in Catholic schools forms students toward becoming more human because God, in his love for us, created everything, and created man to become his sons and daughters as partakers in his divine nature.
God created us in his image and likeness, which means we can know and we can love. Becoming more human then is to become more like God: to understand deeply, to come to know things well, and in turn to know our duties as human people, which is to love. We are the only created beings with minds with which to know and hearts with which to love. Growing in those powers is what it is to become more human because it is what we were created for.
The pursuit of knowledge and love is the story of growing our capacity for God: to read history as the chronological story of the longings of the human heart, or to read great literature and examine the struggle of humanity never being fulfilled in anything except by turning to the Lord. To look at a scientific concept, understand it, and then ask why it is. To consider the logic and order of mathematics in awe of how these principles work with such design.
God made us for contemplation, and while contemplation is principally an act of prayer, it is also the engagement of our intellects with every good and perfect thing, which will point us, ultimately, to him.
And why did God create us this way? Because he loves us deeply, wants us to know him, and wants us to be happy. And we are happy when we can grow in understanding. John Paul II said, “Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.” The intellectual life is wanting to know more about the marvels of the universe, and wanting to pursue more. The Church educates to form people who marvel at the world around them and contemplate the truth of things — to help them to become more human — because this is what we were created for!
In 1929, Pope Pius XI wrote something that is still true today: “Since education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created, it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end.”
This is why in our archdiocesan schools we have begun to examine our content standards to ensure that what’s taught in our schools directs students to their last end. We began this work last year with our English and science standards, turning this year to our history and art standards. Catholic schools have the unique ability to direct learning towards God through understanding the integration of all created things. Reading literature from the great conversation, rich with stories that inspire sacramental imaginations, helps our students to understand the human story as this pursuit of the longing of the heart to find happiness. History is a chronological story that Jesus Christ himself entered: he is the centrality of history and transforms all that comes after him. Art should invite us into Christian culture, cultivate students’ ability to attend, contemplate, and wonder.
My sense as a young teacher was really the longing of my heart to wholly know who it was created for: that to be educated means to come to know reality, growing in intimacy and love with He who created me.