‘Education is about becoming more human’

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 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! 

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.  

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”