Excellence in Education - Perfecting the Intellect
by Laura Berquist – © 2011

About ten years ago I started giving talks and writing articles about classical education. At first, people warned me not to do it. They said that my audiences wouldn't be interested. They said people, homeschooling mothers in particular, only wanted practical, day by day directions. Now, we all like practical day by day directions, but my experience, contrary to the predictions, is that mothers want to know the end of education, not just the means. The mothers I know and work with are philosophers; they think about the nature of reality and educational philosophy all the time. I'm glad, because this talk is going to be in that category.

I think it's like wanting to see the road map when you are going someplace. I find it is very uncomfortable to be told, "Just follow the directions and you can't go wrong." I know from experience that unless you know where you are going, and know that there are several ways to get there, you are quite apt to wind up at the wrong place. When you are told to go left at the first corner, and then left again at the next, right at the third corner and then continue on to the freeway, it often happens that there is a road block, or a corner appears that the directions didn't prepare you for, or you keep going and the freeway never materializes. Without a clearer idea of where to go, and a map to help you know exactly where you are relative to your goal, you are apt to make mistakes. In education, too, we need to know where we are going, and what the best way is to get there. We also need to know if it is the only way, or if there are other roads that might get us to the same place.

The question before us today is what is an excellent education? That's the goal we want to achieve for our children, and I have a proposal for a map.

I recently heard a speaker at a conference talking about excellence in education – her view was that more is better. More work, more facts, more expectations for the student. She didn't want to hear any talk about flexibility – she thought that was simply a way of excusing mediocrity.

Listening to her made me think about the word excellence, and how it should apply to education. It also made me wonder about the difference between perfection and excellence.

When we say something is excellent, like an excellent apple pie, we are saying that it is very good, but there is room for variation. Your apple pie and my apple pie may both be excellent, even though they are not identical. Or think about student papers. I often receive several excellent papers on the same topic, but they are certainly not the same. There can be different excellences in one order.

Perfection is a little different. God is perfect, not merely excellent. I can draw an excellent circle, one that is nearly perfect, or I can draw a perfect circle. (Well, I can't, but if I could it would be something more than excellent.) Perfect has the notion of complete in it. When something is perfect, it can't get any better. That means there is no potential in the subject that has not been actualized.

This is an important concept, both in itself and for our discussion.

Potency is the ability to be, either to be simply, or to be in a certain respect. This wood, for example, has the ability to be a chair. It does not have the ability to be a knife. When the wood becomes a chair, it has been perfected in that respect – that is, its ability to be a chair has been actualized.

Now a student has the ability to learn, and when he actually learns we can say that he has perfected that ability. His intellect has a certain ability, or potency, with regard to knowledge, and as he learns, he perfects, or actualizes, that ability.

So when we talk about excellence in education there are two notions we should consider. One is excellence – something that is very good in its order. And by itself, that notion allows for quite a lot of variation. But the other notion is education itself – the movement from ignorance to knowledge, the perfecting of the intellect. That seems to me the more important idea. How does one perfect the intellect? What is the best way to move the mind from ignorance to knowledge? Once we can answer those questions, we can talk about excellence in that order, because the education that actually educates the student best will be the most excellent.

There are two basic views of education, or at least there are two basic views of education that I encounter among serious Catholic homeschoolers. One is the "work hard, accumulate data, discipline the mind, strive for more and better" school of thought. And there is much to be said for this view. I agree with it in many ways. Here the underlying idea is that since the intellect is perfected by knowing, the more it knows, the more perfect it is. That makes sense. We certainly respect those who know in any field, and we really respect those rare individuals who seem to know a great deal in many fields. Further, we know that it is good for people to work hard. We want to see our children able to work hard. They learn perseverance, and they learn to accomplish goals.

But there is a problem, both in theory and in practice, with the view that the best way to perfect the intellect is to simply do more, learn more facts, and work really hard. In the third book of the De Anima Aristotle argues to the immateriality of the soul, and finally to its immortality, from the fact that the mind can know an infinite number of things. If the perfection of the intellect lies in learning facts, then we are doomed to failure. No one can know an infinite number of things. If this is how we are to perfect the intellect, we can't get very far.

Further, we are like the man I mentioned at the beginning of the talk, who is blindly following directions to a goal he doesn't see. How do you order the facts that you accumulate if you don't have an idea of education that goes beyond those particular facts?

There is another view, however, one that sees the perfection of the intellect in another light. There is way to perfect the power of the mind, so that it is universally capable of knowing the objects of knowledge.

For example, I have a certain ability to lift heavy objects. Say I want to perfect this ability. I can exercise my muscles so that they get stronger. Eventually, if I stick with it, they become as strong as they can be. Then, though I don't in fact lift every heavy object I can, I am capable of lifting all of them. My power has been perfected.

Or I have some ability to resist tempting chocolates. If I exercise that ability, it gets stronger. It is easier and easier for me to pass by the chocolate left on my counter by my children. After a while, I can pass by any chocolate. I don't have to pass by them all in order to accomplish this. I only need to strengthen the power to pass them by.

The view of education I propose starts out with something similar to this. We don't have to know everything there is to know in order to perfect our knowing power (good thing, since we can't know everything, at least not in this life). What we have to do is exercise our power to know. We do that by learning particular things, so in that way the two views are alike. But the initial goal of education in this second view is not to simply accumulate more information, but to perfect the power of knowing, so that one can use it whenever one desires, especially with respect to the objects most worth knowing. Thus, the exercise is not seen as an end in itself, but as a means to further perfection. Much of what we do as we homeschool our children we do in order to accomplish this first step. We are helping them perfect their ability to know, using particular facts, but directing the accumulation of data to two ends: exercising, increasing, and perfecting the ability of the child to know, and doing that in such a way as to help the student eventually achieve the true goal of all knowing: wisdom.

Where we want to go finally, in terms of education, is to wisdom. We want to know not only the facts, but the reasons for the facts. We want to think about the highest things, the most noble, the most interesting in themselves. We need a knowing power that is up to the challenge.

We also need to see that there are steps in such an education. One can't begin by studying the very highest things. One doesn't take out the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas and begin a study of the nature of God with one's second grader. Why not? Because the student won't be able to understand what he reads. He needs to do some preliminary work. But that preliminary work is ordered to eventually understanding the very highest truths.

Liberal education, which we also call classical education, is such an education. It begins in wonder and aims at wisdom. It involves the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. It also includes the study of nature, the soul, ethics and politics, the highest created objects, and finally that to which all the others are ordered - theology, an understanding of the divine. Liberal education in its perfection is Catholic education, for it has the same end, identically, as the Catholic faith: the highest, best, and most perfect object, God.

I've heard it said that classical education is not Catholic education. That would be news to St. Thomas Aquinas, who understands education in precisely the terms I've just used. In his commentary on Boethius' De Trinitate, where St. Thomas is talking about education, he takes for granted that education involves the seven liberal arts, that they are for the sake of the philosophic disciplines, which have an order among themselves, and that the whole of this education is intended to bring one to an understanding of theology. He sees this as the right way to perfect the intellect, and for many years Catholic schools followed this understanding of education.

They have abandoned this understanding in recent years, either because they have abandoned the faith itself, or because they have moved to the practical view of education, where education is seen as a job ticket, not as an opportunity to develop the soul. In the past, for example, when my father was a student, even those who had business majors, as he did, followed the order of liberal education. My father had many of the same courses, even some of the same texts in his undergraduate education, as I did at Thomas Aquinas College.

I have further heard it said that classical education is about pagan people, ideas, and cultures. This is simply false. Classical education is about truth. It is outside of time, and doesn't consider culture. It is about the perfection of the intellect, both by developing the power of the soul and by studying the right subjects in the right order.

Now, as a matter of fact, some of the people who thought best about these subjects were alive in ancient Greece, notably Aristotle. But it is not as pagan ideas, or as ideas thought by ancient Greeks, that we consider what they said. It is as thinkers and those who pursue the truth. St. Thomas refers to Aristotle as "The Philosopher", just as he refers to St. Paul as "The Apostle", throughout the Summa. He doesn't do this because he is considering Aristotle as an interesting Greek product of the time he lived in. He refers to Aristotle with such deference because of Aristotle's great knowledge and power of reasoning, the value of which transcends the peculiarities of any particular culture.

Aristotle reasoned to the existence of God, the unmoved mover. Aristotle came to know that man was a substantial unity, body and soul, and that his soul was everlasting. He saw that the separation of body and soul was against nature, and he saw that somehow, something had gone wrong with the order of nature. Even though he had not the benefit of revelation, he had some sense of the Fall, for, he observed, "in many ways, human nature is in bondage." Aristotle was a remarkable thinker, and it is as such that his works are studied in a liberal education.

Remember what we were saying about the order of the sciences? That they were ordered in such a way that the end of the order was knowledge of the highest things? Theology, the end or goal of education, is sometimes called the queen of the sciences and the other sciences are called her handmaidens. The other sciences support theology. One way that is accomplished is when the arguments from a lower science are used in a higher science. For example, St. Thomas uses the arguments of Aristotle from the Physics in his proofs for the existence of God. All of you who have used the Mother of Divine Grace or Seton 10th grade religion courses have an acquaintance with those arguments, for it is those arguments that Fr. Laux uses in his proofs for God's existence. Also, St. Thomas uses propositions from Euclid's geometry as illustrations in his discussion of the nature of the Trinity. In each of these cases, the material reasoned to is pressed into the service of the faith, and one's understanding of the faith is strengthened by it.

You might think of it like this. We listen to Mozart, Haydn, Handel, and Bach, not because of the time they lived in, but because of the music they composed. As a matter of fact, they did all live around the same time, and I'm sure that has to do with God's providence. Maybe they each needed the other in order to achieve the level of perfection they could achieve. Be that as it may, however, we don't listen to them as 18th century musicians. We listen to them as great composers who composed beautiful music.

Similarly, in God's providence, some of the great thinkers in western civilization lived in ancient Greece. Probably they helped each other achieve the fullness of the intellectual perfection of which they were capable. But we don't read them as ancient Greeks, we read them as men who have reasoned to the truth using their natural powers. And we use the conclusions they came to in the service of revealed truth.

Now as a matter of fact, those of us who are homeschooling are probably not going to be doing much Aristotle, or even Plato in our homeschools. We shouldn't, because we wouldn't be respecting the principle of order that we have been talking about. One doesn't read such things until one is prepared in other ways.

Young students don't have the experience necessary to do philosophy. That's one reason why it is important for them to read great works of literature and history. Through these works the student gains a sort of experience. Further, the great works of literature appeal to the imagination and move the affections rightly. They present or imply profoundly important views of human life and reality as a whole. Similarly, the great works of history provide vicarious moral experience, a conception of human society, and an awareness of the greatest issues mankind faces. All of this prepares the student well to read the more difficult things at the right time.

Also, the student must have an ability to study, to wonder about what he sees, an interest in causes, not just facts, an ability to reflect, a respect for reasonable argument, and a confidence in his ability to proceed reasonably by himself and in company with others. Our curriculum, to be excellent education, should incorporate materials and methods that will facilitate the achievement of these goals.

One of the most important lessons I have learned along these lines is not to think for the student. Resist the temptation to just whip out the answer key, when your student has made his first attempt to answer a question. Let him think about it longer. One of the reasons there is no answer key for the questions I ask in Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum about The Case for Christianity is so that the student has a chance to reflect on the material, maybe make a mistake, and come back to correct it later. It's important to have confidence in the mind of the student.

One of our students had used another program for her first two years of high school. When she started with Mother of Divine Grace, her mother watched for several weeks, then asked, "What do you think about this curriculum compared to what you have done in the past?" The daughter's reply was enthusiastic, "I love this curriculum, it's so easy! I can get a day's work done in a day." The mom wasn't sure what to think. She was glad that her daughter was happy, and she was grateful that a day's work could be done in a day. But "easy"? That just didn't seem right.

Three weeks later, the daughter came to her mom spontaneously and said, "Mom, remember when you asked me about comparing the two curriculums? Well, I've been thinking about it. I still say this is easier in one way, because I can get done in a day what I'm supposed to get done in a day. But it's harder in another way. This curriculum expects you to think. In the other course of studies, I was never asked a question that I couldn't just go to the book and find the answer for. It took a long time, but the answer was always right there. I didn't have to think about it. In the Mother of Divine Grace curriculum, I'm asked questions that require me to use the material I've read, but go beyond it. It's harder in another way."

When the mom told me this story, I was very pleased. That's exactly what we want to have happen. We want our children to think, not just spit back facts.

Facts are important, the facts of the Baltimore Catechism come to mind as examples, but the understanding of those facts must also be deepened. We don't want our children to rest in the ability to memorize questions and answers. We want them to learn to ask questions, recognize arguments, and construct arguments. We want them to have confidence in the ability of the mind to grapple with the questions reality raises.

So when we talk about the method used as being more important (at first) than which particular materials are used, when we talk about the liberal arts, when we talk about allowing time for reflection, when we talk about flexibility in the curriculum, we are not talking about an excuse for mediocrity. We are not talking about excusing a lack of discipline, or about trying to find a way to explain why our children don't work hard. They do.

What we are saying is that we have a vision of the goal of education such that we can make adjustments when we come to a road block. Because we know where we are going, and are familiar with the car we are using, and, further, know the condition of the roads, and the needs of the people in the car, we can decide to use this path rather than that, or cut off ten miles by going this way instead of that way.

Not everyone is going to be a philosopher. But everyone is a man, with the orientation to the truth, and to wisdom, that is proper to a man as man. Education should reflect that fact. An excellent education will reflect that fact. It will concern itself with perfecting the power of the soul and with a right ordering of parts of the education so that the learner may come to wisdom. That's what excellence in education is.