Then came along secular education. Public schools, run by the government and thus slaves to whatever the latest political fashion is. But Catholic education didn't disappear, it just grew costly. One school that still seeks to educate our nation's children in the best Catholic tradition is Gregory the Great Academy. Their website, gregorythegreatacademy.org, ought to be checked out, but this picture alone sells me on it,
I recently had a chance to interview the Headmaster, Sean Fitzpatrick, on what makes Gregory the Great Academy so special. It is a long conversation, which I'll share today and tomorrow here on the blog, so we'll skip the formalities and jump in media res. My questions are in bold, answers are in plain. Enjoy!
1. Gregory the Great Academy is an all boys Catholic school. What advantages do you think the boys at Gregory the Great Academy derive from the single sex setting?
There is a longstanding tradition of single-sex education. This wisdom teaches us that boys and girls fare better when they are educated separately especially after they reach adolescence. This is both because they are different and deserve different approaches, pacing, and even different courses of study; and because when educated together they greatly distract one another. This is especially true for boys. Such distraction—whether from young ladies, entertainment technology, or popular and pernicious media—retards education, which strives to build up good habits through continual and concentrated engagement. Boarding schools can provide such continuity because they render education a continuous, focused, habit-forming reality.
Boarding schools are especially appropriate for boys since the male trajectory involves breaking away from home to search for adventure and to make a way in the world. Chesterton tells the story of the man who left England on a great sea-faring adventure and found himself on the shores of a strange and wonderful island. The island turned out to be England but he only came to see it in all its truth and beauty by leaving it.
2. With public funding out of the question for Catholic schools in the United States, what initiatives does Gregory the Great Academy have in place to keep the school from being only able to serve the wealthy?
Boarding schools are less common than they once were, and partly because they tend to be out of reach for most families in terms of cost. One important element at Gregory the Great is that we do not model ourselves as an “elite institution.” Most of our students come from middle-class families and more than half of them receive some form of tuition discount. This is only possible due to the generosity of our benefactors and supporters who help to subsidize our students’ schooling in various ways.
At Gregory the Great, our emphasis has always been on culture rather than cash, and we admit students primarily on their worthiness as students rather than their parents’ ability to pay full tuition. We believe that if we take care of first things first, God will provide the rest. The Academy is blessed with a small but loyal giving-base that contribute regularly by means of fundraising newsletters, alumni fundraisers, special events, and online campaigns. Over 30% of our operational budget relies on small donations, and this reality has always kept us focused on Providence, trusting implicitly in the graces that God provides—never too little, neither too much.
3. As our culture, and especially public education, drift farther and farther not just from Divine Revelation, but even from the natural moral law, how important are places like Gregory the Great Academy in preserving virtue for our nation’s future?
At Gregory the Great Academy we strive to foster an authentic Catholic culture. We are especially inspired by the tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and although our students are not expected to live as monks, we do ask them to live harmoniously as a prayerful community. Saying prayers together, working, studying, and playing sports, our boys form very close friendships with one another and are encouraged to thrive in a healthy and well-balanced way of life.
One of the ways that we engender this cultural atmosphere is through the restriction of modern technological devices. Although these things are not bad in and of themselves, we feel that they are often a huge distraction to teenagers and separate young people from the real world around them. In the absence of television, cellphones, and iPods, our students take the opportunity to form close bonds of friendship and develop new skills. For example, if they want to listen to music, they have to pick up a guitar and learn to play songs for themselves. I have often thought that perhaps typical human boredom is the mother of culture. Even something as complicated as juggling becomes a much simpler task in the absence of television sets and other distractions.
The overall result at the Academy, is a culture that is grounded in experiment and experience. Our boys thrive on testing their strengths in new endeavors—whether it is a dramatic play or singing Christmas carols for a nursing home or playing rugby—and it is in these trials that they learn and cultivate the virtues and develop a spirit of evangelization for the good things that God has given us.
That being said, when we consider all the aspects of the model of Gregory the Great Academy, we can’t say that it should be the model for all of education. After all, girls need to be educated too, and there is a place for day schools. However, if we consider it more formally, i.e. if we consider whether a strictly poetic education should be the model for all education, I would say, yes, it should. A short route to why this is so is by way of the Liberal Arts tradition. If we agree that authentic education follows this tradition, then we must affirm that all education should be poetic or, in a broad sense, liturgical or musical. The cultures of Greece and Rome and Christian Europe that gave us the Liberal Arts were deeply imbued with this ethos, some principles of which I have already tried to give. They did not teach the Liberal Arts in isolation from one another, nor in the cultural and religious impoverishment characteristic of today. The people of those times lived and learned in what might be called a liturgical or poetic culture.
To be continued...