Rover faculty advisor reflects on the founding of new Catholic elementary school in South Bend
I was lucky enough to attend some great schools throughout my life, but it wasn’t really until my Ph.D. at Princeton University that I finally understood how to learn. Our professors had the job of bringing us to the frontier of knowledge in economics and teaching us to ask questions and argue about the answers in a way that could push that frontier outwards. By necessity, they had to teach us to grapple with the current state of economic knowledge; a kind of mental intimacy with every aspect, every nook and cranny of each idea or methodology was necessary for us to have any chance to push the field forward.
And so, they taught us in the only way anyone can teach someone if the goal is to produce real mastery: they taught us through conversation; a continual, probing, adventurous, vulnerable (they admitted what they didn’t know!), and purposeful conversation that simultaneously uncovered every weakness in our knowledge and every weakness in the field itself.
What is strange is not that professors in Ph.D. programs have a habit of teaching their Ph.D. students this way. What is strange is how infrequently everyone else teaches this way. Because, as it turns out, this method of teaching is consonant with the classical approach to learning. Classical education holds a particularly special place in Catholic life, as it is the method the Church used to train our greatest saints and scholars and was in use throughout the Catholic world for training children from the earliest ages through adulthood, until more industrialized education arrived in the 20th Century.
Now, some friends and I have tried to bring this form of education back to life right here in the South Bend community with Saint Thomas More Academy (STMA). In October 2020, I incorporated a non-profit and began work with my fellow founder Dr. Margaret Blume Freddoso and an elite team of fellow board members and consultants.
In one year, we’ve brought about a K-5 school that centers around daily Mass, cultivation of holy friendships, and attention to academic mastery at the highest level. We are pouring our lives, our talents, and our treasure into making STMA the finest Catholic school in the nation. Someday, we will be a Pre-K through 12 school that finally gives Catholics what they deserve: the best possible intellectual education and the deepest integration of the faith in our minds and hearts.
At first glance, it seems like these two goals are mutually exclusive. But, not only are they not mutually exclusive; they are actually mutually essential and complement each other perfectly. To see why, all you have to do is think about why someone would do the work to found a school in the first place. We founded STMA because we want what is best for our children. And, in wanting what is best for our children, ultimately we want them to be happy. But what will give our children true happiness? If we believe the culture around us, popularity and emotional self-indulgence are the secret to happiness. But we know that these are just fantasies, and fantasies cannot make us happy. True happiness is coming to know reality and the God who made reality.
There are two ways to come to know reality: faith and reason. Both faith and reason open us to one single unified reality, and nothing in that reality can contradict anything else, whether we have learned about that aspect of reality from faith, from reason, or from both.
What’s interesting is that so many people think it’s not faith AND reason, but faith OR reason. To get more of one you have to give up some of the other (to learn more science, we need to give up the Bible; to be faithful Catholics, we can’t expect excellence in the classroom). Here at Notre Dame, there are both Catholic and secular voices who will argue that we can’t excel both academically and in the faith. In fact, a common Catholic response to our secular friends who support increased academic excellence is to accept the premise that one cannot achieve both, but choose excellence in faith over excellence in reason, rather than the other way around. Thus, under this way of thinking, it’s a tradeoff. You’d think an economist would love talking about tradeoffs! But that is not what Saint Thomas More Academy is about. As with so many things in Catholicism, it is NOT an “either, or,” it’s a “both, and.”
As Saint John Paul II said, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
And again, he explains: “The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason “mutually support each other”; each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding.”
So, far from faith and reason being difficult to have together, it’s actually completely the opposite: we cannot really excel in either one without also having the other.
Think of the joy on a child’s face as she encounters the beautiful patterns in the world around her, and learns that these patterns are sustained by the same God whom she prays to each night for guidance and protection.
Think of the awe as a child learns for the first time the words to describe the beauty he sees in the sanctuary, and his eagerness as he runs to share that beauty with his family, finally in possession of the language to do so.
Think of the peace as a child realizes he was made by goodness itself, so evil need have no part in him, for evil has no weight compared to the reality of truth and goodness.
It is young minds and young hearts who must learn to fly on both wings of Faith and Reason.
By the time those hearts and minds are already formed, it’s too late. So this is the time. Now. To guide our children to love truth, beauty, and goodness. To lead them to authentic freedom: the freedom of knowing and loving the World and the God who created it.
Much work will have to be done, much sacrifice, but ultimately we know that all of this is in God’s hands, as are we, and with his strength we are sure of victory. If any Rover readers want to get involved, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Margaret (email@example.com) and let us know. We are in the beginning of a grand adventure, an adventure that is going to have many turns in the road and unexpected challenges and blessings for years to come, and we would love to make you part of the team!
Kirk Doran is a Rover faculty advisor, the Henkels Family Collegiate Chair, and associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame