The classical Christian educational movement has boldly stepped in to fill the vacuum in secular education this past decade or more. I'm personally involved both with Chesterton Academy and Homeschool Connections. Another school in the Classical / Christian mold is St. John of the Cross Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Timothy Trossclair of St. John of the Cross reached out to me a few weeks ago to help publicize a fundraiser the school is having to construct their own school building on land that they already own.
I asked Tim to tell me more about the school and to allow me to interview him (and the school's co-founders) for this blog.
Here's the interview, which is lengthy, but interesting.
What is St. John of the Cross Academy and why did you found it?
Tim: Nick Trosclair, Peter Youngblood, and I started Saint John of the Cross Academy in 2015 with the express purpose of implementing a truly classical and Catholic education. During our collective twenty years of experience in diocesan, public, and independent schools, we were frustrated by the insurmountable obstacles to actually teaching anything, let alone to implementing either a true catholic or classical education. These obstacles resulted from at least four of the following causes: First, pure bureaucratic sloth and lack of any idea of subsidiarity, coupled with a daily dose of garden variety incompetence. Second, class sizes that demonstrate an overemphasis on financial stability (usually resulting from a board that does not understand the principles of education and prefers wealth to wisdom). Third, a clear lack of understanding of what a classical education means. Fourth, a clear lack of understanding of what a catholic education means (these last two are the most damaging).
For this reason, we decided to remove ourselves from the modern system and place our families deep within the traditions of Holy Mother Church, as well as the classical heritage our own western civilization. Our by-laws make it clear that bureaucratic sloth is not to be tolerated (subsidiarity is one of the four marks of the Academy); that class sizes must remain small in spite of the possibility of great financial gains (the laws of the Academy maintain that SJCA cannot lawfully exceed a ratio of 8 pupils per teacher); that the classical languages of Greek and Latin, the classical content of western literature, and the classical methods (the trivium using the socratic pedagogy) must be strictly maintained; and, finally, that the Mass and the liturgical calendar and missal will be our daily guide, as well as the study of the fathers, doctors, and saints of the Catholic Church (we are a year-round Academy that bases our holidays and vacations strictly on the liturgical calendar of the Church).
In regard to our philosophy of education, the main idea is that education is not an occupation but an entire way of life that springs forth from a long and glorious tradition handed down from one generation to the next. It is the formation of the mind and heart to become free and fertile ground into which may be planted the seed of a common culture, the social virtue, which rightly disposes a person to his heritage and society, both the immediate society of his family and the state as a whole, and to his duty as a member of that society. Thus, we believe that the primary educators of a child must be the parents. Of course, this is a very heavy responsibility and can at times even become a burden. Its for this reason that parents ought to seek out a community of like-minded people to aid them in this singularly difficult and important task. That community ought to include tutors, themselves dedicated to mastering the intellectual and moral traditions at the heart of their shared culture, to aid them in achieving their goal of firmly instilling the best aspects of that culture in their children. This is the reason for the founding of Saint John of the Cross Academy, a classical tutorship that facilitates the kind of community, bound together by a truly traditional Catholic culture, in which children receive an education worthy of the name.
The tutors of SJCA recognize their role and its importance, but they know that it is essentially a secondary and instrumental role. Thus, while they all have a total and lifetime commitment to the mastery necessary to be classical tutors, they also understand that their expertise does not in any way supersede the rights and responsibilities of parents. Tutors are instruments in the hands of the parents cultivating their children, and indeed the whole family (our by-laws also maintain that parents of the Academy are required to meet at least bi-monthly to discuss some author who clearly demonstrates the Catholic ideal; last year, we read and discussed St. Augustine's Confessions). They dedicate their life not so much to an occupation, but to a work of mercy.
You say that there is a lack of understanding of what classical education means and of what Catholic education means. What do they mean?
Peter: We’ve all experienced the abuse of the term classical, which is part of the initial impetus of the founding of the Academy. I think the Trosclairs would agree that in our experience, “classical” simply referred to some engagement with classical texts and and emphasis on class discussions over textbook presentation and regurgitation. There is even some lip service paid to the classical liberal arts, the Trivium. But what we’ve found is that a thorough-going classical education is radically different from anything we’d been a part of. Though classical content is certainly essential, both because it incorporates us into the tradition and because it is tried and true as regards its value for education, but the real heart of classical education is the moderation and mastery of the pupil’s own intellectual faculties. All content (including the mathematical and scientific) and pedagogy serves this end. And the classical pedagogy implies a classical anthropology, remembering the necessity of discipline to train the passions and acquire good habits of mind and heart. It is also responsive to the natural intellectual development of the human being, emphasizing as it does the progression from imitation and memorization in the grammar stage, to analysis and synthesis in the dialectical and rhetorical stages. Memory provides the seed of conceptual thought, and so must be nurtured and honed to be ready at the command of the pupil before he can proceed to the analysis of the images in the dialectical stage, and this analysis ultimately provides the basis for the pupils’ exercises in rhetoric, by which the pupil learns to communicate his own mind (formed by the best minds of his ancestors) with skill. Classical education, then, is not just the familiarization of the pupil with the thought of his ancestors, but it is the active incorporation of the pupil’s own rational activity into that of his ancestors. That is, he learns not just what his ancestors said, but how and why they said it, and he learns, perhaps most importantly of all, to be able to speak in a sense with the very same voice. But this is because it is in a sense his own voice, as the face of the father is seen in the face of the son. As Alexander Pope said, “What we call Learning is but the knowledge of the good sense of our predecessors.” The pupil is made a living part of the intellectual tradition of the classical world. The lack of this incorporation is what T.S. Eliot laments in his essay After Strange Gods, remarking as he does there that the world suffers not from a lack of genius, but from a lack of anything close to a common culture, which alone enables men to pursue with excellence a common good. Now that this education also be called Catholic entails that the tradition we are speaking of is not just that of some natural culture, but rather the providentially established and developed culture of the Roman Catholic Church. The pupils of a classical and Catholic academy are meant to enter into the very intellectual and moral life of that great cloud of witnesses, the Saints and Doctors, memorizing their doctrines, imitating their devotion, and thinking with the mind of the Church. We have an uphill battle in this regard because in many ways, we have been cut off from our own heritage. Many days have been spent desperately trying to discover what advice our ancestors would have given us if their books had not been destroyed or fallen into an oblivion of disuse. But we hope that our efforts might produce some appetite for excellence of mind and heart in our children and pupils, as well as some small semblances of the virtues of piety and religion, and that they might pursue these things further than we have in imitation of the great teachers of old.
Nick: To echo Tracy Lee Simmons’ simple and penetrating definition: classical education is classical immersion. As with second language acquisition, to feel at home in a culture we must immerse our memories, minds, and passions in it. By immersing our pupils in the Catholic traditions of the West, we hope that our pupils will not feel like strangers, alienated from the ancient culture which fathered them. But how might we immerse them? The classical schools throughout the centuries are unanimous: we imitate. We imitate our fathers, those who formed and transmitted western culture. Imitation is the key to classical learning, impressing tradition into not only our minds but also our passions. By imitation in reading, writing, thinking, and speaking, we feel tradition, we become her living vehicles. The height of this immersion and imitation is the Liturgy of our Fathers. Culture without “cult,” without true worship is impossible. Just as we imitate the great thinkers, so we imitate the great saints in the liturgy of the Traditional Catholic Mass.
One other aspect of classical education that must be emphasized is the limitations of the subjects of study. As Seneca pithily stated: Nusquam est qui ubique est, or, he who is everywhere is nowhere. Pupils should master a few subjects and its contents, lest they be stretched thin, mastering nothing while assuming that they know everything.
Since subsidiarity is one of the four marks of your academy, does this mean that the teachers have the authority to plain their own course content?
Peter: Each of the tutors has full authority over their content, though we have all agreed on certain fundamental texts that serve as cornerstones of each content area. Naturally, though, as we are always discussing with each other the texts we are working through, each tutor influences the others with regard to what is taught and how.
Nick: I would also like to add that our bi-monthly Great Books seminars provide a healthy space for parents and tutors to influence the curriculum.
Tim: Yes. The seminars in turn also allow our parents to be influenced by the curriculum themselves and enter into the great discussion, which allows them to continue the conversation at home with their children.
It should also be mentioned that, while the preparation of the course is left up to the judgment of the individual Tutor, the instructor is safeguarded from merely teaching his subject in a vacuum by having to rigorously follow the principles, methods, and content of the classical and catholic tradition. This protects the pupils from having to suffer the widespread problem of the teacher who seeks to merely impose his own ego on the classroom rather than handing on the intellectual virtues of our patrimony.
How much Scripture study is there? Do you study any of the New Testament in the original Greek?
Peter: Though there isn’t single period devoted entirely to scripture study across all levels, passages of Scripture are routinely assigned in both the Latin periods and the Theology periods. In Latin (Nick could speak more to this), the focus is mainly on the grammar of the text, with some exposition of the senses of the terms used, and memorization. And this flows perfectly into the Theology period, where the basis is always the Dogma as contained in the Scriptures and tradition. The pupils in dialectical and rhetorical pupils in Theology are asked to give the various senses of certain passages, or else to recall passages in support of the dogmatic statements of the Church. Nick has recently begun teaching Greek to select pupils, something we’ve been wanting to do since our founding, but seeing as the pupils mostly lacked mastery of Latin, we thought it best to hold off until we could attain that first. I believe his immediate goal is for the Gospel of John to be read in Greek.
Nick: Scripture memory is central throughout our curriculum, but especially in the grammar and dialectical stages. Before the pupils can competently reflect on Revelation, they must have a command of both salvation history and key verses of the Old and New Testaments. In our first two years we noted this scriptural gap in our older pupils. We did our best to remedy this lacuna, but, ultimately, scripture memory must begin as early as possible. We see a great difference in those pupils who have been at SJCA the last three years. They are ready for deeper reflection and imitation.
Only this year (this is our third year) have we begun to teach Greek. As Peter said above, we demand some proficiency in Latin before studying Greek. After two years, one of our pupils was ready for the challenge. By the end of the year he will be reading the First Epistle of John and portions of the Gospel of John.
Some homeschool families seem wary of classical studies outside of those that are Church related. Do you study Plato and Aristotle? Virgil and the other classical Pagan authors? If so, how do you tie the study of Pagan philosophy and literature into the study of Christ and His Church?
Peter: I think Tim could answer this best, as he heads up the literature and history content areas. But suffice it to say that we take the same position on these studies as did Alcuin, Thomas, and Dante...or St. Justin Martyr, for that matter! There is a reason why the Holy Spirit lead St. Paul to the West. The Greeks and the Romans, for all their vanity, were fertile soil for the Gospel not by chance, but by Providence. Part of this is precisely the intellectual tradition of Greek philosophy and literature, as well as Roman jurisprudence. St. Paul has no trouble quoting the pagan poets, so neither do we!
Tim: We certainly do study those pagan authors. Last year we read and discussed Aristotle’s Politics in detail, as well as Cicero’s speeches and Virgil’s Aeneid. It is clear that our fathers in the faith, as well as the doctors of the Catholic Church, believed that, since Christ is the “light who enlightens all who come into the world,” it was important that we study those men who followed His light even when they were not aware of His particular name. St. Augustine, argues openly for the study of the pagans when he compares the natural wisdom of the ancients to the gold and silver the Jews were commanded to take from the Egyptians during their exodus (see On Christian Doctrine, Bk II). He says that “whatever has been rightly said by the heathen, we must appropriate to our uses,” and that, just as the Jews took with them the goods of Egypt before fleeing into the desert (Ex 3:20-22), we too ought to hew from the pagan rocks whatever moral or intellectual goods they have to give us as well.
How do we do this? The pupils learn in their theology class that God is the author of both the natural and supernatural worlds and that one inevitably points to the other. They also learn the theological principle, taught so clearly by the common doctor, that “grace perfects nature.” So when we are reading and discussing great authors like Homer, Aristotle, or Virgil, they see clearly that not only do the rocks of creation unwittingly cry out to their creator, but the pagans cry out as well. For example, we discuss the moral consequences of events in Oedipus Rex, compare the epic heroes of Aeneas and Odysseus to Christ, and apply the arguments of Aristotle to Catholic moral theology. When learning that the common good is the height of man’s natural end while reading Aristotle’s Politics, they come to realize the depravity of this life without being able to obtain God in the next (i.e., that the natural end is not enough). Questions from the pupils naturally arise that lead them ever more deeply into a real understanding of their Catholic faith and the greater end God has placed before them, namely, the common good as found in eternity. In fact, I recall that while discussing the Politics, one pupil had the question, “if we have two different ends, then do we also have two different forms of morality?” This led into the whole class conversing about the differences between our natural purpose and our supernatural purpose and why the martyrs have obtained the highest end possible. Thus, not only did the Politics aid the pupils in better understanding the very nature God perfects by His grace, but reading Aristotle made them want to be martyrs. This is the gold and silver of which St. Augustine spoke, and we would be fools to spurn it.
You have "tutors". Are tutors different than teachers? How?
Peter: Nick actually wrote a very good article explaining this exact point for our website, so he can say it best. Ultimately, in a genuinely classical academy, the teachers are the authoritative voices of tradition, the authors we read. We are merely the guides, the coaches of their thought and discipline.
Nick: As an instrument in the hands of the parents, the classical tutor is responsible for the daily intellectual and moral formation of his pupils. Traditionally a tutor was not a part time, remedial teacher. C. S. Lewis, one of the last men to be classically tutored, describes the comprehensive formation of his tutor. He was classically formed by his tutor W. T. Kirkpatrick, dubbed “the Great Knock.” The Great Knock molded Lewis in the classical tradition as a personal teacher every day for several years. He demanded precision, ever questioning, coaching, correcting and challenging the boy in his academic exercises; he would allow no half-measures--there was no hiding from the Great Knock. The tutor should allow no half-measures, ensuring that the pupil has mastered each exercise before graduating to the next. Demanding precision and perfection, the tutor is committed to the overall formation of his pupils.The Catholic tradition perfected the tutorship in the early modern Jesuit schools in which the young were intellectually and morally formed.
You mention a "like-minded" community ("homonoia" as St. Paul would say in Greek). This unity of mind in Christ seems to me to be lacking in almost every parish I've visited. Is it really possible to have everyone in your community of the "mind of Christ"? Do you have squabbles, push-back and resistance from students and parents? How do you handle these?
Peter: We have been fortunate to have families that trust us very much, so no serious resistance has been met. Since our operation is necessarily small, we have been able to evaluate families right from the get go to ensure that we’re all on the same page, at least as regards the fundamental role of the Academy in the life of their family. That’s one of the reasons why our bylaws are rather long. We want to make it crystal clear what we are about. We’ve lost more than one potential family because of our insistence on things like liturgical tradition, for example. But the families we do have, even those who may not see exactly eye-to-eye with us on each and every issue, see the value of what we are attempting and have shown themselves incredibly open to engaging with the tradition in ways they would probably not have if they were not part of the community of the Academy. Our being small also allows the lines of communication to be consistently open, and the complete lack of anything approaching bureaucracy allows for candid, and therefore constructive, discussions to be had between the tutors and families.
Tim: The parent seminars, emphasis on the Benedictine way of life, and the liturgical calendar do much to make sure that when it comes to an overall worldview, we are each on the same page. While reading something like St. Augustine’s Confessions together in the seminars, we are each sharpening that view and discovering a lost tradition for which all who are a part of the Academy desire.
Imitating the Benedictine way of life through prayer and work (ora et labora) is another element that bolsters a like minded approach to our daily routine. Once we are able to acquire (God willing) a school building on our 14 acres in Sunset, Louisiana, our goal is to mirror, to the best of our abilities, the Clear Creek Abbey Monks in Oklahoma. All of the parents of SJCA know that we want to imitate what they do, to the degree the laity is capable of this, and they are all on board thus far. In order to continue in this direction, we hope to take annual retreats to the monastery with our pupils and their families so as to continue to learn from their ordered way of life (the founding tutors have gone on retreat their every year just before the start of the new academic cycle since the founding of the Academy).
Also, regarding the importance of the liturgical calendar to SJCA, the Academy is in session all year, with breaks based strictly on the approved 1962 liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. This encourages all of our families to celebrate the major feast days, and we provide opportunities for communal celebrations when we can. This emphasis on the intellectual, monastic, and liturgical traditions nourishes our community in an integrated way that is centered in Christ and the Church He founded.
I once taught at a Catholic school that was really no more than a homeschool co-op calling itself a school. The parents were in complete control of the institution and deferred to the students, who ended up running the place. The principal (and consequently the faculty) had no real authority. This was not so much subsidiarity as "the inmates running the asylum". Do you think this is a possible scenario that could develop at your school, and if so how would you avoid it?
Peter: I think I speak for all of us Tutors when I say that if ever there developed anything remotely like the situation you described at the Academy, we would immediately shut it down without a second thought. It would mean that we are not actually educating anyone, if we mean by education the formation of intellectual and moral virtue (which is what everyone used to mean by it). That said, I think there are enough safeguards in our by-laws and in our structure to prevent this. Our board is composed by law of equal parts tutor and parent, with a priest for counsel. Furthermore, the parents of the Academy are obligated by oath and contract, so long as they remain a part of the academy, to follow the direction set out first in the marks of the Academy and put into practice by the tutors in our day-to-day operations. But the families of SJCA, I believe, would oblige themselves to these things whether it was in a contract or not. No one really comes to us unless they see a real issue in the world, that issue being that their children are being pressured by nearly everything around them to become effeminate and pusillanimous. All of our parents recognize the need in their children (as in us all) for real discipline, and our bi-monthly parent seminars serve as a great way for us all, as a community, to remind one another of our duties as parents to be the first educators of our children. On that issue at least, I believe there is true unanimity of mind among the whole community.
Fr. James V. Schall often quotes Yves Simon, who says there are three types of students: 1. those who are only concerned with grades; 2. those who think they know everything; 3. "and those who recognize that there are ways to learn that others know better than themselves. The first two types are simply not teachable, but the third recognizes that he must take responsibility for his education and has a certain faith or trust that someone else can guide him." Is this what you've found as well?
Peter: This is absolutely true. Fortunately, in following the classical method, we can pretty aggressively eliminate the first kind of student, or at least eliminate that trait in the young pupil before it becomes irremediable. That is, either one shows real mastery over not just the material, but their own faculties, or else we continue to improve. And the truth is that for every pupil, there is room for improvement with regard to this mastery. This allows the student to simply focus on getting better, quicker, more prepared with regard to the task at hand, and letting the grade fade into the background. With regard to the second, I’m sure we’ll always find pupils that fall into that category. I think it is sometimes necessary to forcibly show those pupils that they do not, in fact, know everything. Shame can be very useful if meted out with care, and as Aristotle says, can be something like a virtue in the young if they are taught to feel shame at the proper things. And truthfully, those kids that think they know everything are mostly only acting like they do because they are deathly afraid that they don’t. If you show them that they don’t, but then show them that they might actually be able to know at least something with certainty and even prove it with skill if they simply listen, there’s a chance that you’ll see the light go on. But the real key is to educate them young before their pattern of behavior has conformed to that of the world.
Nick: To reiterate Peter’s last remarks, docility is difficult to cultivate in older pupils. It is for this reason that we hope to have pupils begin SJCA in the grammar stage, ensuring that the child is aware of his vocation as a pupil.
Tim: The goal is to have all of our pupils obtain the habits of the third student. Nothing prepares them more for this than the classical and Catholic approach to education. In the former, the students must first master imitating the great authors that have gone before them. It is a necessary principle of education that one place imitation over creation. We have seen this flipped in modern times, and it is why we have an epidemic of young people with loads of self confidence and no virtues to show for it. When the pupil tries to imitate someone who has already mastered a particular subject, it is painfully obvious when he or she has not yet acquired the same habitus or skill, and they simply cannot feign mastery when the rule has so clearly not been met.
On top of this, the classical method calls for small class sizes. The fact that our pupil to tutor ratio is so low makes it virtually impossible for a pupil to hide behind his peers or lurk in the shadows until graduation day pretending to be a know-it-all. If the pupil has mastered something, then he will demonstrate it; if he cannot demonstrate it, then he will begin again until he can.
Catholic education adds to this with its emphasis on the virtue of piety. This virtue allows us to render due honor to our ancestors, country, and above all, God. One of its necessary components is the subvirtue of docility of which Nick spoke, which is the means by which we humbly dispose ourselves to learn from the great authors who have gone before us.