Education has long been a core issue in the culture wars, including in Germany and France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It continues to ignite fierce controversy in the English-speaking world today. British educator André Gushurst-Moore, in Glory in All Things: Saint Benedict & Catholic Education Today, succeeds at tracing the historical and religious roots of Benedictine education. Despite the timeless quality of this education, the author repeatedly explains (perhaps surprisingly) how it can serve today’s technological society. We cannot know the occupational requirements of our technological future, and therefore have only a limited inkling of how to prepare the young educationally and skills-wise—not that such an objective is the chief motivation behind Benedictine education. Nevertheless, a person-centered education that rejects a utilitarian approach, ironically, seems most able to shape a person with the best future for this society.
The religious and monastic roots of Benedictine education prioritize the counter-cultural fostering of virtuous habits. The author unfortunately skips over a detailed analysis of these virtues, which stem from the ancient Greeks and found wide application during the Middle Ages. Gushurst-Moore does observe the real-world impact of the current lack of virtue education in most schools. Business leaders “frequently note that job applicants lack character … and are thus not easily employable.” The strongly non-utilitarian spiritual and ethical features of Benedictine education in fact lead to positive practical outcomes. A well-formed all-around person can face a wider array of professional and social challenges than a more narrowly-formed individual.
This paradox of otherworldly-based utilitarianism has characterized the Benedictines throughout their history, as the author observes: “St Benedict did not set out … to save Western civilization; this was a by-product of the Benedictine approach to daily conversion of heart in those committed to living the Christian life.” Traditional virtue-oriented religious education produces far greater results than intended or foreseen, perhaps due to the ensuing spiritual capital. The author scarcely touches on spiritual capital, its nature, or outcomes, which is perhaps another small lack to Glory in All Things.
Gushurst-Moore’s clear and consistent picture of Benedictine education includes distinguishing it from other educational traditions, including the Jesuit ratio studiorum. The former’s alignment with Athens and the Socratic method contrasts with the Jesuit’s Spartan discipline and relative downplaying of free-thinking. Benedictine spirituality lies at the heart of the order’s education ideals. A monastic, contemplative, and intentional life, which the author portrays well, lies behind this: “In a time when the machine-world of industrial production seems ever-expanding, those things which are other to it — nature, beauty, the human heart — need to find a language, a way of life, to survive and grow.” Gushurt-Moore insightfully juxtaposes the Benedictine’s offering with that of our modern post-Christian technology-based culture. This will prompt many education stakeholders to reflect on what their students may be missing by foregoing such an education.
The author includes practical examples of the spiritual dimensions of this education, such as the practice of lectio divina, or “sacred reading.” He reveals the Catholic religious nature of this, as “openness of mind and heart was central to the discipline of lectio.” Sapientia is prioritized over scientia: “In the fourfold process of lectio divina (lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio) we see a movement upwards from text to divine wisdom.” While the author does not seek to impose any formula or specific curriculum on readers, he does offer enough of the practical to demonstrate the feasibility of this education. Teachers will have a clear idea of lectio divina and other classroom approaches and techniques to make a few practical changes.
Another fascinating and oft-overlooked aspect to the order’s holistic education is the vital role of the co-curriculum, traditionally called “extra-curricular activities.” The author envisions the co-curriculum as more active and productive than the classroom or library, and a space “where leisure can be exercised to bring something good, true, and beautiful into being.” This discussion, reminiscent of Josef Pieper, shows the all-encompassing natures of Catholic and Benedictine spirituality: It permeates all of life. The Benedictine co-curriculum “dissolves the potential duality (and ultimately false dichotomy) of work and play,” which implies creativity.
This chapter more than any other shows how Benedictine education would be revolutionary for today’s materialistic world by developing the sense of a spiritual connotation to every aspect of a student’s life. Gushurst-Moore borrows from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, including the idea that “the element of fantasy (or imagination) present in the act of play is the means by which the player takes himself into another sphere of being.” The author identifies interesting and edifying analogies between play and the liturgy. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the liturgy is seldom mentioned in Glory in All Things, which may leave some readers wondering about its role and significance in Benedictine education.
One commonly-recognized strength of modern schooling is the development of creativity. Gushurst-Moore’s intriguing and insightful remarks on creativity in education are worth repeating. The following seems to minimize the role of creativity: “Our engagement as human beings with Creation is to be imitative and co-creative.” Yet the author is at pains throughout the book to place Benedictine education within the wider Benedictine and Catholic traditions. Perhaps more implied than stated is the author’s strong belief that much of modernity is frivolous, and naturally this would include the type of creativity that secular schools develop—a thoughtless, aimless, egotistic, nihilistic creativity for creativity’s sake that cares more about deconstructing or aggressively asserting an ideology than about seeking and expressing truth.
The kind of creativity that Gushurst-Moore implies here is the creativity, often playful and joyful, of service to others, of symbol, allegory, and analogy, of reading the Bible and other books at different levels—something that he spends significant and beneficial space discussing. The creativity of the post-Christian world, totally different from, say, that of the medieval Benedictines, reveals the alienation of the modern and the monastic worldviews. The author does not shy away from underscoring this estrangement, and what it means educationally.
While Gushurst-Moore convincingly shows the failings and even pitfalls of modern secular education, which justify a Benedictine education more than ever, he doesn’t dwell on these shortcomings. He provides the antidote to the spiritual and pedagogical ailments that modernity has wrought. The antidote will form an individual who may even be somewhat at home in this topsy-turvy secular world because of the priceless and ageless anchor provided by Benedictine education.
Glory in All Things: Saint Benedict & Catholic Education Today
By André Gushurst-Moore
Angelico Press, 2020
Paperback, 171 pages
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