You’re sitting in the middle of a class that you find to be even more boring than a phone with a dead battery. You keep checking the time, praying that it will all finish faster. “When is this going to end?” you think to yourself, as your head starts to droop onto the desk. Your teacher shakes you awake and tells you to pay attention. “For what?” you wonder. “It’s not like I’m actually going to use this in the future…”
Most of us probably have not used many of the things we learned as students. But if you ask the people who established the first universities, that’s kind of the point of an education.
While the first universities—established by Italian and French monks in the 11th century—welcomed lay students, they primarily served priests and members of religious orders. Why would a monk need to know about something “useless” such as algebra, astronomy, or ancient history? Sure, most monks would not have needed to know about those subjects in order to do their “jobs,” but they saw education as something greater than learning how to get a particular job done.
It’s valuable to learn something, not because you are going to use it, but because it is beautiful in itself. All knowledge has a value insofar as it is like a ray of the Light of God, the ultimate Source of all truth and knowledge. The more you know about life, our existence, and the created world, the closer you inch toward the Creator Himself.
Fr. Jean Leclerq, in his classic book Love of Learning and Desire for God (a series of lectures given to young monks in Rome in the 1950s), argues that it was a passionate desire to know and love God that drove medieval monks to engage in their studies. It was as if each subject they studied became a petal on a flower. As their knowledge increased, the flower continued to blossom and become more beautiful, inciting their desire to know more and more as they went along. The beauty and fragrant aroma of the flower pointed to God, who constitutes the greatest form of beauty.
Part of what fanned the flames of the monks’ passionate desire was their belief in the Incarnation—that God came down to the level of His creation and lived a regular, everyday life with us: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (Jn 1:14). The coming of Jesus Christ redeemed the material world by “shedding His light” on all of existence, even on the boring, mundane, and dark parts of it.
This is why St. Benedict says in his Rule that monks should “regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar.” Everything in the material realm took on a sacred meaning after God Himself entered into that realm. Now, everything is a sign that points to Him.
In my own experience, working nearly ten years in Catholic education, I’ve gotten to witness how my colleagues continue in this tradition of fostering a passion for knowing God through different paths of knowledge.
I see the appreciation for beauty that the students taking art classes have developed through their incredible paintings that are hung around the campus. I’ve also met science teachers who communicate their fascination with the natural world to their students. When I taught theology to high school seniors, I used to ask my coworker, who taught Earth Science, to give a presentation to my students about how her interest in studying science helped her to grow to appreciate and know God as the Creator of the beauty of the natural world.
The monks I’ve worked with attest to how their own studies have helped them to grow closer to God. They’ve studied a whole range of subjects from psychology and philosophy to art and chemistry. I’ve had the privilege of observing one monk who offers tutoring in algebra, chemistry, and history–the whole time, he seems so engaged and fascinated by what he’s explaining. It makes you wonder, what does he see in all of it? How can a person spend his whole afternoon tutoring different subjects without starting to find them dull or empty? Clearly, his eyes are set on something greater that is revealing itself through the tiniest details of those subjects.
It’s easy to feel that one’s classes are boring and pointless. But this should cause us to ask: what is the “point” of an education in the first place? Surely one’s education should prepare a student to do his or her job in the future. But an education is about much more than knowing how to get a job done. It’s about gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake. That’s because knowledge is beautiful in itself, it’s meaningful, and it’s a path to growing in intimacy with God.
Whenever students tell me they find a particular class boring, I encourage them to take the risk of asking their teacher why they think their subject is fascinating. What sparked their passion for it? We may not fully understand that subject’s value now. But as St. Paul said “[f]or now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!