More Lessons from the First Grade

Love of learning can began in kindergarten and first grade.

Yes, some of us loved school from day one. In the spring 1952, I was in first grade at Saint Teresa of Avila school in an Irish and Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn. My family had a television, one of the first in our apartment house. The Lone Ranger, Howdy Dooty, Kate Smith were among my favorites. The McCarthy hearings annoyingly interfered with my shows!

Alistair CookieOne Sunday I was watching Omnibus hosted by a young Alistair Cooke [Alistair Cookie to Sesame Street fans!]. I saw Australian aborigines dancing around a fire. The voiceover said this was how human beings lived 50,000 years ago. The next day I told Sr. Mary Charlotte that I had seen how people lived 50,000 years ago. She said it must have been an anti-Catholic show, since the world was created 5,000 years ago according to the Bible. On three counts, I knew that she was wrong (perhaps even then TV had more authority than a mere school teacher!). (1) The world was indeed older than 5,000 years [I had seen the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History[1]]. (2) The Bible did not teach that [my father, who I thought was the smartest man in the world, read me the first chapter of Genesis; we could not find any dates]. (3) The Catholic Church in which I was totally immersed could not be teaching something so intuitively wrong [years later in high school I found out that in 1952 the Church did not teach that the world was 5000 years old]! Thus I knew she was wrong on these three counts. However, I was polite and didn’t tell her. But I knew that it was an important “Catholic thing” to get it right. I think my vocation as a Catholic intellectual began right there.

My mother who did not finish the 9th grade always stressed that her six children get as much education as possible. She also tweaked her highly educated son by giving him a copy of All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I told her that I indeed learned all I needed to know in the Catholic kindergarten taught by the same Sr. Mary Charlotte who taught me first grade. The lesson I learned was that I needed to learn a whole lot more. Thus even from kindergarten and first grade one can have a vocation to life-long learning.

Here perhaps is an intimation of a solution for Catholic higher education’s failure of nerve. If only we would remember our first grade and the love of learning that it inspired!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1]In 1952, one of the great Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was working in the fossil warehouse of the Museum of Natural History, about six miles from where I was watching Omnibus.

Love and Education

On Father’s Day, I posted a piece on God’s paternal love for us, drawing from both the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex 34:6-8) and the New Testament (Lk 15:11-32). Recently, I read a presentation delivered by Pope Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, entitled “The Educational Process” which describes the relationship between teacher and student in similar terms. In this paper, Pope Francis describes the difficulties which teachers, especially college and university professors, can encounter that derive from the contemporary culture which we inhabit. These difficulties include facing special interests within the educational system which “are alien to education itself,” and the ever-increasing phenomenon of the participants in the educational process (i.e., students, teachers, and parents) becoming disengaged with their own formation and the formation of those in their charge. “We have become spectators,” Pope Francis writes, “and ceased to be protagonists of our personal history and our life.”

Supper at EmmausTo bridge these divisions, Pope Francis proposes a pedagogy of “encounter.” By this he means that the educational process ought to be characterized by a type of love. Drawing from the New Testament, and the Greek learning inherited by the early Church, Pope Francis distinguishes between three types of love. Eros is a type of love which seeks its own satisfaction. Naturally, it has come to be associated with romantic love but is certainly not limited to that sphere. Whenever we have a deep desire which seeks consummation – and many of the mystics speak of the transformation and sanctification of this desire for God – it is, so to speak, erotic. Agape, on the other hand, is a type of love which is self-sacrificing. It expects nothing in return, but wills the good of the other. Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross is the example par excellence of agapic love; so much so that, in the early Church, the commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist was referred to as the ‘love (agape) feast.’

School of AthensBut education is not built upon either of these senses of love. A third type of love, which is the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter,” is philia. Derived from the Greek word for ‘friend,’ philia is a love which is neither totally self-seeking nor totally self-sacrificing. Rather, philial love is given with the expectation of reciprocity; thereby forming a communion of persons. “It is a love of relationship,” Pope Francis writes, “participation, communication, and friendship.” Pope Francis is not advocating, however, that professors become “BFF’s” with their students. Philial love in this context is characterized by a concern for the good of the student and a recognition of the good in the teacher. It is much closer to the relationship between a parent and a child than the relationship of peers to each other. It is, one might say, covenantal.

Pope Francis sees this love as the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter” because it is only within this type of friendship that both teacher and student can “encounter” each other as persons. Within this friendship, the student is not simply ‘student x,’ but Joseph. The teacher is not simply ‘my professor for subject y,’ but Dr. Mary. Again, as Pope Francis writes: “For this educational encounter to happen, we teachers […] need affection. Trust in your affection. Love what you do and love your students.”

Christs Charge to PeterIn closing, the type of love which Pope Francis speaks of as the foundation of education is most uniquely illustrated at the end of St. John’s Gospel (21:15-19). After his glorious resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Naturally, and as one reads in every scriptural commentary on this passage, Jesus asks this question of Peter three times as a way of redeeming Peter’s three denials of him on Holy Thursday. But what is lost to the English reader is that Jesus asks Peter if he ‘loves’ (agapas) him twice. The final question to Peter is: “Do you love (phileis) me?” In other words, Jesus twice asks Peter if he would sacrifice himself for him, but on the third occasion he asks Peter: “But are we friends?” It is not enough for Peter to repent of his denials by offering himself for Jesus. No. In order to “tend Jesus’ sheep,” the two must have an active, living relationship: a friendship. In order to form others in Christ, one cannot simply view one’s ministry as a sacrifice. There must be present a friendship with Christ that one wishes to share with others. Similarly, a true education cannot be founded solely upon the idea of serving the other – let alone the simple communication of data – but upon a living and relational encounter: a friendship.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.