“We defined what we meant by ‘classical’ in very Catholic terms,” says Michael Hanby, a committee member and a professor at the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University. “It was not just a method but an incorporation into the whole treasure of Christian wisdom, which includes that of Christian cultures. Our students would get a coherent understanding of history, literature, art, philosophy — the traditions to what Catholics in the West are heirs.”
Parishioners and parents raised $190,000 to retire the debt. After hundreds of hours of work, the committee produced a lengthy educational plan that included curricula for each grade and subject, lists of suggested books, and criteria that each detail of the school’s life would have to satisfy. Examples: Is it beautiful? Are we doing this because it’s inherently good or as a means to an end? If the latter, what end? Does it encourage reverence for the mystery of God and the splendor of His creation? Does it encourage the student to desire truth, to understand virtues and to cultivate these within him (or her) self?
The plan was for students in successive grades to work their way through the history of civilization, beginning with ancient Egypt in kindergarten,ancient Greece for grade one, the Roman Empire in grade two, the Middle Ages in grade three and so on. Religion, art, Latin, nature studies, math, music and physical education also are worked in. Although some of the influences from more than 2,000 years back are pagan, that doesn’t faze music teacher Michelle Orhan, who teaches third-graders about the nine Muses who are daughters of ancient Zeus.
“I want them to have a well-rounded vision of what music is and where it comes from,” Orhan says after a session of explaining the origins of Calliope, Terpsichore and Urania. “We also discuss the disadvantages of polytheism, a discussion you can’t have in public school today. In anything having to do with Greek mythology, you have to talk about the gods.”
Already other dioceses are taking a serious look at what’s happening at St. Jerome’s to see whether their aging Catholic schools can turn into classical academies. Or, like St. Theresa’s, they can begin their classical school from the ground up.
About 20 miles southwest of Houston, St. Theresa’s school building was dedicated in August 2009. Romanesque arches cover outside walkways. In the atrium, the lower level is Doric columns with images of the seven virtues in the frieze, the upper level is Ionic pilasters. Noted ecclesiastical architect Duncan G. Stroik — also an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame — was commissioned to design the school.
“It’s hard to change the status quo in Catholic education,” says St. Theresa’s Principal Jonathan Beeson, a Yale Divinity School graduate and former Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism. “If you’re not versed in the history of ideas, you cannot be self-critical.”
Teachers from across the country are now applying to work at the pre-K through second-grade school, which is planning to add one grade each year. Latin starts in first grade. Second-graders learn Greek history. Everyone memorizes poetry.
“There’s not a single one of the 92 kids here who’s not eager to recite a poem,” Beeson says. “Kids need content in their brains, and they’re wired to absorb facts. You can’t reflect on something if it’s not in your brain.”
Beeson sees a day when the classical method will become widely accepted by Catholics.
In Washington, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl backs St. Jerome’s, according to Bert L’Homme, the new archdiocesan school superintendent.
“The classical curriculum existed in the Catholic universities of Paris, Padua and Oxford,” he says. “It’s rooted in the church. The combination of Catholic and classical education is very enticing to some parents.”
Julia Duin, whose most recent book is “Days of Fire and Glory,” is a religion writer living in Maryland whose daughter briefly attended St. Jerome’s. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.