"Teaching students what to think without teaching them how to think is dangerous and irresponsible," writes Brett Salkeld. In his latest book, "Educating for Eternity: A Teacher's Companion for Making Every Class Catholic" (OSV), Salkeld makes an argument for Catholic education that goes beyond the utilitarian preparation for employment, and trains a student to think like a Catholic. Recently he spent time chatting with Charlie Camosy about the book for OSV News. Salkeld is archdiocesan theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada. He lives in Regina with his wife, Flannery, and their seven children.
'A Catholic worldview makes reality so intriguing': Eternity and education
Charlie Camosy: I imagine that your book is responding to a particular need. What is your sense of how "Catholic" Catholic education actually is in U.S. Catholic schools?
Brett Salkeld: I think there is a huge spectrum here. I hear intriguing stories all the time about great teachers, great schools and great programs and I also hear laments about schools with no real sense of Catholic identity. There's no doubt that there are real challenges on this front. But there are also lots of people who are deeply committed to making their Catholic schools genuinely Catholic. I want to do anything I can do to support them.
Toward that end, my book is about teaching every subject from a Catholic point of view. That's not the only thing necessary to deepen the Catholic identity of a school, of course, but it is an increasingly important one, especially as the cultural default position -- on a whole range of issues -- has less and less in common with a Catholic perspective.
It is very easy to imagine that there is some "neutral" position from which subjects might be taught and that teaching from a Catholic position (or any other position) compromises the purity of the subject area. The truth is, though, we are always teaching from some point of view or other; there is no neutral. The education we provide is aimed at some good, or set of goods, whether we have taken the time to be intentional about this or not. In a Catholic school, the final aim of education is communion with God. This does not mean we are not also aimed at objectives like gainful employment or responsible citizenship, but those goods are seen in proper perspective when they are not imagined to be the ultimate reasons for an education. In fact, seeking God first protects these other goods from becoming idols, asked to carry more weight in terms of human happiness and fulfillment than they can bear.
Camosy: Chapter four has a bold title: "Catholicism Makes Everything Interesting." Could that possibly be the case?
Mr. Salkeld: Ha! Yes, I certainly think so. I mean, one reason I am Catholic is because a Catholic worldview makes reality so intriguing. The conviction that there is such a thing as truth, that we humans can know true things, and that the truth of things matters is essential for developing curiosity. If truth is inaccessible or nonexistent, then why study anything except for your own material advantage? Getting a job is good, but it's hardly enough to excite a student about chemistry. An education that is aimed only at acquiring worldly goods is boring. The pursuit of transcendent matters like goodness, truth and beauty is always exciting.
More than this, as I argue in the chapter you mention, things like science and history do not even come to exist, at least as we understand them, without the worldview imparted by the Bible -- especially the doctrine of creation. The existence of science and history seems so straightforward to us as to not require any explanation, but in truth, it's only a Christian worldview that makes them seem that way. So, it is not simply that Christianity makes science or history exciting, though it certainly does that; it is rather that the Christian worldview -- a view that found these things inherently interesting because of how Christianity conceived God's relationship to things like freedom, time, space, and matter -- made them possible.
Camosy: Some readers, I imagine, might be a bit skeptical about the "Science" chapter -- especially if they think of faith and science to be opposed to each other. Could you say more about this?
Mr. Salkeld: Yeah, the science chapter is key, precisely because of this attitude. Teachers are going to face students who have been taught by popular culture to think of science and faith as opposed. One of the things I do in this chapter is to walk through some of the history of the development of science and show that the roots of what we call modern science are in fact theological. Modern science emerges when and where it does because of a whole set of presuppositions about reality, and our capacity to know about it, that were worked out by scholastic theologians in the high Middle Ages. Something like the theory of evolution, for example, is a great example of what those theologians called "secondary causality" and there are quotes from Thomas Aquinas about this that look almost like a prediction of Darwin.
Articulating primary and secondary causality was a way of distinguishing God's action from the actions and causes proper to the created order. This meant that appealing to God's power to explain natural phenomena was understood as a kind of category mistake, which granted scientists an independence from supernatural explanations they needed for science to get off the ground. Of course, it's a mistake to jump from this perfectly legitimate distinction to the conclusion that there is no need for any causality beyond that found in the natural order, as contemporary atheism tends to do. That order cannot account for itself. But recognizing that the question "why is there anything at all?" is a different kind of question than "how did this thing become the kind of thing it is?" was essential for the development of a scientific worldview.
Catholic science teachers need to be equipped to have these kinds of conversations because it is often in science class where students' biggest questions about faith come to light. In a Catholic school, science teachers need to be experts in science, but also in the relationship between science and faith.
Camosy: It is interesting that Catholic school enrollment in the U.S. has grown each of the last three years. It seems there is a particular moment to take advantage of, here?
Mr. Salkeld: There is growing discontent with public education for a whole host of reasons and lots of people -- including not a few non-Catholics -- see Catholic schools as an alternative to a system that is failing. What people want when they choose an alternative is something robust and distinct.
There is a real opportunity right now to put forth a positive vision of education, and of the human person, that will resonate with many parents and communities seeking something better for their kids. It is easy to speak about something like Catholic education in generalities and platitudes. I think one thing that "Educating for Eternity" can do is help us to articulate its distinctiveness in a way that is inspiring, but also concrete and actionable.
Charlie Camosy is professor of medical humanities at the Creighton School of Medicine and moral theology fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.