Updated: May 16, 2019
When I was a graduate student in literature, I came across two books that had a formative effect on my philosophy of education: John Senior’s Restoration of Innocence: The Idea for a School, and James S. Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge. From the first reading they echoed what was in my own soul, and I became all the more convinced that the ideal education was a poetic one - “a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole, rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning…[an education] that gets us inside the thing experienced...knowledge from the inside out, radically different in this regard from a knowledge about things. In other words, it is the opposite of scientific knowledge.” (James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge) The poetic education cultivates a sense of wonder tied to the earth, the seasons, the arts, the liturgy, and a meaningful community of those actively seeking truth, goodness, and beauty. In such an education, the mind is not glorified at the expense of the body - one works the land, sings, plays instruments, plays sports. One does not simply read and regurgitate information; the great books are experienced rather than dissected into literary terms, and delight is taken in reading aloud and lively discussion. The imagination is fed and inspired. True friendships develop through sharing “some concrete or vicarious experience...of the true, the good, and the beautiful.” (James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge) The students live and work together, and the whole person is addressed. Here education’s goal is not primarily monetary, but Plato’s words ring true: “the object of education is to learn to love what is beautiful.”
While still in graduate school, and even more when I was teaching at conventional schools afterwards, I decided that I wanted this sort of education for my children. In the United States, there are only two schools that I know of who are striving for poetic education: Gregory the Great Academy and St. Martin’s Academy. Both are boys’ boarding schools in the vein of John Senior’s Idea for a School. Our hope is that someday our son might be able to attend one of these schools.
After a good deal of research, I have not been able to find any girls’ schools comparable to these. I have long been wondering where the girls’ counterpart to these schools is. John Senior, though he focused on his idea for a boys’ school, assumed a sister school up the road, adapted to the feminine brain (see the link below for an interesting article on this). He speaks of the importance of co-ed drama productions, formal dances, and the girls coming to cheer the boys on at their rugby matches, as well as the boys coming over to cheer the girls’ lacrosse team. As yet, there is no lacrosse team to cheer.
This sister school, however, is equally important. Is there is some fear that providing girls with a poetic education away from home will lead them to abandon motherhood for the boardroom? Do girls not need sisterhood just as much as boys need brotherhood? Do girls love sitting in desks all day any more than boys (even if they are sometimes more willing)? In the United States, boys’ education has historically received more funding and attention. Perhaps this is because boys have traditionally grown up to be the breadwinners, but even if the object of education is just to get a job (which it isn’t), more and more women either have to or want to work. Although Gregory the Great Academy was founded over 25 years ago (and since that time St. Martin’s), nothing similar has been undertaken for girls.
Whether my girls grow up to be stay-at-home-moms of 10 kids, authors, artists, professors, or CEOs, they - all people - need to learn to love what is beautiful. All are served by true education, no matter what life holds for them. Mothers - doing the most important, difficult job there is - would most certainly be better prepared by this holistic, holy, beautiful education. And I want my girls to be riding horses, shooting arrows, growing things, sculpting things, singing, and skinning animals alongside experiencing Shakespeare and Euclid. I do not want them to be sitting in a desk all day any more than I want that for my son. Women have traditionally had the challenge and the privilege of being the primary educators of the children, and they should be well-formed in order to form well the next generation of the Church militant, not to mention becoming worthy soldiers themselves in the aggressive culture war we all face.
I imagine many of you are happy with the conventional school model, and many Americans seem to be wary of boarding schools. Whether you agree with my perspective on the ideal education or not, I hope we can agree that all people would benefit from learning to love the Beautiful. Let’s pray together for better Christ-centered education everywhere, asking the intercession of Julian of Norwich.
Blessed Julian, whose feast is coming up on 13 May, is probably best known for her famous quote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” This 14th century saint dwelt on the mercy of God, and despite living through devastating plague that wiped out most of Norwich, her writings are full of hope. This was around the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It was not a time when books being written in English were commonplace, and her book, The Revelation of Divine Love, is the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman...a good person to ask to pray for the founding of my ideal girls’ high school.
I would love to have one up and running by the time my oldest daughter needs it, so that would be fall of 2021. Is anyone else interested in making this happen? As James S. Taylor says in Poetic Knowledge, "Before buildings, before books, even before students, a school is a gathering, often of just a few friends, learning together, who love the same things and love to reflect and remark about them in conversation." Please let me know if you are interested in being a part of that conversation...
For more on Blessed Julian of Norwich & feast day ideas, click here.
Some interesting articles...
On how boys' and girls' brains learn differently:
On the history of the education of girls:
I love this video from Gregory the Great Academy...