Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Contemplation and Catholic Education: on Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Simone Weil


I came across a great article published recently in The Journal of Catholic Higher Education (Villanova U.) that argues that the distinct identity of Catholic education lies in religious contemplation. The author, an Irish professor named Rik Van Nieuwenhove, draws heavily on one of my favorite essays, Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” I would upload a .pdf of the article, but it I imagine it wouldn’t be kosher, since Villanova doesn’t make it available online. Thankfully, the author has posted the piece to his academia.edu profile, where you can view the article or even download it if you sign up for a free account, which I did.

Van Nieuwenhove’s article is directed towards universities but he says nothing that can’t also be applied to secondary or even elementary institutions. He starts by arguing that Catholic education often tries to distinguish itself as “Catholic” by emphasizing its values—commitments to various social injustices and ecological concerns. These are important, he says, but they don’t distinguish a school as Catholic, just like a commitment to instilling “good moral character” in its students doesn’t set a school apart as uniquely Catholic. Some secular values are also religious ones. But the religious values that aren’t secular are the ones that are distinct, and most important to religious identity. Spirituality is not reducible to morality, in other words. Morality explains how we act in the world, but does not explain the vision that calls us to that action.

To explain that unique vision, Van Nieuwenhove turns to the Catholic understanding of contemplation, drawing heavily on Weil and Thomas Aquinas. Contemplation entails knowing and loving God, he says, and any moral system Catholicism has proceeds from its spiritual dimension. Knowledge and love of God come first; action follows.

How does one “teach” contemplation, though? Van Nieuwenhove isn’t talking about classes in meditation. He rightly equates contemplation with “detachment” and a radical “selflessness that allows us to be really present to the world, others, and God himself.” As Weil argues, this kind of attention is entirely receptive, achieved not by furrowing one’s brow in concentration but by a patient waiting. It is a “negative effort.” Understood this way, every class becomes a training in contemplation. Biology can demand this kind of attention just as well as English or Theology can. I love the image Weil uses in her essay to explain this:  
In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is…a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.
What a great way to put it—“reject all inadequate words.” In this view, the information a student learns is secondary to the insight he or she has. Insight arrives, Van Nieuwenhove argues, not via our reason but via our intellect, and he uses Aquinas’ distinction between the two realms of our understanding to set firmly his definition of contemplation in the scholastic tradition. This probably a good choice on his part, as Weil, for all her brilliance, was a bit nutty, and Aquinas’ reputation carries quite a bit more weight. If Aquinas can be seen to advocate for this kind of contemplative learning, well, maybe we should all pay attention.

I would encourage you to read the whole article, as Van Nieuwenhove addresses more than I can summarize in a blog post. His points are ones that I have written about before on this blog, and that I have been thinking about a lot recently, especially after reading and reviewing Nicholson Baker’s Substitute, a book that does a remarkable job of capturing the chaos of the modern American classroom.

There, action, noise, and busy-ness reign. Schoolchildren will always be noisy, grade-schoolers particularly, but this chaos is especially a problem in high school classrooms. High schoolers are more mature than grade schoolers (at least most of them are!), and they are ready to develop in their ability to think slowly and deeply. Modern pedagogy stunts this inner growth. “Keep the students busy,” seems to be its unwritten motto, and a high schooler, once he or she graduates, might have done a lot of group projects, worksheets, PowerPoints, learning games, etc., but they all amount to a big pile of little snippets. If students submit to this system they might learn how to work hard and to navigate a bureaucracy, but will they have learned to know and love what is true? Will they have developed the habit of patient attention, which Weil equates with prayer? In other words, will they have become more human?

Near the end of her essay, Weil, seemingly off-handedly, unloads a stunning insight, which effectively addresses the problem Van Nieuwenhove sees in Catholic schools putting the cart of social justice before the horse of contemplation. Weil: 
Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbour, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough [emphasis mine].
To learn to pay attention, then, is to learn to love our neighbors. Saints like Mother Teresa understood this, and devoted themselves to the direct care of the poor, not to fund-raising or mobilizing resources or other skills of 21st-century entrepreneurial humanitarians. It’s too bad that categories like “social justice” and “concern for the poor” are broad enough to encompass both types of charitable approaches, for they are by no means equal. In Weil’s understanding, to pay attention in Biology class or in History is to develop the habit of loving contemplation, which is exactly what social justice demands, and what bestows on morality its true coherence.

I’m not sure what kind of readership The Journal of Higher Education has among Catholic educators in America. Interesting that Van Nieuwenhove is publishing this in an American journal, and not an Irish or British one. I haven’t read his other work, but it includes an impressive list of scholarship on medieval theology and mysticism in particular (books on John van Ruysbroeck and Thomas Aquinas, among others, published by places like Notre Dame and Cambridge UP). I don’t know what it’s like in Ireland, but it’s too bad ideas like his don’t get more traction in our Catholic education circles. In general, the only interactions that happen between the worlds of secondary- and higher education seem to involve Education departments in universities, not academic subject areas. You rarely hear college English professors speaking at professional development seminars for high school English teachers, for example. Very frustrating, and counterintuitive, in my mind.

There is hope, though. More and more people are becoming aware that contemporary pedagogy starves the soul. Charter and classical schools are growing exponentially, which at the very least tells us that parents are seeking alternatives to the standard model. I would argue that the “keep them busy” pedagogy we see in Baker’s book fails precisely because it ignores the most human aspects of an education, things like desire, beauty, and the cultivation of the imagination. That is, it fails because is not grounded in something like contemplation.

I would encourage you to read Van Nieuwenhove’s entire essay, as well as Weil’s letter, if you already haven’t. I hope to write more about Weil myself, but for now I will direct you to my initial post about her letter, from a few years back.

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