Learning Useless Things: Incarnational Learning in Catholic Schools

Learning Useless Things: Incarnational Learning in Catholic Schools January 31, 2021

A letter to my students at our Benedictine high school

Picture this–you’re sitting in the middle of a class that you find to be even more boring than a phone with a dead battery. You keep checking the time, praying that it will all finish faster. “When is this going to end?” you think to yourself, as your head starts to droop onto the desk. Your teacher shakes you awake and tells you to pay attention. “For what?” you wonder. “It’s not like I’m actually going to use this in the future…”

Yeah, you are probably not going to use most of the things you learn as a student.  But if you ask the people who established the first universities, that’s precisely the point of an education.

Allow me to explain what I mean. The first universities were established by Italian and French monks in the 11th century. While these universities welcomed lay students, they primarily served priests and members of religious orders (monks, nuns, and friars). Why would a monk need to know about something “useless” like algebra, astronomy, or ancient history? Sure, most monks would not have needed to know about those subjects in order to do their “jobs,” but they saw education as something  greater than learning how to get a particular job done. 

It’s valuable to learn something, not because you are going to use it, but because it is beautiful in itself. All knowledge has a value insofar as it is like a ray of the Light of God, the ultimate Source of all truth and knowledge. The more you know about life, our existence, and the created world, the closer you inch toward the Creator Himself. 

In his book Love of Learning and Desire for God, Fr. Jean Leclerq argues that it was a passionate desire to know and love God that drove medieval monks to engage in their studies. It was as if each subject they studied became a petal on a flower. As their knowledge increased, the flower continued to blossom and become more beautiful, inciting their desire to know more and more as they went along. The beauty and fragrant aroma of the flower  pointed to God, who constitutes the greatest form of beauty. 

Part of what fanned the flames of the monks’ passionate desire was their belief in the Incarnation — that God came down to the level of His creation and lived a regular, everyday life with us. The coming of Jesus redeemed the material world by “shedding His light” on all of existence, even on the boring, mundane, and dark parts of it. This is why St. Benedict says in the Rule that monks should “regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar.” (RB 31:10) Everything in the material realm took on a sacred meaning after God Himself entered into that realm. Now, everything is a sign that points to Him.

I see every day how different classes at the Benedictine school where I teach continue in this tradition of fostering a passion for knowing God through different paths of knowledge. 

For example, I see the appreciation for beauty that the students in their art classes have developed through their incredible paintings that are hanging in the cafeteria. I also can see how our science teacher communicates her fascination with nature to her students. Every Fall Term, I ask her to give a presentation to my Senior Religion students about how her interest in studying science has helped her to grow to appreciate and know God as the Creator of the beauty of the natural world.

The monks themselves can tell you about how their own studies have helped them to grow closer to God. They’ve studied a whole range of subjects from psychology and philosophy, to art and chemistry. Those students who have gone to the monk who offers tutoring in the library probably know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen him tutoring students in algebra, chemistry,  and history.  And the whole time, he seems so engaged and fascinated by what he’s explaining. It makes you wonder, what does he see in all of it? How can a person spend his whole afternoon tutoring different subjects without starting to find them dull or empty? It’s pretty clear to me that his eyes are set on something greater that is revealing itself through  the tiniest details of those subjects.

Sometimes it may  feel that your classes are boring and pointless. But that’s kinda the point. Sure, you should be prepared to do your job in the future. But an education is about much more than knowing how to get your job done. It’s about gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake. That’s because knowledge is  beautiful in itself, it’s meaningful, and it’s a path to growing in intimacy with God.

So next time you’re bored, take the risk of asking your teacher why he or she thinks their subject is fascinating, and what sparked their passion for it. We may not fully understand that subject’s value now. But as St. Paul said “[f]or now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.”

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