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Our society does not value wonder, but Catholic educators must

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catholic school teachers - The Catholic Weekly

When I was in my final years of high school, a long time ago now, I had a terrific mathematics teacher by the name of Kevin Garrity. Like many senior secondary maths teachers, he was a deep expert in his discipline and loved it, and he was slightly quirky.

He used to enjoy setting us tricky calculus problems. And while we were puzzling over our equations and calculations, trying to find solutions, he would often walk up and down the rows of desks with a Chinese fan, waving it over us.

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One day, I asked him, “Sir, what are you doing that for?” He replied, “I’m fanning the flames of wonder.”

“Fanning the flames of wonder” is the best description I’ve ever heard of the role of teachers, and I encourage those you who are going to be working in schools as teachers to take that as your professional motto.

Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and we are therefore naturally oriented towards achieving union with God. That means we are innately oriented towards beauty, truth and goodness.

Whether we recognise it or not, we spend our lives striving towards these things. When it comes to truth, in particular, it is our sense of wonder, our curiosity about the world, that impels us, that drives us, to seek answers to questions.

Wonder is a form of divinely inspired restlessness. As St Augustine wrote in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

catholic school teachers - The Catholic Weekly
University of Notre Dame Executive Dean David de Carvalho. Photo: Supplied.

The society in which we find ourselves does not truly value wonder. It values what economists call “utility,” or usefulness.

It is important that we strive to be useful, to make a contribution to our society, but our human dignity and our value is not to be measured or determined by our usefulness to society. All of us are of equal beauty and dignity in the eyes of God.

Society’s prioritisation of usefulness means that many people view the purpose of education as primarily about preparation for effective participation in the market economy, getting a job and paying taxes. Those things are important, but the purposes of education go well beyond that.

So all our teachers need to have their own answer to this question, a question that you might find yourselves asking your students one day: “What do you think you are doing?”

Another answer to that question might include: “I’m helping my students develop their individual talents and potential.” This is a humanistic view of education.

Or “traditional/classical” education: “I’m passing on important traditional and cultural values.”

Or, “I’m giving them the knowledge, skills and dispositions they need to participate in democratic society.” This is the “progressive” view.
Or the “social reconstructionist” view, that education is about empowering students to be effective agents of social change.

At Notre Dame, and in the Catholic tradition more broadly, we think of education as “Integral Human Development.” The word “integral” is the key. It means whole, or full. It is the opposite of fragmented, or partial.

University of Notre Dame Executive Dean David de Carvalho.

 

As the second century theologian, St Irenaeus of Lyons, said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” And according to St John’s gospel, Jesus, the greatest teacher, described his role as coming so that we might have life, and have it to the full.

Integral human development is about the formation of the human person, in all his/her dimensions—physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, social and moral.

It is not just about the acquisition of economically useful knowledge and skills, but about pointing students in a direction that aligns them and orients them on the pathway towards life’s true goal of union with God, and equipping them for that journey.

So whether you are a teacher, philosopher or theologian, or all three, you will all be involved in some of the mission of fanning the flames of wonder in the people you encounter in your lives. You will be involved in important conversations with people of all generations and walks of life.

As teachers do these things well, your conversations with your students about knowledge and the world under construction will flourish from the creative and critical thinking of a new generation of lifelong learners who understand that they have minds, and that they can use them responsibly for the common good.

This is the edited text of David de Carvalho’s address to the Sydney Campus Faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology Prize and Award Ceremony, 30 May 2024.

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