Chesterton and the Renewal of Catholic Education
“The one thing that is never taught by any chance in the atmosphere of public schools,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in All Things Considered, “is … that there is a whole truth of things, and that in knowing it and speaking it we are happy.”
Like Blessed John Henry Newman before him, G. K. Chesterton wrote about many things. Like Newman, he was a novelist, a poet, a theologian, a philosopher, an apologist, and one of the finest prose stylists of his generation. And also like Newman, he wrote a good deal about education.
Whereas Newman’s preeminent place as a pioneer of authentic Catholic education is honored by the Newman Clubs on college campuses across the world and of course by The Cardinal Newman Society and its celebrated Newman Guide, the place of Chesterton is now being honored by the establishment of Chesterton Academies across the country.
There are currently nine schools operating in the Chesterton Schools Network with several additional schools hoping to open within the coming year. During the current academic year, just over 400 students are being educated in these Chesterton Academies. Personally, I have been blessed and privileged to visit and speak at some of these schools, and also to serve as the keynote speaker at a couple of fundraising gala evenings, most recently on April 14 at the Chesterton Academy in Omaha, Nebraska, and a month earlier at the Chesterton Academy of the Holy Family in Downers Grove, Illinois. Previously I have spoken at the Academy in Buffalo and have guest taught a class at the Academy in Rochester. A year or so ago, I watched the students rehearsing The Taming of the Shrew at the first of the Academies to be established, that in the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
It’s all a long way from the days when I had sought to dissuade Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, from starting the first of these schools. Why, I argued, would he want to waste his time and resources in starting a school when he should be concentrating his energies on building the Chesterton Society? Happily, he ignored my less than sage advice. Today, apart from the Academies themselves, the Chesterton Schools Network is also blessed by a sister school, Scuola Libera Gilbert Keith Chesterton in San Benedetto del Tronto in Italy. Furthermore, and in addition to the traditional brick and mortar school model, there is growing interest in a “school within a school” approach. The Regina Chesterton Academy at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Pennsylvania, is the first school to launch this “classical track” model within an existing diocesan high school, and results to date have been impressive.
I am reminded, as I bask in the joyous memory of my recent visit to the Chesterton Academy in Omaha, of Chesterton’s quip that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. This might be true, indeed it is profoundly true, and yet one suspects that the great GKC would be more than happy to acknowledge that the growth of the Chesterton Schools Network is an edifying example of something worth doing which is clearly being done well.
Perhaps the last word belongs to the great man himself. In an epigrammatic turn of phrase that should serve as a motto for all true educators, Chesterton wrote that “the whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards by which he can judge material and fugitive standards” (Illustrated London News, Sep. 29, 1930). In keeping with this motto and the spirit it invokes, the Chesterton Academies are encompassing the “whole point of education,” teaching new generations of young Catholics how to judge the “fugitive” follies of the modern world with eternal standards rooted in timeless verities.
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