(Also published in the blog of the Magis Center, May 3, 2022)
Many people are observing May 3 as National Teacher Appreciation Day. Lord, I want to be in that number! Even though this is a commemoration on the secular calendar, not a faith-based celebration, we all would agree that countless educators, at all grade levels, deserve to be saluted as heroes.
They elevate our minds and hearts, wills and emotions, helping us to grow in the phronesis—a practical, virtuous wisdom for action—which can help us serve God and society well.
A more contentious concept of this day arises from our society’s appreciation for teaching, rather than appreciation for particular teachers. It’s a day to ask whether Americans, in every line of work, sufficiently honor the highest principle of educating–passing along to younger generations the most essential knowledge, understanding, and values-rich behaviors with which older generations have been gifted.
To bestow such honor, we need firm structures and enthusiastic approaches within which we can consistently provide formation and information that anchors us.
Such structures do not indoctrinate people or close minds if they are based on an honest search for truth. Organized, prioritized, and dynamic structures allow and encourage debate because the exploration of reality can go on collaboratively, with respectful trust and patient prudence. Conversations where people come equipped to explain their views, analyze the merits of other views, and make democratic virtues more sustainable respect our need—and expand our desire—to keep teaching and keep learning in orderly, constructive ways.
Therefore, the word that sums up this day for appreciating education is catechesis. Dear teachers, hey everyone, does our society mostly catechize ormostly can’techize?
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “catechize” in these two ways:
- To instruct systematically, especially by questions, answers, and explanations and corrections—specifically, to give religious instruction in such a manner
- To question systematically or searchingly
Increasingly, I fear we are not a catechized culture.
This meta-problem in modern-day education of all sorts has been recognized most clearly in the Catholic Church, which is an enduring and universal structure for catechizing, and literally appreciating good catechesis, about our creaturehood in a world hungry for meaning.
Many Catholics bemoan their observation that young people have not been richly or rightly catechized, perhaps over decades now. We in the Church have not always taught the essentials of the faith to future generations in ways that cultivate fertile fields for growth in the family of God. Sometimes, the essentials have not been clearly identified or prioritized, leaving a weak structure upon which to build lives attuned to our kinship in human nature and the divine order.
This lens helps to highlight the Church as a microcosm of the challenge and urgency of catechesis. And it reveals that the family is another crucial setting because it centers our experience of love, our learning about what’s important, within everyday experience.
Because households have been weakened as anchors in America and in much of the world, we need to boost our appreciation of teaching in two fundamental institutions—the Church and the family. In many cases, of course, the process of catechesis is conducted well, allowing people to develop instincts of phronesis in their individual lives and to share that gift with others for the betterment of society and the achievement of our highest goals. But what I call can’techesis, the inability of people to nurture this growth, has spread broadly nevertheless.
Most institutions have not catechized well. Civics courses and explorations of the structure and spirit of our culture sometimes fall short of energizing the robust citizenship America’s founders said our democracy requires.
Another example: The medical profession seems unclear the value of its traditional Hippocratic Oath as a core statement of ethics to be maintained. Is it overridden by marketplace demands, technological abilities, and self-centered drives for power?
As of today, May 3, many professionals in government, the law, politics, and other fields are reeling from the thought that someone in the highly revered institution of the US Supreme Court might have subverted the pledge to keep confidential the development of a Court opinion. A leaked document reported to be a draft of the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has sparked fears of an unprecedented violation of judicial propriety—injecting suspicion into a structure of trust deemed vital for full, free, and fair deliberation.
Most of us would say our best teachers have been those who challenged us, who took valuable truths and top-priority insights they had garnered and joyfully handed them down to us in rigorous, thought-provoking, well-ordered ways. They allowed us to say yes to things that made our life better while also empowering us to ask follow-up questions, just as Mary did when she received an ultimate, uncomfortable truth in the Annunciation.
Our appreciation of teachers must go hand-in-hand with a deepened appreciation of everyone’s role in teaching and learning the most enlightening, sometimes almost unbelievable, realities that reflect the dignity of our lives. We need to ask, as members of families, parishes, communities, and institutions, how we can get better at systematically instructing, questioning, answering, correcting, and searching so as to revitalize the goals and methods of catechesis in education.
[Image is from Clip Safari collection of Creative Commons designs.]