October 13, 2005
There is a rabbinic saying that proclaims, “
The world is poised on the breath of school children.” Certainly this witnesses to the great importance of the education of the young. From the very beginning, education was linked with the home. Israel’s great profession of monotheistic faith is found in the
Shema (Dt 6:4-9). The recitation of this creedal statement is at the heart of Jewish life. It begins, “
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” It continues with the instruction for the parents to write the love of God upon their hearts and to teach God’s commands to their children in their homes. Parents are the ones who are mandated to pass on the central belief of faith. Parents are the ones who are primarily responsible for the education of their children. Home schooling has ancient roots.
In ancient Israel, education was important. And it was not divorced from religion. The priests were commanded to “teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord hath spoken to them by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). The Levites were to “teach Jacob [God’s] judgments and Israel [God’s] law” (Deuteronomy 33:10). In later years, one of the prophets decried the absence of “a teaching priest” (2Chronicles 15:3).
According to the Talmud, by 76 B.C., the Jewish community already had established schools for boys between the ages of 15 and 17 as well as elementary schools for young boys. So valued was the passing on of the faith that the great second century Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Torah despite the prohibition of the Romans. Once caught, he was cruelly tormented and put to death. As they were ripping the flesh off his body, he recited the
Shema. He considered it a joy to use his dying breath to witness to the truth that formed God’s people.
Always at the center of Jewish learning was the pupil-teacher relationship. Like the Greeks and the Romans, Jews knew that what mattered most in education was the influence of the instructor. Was not the pre-paschal gathering of the disciples around Jesus an example of this? He was the Teacher; and they, his eager students. Even before Jesus himself began his public ministry in which teaching played such a prominent role, he himself studied. As a Jewish boy growing up in a devout family, he studied Torah. As a young man, he probably attached himself to a group of other men (
haberim) who made it a practice to deepen their knowledge of Torah. Besides working in his father’s carpenter shop, he busied himself studying the Scriptures of the Chosen People. A reading between the lines of the New Testament would give indication that, before his baptism, Jesus was under the tutelage of John the Baptist. The content of Jesus’ study was God’s Word. And the personal relation of teacher to student was critical.
In the centuries after Christ, Christians were heirs of this understanding of education. They shared with the world of their day the essential technique of formation—a master teaching a disciple. In the 3
rd century A.D., St. Gregory Thaumaturgus wrote a treatise in which he outlines what it was like to be a student in the school of Origen, the famous Christian philosopher and biblicist from Alexandria. Origen’s school was not your run of the mill educational institute. Rather, it was a group of disciples around the master. Gregory writes, “From the time I became a student, Origen urged me to adopt a philosophical (virtuous) life.” He also says that he went to Palestine “to have fellowship with this man and through him be led to salvation.” Christians, like the Jews, saw schools as an aid to parents who had the primary role in education. Mothers as well as fathers had the duty to form their children (1 Tim 5:10). Religion was at the heart of education.
Our Catholic schools today are lineal descendants of the ancient Jewish and early Christian schools. Catholic education is rooted in “a close relation of cooperation… [uniting] schools and families, especially in this time when the family life is more fragile… Whatever the scholastic structure, it is the parents who remain primarily responsible for the education of their children. It is the task of the educational communities to promote cooperation so that parents may become newly aware of their educational role and be assisted in their basic task…” (Pope John Paul II,
to the Participants in the International Congress of the Catholic Schools of Europe, April 28, 2001). Parents are called not only to be aware of their role, but to take an active part in the school. Catholic schools help, but do not replace, the work of parents.
This is the first of two articles on Catholic education