Sunday, 14 October 2018

Dominican Education

 A talk at celebrations marking 150 years of the Dominican school at Kรถszeg, Hungary

12 October 2018


Saint Dominic’s intuition

To understand what the specific characteristics of ‘Dominican education’ might be let us look firstly to Saint Dominic himself to see how he engaged in the activities of learning and teaching. Dominic’s life was turned upside down by the shock he experienced when he encountered the Albigensian heresy in the south of France in the early years of the 13th century. The Albigensian heresy was just one form of a particular tendency that is always lurking around the boundaries of Christianity, a tendency to spiritualise human and Christian life at the cost of denigrating the physical and material world. In doing so this tendency under-values and even despises the body, marriage and sexuality, dismisses the Incarnation of the Son of God and Christ’s ongoing presence in the sacraments, rejects the body which is the Church with its obvious limitations and illnesses as all bodies are limited and prone to sickness.

So the first intuition of Dominic is to defend the goodness of the physical creation, to show the coherence of God’s plan of creation and redemption, and to convince people of the reliability of nature and reason. This is a first characteristic of Dominican education: trust in the intelligibility of nature and the reliability of reason. If nature and reason are to be trusted because they come from the hands of a loving God, then human beings too are to be trusted because they come from the same hands and are destined to share the divine life in God’s eternal kingdom. So a second key aspect of Dominican education is already clear: Dominic trusted people, trusted the workings of thought and understanding in them, trusted the movement of the Holy Spirit to enlighten and to strengthen all who sincerely seek to know what is true.

Study, conversation, disputation

His own teaching methods centred on shared study, conversation, and disputation. His project in response to the heresy was, from the beginning, a communitarian one. A great Dominican of a later generation, Albert the Great, spoke about the joy of searching together for the truth. When Dominic sent his first disciples to the university centres of Europe he sent them in the first place to study. From the early sources we see in the first Dominicans a never-ending need and desire for education. The first convents of the Order were all schools. Each one had its professor or teacher, called a ‘lector’ or reader, whose lectures were attended not only by people in the neighbourhood but by the friars of the convent who were obliged to be permanent students. There is always more to be known and understood about the world, about human life and experience, and about what God has revealed.

We see Dominic in conversation on many occasions. Famously, he spent a night in discussion with an inn-keeper at Toulouse, arguing about the teachings of Albigensianism and the orthodox teachings of the Church. With his bishop, Diego, he engaged in a crucial conversation with Cistercian legates whom the Pope had asked to lead a campaign of preaching against the heresy. Their work was failing and it was failing because their methods was not in accordance with the gospel.  They were relying on an impressive display of wealth and power. Diego and Dominic saw that they needed to return to the greatest of teachers, Jesus himself, and to remember his instructions for the mission: it was to be undertaken in simplicity and poverty, in fraternity and trust, in constant study and contemplation.

Dominic and his companions engaged also in disputations, more formal and confrontational conversations, in which the arguments of each side were put to various tests, not least the test of public opinion. Sometimes these disputations went well for the new band of preachers and sometimes they did not go so well. But the way forward was clear: a renewed preaching of the gospel, a new evangelisation if you like, in which the tasks of study and preaching were undertaken in a common life of prayer and contemplation.

Thomas Aquinas following Dominic

It has sometimes been pointed out that the mission of great charismatic saints of the Church has often been supported by another great figure whose task is to give philosophical and theological expression to the insights and intuitions of the charismatic person. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this many years ago pointing to examples like Antony of Egypt and Athanasius of Alexandria who wrote Antony’s life, Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure, and in the case of the Dominicans, Dominic and Thomas Aquinas.

When reflecting on ‘Dominican education’ it is tempting to begin (and perhaps to end!) with Thomas but I think it is essential to turn first to Dominic, to recall the original and originating insights that gave rise to the Order which Thomas was later so determined to join. Thomas saw something of great importance in the life and mission of the preaching friars and he put his own extraordinary gifts at the service of that life and mission. In the words of Damian Byrne, Master of the Order, ‘it was the genius of Thomas Aquinas to carry forward Dominic’s fundamental orientation and to broaden the basis of theological education in the Order through his study of Aristotelian philosophy, which enabled him to give an intellectual foundation to the theology of the goodness of creation and the rejection of dualism’ (The Role of Study in the Order, Letter of 25 May 1991).

Thomas on teaching

When Thomas speaks about teaching in his Summa theologiae he does it at a point in the work that may seem surprising. He considers it when he is speaking about ways in which some creatures can share with God the work of guiding creation. Within the creation there are creatures that are intelligent and free, made in the image and likeness of God, and so capable of understanding truth, of choosing goodness and of appreciating beauty. The human being is one such creature (the others are the angels). Education normally means the process by which some human beings teach other human beings, sharing knowledge with them, assisting them in understanding and helping them to put this knowledge and understanding at the service of human development.

For Thomas the work of the teacher is analogous to that of the medical doctor. Just as the doctor cannot do the body’s healing for it but can assist, from outside, through the remedies and practices that she can recommend, so the teacher cannot do a student’s understanding for him or her, but can assist, from outside, through the various skills and practices that are involved in pedagogy. For some things we do not need teachers, Thomas says, because we find them out for ourselves. But for other things we need help, people who will point us to sources of information, who will explain to us how to understand things, who will if necessary show us how to do things.

As in all his work there is in Thomas’s account of education a deep respect for the dignity and capacity of the individual human person. Teaching and learning involve real work and are creative in bringing about in the world things that did not exist before. Education is not just the unveiling of what has always been there. Nor is it a kind of ‘plugging in’ to some common store of knowledge, opening a kind of channel along which knowledge can flow. Learning and teaching are much richer activities which bring about real changes in the world and so they belong to the creature made in the image and likeness of God. That creature has capacities not only of understanding and freedom but also of initiative and creativity. Many teachers will say that their greatest joy is to see students going beyond anything that they themselves have achieved, growing beyond them in knowledge and understanding, and contributing new things to the world through their gifts and inventiveness. Where has it come from? It is the student’s own ability, gifts of nature and grace, but facilitated, stimulated and helped along by the teacher.

The skills of the teacher: signs, questions, love

One can summarise Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of pedagogy, of teaching methods, with the phrase ‘putting imagination at the service of reason’. Part of the appreciation of creation that comes from Saint Dominic’s insight is the conviction, supported philosophically by Aristotle, that all human understanding begins in sensation and remains always dependent on sensation. The highest philosophical and even theological understanding depends always on the simplest activities of which human beings are capable: seeing, hearing, and touching, remembering and imagining. Any teacher knows the truth of this. To explain something we need to illustrate it with a story or an image, with a sign or a symbol, something that speaks to sensation and imagination, so that our intellectual understanding can make progress.

The greatest teachers, Thomas says, do their work by giving good signs, illustrating well what it is they are trying to help the students to understand. It means good stories and good pictures, good physical presentations especially when it is something abstract that is being taught. The great teachers work also by asking good questions, the best possible questions. We think of the learners as the ones with the questions and it is important that they have time to put their questions. It is important that every question be respected. One of the comments of a teacher that I remember from my schooldays was this, that there is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers. But part of the teacher’s skill is also to ask good questions, better questions than those the students themselves come up with. It is a very effective way to stimulate the minds of those who are learning to present them with perplexing and difficult questions, paradoxical questions, questions that puzzle.

As well as giving good signs and asking good questions, a teacher must also love the people he or she sets out to teach. Vincent McNabb was a well-known Dominican of the English province who preached regularly in public in London, engaging in conversations and disputations with anybody and everybody. Speaking to a group of Dominicans he said ‘if you do not love the people you are preaching to then shut up, go away, and preach to yourself’. We can say the same about teaching. If you do not love the people you are teaching then it is better to take your briefcase, go away, and try some other profession. Another comment by a teacher which I have always remembered was made to me by a Dominican brother when I began to teach almost forty years ago. ‘Don’t forget’, he said, ‘that you are not in the first place teaching theology, you are teaching people’.

The greatest teacher of all

It is a very important point with many practical implications for successful teaching. When Thomas Aquinas finally puts the question, ‘so who is the greatest teacher of them all’, and gives as his answer ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, the reasons for this evaluation are the criteria just mentioned: signs, questions, and love, these are the techniques or strategies of the teacher and we find nobody better at these things in the history of humanity than Jesus. The other candidate would be Socrates, regarded by the pagan world as the greatest of teachers. Notice that neither of these wrote books. They wrote directly onto the hearts of their students, Thomas says, and this is far more effective teaching than writing onto paper (or we might add onto the screen of a computer). The signs Jesus gave are his parables and miracles, the ways by which he led his disciples to understand what he was teaching them. The questions he put were stimulating and thought-provoking: ‘who do you say that I am?’, ‘what do you want me to do for you?’, ‘will you also go away?’, ‘do you want to be healed?’. And of course there is nobody who has loved his students as Jesus loved his disciples.

All of this comes together in the Cross, Thomas says, and he is not the only one to say that everything of importance that we need to learn, we learn from the cross of Jesus, in the scientia crucis. There Jesus gave the disciples, and the whole world for all time, the most powerful sign, the most paradoxical question, revealing the greatest possible love for the Father and for humanity. Thomas quotes Augustine speaking about Jesus as a teacher who on the Cross is sicut magister in cathedra, like a professor on his chair. The Cross of Christ continues to perplex the world, presenting us with the most fundamental question about life, giving us the most startling sign, drawing us into the deepest love.

Dominican Educational Institutions

In the 800 years of its existence there have been hundreds of educational institutions established and managed by the Dominicans. Still today in all regions of the world there are universities and colleges, academies and schools, centres for research and teaching, where Dominican men and women work as administrators, teachers or chaplains. There are the houses of study of the Order itself concerned particularly with philosophy and theology, as well as centres for specialised research at high academic and intellectual levels. There are schools for the deaf, an area in which Dominican sisters have been pioneers in various parts of the world, as well as schools for the poor, for children with special needs of various kinds, and vocational schools that help young men and women to develop the knowledge and skills they need for satisfying work and for building up the communities to which they belong.

The principles that guide all this research, learning and teaching can be summarised as trust and love. We see these principles emerging in the intuition of Dominic and we see them in Thomas’s intellectual development of that intuition. There is trust in God in the first place and in the truth of God’s creation, in its coherence and intelligibility. In one place Thomas says that truth is strong in itself and nothing can prevail against it. Such a conviction explains the openness and courage with which he engaged with all kinds of texts and arguments, not afraid of any research or conclusions, because the truth is an objective reality and it is what all people seek to know.

This trust implies also a trust in the capacity of human reason to come to knowledge of the truth. It would make no sense to be a teacher unless we had this double trust: in the truth itself as an objective and intelligible reality, and in the capacity of human beings to grow in their knowledge and understanding of that truth. We must be obedient to the truth when we come to see it, whether it is demonstrated in the various ways in which scientific truth can be demonstrated, or shared with us by reliable witnesses in the various ways in which we come to possess all kinds of knowledge.

Along with trust, the other basic principle is love which lies at the heart of the Gospel and which is – as our created nature itself reminds us every day – the reality or experience in which our deepest fulfilment is to be sought. Teaching can happen where truth is loved and where people are loved. Jesus teaches this by his example and by his words. We are not to set any limits to the reach of our love just as we are not to set any limits to our searching for truth. Who is my neighbour? We all know the answer Jesus gave to that question. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan, educating us to see that our neighbour is any human being in any kind of need, our neighbour is any human being who reaches out to us in friendship, fraternity or collaboration.

A Dominican understanding of education will therefore be theological in the first place. But it is a theological conviction about the capacity of human reason to come to knowledge of the truth. Presenting a theological vision might seem like a threat to the independence of reason, to the freedom of intellectual endeavour. But understood properly it is not so. We can describe a Dominican understanding of education as a form of Christian humanism in which faith and reason, the two wings that carry us to knowledge and truth, are working together in a harmony which is difficult to describe completely in words but which we recognise when we see it in practice. It honours faith and it honours reason. It values teaching and it values research and demonstration. In the Dominican vision faith and reason are not opposed sources of knowledge. Rather are they complementary, reason within faith articulating and understanding more deeply what is believed, faith within reason extending its reach and strengthening reason’s confidence in the value of the truth it comes to know.