Back to school: time for illuminating examples, not shining models

by Bishop Michael Olson

North Texas Catholic

8/25/2021

St. Thomas AquinasSt. Thomas Aquinas
A patron saint of students and universities, St. Thomas Aquinas was a prolific writer and teacher who is studied today.


We have arrived at the time of the year when we are reminded to be attentive to all that is required to go back to school. It’s prompted me to consider the modern practices employed by many universities and other institutions of higher education to promote their schools as optimal choices for parents to make on behalf of their children. For this purpose, many universities research how their recent graduates and distant alumni are doing in their careers. They then synthesize the data along with contemporary values of their prospective students or their parents and develop models of what their ideal graduates and alumni look like. 

As we begin our school year as Catholics either in Catholic schools or in other forms of education, we might consider two things in light of the practice that I have just described. The first point is that any model is not real and is limited in what it can show us to inform our decisions. Models are synthesized ideals that are abstract and not real nor concrete. Models are entirely up to our interpretation and so they can be presented in a way to coax a desired understanding on the part of the agent offering the model.

In comparison with the conceptual design of a model, God offers us examples. Examples are real people who teach us by how they live and give witness when we engage them in conversation or simply by observing them through our daily contact with them. As Catholics we have the real examples of Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the saints to serve as our guides in word and deed. We also have our educators, chief among them being our fathers and mothers, older siblings, and our teachers — all of whom are real people and not synthesized values and concepts. A quote from Saint Thomas Aquinas seems particularly apt to clarify the importance of this distinction, “Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.”

Such examples lead us to the second point for our consideration: the overarching goal of Catholic education is to come to know and to love the fullness of the truth that Jesus taught — the free love of God and neighbor. Jesus set an example for us in this regard by His consistently clear preaching, His compassionate healing through miracles, and His selfless and saving action on the cross culminating in His resurrection and ascension. He has taught us to go and do the same. This overarching goal is our ultimate end and purpose in life and the measurement by which each of us assess our personal priorities that are unique to us but also fused together by our common human nature directed to common excellence and flourishing. 

There is a particular challenge today for us entrusted with the mission of authentic and Catholic education: to teach as Jesus taught. That challenge is the false presumption among many in our world today that the highest good to be obtained — the Summum Bonum, the overarching purpose of education — is not love of God and neighbor, but the attainment of an affluent lifestyle that affords a person an egocentric self-sufficiency in this world, with Catholic and religious faith as an afterthought or as the mere decoration of one’s private familial or cultural history. This affects many of us who are mothers and fathers of children who are returning to school in pursuit of an education, and who feel pressure and anxiety for their children not to have enough of this world’s goods to live but rather, to possess more than enough material goods to be completely autonomous.

The start of the new school year is a time for us to examine again our value for education and our responsibility in this apostolate as parents and educators to set a good example. It is a time for us to ask God for clarity of mind and firmness of purpose to set rightly ordered priorities directed to love of God and neighbor and to courageously carry them out with trust in the real providence of the all-loving God.

St. Thomas Aquinas

We have arrived at the time of the year when we are reminded to be attentive to all that is required to go back to school.

Published