We sometimes receive calls asking “Why should I study Algebra? I’ll never use it again,” or “Why should I study literature? There’s nothing practical in it,” or “Why should I study Latin? It’s a dead language,” and we recently had a new one, “Why should I study diagramming? My mom and dad never had to.”
When I coach basketball, I use pushups for minor infractions and for incentives in competitive drills. I do explain to the players that pushups are not a punishment, but an important part of basketball development. Pushups use, and therefore strengthen, the triceps muscles. It is the triceps, not the biceps, that are the primary muscles used to throw a baseball, or shoot a basketball. The triceps straighten out a bent arm, so the arm, bent holding a basketball, must straighten out to shoot the ball. The stronger and better conditioned the triceps are, the farther the player can shoot the basketball and the longer he can do that during a game. Pushups are like some of these courses; you never do pushups in the game but they help you play better. Some course materials may never again be used in life, but they help you live better and smarter.
In the movie, The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi has his Karate student, Daniel-san, washing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences, to move his arms through Karate movements. Daniel-san doesn’t understand this at first. He thinks Mr. Miyagi is using him to get work done around the house while Mr. Miyagi is out having fun somewhere.
The work projects give Daniel a focus to work through to completion. If he had been told to take a Karate stand and swing his arms and shout ‘Hy-uh’ from dawn to dark, Daniel would soon have given in to boredom or to fatigue and stopped, but with the task of painting the fence, he continued to finish his assignment. Daniel finally confronts Mr. Miyagi and learns the truth about his Karate training.
No basketball player will ever do pushups in the middle of a game, but in training they are important. As Daniel-san learned, all education is not about content alone. A good education involves facts and figures and concepts, but it also involves learning how to think. A well-educated person not only knows how to read the lines, but also how to read between the lines.
Catholic education is not just practical “job” education. It is important to learn concepts and skills that will help a person support himself, but that is not all there is to an education, or even the most important part. Parents are called to train their children for Heaven, not Harvard. Although it is possible to do both, Heaven comes first. Catholic education is meant to train hearts and minds to seek God and His ways. However, God is a Mystery to us in many ways, and we need various skills to help us to understand even parts of His Mysteries.
Algebra, diagramming, Latin, and literature all have their places in this. God is transcendent above all things and ideas. In many ways, He and His Mysteries are abstract. Algebra teaches us to think abstractly. In dealing with variables, we learn to deal with missing parts; this helps up to develop thinking skills that aid us in understanding the mysteries of God.
If you do a web search on “diagramming sentences,” you will find articles about people who actually use this skill in business to make sure they understand the particulars in a contract. There are others who do diagramming while reading novels to make sure they understand particularly difficult sentences. I know others who use diagramming techniques to help understand foreign languages. However, I have to admit that after I finished Catholic grammar school, I never diagrammed a sentence again. But this does not mean that diagramming is a useless study or a waste of time. Diagramming, like the study of Logic, helps a student to understand the proper usage of words, and how to think clearly. It also helps the student to write, automatically, proper sentences, which is an important skill for written assignments in school, as well as for good communications in business, or for writing letters to the editor to sway public opinion on important matters.
Latin may be a “dead” language, but it is a most important language nevertheless. The College Board, which provides the S.A.T. college admission test, keeps statistics that concern the S.A.T. tests. Their statistics prove that the study of any foreign language in high school helps students on the English S.A.T. test. Students who take Spanish or Italian have average verbal scores higher than those for students who never take a foreign language. Students who take French or German score higher than those who take Spanish or Italian, but students who take Latin have the highest verbal scores of all, averaging nearly 660 out of 800. Latin is also the official language of the Church, as well as an important language for medicine, science and law. Perhaps it is not so dead after all!
Catholic education is more than the relating of worldly facts in a safe environment. Catholic education seeks to train the whole man for his ultimate destiny in Heaven. To do this, facts, figures, and concepts have their place, but there is more. The Catholic student must learn how to think, how to organize thoughts, as well as how to recognize that God has made all things, and each thing has a place in His plan of salvation. Some parts of our education are more geared to these other values and may never be used directly in our every day lives, but they are important building blocks that provide the skills for putting the facts and figures to good use in a Catholic way.