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Introduction to Teaching Sovereign Knowers

The classical liberal arts education movement is growing and vibrant. Over the past several decades, new secondary schools and homeschooling cooperatives striving to offer an education that engages with the best in our tradition have emerged throughout the United States and beyond. There are professional associations and publishing companies that support these new schools and homeschool families. There are even college programs geared toward training educators in the liberal arts tradition. The progressive model of education represented in most public schools and many private schools is no longer the only option; most families in the United States and many families elsewhere now have the choice of a different educational model.

Many people are encouraged by the vitality and hope they see in the classical liberal arts educational renewal. In the face of a polarized society, the ethos of this movement points toward the possibility of building authentic community based on our common humanity, a way to move beyond balkanized identity groups. There is a conviction that all humans share a common rationality and thus can meaningfully communicate about the deepest aspects of our human condition, about the possibility of sacrificial love and meaning even in suffering, as well as what leads to human flourishing. This insight – that we can enter into the great conversation about our common humanity – is what defines the liberal arts renewal movement in education. All aspects of this classical liberal arts movement, from engaging primary source texts, to reading select literature, to studying logic, align with this goal. There is a confidence in human reason and the possibility of us encountering and knowing truth, that knowing truth is liberating, and that it leads to human flourishing.

Though a rediscovered confidence in the full scope of human reason is central to the liberal arts educational renewal, it is a curriculum rich in classic works that is a key selling point of liberal arts schools. Unlike progressives, who see limited value in a tradition that, at best, lacks our modern sensibilities, and, at worst, is rife with forms of structural oppression, racial and otherwise, those who are returning to the classics are convinced that despite whatever shortcomings they may have, these great books contain depths of human meaning that still speak to us today. Rather than learn about Jane Austen’s struggle with societal structures that oppress women, students will instead read Pride and Prejudice precisely because it can speak to us about our common humanity, in its relational complexity. That the students will actually read Pride and Prejudice in its entirety instead of in excerpts and commentary is a strong selling point. The classical liberal arts movement seeks to constructively engage with the tradition precisely by allowing this tradition to speak with its own voice before judging it according to progressive standards.

This is undoubtedly a positive educational development in our times, a source of hope to all who believe that authentic human community—human communion based on a shared common rationality stronger than what divides us—is possible even today. Although it is proper for those involved in the recovery of the liberal arts to focus on the importance of curriculum, other elements are important as well. Having the right content, the right curriculum, is only part of what is needed. Attention also must be given to how this curriculum is delivered and received, how a vision of reality is proposed to this next generation of students and the necessity of it being freely received.

This series focuses more on how a curriculum is delivered and received than on the specific content of the curriculum. It is more about how a teacher teaches than about what he teaches. It is about teaching in such a way that the student becomes engaged in learning, that he falls in love with learning and takes ownership of what he learns, that he becomes what Walker Percy calls a “sovereign knower.” A sound curriculum is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for authentic education. 

In some cases, a student would be better served by a curriculum in a box to study alone in a forest than being subject to bad teaching. A teacher can ruin the best text by how he or she presents it to the students. Not even Homer’s Iliad can stand up to an exercise focused on, say, listing casualties in battle while ignoring themes of heroism and hospitality. And a science teacher can malform students by presenting theories as absolute truth, when they are actually carefully worked out models that have explanatory power in particular situations and a history of their own.

Uninspired teachers end up reinforcing the tendency of many students to not engage the curriculum in a meaningful way. Students take on the role of conduits of information, as if their task is to simply repeat what is told them in the textbook or by the teacher. A student memorizes the right content and then repeats this content on the test. The content may be great, but if there is not personal engagement with it, then there is little impact on the student. The student is like a gutter in a rainstorm: the water flows into the gutter and on its way, leaving the gutter basically unchanged. The student is not being helped to be a sovereign knower, an owner and agent in his or her education. He is just one who forces content into short term memory long enough to repeat it on the test. He is functioning more like a transcribing machine than a knowing person. The content of the curriculum does not have significant meaning for him.

The reduction of the student to a machine-like functionary who holds information in short term memory long enough to upload it onto the test is not unrelated to broader cultural problems that our society faces. The problem of a lack of agency, engagement, ownership, and sovereignty that we see in our students is mirrored in our society at large. People tend to distrust their own ability to know what is true and instead rely on validation from experts or from a particular group: “The science is too complicated, so we’ll just have to trust the experts to tell us what to think.” A lack of sovereignty is also present in the problem of “identity.” Here people know by identifying not with experts but with a particular community; they “know” because they trust in the validation they receive from this community. People are comfortable with, and perhaps even long for, a surrender to an outside source of validation. The freedom offered by an authentic liberal arts education cuts against the surrender of intellectual sovereignty characteristic of our times. For some, such freedom, which is fundamental for human flourishing, is seen, at least initially, as an unwanted burden.

The good news is that it is possible for a teacher to teach in such a way that he activates agency in his students, that he leads them to become sovereign knowers. Having a good curriculum, though important, is not enough. A teacher must teach in a way that engages students and proposes to them a vision of the human person as one who is enriched by knowing truth and encountering reality. The teacher needs to teach in such a way that he or she is mentoring and modeling a vision of a meaningful and coherent life. Such a teacher cannot force his students to embark on the path of intellectual sovereignty and freedom. But teaching to foster student agency can propose and make attractive this path, setting many students out on a journey to become complete human beings.

The written portion of this collection will be divided into four parts. Complementing the written portion will be a series of podcasts, in which we will discuss segments of the series in greater depth. In the first part, we will examine the roots of our current cultural moment, diving into the problem of agency. With this frame in mind, we will consider the practicalities of teaching in a way that fosters agency in our students. The third part will discuss the need for an integrated education, one that helps students develop intellectual virtue and contributes to the formation of what St. John Henry Newman called a “philosophic outlook”. Lastly, the fourth part will offer practical guidance to those discerning the professional vocation of teaching. This section will also provide ideas for how to approach the first day, week, month, and year of teaching.

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

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