Last summer I took a course on Catechesis and how to approach the work of sharing the Gospel through education. At some point during the course I was confronted with the question, “What is the culture of my classroom?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Initially, I thought about the experience my students have in my class, the generally positive student evaluations I receive, the comfortable relationships I have with the vast majority of my students. Then I thought about what my classroom actually looks like and how that informs the cultural milieu of the class: plenty of crucifixes, icons, and religious art, some Notre Dame swag (pennants and such), and half the Ignatius Press catalog on my bookshelf.
Then I realized I have a rather shallow understanding of culture.
In Truth and Tolerance, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that culture “has to do with perceptions and values. It is an attempt to understand the world and the existence of man with it . . . guided by the fundamental interest of our existence.”
Perhaps, I need to think harder about this culture thing?
So how do I create the kind of culture where students are examining their existence and analyzing their perceptions of the world and the values they hold . . . in 55 minutes, four times a week?
Recently, I’ve had to admit that I’m not going to be able to do that. But, what I can do is create an environment, a culture, wherein asking those existential questions and seeking meaningful answers is an organic consequence of the day in and day out experience of taking Mr. Manfredi’s class.
I believe this begins with a pedagogical focus on the Transcendentals: beauty, goodness, and truth. The Transcendentals appeal directly to the human, and even teenage, desire for meaning. We can’t assign meaning to our lives; we can only discover what has already been written on our hearts. The beauty of creation, the goodness we find in others, and the quest for and embrace of truth help us to do that.
In addition to a foundation built upon the transcendent, certain practices and attitudes must buttress our pedagogical focus, namely, time and space for prayer, a communal environment, and an appreciation for the Tradition of the Church.
Our students need time to reflect on what they’ve learned, both with others and privately. They also need to be reminded (or introduced to the idea) that Christian prayer helps us to mark time; thus, liturgical prayer is key to forming the Christological imagination and discovering meaning in the seemingly mundane of everyday school life.
Providing a communal environment where inquiry is encouraged and faith is shared is necessary, not only for morale, but for effective catechesis as well. Discovering the fruits of the faith together reminds students that the Christian life is not meant to be lived in isolation. We are a Church, a community of believers. We have each other. We are not alone.
Tradition must not be seen as an obstacle to a deeper appreciation of the transcendent, but rather the lens through which it is discovered. I poked fun at the many religious symbols that adorn my classroom as “culture,” but there is much to be said about an environment that visually embodies the beautiful tradition of the Church and its evangelical effect.
Luigi Giussani wrote in The Risk of Education, “If [students] are not presented with a ‘working hypothesis’ favored over others, they will either face the complicated task of inventing their own or they will become skeptical.” Our catechetical efforts must be steeped in the Tradition of the Church and all her splendor because the Church, as the Body of Christ, is the source of Christian culture. We must share this truth with our students because if we do not they may never know.
All of this is ultimately pointing to the reality that our classrooms, from the decor to the curriculum, must be centered around Christ. We must, as catechists and educators, provide our students with an environment where encounter with him can occur through prayer, together, in his Church. In short, Christ must be the culture of our classrooms.
All images courtesy of the author.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [Benedict XVI], Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 60.
 Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Identity, trans. Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), 16.