“Future U” and Character Formation at Saint Theresa Catholic School
The life and research of Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, shape a great deal of our work with students at Saint Theresa Catholic School. Professor Frankl noted when he was in the Nazi labor camps that some people seemed determined to survive, and some did not. As a neuroscientist, he was intrigued by this phenomenon and decided to study it in the three different Nazi death camps where he was detained throughout World War II.
In this bleak and inhumane setting, Frankl uncovered a beautiful and inspiring aspect of human nature. Through interviews, observations, and informal conversations, Frankl realized that those prisoners who had something they were living for in the future often survived, while those who did not, often passed swiftly out of this life. In the midst of unrestrained Nazi brutality, Frankl began to develop a bright new field of psychology, called Logotherapy (from Greek, logos, “reason” and therapeu, “to heal”). His basic insight is that, no matter what the circumstances, human beings can choose how they will view and respond to their settings. While we do not always choose our situation, we do determine how we will react. Doing so well requires that we take some time to consider where we are, how it makes us feel, and what positive thing we can and will do, going forward. This ability to find meaning in suffering and other challenges sets us above animals—we can actively choose a positive course of action and follow through with it over time. Dogs are smart, but don’t choose to go on a diet, for example, for long-term health. Because of the importance of these insights, and how well this model prepares students to own their choices and to live to become their best selves, I have personally given a hard-bound edition of Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to each alumnus of STCS, starting with our first graduating class.
The three-step process of: 1) taking an emotional and situational inventory; 2) thinking about how to respond most positively; and 3), acting in accord with a positive resolution, shapes a whole range of conversations at STCS, from discipline to character formation. The faculty and staff of STCS have been working this method into the fabric of life here for the past couple of years. Last year, we began talking explicitly about this three-step process for self-improvement with students in Upper Elementary and Middle School. We describe character and virtue conversations with students that rely on this model as helping to ensure that Future You is on the path to success, and Present You is the best advocate you have for getting there. If you hear faculty and staff talk about our “Future U” initiatives at STCS, they are referring to this process of focusing students on deliberate decision-making to become a better person.
Literature and the Cultivation of Empathy
One of the staple features of a Saint Theresa Catholic School education is our Great Books approach to the study of literature. We honor certain texts as having perennial value for students to read and re-read over the course of their lives, because of the wisdom and insight into human nature that such texts convey. The best works of prose reveal our own hearts to us, whether in the anguished grief of Achilles at the death of Patroklas in The Iliad, the optimistic kindness of Irene in The Princess and the Goblin, or the self-inflicted misfortunes of the self-absorbed Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows.
Many literary selections assigned throughout the curriculum serve to round out a student’s appreciation of history, furnishing him or her with the means to peer into the past by reading poetry and prose composed in honor of Charlemagne or as a tribute to the centurions of the Roman Empire. At the same time, however–and more fundamentally–our students are encouraged to consistently take a mental and emotional inventory of what they think it would feel like to live the stories of the main characters in the text. We walk the time-worn and tested literary paths to conduct our students to that point of empathy that will serve as a key to their success in life. A cultivated sense of empathy is one of the great gifts of an STCS education—by these means, students learn in time to write compellingly, because they have connected with a host of individuals in different settings and times.
It is for this reason that we are delighted that we have such an outstanding educational partnership with Ruah Woods, and have implemented their Theology of the Body curriculum at Saint Theresa’s. Like literary studies at STCS, Ruah Woods moves a student from natural to supernatural virtue, urging them to think about life-affirming choices in their daily activities as well as their devotional and sacramental lives. The Ruah Woods curriculum couples the reading of good literature with spiritual reflection on the ways that human beings encounter, through God’s grace, truth, beauty, and goodness in the world around them. Reflection on this encounter of grace in the world inspires gratitude, as we consider how wonderfully God has made us, our world, and our bodies and souls.
This movement from reflection on natural grace to the contemplation of supernatural virtues, is a foundation stone in the pedagogical approach of our faculty. This pattern of engagement with good literature to reflect on grace and our response to God’s call for us to be virtuous, is also at the heart of our PACE program, the guidance curriculum that shapes behavioral norms and social development for students up through 5th Grade at STCS. As often as possible, reading exercises, literature circles, poetry, or story time for the youngest students, starts with a conversation about characters, emotions, and what challenges the lead actors face in the story. That conversation segues directly into the religion lesson of the day, so that students see the connection between character and faith formation. We attempt to live out the insight that Thomas Aquinas captures so well in the Summa Theologica, that grace does not destroy nature, but rather perfects it. The two halves of our motto, fides et ratio—faith and reason—are not in competition or conflict with one another. Rather, both play a key part in our God-given vocation to be the best self we can in this world, as we prepare for “the life of the world to come.”