World Education Day and St Thomas Aquinas

At first blush, it might seem that these are two disparate celebrations with no correlation between them. 

World Education Day on Jan 24 was declared by UNESCO in 2019, whereas Jan 28 celebrates St. Thomas Aquinas who died in 1274. 

I propose, however, that if Aquinas was alive today he would be an enthusiastic celebrant of World Education Day.  Its intent to promote a quality education for all people would echo deeply in his heart.

UNESCO launched World Education Day to address the lamentable fact that some 260 million children have no access to education today, and millions of those who do are not receiving an effective one because of poor pedagogy. 

And girls have far less access than boys, helping to maintain gender inequality, especially in the two-thirds world.

UNESCO declared that effective education is a human right, a public good, and a social responsibility. 

But lest we think of this as a new idea, we find similar sentiments echoed some 2500 years ago by Plato and Aristotle.  Both recognized that their ideal of the “city state” could never be realized without the effective education of all its citizens. 

For this reason both wrote of education under the general heading of politics, convinced that its function is to shape the polis (City) by the education of its polites (citizens). Educating is as “political” as ever.

Aquinas, much influenced by Aristotle, would heartily agree.  Indeed his locating of himself at the University of Paris (founded circa 1160) signaled his conviction that education is a ”universal” right, open and available to all (universitas). 

And though writing some 800 years ago, Aquinas has wisdom to share about the kind of teaching needed in contemporary schools.

In his treatise De Magistro (“The Teacher”) Aquinas proposed that students, in effect, are to teach themselves, albeit guided by a teacher. His conviction was that all “knowing” begins with people’s own sense experience and their reflection upon it. 

Teachers are indeed to lend access to traditions of learning – the arts and sciences – yet their pedagogy should enable students to come to their own personal understanding, and then to make good judgments and decisions for their lives – honoring what Aquinas scholars (e.g. Lonergan) call “the dynamics of authentic cognition”.  

In sum, Aquinas was totally opposed to what Paulo Freire well named as “banking education” – deposing information in passive receptacles. 

Indeed, for Aquinas all teaching should begin with an engaging quaestio (question) to be addressed by intense student reflection.

Further, that “dynamic of cognition” which invites students onward to judgements and decisions is what encourages not only knowledge but moral formation and wisdom for life. 

So much of contemporary education tends to focus on science, technology, engineering and math (the STEM courses) to the neglect of moral formation. 

Aquinas can help us imagine how to educate in any discipline in ways that are formative of the person.  This should surely be the participatory pedagogy employed by Catholic educators.

Amazingly, Aquinas’ proposed pedagogy is well reflected in one of his personal prayers; it can still inspire as we celebrate World Education Day and his own feast-day.

“Grant, O Merciful God, that I may ardently desire, prudently examine, truthfully acknowledge, and well accomplish what is pleasing to You, for the praise of Your name.  Amen!”

By Thomas Groome, Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College.

Image: Unsplash/Gabriella Clare Marino, Tbel Abuseridze