Benedictine Education and the Importance of Poetic Thinking

The poetic stance is receptive, submissive even, and begins with an appreciation of the mysterious and the inscrutable. A humble appreciation of the mysterious beauty of reality must be the context for all fruitful problem-solving.

While interviewing for an academic position, I was once asked whether I thought philosophy was most properly a problem or a mystery. Taken aback, after a moment’s reflection I answered “mystery.” Since then I have asked that question myself of many of my colleagues, often replacing “philosophy” with “the intellectual life.” I find it the most telling indication of how someone approaches teaching and learning, what methods he employs, what accomplishments he honors, and what satisfactions he hopes for.

This contrast between problem and mystery marks a fault line in our educational landscape. On one side stands much of our contemporary primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational culture. Its banner is “Critical Thinking,” the inspiration and justification for a wide range of educational and professional practices, especially those in the humanities. Arrayed on the other side is a motley band, united under a flag whose figures are harder to make out. Following St. John Henry Newman, partisans of this more mysterious cause should look to St. Benedict as their standard bearer and “Poetic Thinking” as their standard.

“Problem” and “mystery” were on Newman’s mind when he wrote two essays on St. Benedict and Benedictine education for Atlantis in the 1850s. I am immensely grateful to Cluny Media for recently republishing them (paired with new essays from Margarita Mooney, Christopher Fisher, and Abbot Thomas Frerking, O.S.B.), in partnership with the Portsmouth Institute. Newman has helped reframe how I think about recent developments in Catholic education, education more broadly, and where we are headed in this new millennium. Although Thomas Aquinas inspired the renewal of Catholic education in the twentieth century, Newman has so far been the inspiration for renewal in the twenty-first.


Newman’s Vision of St. Benedict

According to Newman, St. Benedict formed the training of the ancient intellect, St. Dominic the medieval, and St. Ignatius the modern. To Benedict he assigns “the element of Poetry,” to Dominic the “Scientific,” and to Ignatius the “Practical.” The contrast between Benedict and Dominic is striking (though Ignatius is interesting too, perhaps for other reasons—is it mere coincidence that the Jesuits today are such dedicated and successful champions of social justice?). Benedictine monasticism was flight from the world to the cloister, a mortification of sense, and a mortification of reason.

Such a peaceful life, says Newman, is “full of the elements of the poetical.” By “poetry” Newman means something much more expansive than rhyming verse:

Poetry is always the antagonist to science. As science makes progress in any subject-matter, poetry recedes from it. The two cannot stand together; they belong respectively to two modes of viewing things, which are contradictory of each other. Reason investigates, analyzes, numbers, weighs, measures, ascertains, locates, the objects of its contemplation, and thus gains a scientific knowledge of them. Science results in system, which is complex unity; poetry delights in the indefinite and various as contrasted with unity, and in the simple as contrasted with system. The aim of science is to get a hold of things, to grasp them, to handle them, to comprehend them; that is (to use the familiar term), to master them, or to be superior to them. Its mission is to destroy ignorance, doubt, surmise, suspense, illusions, fears, deceits. But as to the poetical, very different is the frame of mind which is necessary for its perception. It demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet; that we should feel them to be above and beyond us, that we should look up to them, and that, instead of fancying that we can comprehend them, we should take for granted that we are surrounded and comprehended by them ourselves. It implies that we understand them to be vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious; so that at best we are only forming conjectures about them, not conclusions.

There is an entire cultural world in this sweeping paragraph, including a striking educational program. The poetic stance is receptive, submissive even, and begins with an appreciation of the mysterious and the inscrutable. A poetic person’s soul is gentle, with a tender and simple heart. The poetic stance’s chief virtue is humility, its chief action obedience, and its chief purpose healing.

Such a disposition of spirit, when it comes into contact with books, and hence also with education, is transformed into a literary method of instruction rather than a problem-solving one. What could it mean to say such a thing? It does not mean that “literature” as we commonly understand it is one’s principal subject matter, as if we should all be English majors. Instead, it means one fits oneself to what one reads, learns in order to imitate rather than to correct or to surpass, sees the text before one’s eyes as a guide and not a rival—this is the character of Benedictine education for Newman.

The Limits of Critical Thinking

All this has immediate and telling educational implications. The natural product of critical thinking is the “argumentative essay” (or “academic paper” in its more professional incarnation). Such an essay depends on analysis, critique, and evaluation: the qualities that contemporary intellectuals prize most and teach—by example as well as by instruction—to college students everywhere.

This form of writing analyzes in order to reconstruct and evaluate. It takes a poem by Keats and turns it into five main points, one of which is still worth making, and all of which could, it seems, be made without resorting to poetry. It takes a Platonic dialogue and discards the literary window-dressing in order to focus on the arguments, and then removes the arguments themselves from their conversational setting in order to express them simply, cleanly, and in a form amenable to critique. We aim at the mastery Newman describes, a mastery exhibited most powerfully by the tendency to distill and strip away until what remains is a short summary, what might be included in a tightened-up version of Spark Notes.


This is a caricature, of course. It would be silly to imply that the “scientific” is the problem here and that we should all be “uncritical thinkers” unable to recognize and solve the challenges before us. Newman knows as well as any of us that St. Dominic is as necessary to the Church, and the world, as St. Benedict. Newman himself, the author of An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, believed that development, creativity, and invention were necessary treasures. But this does not let us off the hook; for when I answered “mystery” to my thoughtful questioner, I did not mean that philosophers do not confront and try to solve problems (sometimes even successfully). I meant instead that a humble appreciation of the mysterious beauty of reality must be the context for all fruitful problem-solving. We educators all too frequently forget the place of Benedict in the constellation of saints, and in doing so make it harder to look up at the stars.

Poetic Pedagogy

What does poetic pedagogy look like? It was not so long ago that imitative forms of writing were expected and praised. Whereas we typically honor disagreement rather than gratitude, and innovation over preservation or appreciation, it is not hard to imagine an educational and intellectual landscape that fostered a culture of appreciation rather than critique. Imitation is the sincerest form of gratitude, and we could replace the argumentative essay with imitative forms of engagement.

How would the experience of our students change if, instead of asking them to write an essay analyzing the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis, we instead asked them to rewrite their story in the language of the King James while trying to re-present in their own words the movement of those few chapters? If before evaluating a poem by Keats, they had to memorize it first? If instead of critiquing a bit of dialogue by Plato, they composed their own dialogue instead? And how might our own intellectual habits shift if we took time away from composing our academic papers to do such things ourselves before assigning them to our students?

At the root of Benedictine education was the reading of Scripture, and if God is the author of Scripture, then you had better put yourself first at the feet of your text. But this pose is useful for all texts, just as it is useful for all people. For if we teach one another that the highest achievement is criticism of what we read, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we end up aiming at criticism of the people we meet. Learning how to read books is a way of learning how to treat people.


Cultivating Childlike Perception

I suppose one might reply that the “poetic heart,” like poetic education more generally, belongs properly to children. It is children who were educated in the Benedictine schools, the forerunners of those majestic medieval universities. While Benedictine education might be necessary and beautiful in its own way, all of us must grow out of it. The serious business of the intellectual life belongs, ultimately, to science and Dominican education and the practical and morally good uses to which Ignatius put it.

But as Newman says, “what the Catholic Church once has had, she never has lost. Instead of passing from one stage of life to another, she has carried her youth and middle age along with her. She has not changed possessions, but accumulated them. She did not lose Benedict by finding Dominic; and she has still both Benedict and Dominic at home, though she has become the mother of Ignatius.” And what is true for the Church is true for her members, for we are told to be like little children.

Margarita Mooney has called this a return to a childlike state of perception. A professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the founder and director of the Scala Foundation (“scala,” as in the ladder by means of which, according to St. Benedict, we can follow Jacob to the heights of heavenly exaltation made possible by humility), she writes in her introduction to the Cluny edition: “At times, our tendency to analyze, measure, and manipulate needs to be forgone in order to return to a childlike, simple state of perceiving reality that opens up to a sacramental way of living—seeing in visible things the invisible grace of God.” The poetic suffuses all else that comes after it, and calls us back (more often, I think, than we answer) that we might refresh ourselves at its deep wells.

Contemporary Renewal

A broad range of recent renewal movements in Catholic education are products and producers of poetic thinking. These begin not so much with the return to St. Thomas Aquinas called for by Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris (though St. Thomas remains irreplaceable), but with other nineteenth-century cultural developments (including Newman himself) from which emerged the “great books” movement at Columbia in the 1920s.

To follow just one branch of this tree: John Senior, a Columbia alumnus, organized the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas throughout the 1970s. Some graduates of that program joined a Benedictine monastery in France and then returned to found Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma. Another graduate helped found Wyoming Catholic College; and still others were instrumental in founding Gregory the Great Academy in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a boys school that, among other things, sends its high school seniors around Europe on the funds that students earn themselves by juggling in town squares. Or we could follow another branch, the Catholic Studies movement, developed by the Newman scholar Don Briel at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, and followed now by over fifty Catholic Studies programs across the country.

Dominic had a special devotion to Truth, and Ignatius to a life of generous Goodness, but Benedict claims for himself the way of Beauty. Only God knows how Catholic education will continue to develop, but I am convinced that I need to think more poetically and less critically, and read more of Newman, to develop my own contributions. And I know, at the very least, that I should begin and end by asking my students to appreciate, to memorize, and to imitate, and only now and again, rather sparingly, to analyze, to critique, and to replace.

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