The Meaning of the Arts and Proper Catholic Anthropology

News: Commentary
by Mark Golbranson  •  •  November 16, 2023   

Pedagogy with a purpose

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I once heard a story meant to express the meaninglessness of life, and I've spent an inordinate amount of time deconstructing it. The story is as follows:

On the side of the road, a boy was creating a rock pile (as boys do). He placed about six rocks carefully on top of each other with a large flat rock on the top. Then, afterwards, he placed a lantern on top. A man walking on the side of the road asked him, "Why are you placing rocks there?" To which the boy responded, "To hold up this lantern I found." Then the man, confused, asked in reply, "But why is the lantern there?" Said the boy, "Why, to make sure the cars driving past don't crack up the rocks here, of course!"

The "moral"? The rocks are there for the lantern; the lantern is there for the rocks.


The story is amusing, but it holds a deeper meaning about the possible vanity or meaninglessness of life. Obviously, a cynical man might see in the tale an allegory for God and our world today. From this point of view, God is like the young boy putting obstacles in our way, but although He puts stumbling blocks in our way, He also seems to give us just enough light to illuminate the dangers so that we aren't hopelessly stumbling about. And yet there's no clear reason for an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God to create such a world. Clearly, there is much more to this story and to life than this. God is not really like the young boy, and only a deeply hurt or cynical person might believe this to be what human reality on earth is.

The real thrust of the story lies in its use of circular reasoning. Since the rocks hold up the lantern, they have a purpose, and since the lantern is there to light up the rocks, it too has a purpose. However, the purpose of one is to serve the other, and vice versa. The fallacy of circular reasoning goes something like this: "You need to listen because if you don't, you will never hear what I have to say!" Preposterous. What's the point? Why should I listen to you? In the story, the boy solves a problem he himself creates. His story is meaningless, but is ours?

Rocks, Lanterns and the Liberal Arts

After hearing this story, I found myself meditating on the parable of the rocks and lantern, and how it might relate to the study of the liberal arts. For context, I recently began working as a middle school religion teacher. It has been a lot of fun, but the relationship between rocks and lantern approximates how I have come to feel, or at least have been tempted to feel, about the vanity of teaching.

What a person learns dictates how he lives.

In college, I extensively studied the liberal arts. Now that I've gone back into the academic scene as a teacher, I have a goal: On top of merely teaching the curriculum, I want to teach students how to live.

After coming to this realization, I sort of began feeling like the boy in our story setting up rocks. I want to teach kids a practical way to live their lives, but I do not want the only reason for my college education to have been teaching. Neither do I want the students to feel like the only thing they can do with their education is to teach others.

The goal of learning, especially the liberal arts, is not to teach others but to apply what you have learned to your personal life and to live a "free" and virtuous life. A liberal arts education teaches one how to be free from being tied down to doing one thing. A student of the arts can do anything because he has learned how to learn. Learning and teaching the liberal arts is not for the sake of anything except to make oneself free from the construct that you have to do one thing for the rest of your life to the exclusion of everything else. If a liberal arts education was ordered solely toward later teaching others, then it would be void of meaning. Therefore, it must have some greater goal.

Imitating Christ to Teach Others About Him

The Church as mystical body of Christ

What a person learns dictates how he lives. Thus, how a person thinks he ought to live dictates how he will educate others. So a formula is born: anthropology dictates pedagogy. Anthropology has been reduced at present to the study of human behavior, but it really means studying how people ought to live. Pedagogy means nothing more than the method of teaching.

How we think people ought to be dictates strongly how we teach them. If we believe the Church is the mystical body of Christ, then we must imitate Christ as much as possible and teach others to do so as well. The true purpose of education is to teach people how to live, not merely to learn for the sake of teaching others. It doesn't matter what our profession is. We are all called to live like Christ. Therefore, our learning should focus on understanding how to live like Christ, and if we teach, our sole aim should be to guide others in learning how to live. If you teach physics, the purpose is for the students to become better physicists. If you are in medical school, your goal is to become the best doctor possible.

So in conclusion, I relate these final remarks to the moral of the story.

The rocks and the lantern are teaching and learning. Teachers teach so that those learning under them might grow in the knowledge of how to live. Catholic teachers teach so that those learning under them might better understand what it means to be men and thus join themselves more perfectly to Christ in the Church. Teaching is not a vanity or a never-ending cycle of learning in order to teach and teaching in order to learn; rather, it is dedicated to the unique task of guiding others on how to live their lives more perfectly.

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