Dale Ahlquist, keynote speaker at the Symposium on Transforming Culture.

Catholic Education Is the Future, Says Record Symposium

Catholic education is a bright hope for the culture. More than 50 speakers spelled out exactly how at the Symposium on Transforming Culture in America at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, March 15-16.

Dale Ahlquist, Elisabeth Sullivan, and Ryan Topping were the three keynote speakers at the Symposium, whose 2024 theme was “Restoring All Things in Christ: The Mission of Catholic Education Today.”

Ahlquist (pictured above), who founded the first Chesterton Academy high school, has seen his classical education experiment repeated in more than 50 schools worldwide, with one online version for homeschoolers. “It was a little spark and now it’s a wildfire,” Ahlquist said. “And we’re seeing cultural change from the ground up as a result.”

The Covid pandemic changed the education landscape, he said. “Parents saw for the first time what their children were learning and they were not pleased.”

Sullivan (pictured at right with Dr. Matt Muller, Symposium organizer) is the executive director of Catholic Liberal Education, serving 273 member schools. She painted a picture of how government-run schools went astray.

She said 1979 is both the year the Federal Department of Education was founded and the first year a steep decline in education markers began nationwide.

“Demand for data became the tail wagging the dog,” she said. “Since the emphasis was on what is measurable, schools began teaching to the tests.” Now students have a “Cram, test, forget” mentality.

Topping, author of The Case for Catholic Education, described how big an impact authentic Catholic education can have. “The difference is that modern and  classical  education have different ends. State education’s end is the perfection of the state,” he said, “while classical education is the perfection of the human.”

He cited Pope Benedict XVI’s memoirs, in which the German native reported how resistant Latin and Greek teachers were to Nazism — and how quickly modern educators fell under the ideology’s sway.

Business Track

Simultaneous with the Symposium, the college organized two ancillary events. In addition to a Center for Integral Ecology discussion, a Business Track of the Symposium was organized by the Benedictine College School of Business and the Thompson Center for Integrity in Finance and Economics. The Business Track included an historic business consecration Mass, the first ever, which saw more than 20 business leaders consecrate their businesses as instruments of God’s service. Center Director Dave Geenens, who planned the Business Track, said “Certainly, restoring all things in Christ includes business. At the Business Track, we decided to not simply ask the question, but answer it.” The Business Track theme was “Catalyzing a New Normal for Business.”

“Catholic teaching is clear,” Geenens said. “The idea that people are not merely means to the end of profit demands a new normal in business. I believe we successfully delivered on that teaching, clarifying some of that ‘new normal, and moved the needle for those attending.”

Author Michael Naughton of the University of St. Thomas was the Business Track’s keynote. He received the St. John Paul II Distinguished Speaker award from Michael King, the Benedictine College School of Business chair, and Geenens (pictured, right).

“The common good is different from what we call private or public goods,” Naughton said, in examining workplace DEI programs. “The common good is attempting to explain the bond of communion that comes about when my good is inextricably bonded to your good.”

A Unique Conference

Stephen D. Minnis, president of Benedictine College, said “The Symposium this year was really remarkable. Every year, our faculty and staff gather leading speakers from academia but also those who are doing the work of renewal out in the world. Those who attended this year told me how refreshing it was to hear both deep thoughts and practical advice.”

Several speakers  guided participants toward increasing “wonder” in students — which Thomas Aquinas calls a necessary condition for learning.

“The main and most important role of an educator today is to teach students how to sense the sacred,” said Father José Medina, former U.S. director for the Communion Liberation movement. “Students have been desensitized to beauty.”

Reawakening wonder is even important in math said Jake Tawney, the chief academic officer of Great Hearts Academies.

“We have reduced mathematics to mere application,” and yet, he said, “it is in mathematics that students come into an encounter with things that are true and eternal. They discover eternal truths about things not made of matter … their first glimpse into the mind of God.”

The dozens of speakers also included Pamela Patnode, who teaches at the Saint Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and gave practical tips about avoiding teacher burnout, and Joe Dobrynski, who described the Seton Fellows program that has been successful at awakening learning in children in underserved areas.

Organizer Matthew Muller was tired but happy after the event.

“We had record attendance at the Symposium this year. I think there are a lot of people passionate about the topic of renewing Catholic education right now,” he said. “Many participants told me how this conference inspired them to continue their work and it gave them hope for the future of Catholic education.”

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.