Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning

June 2002By Darrell Dobbs

Darrell Dobbs, Professor of Political Philosophy at Marquette University and father of eight, is a past member of the Board of Directors of Mercy Academy, an independent school supporting Catholic families in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. This article is adapted from a talk originally given to the Mercy Parents’ Reading Group.

"The pursuit of wisdom especially joins man to God in friendship."

— St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles I 2.i


The mission of Mercy Academy — stated in the motto on its official seal — is to prepare students “to bear witness to the truth” (Jn. 18:37). Bearing witness is, of course, different from repeating hearsay. A witness’s testimony does not depend on what others say but on what he has himself seen or learned. The curriculum of Mercy Academy is designed, accordingly, to teach students how to learn, not merely to repeat what others have told them. Our school is a gymnasium for exercise in the arts of learning rather than a dispensary for the transmission of information.

This gymnastic conception of schooling is unabashedly countercultural. In our “media” age, people commonly mistake manipulative capacity for wisdom and data retrieval for knowledge. Most schools reflect this misunderstanding in their curricula. But Mercy Academy approaches the task of education differently. To cultivate the learning skills that youngsters need to fulfill the responsibilities and enjoy the privileges of adulthood, Mercy provides:

(1) A Catholic culture in which our Faith is lived and learned.

(2) Instruction in phonics rather than “whole language.”

(3) Rigorous exercise in the four operations of arithmetic — without the use of calculators.

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