An Interview with Darryl De Marzio, Ph.D., the Portsmouth Institute’s Jean Leclercq, O.S.B. Fellow for Benedictine Education  

Darryl De Marzio, Ph.D. was recently named the Portsmouth Institute’s Jean Leclercq, O.S.B. Fellow for Benedictine Education. Dr. De Marzio arrived at the Abbey in the summer of 2022 after spending fifteen years at the University of Scranton where he taught courses in philosophy and educational theory. Dr. De Marzio teaches in the Humanities and History departments at the Abbey.

What first drew you to Catholic education?  

While I was born and raised Catholic, I did not attend Catholic schools at any level of my formal education. However, as an educator, I have only worked within Catholic institutions—first at the University of Scranton, which is Jesuit; and now at Portsmouth Abbey School.  

As a philosopher of education, I was initially drawn to Catholic education precisely because the Catholic intellectual tradition is such a rich and wide-ranging resource for reflecting deeply on the big questions. If anything drew me to Catholic education it was, first and foremost, that fact.  

Your academic training is in philosophy and education. As someone who’s spent a career reflecting on education, how would you characterize education today?  

Today, we are in what could be called a “crisis of education.” So many educational institutions have lost their identities and have become strangely mission-less, disfigurements of what they once gloriously were. Either they have purposely rejected their inheritance outright, or they are unable to comprehend what their educational inheritance is trying to impart. This is why trends and fads proliferate in modern education. At almost every level of education, there has been an ongoing effort to tear down some feature of that inheritance and replace it with something new and untried, all without ever really understanding why that feature was originally there to begin with. Catholic education—as both an intellectual tradition and a practice—can guide us in understanding, not only that original purpose, but to see the novel problems that arise in education in a clearer light.  

Many schools have chosen to move away from the Western and Catholic intellectual tradition. As a teacher in Portsmouth Abbey School’s Humanities program—an integrated curriculum covering 2,000 years of history, philosophy, theology, and literature—what have you noticed in your students? What are the program’s fruits?  

There are several reasons why schools have moved away from the Western intellectual tradition, all of which, I maintain, are based on false claims.  

First is the idea that the Western tradition is exclusive, that it is only representative of a particular culture, race, gender, geographical region, and so on. This view takes what is ultimately unimportant about this tradition and tries to make it essential. What makes the Western intellectual tradition so significant is that it aspires toward the universal. It is an adventure in human self-understanding, not the self-understanding of any particular set of human beings. While Plato and Aristotle might express an Ancient Greek understanding of the human condition, what they are pursuing is an understanding of the human condition as such. Their ethical philosophy does not ask, ‘How should one live insofar as they are European, male, etc.?’ but ‘How should one live insofar as they are human?’ Far from being exclusive, the Western intellectual tradition is precisely inclusive!  

Secondly, some argue that studying the Western tradition is impractical and that what students need are skills that will have some cash-value later in life. There are reams of data which suggest this is untrue. Students that study the humanities, that have practiced the art of critical thinking, that are able to grapple with big questions and big ideas, are precisely the sorts of generalists that top universities and employers desire.  

But I think there is a much more compelling case to be made against this criticism. To deny students the opportunity to study the humanities is to do them a grave injustice. All human beings, starting from early childhood, are what I would call self-interpreting beings. We are the only beings who are available for ourselves to interpret and to understand. This capacity for self-interpretation and self-understanding is what constitutes our humanity. A human being cannot be reduced to a wage-earner, political activist, or a specific cultural identity. So, the move away from the humanities and the Western intellectual tradition by modern education is profoundly unjust—it is a strike against the very humanity of students!  

Finally, there is the argument that high-school students cannot comprehend the great works of the Western intellectual tradition. Well, as someone who has taught philosophy at the graduate and undergraduate levels for a long time, I can say with confidence that fifteen-year old kids are just as able to engage deeply with Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas. I see them doing it every day. And not only do our Humanities students have the ability to engage with these works, they also enjoy it immensely. The reason, I think, is because of the two points I made earlier. The great works of Western literature and philosophy are all responses to the universal human question, ‘What does it mean to be a person in the world?’ Our students in Humanities long to explore this question and to hear what the great thinkers have to say about it, not in spite of their being teenagers, but precisely because they’re teenagers!  

Compared to the educational approaches of the Jesuits, Dominicans, and other religious orders, what about Benedictine education is so unique?  

I usually compare the Jesuit and Benedictine approaches in terms of some very general orientations, having mainly to do with the kind of response to the world each approach attempts to cultivate.  

The Jesuit response, in my mind, is to know the world in order to transform it. Because there is injustice, poverty, ignorance, and suffering in the world, we must know the world in order to identify these ills, determine their root causes, and conjure the means to eradicate them. In this way, the Jesuit educational approach emphasizes practical knowledge, or, rather, the putting of one’s knowledge, whether that be humanistic, scientific, or professional, into practice in order to effect societal transformation.  

The Benedictine approach is more akin to orienting oneself to the world as one who reads the world, as if the world were a text. The visible things of this world are analogous to the words, signs, and symbols of a text, and they point to the invisible reality of the divine in the same way that the words of a text signify the invisible meaning of the text. No wonder the reading of texts is so central to both Benedictine education and spirituality! Just think how formative reading a truly great book is: our exterior sense of sight is activated, and our interior senses of imagination, memory, and judgment are given vitality; our emotions are not only stirred but wrestled with: fear, anger, hope, desire, and joy; our will is exercised through repeated acts of deliberation; and, of course, our intellect is nourished through the formation of concepts and the use of our reason and intuition. In short, the whole self is brought into play and transformed in the very act of reading. But only the truly great works can have this formative influence on the reader—certainly the great works of God, the book of Nature and the book of Scripture; but also, the truly great works of civilization. This is why St. John Henry Newman gave Benedictine education the tag ‘poetic’, in the ancient sense of poiesis, as a process of formation or bringing something into existence. In this vein, he dubbed Dominican education ‘scientific’, and Jesuit education ‘practical’. What is so unique about Benedictine education therefore is its poetic character of bringing into being the whole self of the student, bringing into existence who the student is meant to become.  

Can you say more about this Benedictine “poetic” approach, particularly as it relates to teachers?

A poetic approach to teaching and learning should not be confused with a romantic, sentimentalist approach, but instead aims to be formative and transformative of the person. One of the great challenges facing teachers today is the instrumentalist view that far too many both inside and outside of education have of the work. It is as if teachers were thought of as interchangeable functionaries of some learning-response mechanism. I think such a view of teaching is unsustainable and contributes to dispiritedness and burnout. Most teachers understand that their practice is a human and humane engagement through and through. To teach is to bring one’s whole person to the task—one’s judgment, reason, intuition, imagination, knowledge, and experience—which is just another way of saying that teaching is an art, not a technique. To flourish in the work, teachers need to bring to teaching a sense of vocation. What I mean by this is that teachers need to see their work once again, or perhaps for the very first time, as their unique way of responding to the world, as their answer to the question, “How should I live?”  

You will spearhead the Portsmouth Institute’s 2024 PIETAS conference, an intellectual and contemplative retreat for teachers. What can attendees expect at this year’s conference?  

What attendees can expect is a Benedictine approach to teacher-education. In addition to engaging with the works of Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and others; in addition to exploring questions about the nature and purpose of education, attendees will get a chance to approach the practice of teaching poetically. There will also be time devoted to prayer, to fellowship, and to leisure. Our campus is situated along the Narragansett Bay which, in the summer, is absolutely beautiful. It is a prime location for contemplative reading and learning.