A classical Catholic education at Cardinal Kung

STAMFORD—Dr. Alexander Miller has taught at the University of Notre Dame, Fordham University and St. John’s University, but he wasn’t quite prepared for what he encountered two years ago when he arrived at Cardinal Kung Academy for a job interview as principal and sat in on a junior class studying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“It was an incredible conversation you would be hard-pressed to get in a college class,” he recalled. “One 17-year-old even started asking questions about Aristotle, and I came away from this encounter, saying to my wife, ‘I want our kids to be at this level in high school.’”

He got the job, by the way. And today, Dr. Miller isn’t hesitant to say he has witnessed the decline of curiosity at the college level, and now the “real work is getting students to ask their own questions and learn how to disagree.”

That’s his mission at Cardinal Kung Academy in Stamford, a college-preparatory junior and senior high school with grades 7 to 12, which offers a liberal arts style of education in the classical tradition, with an integrated curriculum rooted in the Great Books. The education is “steeped in the Church’s tradition and guided by practicing Catholic faculty and staff.”

Some 110 students are enrolled in seventh to 12th grade, with 19 faculty members, 11 of whom have graduate degrees. The academy prides itself on “forming future Catholic leaders through Catholic classical education,” and it has as its motto “Manens in veritate cum gaudio”—“Abiding in the truth with joy.”

Dr. Miller’s philosophy is a simple one: “It is an absolute shame to waste teenage curiosity and teenage joy … because we don’t see enough of it in the world.” And even though his students read Dante and Shakespeare and pray in Latin, they’re still joyful and exuberant teenagers.

Cardinal Kung Academy is committed to academic rigor across the disciplines, from math and sciences to the humanities, and it upholds high standards for writing and critical thinking, he said.

The curriculum includes literature from ancient, medieval, Renaissance and modern sources, along with studies in sacred Scripture, dogmatic theology, moral theology and apologetics. In addition to math, science and Latin, there is also a focus on fine arts, which include music, drama and art.

Central to the academy’s classical approach are seminar discussions about the great works, which encourage debate, discussion and disagreement.

“Learning is a progressive and collaborative process,” Dr. Miller says. “That is why I find the classical approach so refreshing, because it situates the teacher and the students under the guidance of great thinkers and under the history of civilization.”

Students in the seventh and eighth grades are introduced to the process by reading primary sources that are shorter, such as the maxims of the Stoic philosophers, and they then engage in discussion to figure out what is being said. They are also introduced to Shakespeare by reading The Tempest and parts of Julius Caesar as a preparation for a broader discussion in high school.

“Our students are encouraged to devour the book,” Dr. Miller says. “They underline, draw pictures, and make notes of their visceral reactions. It slows down the reading process. You can’t read for mileage this way, but when you come to discuss it, you are prepared.”

In the beginning, teachers assist them by providing study questions, in preparation for the high school seminars.

“This is difficult work and students have to be initiated slowly,” Miller says. “Our standards are way too low if we’re just hoping that students understand the plot line or can parrot it back.”

He believes much of this dynamic is missing in higher education, where civil and productive argument has evaporated to such an extent that students are hesitant or reluctant to disagree or “to suggest someone was incorrect and there was a better way to think about an issue.”

He cited an internal survey done by Columbia University on intellectual freedom, which found that even though the administrators were generally pleased with the “level of discourse and the efforts for diversity, equity and inclusion, the percentage of professors and students who believed that open disagreement and honest inquiry were possible in the classroom was dismally low.” It is a phenomenon, he believes, that pervades much of higher education.

Dr. Miller is convinced the last thing his faculty and students want is “a thoughtless routine in the classroom.”

“Whether it’s an argument in a seminar or an argument over dinner, we are testing our thoughts against other people’s experiences and perspectives, and it refines them so that we’re no longer echoing our parents, our club, our party or whatever,” he says. “This is essential for educating citizens … We need citizens of cities and the Church who know how to disagree and who have the intellectual maturity to hear someone else’s point.”

Cardinal Kung Academy, he says, has avoided the approach of some other classical schools begun by bookish educators who were knowledgeable in the classics, but gave math and science short shrift.

“That’s not the approach here,” he said. “We have a well-developed curriculum in theology, history and literature, and we offer as rigorous a program in math and science as we can, including AP Calculus and Computer Science.”

The results are apparent in college acceptances. Graduates have gone on to Catholic University of America, Carnegie Mellon University, College of the Holy Cross, Columbia University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Gettysburg College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Connecticut, University of Dallas and the University of Notre Dame, among others.

Dr. Miller earned his AB magna cum laude with a double-major in philosophy and theology from Georgetown University, an MA in Early Christian Studies (jointly sponsored by Classics and Theology) from the University of Notre Dame, an MA in Christian Near Eastern Studies from the Catholic University of America, with a major in Syriac and minor in Coptic, and a PhD in theology from Fordham University, specializing in patristic theology.

Many of the students at Cardinal Kung were home-schooled and come from families that want to be actively involved in their children’s education.

“I want involved parents—parents who care about what is going on in their kids’ lives and in school,” he said. “This is truly an unusual community, where the parents really want to help out.”

That involvement goes so far as to have them undertake tasks, such as assisting at the front desk, setting up for events, and helping with sports programs, which include basketball, boys soccer, volleyball, cross country, tennis, and frisbee and running clubs.

The academy is firm in its Catholic faith. The day begins with prayer in Latin and ends with prayer and a hymn to the Blessed Mother.

Father Joseph Gill, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Monroe, is the school’s chaplain. He also teaches two high school theology classes, celebrates Mass twice a week and hears confessions.

“He is indefatigable; he brings a joyful energy with him,” Dr. Miller says. “He is happy in his priesthood and open and charitable with the students….He also has the wonderful ability to be clear about the truth of the faith without being off-putting and doctrinaire.”

That love of the faith also extends to the faculty. Dr. Miller says he has received applications from Catholic teachers “who are looking for a place where they don’t have to separate their professional life and their faith life.”

“The great lie out there is that you have to sacrifice either the quality of instruction or the commitment of the instructors to the faith in Catholic schools,” he says. “I am seeing we have incredible instructors and teachers who are drawn by our Catholic environment. We have an impressive faculty. We are only five years old and a little school—and we have no business having this kind of faculty.”

And he is quick to add: “This is a Catholic school that is robustly Catholic.”

By Joe Pisani