Catholic Education, Standards and human Ingenuity: An Interview with Dr. Dan Guernsey

Catholic Education, Standards and human Ingenuity: An Interview with Dr. Dan Guernsey

Dr. Dan Guernsey is Associate Professor and Chair of Education at Ave Maria University. He earned a B.A. in English from the University of San Francisco and a M.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Guernsey went on to earn his M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision from California State University, Fresno. He received his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Eastern Michigan University in 2003. Guernsey specializes in Catholic school identity, policy, independent schools, and academic standards. He agreed to an interview in his office on the third floor of the Henkels Academic Building.

I had never been exposed to the liberal arts before college. While I began on a biology/premed track, once I discovered the glory of the liberal arts, I found I could address the ailments afflicting mankind in a way that resonated with me more than the scientific modality.  

I pursued a B.A. in English because I love reading. Literature captured my heart and imagination and allowed me to integrate my idealistic side with my intellectual side.

After I graduated, I went to India and the Philippines, where I worked as a lay missionary for two years. When I returned to the U.S., I began working at a homeless shelter. I also earned my M.A. in English and a teaching certificate, and then I taught for a couple years before earning a M.Ed. in School Administration. I worked as the principal at a high school in Ohio from 1996 to 2000.

I began working for Tom Monaghan in 2000. I was interviewing with the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a position at one of their K-8 schools when I found out that Tom was looking for someone to manage all his K-12 projects in the area. I was offered the management job and I took it, overseeing eight different school sites in the Ann Arbor area and a few other of Tom’s many projects.

Tom wanted to transform not just higher education, but also Catholic education at all levels—“K-20,” if you will. He saw the value in nuns and religious as educators because he recognized that the teacher is the ultimate curriculum. He wanted to encourage teaching nuns, and so he partnered with Mother Assumpta, who was starting to form a teaching order back in 1997. Tom helped them get started. He funded their mother house and helped them start several schools. When he began building Ave Maria University in Florida, he was able to get the Sisters to open up a mission site down here.

The thing I most treasure in my office is a religious medal given to me by Mother Assumpta—it’s the same type all the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist wear.

I first came down to Florida in 2004 to start AMU’s graduate school in Education. It operated from 2004-2006, at which point the project was put on hold until the university could get fully accredited. After serving as president of Ave Maria College in Michigan during its final two years, I returned to Florida to found Ave Maria’s K-12 classical school, Donahue Academy, where I was headmaster until 2014.

I returned full-time at AMU in 2014 to start up the Education Program at AMU.

I really enjoy supervising our teacher candidates in the field. All Education majors spend one day a week for three semesters in a school learning how to teach. For the last semester of their senior year, they work as full-time teachers. I provide them with advice, support and guidance.

Many of the Education Program students decide to work in the nearby Immokalee schools, which work almost entirely with severely at-risk students; their hearts fall in love with the kids there.

My love for excitement is what keeps me at Ave Maria; this is an incredibly exciting place. After more than 16 years of working for Ave Maria, I have never ever been bored and I have never ever felt not needed. It’s a privilege and an honor to work with the quality of people assembled in this amazing project.

If I had a month off, I would go to California. I’m a Californian by birth and temperament. I am very comfortable with a wide swath of people and ideas…that’s why I loved studying in San Francisco. One minute I could be in a classroom studying Aristotle, and the next minute be on a bus next to a drunk homeless person, finding myself trying to bring these two extremes into some sort of synthesis. I like trying to make sense of the intensity of reality.

My favorite mode of travel is by foot along a beach or in a forest or a swamp.

Some of my recent writing and research has been on Catholic school identity as well as academic standards in public and private schools. The recent nationalization of K-12 standards has impacted Catholic schools; I try to help them understand that impact and maintain a strong Catholic identity.

I am working on the Catholic Standards Project in answer to the problems posed by college- and career- based national standards. The government has laid out standards for its schools; we are trying to articulate what the additional standards might be appropriate for Catholic schools to add to their unique educational efforts. Because Catholic schools exist for the salvation of students and to serve the common good, their mission is larger, and their standards also have to be larger. Students should think deeply about the human condition and the nature of reality; they should be able to identify and work within the transcendental paradigms of Truth, Beauty and Goodness; they ought to learn from the historical situations and decisions of men and women throughout history, hopefully increasing their own practical prudence and ability to judge rightly. A Catholic education from the heart of the Church should do more for the integral formation of the human person than just offering secular job skills.

Another related project I am working on is the Catholic Identity Self-Assessment Guide. The goal is to help Catholic schools evaluate their performance as Catholic schools—in light of Church documents.

Because I was a Catholic school administrator for more than 13 years, I know there’s a need for the sort of research projects I am now working on. I felt that need when I was running schools. I’ve worked with the good folks trying to make Catholic schools happen. Now, in academia, I have the space to develop the resources and material needed out there in the field.

I love to fish, sometime from my canoe, but also off of the beaches. My biggest catch was 44-inch snook at Delnor Wiggins Pass. I was with my son, and we had a little child’s rod that wasn’t strong enough to reel him in, so I ended up having to run up the sandbar to reel, and then pull in the beast manually.  

I think that the world’s greatest invention is anything in a box marked “As Seen on TV.” Occasionally, I’ve been known to buy them. I love creative and crazy inventions. I love wacky human ingenuity. I love life hacks—crazy ideas for doing simple tasks in bizarre ways. My latest YouTube find on this is “CrazyRussianHacker” (look him up!).

My favorite country is India; it’s the land of superlatives, and I love extreme things. I’m an adrenaline junkie. That’s why I like to walk into the swamps with the alligators. I’m attracted to things that are superlative and sublime, and India provides plenty of opportunities for the best and the worst and the most…fill in the blank!

I never leave home without forgetting something. I’m pretty forgetful.

What do I look for in students? Kindness.