Catholic Education at a Crossroads

My friend and former colleague Dr. Jared Staudt recently penned an article “How to Save the Soul of Our Catholic Schools” for Crisis Magazine. Dr. Staudt (as I’ll call him here) made a number of sober and valid points about the need to return to a truly Catholic education. Affirming his belief that “[t]he Catholic faith must be the heart and soul of the school,” I wish to add a few practical points, drawing from the classical tradition in which our own Catholic educational tradition is rooted and extending his discussion to cover postsecondary education (especially Catholic schools and university trying to implement a solid classical education). This classical education, seen in its vigorous fullness, will provide the strength and boldness that is sorely lacking even from those Catholic schools seeking to reclaim their Catholic identity.

Catholic education must be imminently rooted in the classics, which should serve as models for moral virtue. As St. Basil the Great writes in “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” pagan literature supplements the study of the Bible for the educated Christian:

Into the life eternal the Holy Scriptures lead us, which teach us through divine words. But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings, which are not altogether different, and in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors. Thus we imitate those who perform the exercises of military practice, for they acquire skill in gymnastics and in dancing, and then in battle reap the reward of their training. We must believe that the greatest of all battles lies before us, in preparation for which we must do and suffer all things to gain power.

For the Church Fathers and for much of the Church’s history, pagan literature, especially the literature of Greece and Roman, was always serviceable, after careful pruning, for the Christian’s use. This is true because classical literature often describes natural virtues and goods. However, so much of classical Catholic education today is hindered by a fetishizing of the classics in which they are simply imbibed for their prettiness or profundity, without acknowledging these works as a guide to real action in the world. In his Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman rightly highlights how properly educated students can apply their learning after graduation:

For why do we educate, except to prepare for the world? Why do we cultivate the intellect of the many beyond the first elements of knowledge, except for this world? Will it be much matter in the world to come whether our bodily health or our intellectual strength was more or less, except of course as this world is in all its circumstances a trial for the next? If then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes. It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world. We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.

Education for Newman is education for citizenship and action in the world; it is not necessarily purely for the sake of abstract contemplation or aesthetic appreciation. It is this practical application of the Great Ideas that is missing from Catholic education today—from our buzzing kindergarten classrooms to our echoing university lecture halls.

Molded by the Great Books or Great Ideas tradition and rightly avoiding the utilitarianism and pragmatism of both Marx and his ideological nephew John Dewey, as Catholics striving for an authentically Catholic education, we often view education in deeply aesthetic and cerebral terms. We think of St. Thomas Aquinas writing for hours bent over his desk or Descartes day dreaming in his bed or Holderlin locked in his mad tower. We think too much of Aristotle’s discussion of contemplation for its own sake in the Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics and too little of Aristotle’s discussion of the importance of education as preparation for the active life of politics in his Rhetoric. We forget that Julius Caesar studied rhetoric under Apollonius of Rhodes not so he could “get good grades,” but so that he could learn the skills necessary to combat the Roman senate and seduce the Roman people. We must turn to the classics as a model for the life of action not simply the life of the mind. The reason our young people should be reading the Aeneid in Catholic schools and colleges is so that when they learn “how hard and huge / A task it was to found the Roman people,” they will learn to live lives of sacrifice for the greater good or their families and our countries and the Church, and not so they can later reflect on their high school or college years and think, “oh, yeah, I read the Aeneid.”

In Catholic education we must also reject the hatred of the physical world and the egalitarian leveling of so much of modern thought. While the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is often used as a punching bag for many Catholic intellectuals today, there is no question that much of what Nietzsche wrote is indubitably true. Nietzsche was right to criticize the flaccidity and ineptitude of much of philosophical thought in the West as well as the “passive nihilism” and ressentiment or hatred of life, strength, and greatness characteristic of modernity. As the great (at least temporarily) Catholic thinker Max Scheler demonstrates in his work Ressentiment, Nietzsche was wrong, however, to see Christianity as fundamentally nihilistic, but he was right to see some liberal Christians as being creatures of ressentiment or, at the very least, wimps. Unfortunately, this passive nihilism and ressentiment has entered into many schools and colleges attempting a Catholic revival.

Education in many of these conservative Catholic classical schools has become too cerebral and intellectual (but, sadly, not necessarily intelligent). We have forgotten that the legacy of Western education has been forged by men and women who were as much active in sport, battle, and politics as they were at home in the “life of the mind” (a perhaps infelicitous phrase if taken too literally). We forget that the greatest succession of philosophers in the history of world was a passing of the baton between athletes and warriors who were also philosophers. Socrates was a combat veteran of the Peloponnesian War who was decorated for saving the playboy Alcibiades. Socrates’s student, Plato, was given his name “Platon” for his big size in wrestling. Plato’s student Aristotle was himself the teacher of Alexander the Great who, when he wasn’t conquering the known world, was writing letters back to Aristotle, complaining that Aristotle was teaching others the secrets of his philosophy. It is this strength and vigor blended with erudition that we are missing in our struggle to revive Catholic education.

In the end, what is missing in Catholic education is the fortitude and boldness that a truly classical education can provide. Reflecting on the masses of the Jazz Age walking across London Bridge, T.S. Eliot, in his haunting poem The Waste Land famously wrote:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Eliot’s gloomy depiction of twentieth century Westerners as the walking dead has only become more accurate in the twenty-first century, and as James Parker writes in his famous essay, “Our Zombies, Ourselves,” what marks the current state of our late postmodern world is apathy, indifference, greed, and sociopathy. However, paradoxically, we live in the perfect time for a bold and vigorous revival of Catholic education. In fact, our most recent presidential campaign is proof of how powerful what psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth calls “grit” really is. Whether one likes or dislikes Donald Trump, it is clear that he seized the presidency in our country through relentless endurance. Like Odysseus, Trump is the “man of many ways” who has endured Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but is still standing. However, enduring a campaign against all odds and governing a great nation often require different practical virtues. Ironically, Trump’s crudity and imprecise speech may impede his administration’s success. Furthermore, his refusal to do the hard work of marshaling a detailed defense of his legislative agenda with patient fortitude in the face of Congressional opposition may further curtail much needed reform. These weaknesses in leadership thus show the importance of having an education that gently chastens and smooths the rough barbarism of both Mycenaean warriors and New York real estate barons.

Ultimately, what we seek in our leaders we should cultivate in our students: endurance or fortitude, tempered by temperance and erudition, is the core classical virtue celebrated in the West since the times of Hector as well as Beowulf, and it is sincerely needed in Catholic education today. Dr. Staudt is right to point to the need for a Catholic environment for Catholic education, but we must also form strong, classically educated Catholic souls; like the title of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s passionate biography of her late husband, Dietrich, in our students, we must inculcate The Soul of a Lion.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are four of the seven liberal arts painted by Francesco Pesellino.

Jesse B. Russell

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Jesse Russell attended Louisiana State University where he earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, writing his dissertation on the reception of the Roman poet Virgil. Presently Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mary, Jesse has published on literary theory, semiotics, and politics. He is currently at work on a book that explores Neoplatonic magic in the work of Edmund Spenser.

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