Unlearning the Errors of Our Secular Age

I pointed out a month or two ago that the kind of meritocracy we have makes people stupid, mostly because it’s based on a technological attitude toward human life. Thought has an order, but not one we can fully grasp, so if it’s reduced to certified expertise and made a sort of industrial process it stops being thought. The more impressively it’s organized, after a certain point, the less like thought it becomes.

Since that’s so, intelligence needs to consider a counterattack: what should be done so our ways of thinking become more functional and attuned to reality? The most important point, it seems to me, is restoring an understanding of the world that has a place for intelligence and meaning. We orient ourselves toward reality, so if we think the world is mindless we become so ourselves. We can’t quite become mindless, and we can’t help but believe that the world makes sense of some kind, so to make our thought coherent with itself and with our own experience we must accept that the world is ordered by reason and meaning.

The Christian view enables us to do so, and thus to understand our actual situation. It tells us that the world includes not only atoms and the void, along with human skill and desire, but an array of other realities extending up to the absolute intelligence that is God. So technology is not everything, but leaves out what concerns us most. That view explains better than any other how thought can exist, why it applies to the world, and why it has an order we can participate in but can’t fully grasp.

In itself, though, the view is rather abstract. To be usable in a cosmopolitan and argumentative age, it has to be made concrete enough to give determinate results, and include a way of settling disruptive questions. Otherwise it won’t be able to keep itself together or tell us much that’s helpful.

That is where Catholics have an advantage. Our faith has distinct teachings, a structure of authority, a philosophical tradition, and other resources that make it possible to discuss and resolve disruptive issues. The result is that Catholicism is able to deal with new intellectual and social developments while retaining coherence and integrity. That is why Catholic civilization invented the university and fostered the sciences and liberal arts, and it is also why the Church has been able to come back repeatedly from catastrophic weakness and corruption.

Keeping the whole of thought together can be a lot of work, and cutting corners is always a temptation. The easiest way to do so, if new developments in the secular world are strong and the Church is weak, is simply to conform the Faith to the new developments. That is what Catholics have done in recent times, at least at the practical everyday level.

The civilization of the West was once Catholic Christendom, and until quite recently the Church remained a respected presence within it. That is not true any more, but we do not notice how profoundly the understandings now established are at odds with the ones we claim as Christians. The failure is made easier, of course, by the growing stupidity that affects all of us, and makes us unable to imagine any understandings other than those by which we are surrounded.

So to regain a way of thought that gives thought and meaning a place in the world, and so makes it possible for intelligence to function without defeating itself, we have a huge labor of intellectual reconstruction before us. We have to reconnect to our heritage, and that means unlearning many of the basic principles we’ve been taught by the world around us, such as the technological standard for life and thought, and putting what is good and true in that world on a different, more Catholic, and more adequate foundation.

Beyond that basic and necessary but somewhat daunting task, a move away from an industrial to a more human and more functional understanding of thought and knowledge would include more specific and immediately practical changes that rely less on Catholicism than on ordinary good sense that should be available to all.

First, most demands for educational and professional certification should be eliminated. The multiplication of such demands is based on the belief that people can’t do anything without special training, because the only knowledge that counts is organized technical knowledge. If we cut back on those requirements people will get back into the habit of doing things as a matter of common sense and everyday human functioning.

Secondly, we should get rid of the idea that everyone has to go to college. Only a minority have the talent and inclination to profit from higher liberal education. If people accept that point, higher education won’t be dumbed down and young people will be freer to develop the particular abilities they have in a way that makes sense. That will be good for everyone.

Our leaders have a variety of reasons for their insistence that everyone go to college. It means more years of thought reform. It means more of life gets absorbed by the formal technocratic structures our rulers dominate. It means jobs, status, and influence for the academically successful that dominate a meritocracy. And it means such people are the model for human worth, since their kind of education and the life it points to is treated as the only one worth having.

There is also a more basic philosophical reason. Technological society has no idea of the good, so it makes individual autonomy the highest goal. To advance that goal, an education is needed that emphasizes critical thinking directed toward informed autonomous decision, and that is what liberal education is now thought to be. To say that some people are limited in their ability to absorb such an education is to say, it is thought, that they are innately less autonomous and more subject to nature or to social categories than other people are. Since nature is now understood as a mindless force, and social categories as arbitrary and oppressive, the result is that such people would have to be considered slavish and even subhuman compared to others. Such a view is morally unacceptable.

In fact, of course, we are all limited in our ability to engage in abstract critical thought and make radically autonomous decisions. The world can’t be reduced to formulas and general principles, however useful they may be as a complement to skill and common sense, so we live more by intuition, imitation, experience, tradition, and the development of good habits than by abstract speculation or formal expertise. The result is that apprenticeship and similar methods of passing down the tradition of an occupation are likely to be more useful than academic study in most connections.

Academic study itself is less a matter of pure critical thinking oriented toward radically autonomous decision than the transmission of a tradition of inquiry and understanding directed on the one hand toward the good, beautiful, and true, and on the other toward leadership and wisdom. Education is always education into a community based on an understanding of man and the world, so it should always have a religious component and emphasize substantive cultural content. For that reason, liberal education should see itself as fundamentally religious, and emphasize something very much like study of the classics. A religious setting makes it possible to make sense of all else, while classical studies provide the discipline of close attention to extremely high-quality texts that present the viewpoint of free and active men capable of handling whatever comes their way. It is hard to imagine a better school for leadership and wisdom, or for the search for truth.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Jamie

    This technological or certification-oriented education starts very early now. First and second graders (at least here in the most notorious school district in the country, Chicago) are positively groaning under the weight of spelling words, science do-at-home projects, and worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. Followed immediately at 3pm by football. No or very little fiction. And very little time left for Dad to teach them how to push a mower, fry an egg, train a dog, take a photograph, or anything else. Needless to say I homeschool.

  • tom

    It’d be a good start if “Catholic” schools just adhered to Catholic Doctrine. That means getting rid of a course on “Muslim Theology” or “History of the Movies”. Sadly, I don’ think we can ever revert to a Civilization of Life because our society loves Death. It’ll have to crash before we can crawl out of the catacombs and start again.

  • I’d have thought that the immense success of homeschoolers would by now have so embarrassed the technocrats that they’d be running for cover. All the evidence shows that we DON’T need people with education degrees to teach children, and that parents of very ordinary education, even those who have never attended college, do a better job teaching their children than our schools do. Or, to put it in a different way, children do a better job learning things when they are home among people they love than when they are bricked up in an institution. Most notable is that boys, when they are taught at home, prove to be quite educable in reading and writing, and resume their modest advantage in mathematics. That alone should suggest how hostile the schools have become for them.

    • Evidence only matters when something is thought to make sense. If something can’t be assimilated to the preconceptions and forms of thought people view as authoritative, it doesn’t matter what the evidence is. That’s especially true if informal personal knowledge has been replaced by formal expertise. The machine simply won’t accept the input.

      • ColdStanding

        Showing that the idealized cognitive model for currently dominant conception of thinking is techne and not science. (My paraphrase of) Jacques Barzun’s idea.

    • hombre111

      Tony, I expected better of you. I have two teachers in my family, and yes, you do need some kind of advanced study to teach children well. There are so many things to watch out for, such as physical, emotional, and learning disabilities. There is the whole challenge of bringing children who speak a foreign language into a skillful use of English. Home schoolers sit at home behind computers to learn their stuff via canned programs. But does the parent force the kid to study with consistency and discipline? Yes, there are success stories. But what about the kids who are homeschooled for a while and then brought back into the school because it wasn’t working? A sister who teaches fifth grade tells me about the home schoolers who come back into the system and sit in front of her and her fellow teachers every year. OK on language and history, way behind the curve on math and science. And very badly socialized, struggling to work successfully with groups.
      Another sister, who teaches 1st. grade, has parents arrive who want to watch the process and criticize. She immediately puts them to work teaching two or three difficult students. And never sees them again.
      “All the evidence?” Come on.

      • tomm

        A quick perusal of data on various website seems to support mr. Esolen’s claims that homeschooled children, generally, outperform “school-schooled” kids. I suspect you are engaging in trolling and obfuscation. I might be wrong – in that case kindly supply us with integral data (national averages) from authoritative sources showing us homeschoolers do on average worse than “school-schooled” ones on the essentials namely reading, writing, calculus/math and science.

        • tomm

          Allow me to link to put up front, especially for Hombre, a relatively authoritarian source (Wisconsin University) which says the homeschooled generally the school-schooled:


        • tom

          You’re right. The John Dewey-based public school system has ruined America from Second Grade, where kids are suspended for drawing a six-shooter with a crayon to the communist-controlled universities of a collapsing nation. Catholics need a cheap parochial school system..a hybrid of the old classroom and virtual options with a Sunday school thrown in. It’ll give Catholic kids an affordable option. There’s work to be done, but our bishops seem lost in a Leftist fog….soul-shocked.

      • Father, I have too much direct experience of these things, having been the president of our 250 family homeschooling organization in RI, for seven years, and then the vice president for another seven. So I have known hundreds of homeschooled children, and have watched them grow from small tots to college students. I’ve also had many of them as my own students, in college. Now, because of the program I teach in every year, I meet over a hundred freshmen and spend the entire year with most of them, each year — and I can pick out of the crowd the kids who have been taught at home or who have gone to a single-sex Catholic high school (or both). They are the ones who smile at me, introduce themselves on the first day, shake my hand, and say, “Thank you, Professor!” The homeschoolers learn to love to read, and especially the boys — because their mothers actually love them and don’t want to force-feed feminist “fairy tales” to them. Sorry, I won’t back down on this one. Most of the teachers of English in our schools would not pass a grammar exam. I know; I teach the kids who are going to be the teachers. I also know, by report, what the kids are learning.

        • hombre111

          Dr. Esolen, I appreciate your thoughts and respect your background. But two things cross my mind. First, students going to Providence are a self-selected group. What is the name of the program you teach every year? Is it also a self-selected group?
          Secondly, I spent the last nine years of my active priestly ministry as a campus minister in a state university, and so I got to meet a very wide spectrum of students. I could also pick out the kids who had gone to Catholic highschool. I found them either ready to learn more about their faith or in the midst of a time of question or rebellion about their faith. In that case, they distanced themselves from the activities of the student center, but sometimes showed up at Mass.
          I could also pick out the homeschooled kids. A couple were absolutely brilliant. But almost all were unbelievably rigid, believing in a black and white world and busy ignoring anything that indicated some shade of grey. I felt sorry for them.

          • tom

            It’d be interesting to see whether the more “hip” students were more productive members of society compared to the more rigid home-schooled kids. Check in 15 years to see. If the relativists are twice divorced with a couple of abortions, and the “rigid” kids are loving moms and dads……who won? It’s too early to tell as our world crumbles around us, led by absolute ninnies from Harvard and Yale.

        • John Charles

          This has been my modest experience as well; matter of fact, in the homeschooling process, oftentimes the “lower I.Q.” parents, in the process of homeschooling their children, often personally gain (read-learn) and pick-up where their previous lackluster education left off!

          • musicacre

            That is so right! I’m surprised this conversation is continuing but for what it’s worth, my husband and I did pick up a lot along the way of homeschooling. I don’t think I can name everything, but a few include re-learning grammar and algebra, Latin, and of course, religion. Considering we both graduated from Catholic private schools (in the 70’s) we knew very little basics of the Catholic faith. In fact we knew almost nothing. Coming from Catholic families, that is a very sad fact. Even more importantly it instilled in us I think, the THIRST to learn ever more about the faith and that continues to grow. I’m grateful for a decision that continues to give more benefits than we ever dreamed of, or intended. Our college educations weren’t all that relevant to homeschooling since they were so specific; mine nursing and his, finance.

            • John Charles

              I love to hear success stories like yours; glad you are doing to well.

    • hombre111

      Tony, what world do you live in? Nobody, especially conservatives, mention the unnamed elephant in the living room. Parents. The vast majority are both working long hours for wages that have not risen in thirty years, to pay the rent and buy the food and clothes, and have no time or energy left. Homeschool? Are you kidding? And then there are the countless parents who supply their kids with i-phones and games and no books to read. And then there are the majority of parents who never show up at a teacher/parent meeting. And then there are the 50% of parents who are below the medium I.Q.. Should they be homeschooling? And then there are the parents of all those disfunctional families whose kids are screwed up and an infliction on anybody who has to deal with them. And then the parents who won’t let the school hold their kid back when they are doing badly, and insist that they go on the next grade and oblivion. These last two groups can make up as much as a third of a class–kids who are constantly disruptive, kids who sit there like lumps because they have simply given up.
      Tony, you have your degree in history. Why don’t you volunteer to help out in juniorl highschool, live in the middle of a public school culture, and then come back and talk about it.

      • patricia m.

        “And then there are the 50% of parents who are below the medium I.Q..” No problem, as intelligence is genetic, their kids also will be below the medium IQ level.

      • patricia m.

        But I agree with you, it’s very difficult for a lot of people in this country to rely on only ONE breadwinner, usually the father, so that the mother can devote herself to the kids. It’s an elite. Nowadays, if the child is lucky enough to have both parents cohabiting in the same house, s/he will be able to see them and talk to them on the weekends. When both of them will probably be very tired to be of much use… This is our times, ladies and gentlemen.

    • Facile1

      I do not wish to post this commentary twice, so I am addressing it to Mr. Esolen. I am assuming Mr. Kalb monitors all the commentaries posted in his blog sites.

      Mr. Kalb wrote in response to Mr. Esolen:

      “Evidence only matters when something is thought to make sense. If something can’t be assimilated to the preconceptions and forms of thought people view as authoritative, it doesn’t matter what the evidence is. That’s especially true if informal personal knowledge has been replaced by formal expertise. The machine simply won’t accept the input.”

      In an ephemeral and material plane of existence, EVIDENCE is all we have and evidence is always singular in nature.

      What does ‘ephemeral’ mean? Evidence is a function of TIME.

      What does ‘material’ mean? Evidence is subject to DECAY.

      What does ‘singular’ mean? Evidence is ‘ONE-OF-A-KIND’ because it occurs in a non-repeatable point in time and in a non-reproducible point in space.

      Unfortunately, the collection of evidence is subject to the same human error and manipulation as any “choice of words.” Data collection cannot be divorced from organizing principles. Experiments are designed around hypotheses assumed to be true (even in the absence of evidence). Whether in a laboratory or in a court of law, sense is what we make of it.

      In short, evidence is not “proof”. Language is a human invention. The TRUTH is NOT.

      So, how does one teach the young an eternal and spiritual TRUTH (i.e. GOD)?

      Only with great humility and with abject repentance always.

      The first step is to LOVE GOD FIRST.

      Sin begins in the head.

      As one educated by a father over the strong objections of her mother, I do mean to accuse.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Pascal puts it very well.

    “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them… For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses [Le cœur sent] that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways.”

  • If it were truly a meritocracy, many of our current problems would not exist. However, it is a meritocracy perverted by entitlement and political correctness, which makes for a jumbled mess. When you add in the basically permanent nature of a teaching job, how surprised should we be that we’re swirling the drain?

    As to Catholic Doctrine,Catholic schools need not only to adhere to it, but to teach it. Likewise RCIA. We have a Magisterium, right and proper; we do not need a second magisterium of theologians and liturgists. With 45+ years of bad or missing catechesis behind us, again, how surprised should we be at the current state of understanding of the faith by the laity?

    The certificate on which teaching jobs now depend is roughly as useful as a high school diploma in qualifying someone to teach. It most assuredly needs to be eliminated. We need teachers with real knowledge, the knowledge (in the case of sciences and of language) gained by actually working in the field, not just reading the books.

    I went through two years of RCIA in a parish where never once in a class was the Catechism mentioned. Where the favorite “theologian” of the catechists was Fr. Richard Rohr, and their favorite source of inspiration Sr. Joan Chittister. Thus do the blue-hairs propagate their “spirit of Vatican II” mentality. This needs correction, and now.

  • ColdStanding

    Under the heading of: Formulating a Work-around Solution

    There has to be a happy medium between home schooling and institutional public schools. What about the one room school? A group that has all ages in under one instructor. I suggest this because in my efforts to introduce the catechism at home, I have notice that the youngest can easily handle the material that is supposedly for the older children.

    No, one instance does not make the point. Yes, my youngest probably is extremely gifted in comparison to his cohort (Apple/Tree, eh?). Neither exception, though, challenging as they are for the formulation of an explanation, is sufficient grounds to rule out the validity of my perception. I am convinced that the young have a much greater capacity to take on and master complex material than is widely assumed today. I also believe that this is very much the home schooled child’s experience anyways.

    It is possible for some, right out of the gate, and others, when the light turns on after seeing the plan, to undertake the transition to home schooling. For another sizeable group, it is would be a significant challenge to home school. Banding together to place children under the long-term guidance guidance of one teacher – all “grades” together, with supplemental help from parents and others responsible for leading some of the more advanced work, could be a workable model in some circumstances.

    • tom

      Thanks. Many pupils from one teacher classrooms came her from the British isles decades ago and found themselves a year or so ahead of their age-assigned grade levels in America. It works.

    • musicacre

      I grew up in a small village in northern Sask. where one-room schooling was still spossible. (We’re talking the 60’s) The unions have destroyed that and you will never see it again…unless of course you realize that ( privately) is basically what homeschooling is. Don’t you realize the incredible flexibility and creativity that the form of “home-schooling” can take? We have a relatively small group of Catholic Homeschoolers here on the West Coast (Canada) and you would not believe the various configurations and associations that our children have benefited from. We had for quite a few years running, a French teacher teaching all the kids together, we had a mother teaching the Andrew Pudewa English course, we had a professional artist (one of the Dads) teaching the kids art for a number of years, we had our own choir put together by our voice teacher; this meant the kids all had voice training and therefore we won many award as a choir in the local music festivals.They also all sang the psalms at Church; properly. We also had another (French) mother come out here a few years later and teach high school French which was accepted by the province as legit. We also had all the kids in highland dancing together and won many awards. Some of the teen-aged kids learned how to cater and put on a series of pro-life banquets and raised enough money for themselves to go to World Youth Day when it was in Canada. (My daughter was one of those) Separately, alot of us had our kids in figure skating (us for 17 years) music lessons, swimming lessons and karate. We booked a gym for Friday eve”gym night”, many years ago, and that still goes on as new families come along. Ditto for basketball night. Not to mention camping trips, field trips and picnics. The list goes on. I don’t want to bore you. I’m just trying to show you that homeschooloing will be as dry or exciting as a parent chooses. Of course all these thing I mentioned were in addition to regular academics.

      I would be remiss though if I didn’t mention the really big advantage to home education…how do I say it? The children becomes close first of all to their parents and siblings, and that is a blessing for the rest of of their lives. I rejoice when I see my homeschooled and now university educated children consult each other when they have a problem even though they have friends also. They have a lot of respect for each other, and amazingly, still seek out our opinions at times, as parents.

      • musicacre

        I should have put a PS and mentioned that according to one of the rules of Economics, everything is a choice; when you choose one thing, you usually give up another. In the case of home-schooling, yes there will be less money and probably a lot of people like us, will always have an ugly very old car. But what happened to trusting God and making the decision that is right and trusting that somehow it all works out?

      • ColdStanding

        Greetings from the Paris of the Prairies.

        I did not find your report boring at all. Thank you. You have illustrated exactly what I mean.

  • JediWonk

    “Credentialism” is the great new civil rights issue of our time–what racism was in America in the 1950s. I barely graduated from a third-rate college with a C– average in economics, but have gotten to interact with luminaries like Peter F. Drucker and Milton Friedman, and also testify recently before the Congress on cybersecurity mostly because at that level, folks engage your mind and ideas, not your “credentials”. But God help me if I tried to get an entry-level job in information security. My lack of any formal training would disqualify me!

    • poetcomic1 .

      From early on, feminists were big on ‘credentials’. I remember when a smart, very hard working man could get ahead with a high school diploma. Now a lazy, ‘entitled’ woman can sue if such a man is promoted over her and she has all these ‘degrees’ to wave around. It is an ‘obvious’ case of prejudice.

  • musicacre

    Great article! Homeschooled since 1990 and although it was great for the kids, I suspect it will be analyzed for years to come! I smile when I hear about the dreaded “social” thing! That was the biggest fear and obstacle for several families that we convinced many years ago to homeschool. Put there by the ignorant rantings mostly, of society around us. When they look back on how their children have excelled in not only academics, but leadership skills, performance skills, athletics ,etc and no bullying all those years! The list goes on, of how these older kids also becomes credible role models for the younger children. They become very much engaged in the society around them and therefore, model citizens!

    • tom

      This is the good news of this whole blog. Thanks.

    • John Charles

      That “socialization” thing………..meaning teaching your children how to manipulate the dysfunctional. I believe some studies were done on this “socialization” business sometime during the “90’s; the conclusion being that children “socialized” within an older, smaller, and reasonable ‘pack’ (home schooled) matured quicker and were much more well-rounded than children ‘attending’ the prison system (public schools). Glad you decided to give the sane route a chance.

  • Uk Reader

    A very thought provoking article with some big ideas to consider. A pleasure to read so thank you Mr Kalb.

    I’m very pleased to have found this website as I’ve been looking for intelligent Catholic debate and opinion for some time. The first two articles I’ve read have had me hook line and sinker and I’ll be coming back.

    • Crisiseditor

      Welcome to Crisis. We have many readers from across the pond, thousands in fact. This in addition to a good representation from the British Commonwealth. A Catholic website should, by definition, be universal. As Crisis reaches more readers, it will be in a better position to offer even more quality content. It only gets better from here. Cheers!

  • Edward G. O. Radler Rice

    Mr. Kalb,

    I appreciate your emphasis on apprenticeship and an apprenticeship model for learning. “The result is that apprenticeship and similar methods of passing down the tradition of an occupation,” you write, “are likely to be more useful than academic study in most connections.”

    Is word-of-mouth adequate in determining just which teacher one should trust? Besides parental influence and direction, how are the young to choose their masters?

  • poetcomic1 .

    Wisdom is not a CORE curriculum goal last I heard. I don’t think the education-czars even know what it is.

  • Pingback: The Beat Goes On | The Orthosphere()

  • Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place()