What is the purpose of Catholic education? As Catholics, this is a question we should always be asking and concerned with. Catholics are supposed to be a separated people, a people elect and married to God through Jesus Christ. Catholic education, therefore, as an extension of our own ecclesiological theology, is equally meant to be a unique thing in the world—separate and distinct from the winds of modern Babylon.
In our current environment of woke activism and cancel culture, one of the tragedies of Catholic education is how Catholic education is cancelling itself to become more like the world. The long tradition of Catholic humanities and theology, coming together in that distinct Catholic uniqueness, is now being eroded in the push for social relevance; a social relevance that would take Catholic education in the exact opposite direction of its theological commitments and identity. To become like the world of education around us is a most profound dereliction of purpose and responsibility. Souls will be lost because of it and are being lost because of it.
Excellence is a pathway to God. To imitate excellence is to ascend to the heavens, to climb Mount Sinai as many of the patristic fathers long ago noted. The insistence on excellence is also a hallmark of humanism—not the false humanism of affirmation, but the genuine humanism of molding and reforming to the Divine.
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Nowadays we see schools across the country, including Catholic ones, abandoning the insistence on excellence in the name of atoning for supposed inequalities in educational life. The argument, repeated ad nauseum to the point of nauseating putridity, is that excellence is an expression of white supremacy that disenfranchises minorities. The problem, however, of affirming mediocrity (at best) is that we set people up to fail in life. Greatness is a noble virtue to strive for, it is something that will also prepare any student for the realities of life.
Moreover, excellence can—and should—be understood as an expression and manifestation of love. Love, as we know, is to will the good of another. Excellence, and its demand, is a form of willing the good of others. To strive for excellence in education, work, and study is a training in love and how love guides us to the good things in life. The love of excellence in education can lead to the love of the highest excellence of all: God.
Yet another reason why Catholic education needs to retain its unique exceptionalism in the world is because goodness, beauty, and truth—wherever they are found—belong to God. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine articulated this famous outlook that has long guided the Catholic understanding of the world.
In reading the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and God’s command to take with them the treasures of Egypt, Augustine said that natural science, mathematics, and other earthly disciplines can and should be utilized by Christians to enhance their spiritual closeness to God. Since God created all things in goodness, beauty, and truth, anything that embodies that goodness, beauty, and truth can become a pathway to God if only the Christian has the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
This is what makes a Catholic education so precious and exceptional. The great works of art and literature, the practicality of the human sciences, and the queen of all sciences—theology—come together in one rigorous system of education under the loving reality of God. Under the stewardship of Catholic education, the classics of Greece and Rome meet the writings of great Christian authors. The best in mathematics and science are shown to point us to God rather than random clumps of matter stimulated by sensations. Plato is read alongside Thomas Aquinas, Ovid alongside Dante, Austen alongside Tolkien.
Matthew Arnold wrote that art and literature are important because they contain “the best that has been thought and said” about the human condition. It is precisely because our art and culture contain in them the “best that has been thought and said” that they are assailed. The goodness, truth, and beauty that Catholics show students (and humans in general) about our patrimony helps to form that spirit of love for excellence which is also an implicit love for God.
While public education, even private education, and heaven forbid “progressive” Catholic schools, are running headlong to embrace the “decolonize your bookshelf” fad, let us turn to why we shouldn’t decolonize our bookshelves by examining the wisdom and truth communicated by Jane Austen and why only we, as Catholics, have the tools required to save our educational spirit.
Jane Austen wasn’t a Catholic. But her novels nevertheless express all the things that Augustine said we, as Catholics, shouldn’t be afraid of utilizing for the goal of learning about God and loving God and our neighbors. From a definitively Catholic perspective, Austen is one of the greatest Christian writers of all time.
Austen’s themes in all her major works deal with family, forgiveness, and love. Furthermore, her heroines are exemplars of virtues sorely needed but now long lost in our world today: fortitude, perseverance, reformation. Elinor Dashwood and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility are two of the great characters from Austen’s ingenious mind.
Elinor embodies love in fortitude through her refusal to succumb to the temptations of romantic sensibility and becomes a rock for her sister, Marianne, as she helps carry her sister’s burdens. Elinor loves Edward Ferrars, but various circumstances lead to struggles between the love they share for each other. In hardship, shock, and disappointment, Elinor perseveres in her love and is eventually vindicated.
Marianne, as we know, falls for the predation of John Willoughby. The desirous twists and turns that Marianne suffers are a result of her romantic “sensibility.” Marianne’s impetuousness that Austen constructs is a cautionary warning against too much romantic sensibility that leads to frailty and ill-health. Marianne, however, is needing reforming. Marianne needs to pivot toward the romantic fortitude of her sister, who is by her side despite the manifold problems she suffers. Eventually, Marianne does reform her ways and comes to see Colonel Brandon as the best suitor. Elinor and Marianne eventually marry and come into a filial inheritance that brings them the love and happiness they seek.
Emma, the eponymous heroine of her journey, is another character who embodies the virtue of self-reform. In an age when virtue signaling and the refusal to change oneself is all the rage and held up as the paragon of enlightenment, Emma’s journey from haughtiness to reform is an example of how we ourselves should transform in the twenty-first century. Emma playing matchmaker has nothing to do with genuine love for friends like Harriet; it is simply to satiate her ego.
Emma’s shock that Harriet wants to marry the poor farmer boy Robert Martin reveals her egoism. Even though Harriet and Robert love each other, and they are virtuous (underclass) souls in stark contrast to the upper-class hollowness surrounding them, Emma’s ego gets in the way of this budding romance. Emma briefly causes the two lovers to grow estranged, which also strains whatever modicum of friendship she has with Harriet.
Through the virtuous intervention of the gentlemanly George Knightley, Emma comes to see the error of her ways and comes to grieve for the harm she has caused Harriet and Robert. She apologizes, acknowledges her wrongs, and reforms herself; that makes her a better person and, eventually, a better lover able to see virtuous love offered in the soul of George Knightley.
All of Austen’s heroines come into a filial inheritance through their temptations, hardships, and struggles. This, too, is something essential for Catholics to realize. Love, and only love, allows us to persevere and reform ourselves to the good and beautiful surrounding it.
While the rest of the world is discarding the great books of our cultural patrimony, it is imperative for Catholics to save all that is good, true, and beautiful in the world and not fall for the temptations of “social relevance” which eventually lead to destruction even if we, like Marianne or Emma, cannot immediately see it. As Catholics, however, we need to be Elinor, Colonel Brandon, and George Knightley in exposing errors, carrying crosses, and helping to reform those in need to see the love they desire but cannot because of their blindness and impetuousness. Only in doing so can the love we seek become real. This is the ultimate excellence we also promote wherever it is found.
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