In Rudyard Kipling’s classic work The Jungle Book, one of the stories is Kaa’s Hunting. This tale is of how the young Mowgli, who is being instructed in Jungle Law by his tutor Baloo the bear, falls in with the Bandar-log, the monkey people who are despised and ignored by those of the jungle. The reason for this is that the monkeys “have no remembrance”–they know not where they come from and have no purpose or direction. They are devoid of tradition or law, doing nothing but what the fancy of the moment suggests. They have no heritage and no shame, and to even acknowledge them is disgraceful.
Sadly, many Americans, and especially many Catholic Americans, are in danger of sinking into a similar state. The numerous distractions of modern life combined with atrocious education in our own history threatens to make us a people of no remembrance, knowing neither whence we have come nor how we got where we are. We find ourselves absorbed with playoff progress or which dancing couple made the cut, but have only the shallowest idea of the principles on which our nation was founded or what are the vital ideas that should inform Catholic citizens.
Fortunately, Catholic Courses is helping to rectify that sad situation by offering Catholics in the Public Square, a video/audio course taught by Dr. Brad Birzer, Professor of History at Hillsdale College. This course is not what you might expect from the title. It isn’t a talking head discussing the nuances of political expression or lamenting the fractured state of the “Catholic vote” and discussing what to do about it. This course is a sweeping survey of the Catholic presence in the New World, as well as an analysis of the place of true liberal education and Catholic thought in the modern world. It particularly focuses on how proper liberal education–the gift of the Church to the world–helped form the young United States.
Dr. Birzer is anything but a dry, droning lecturer. He is an engaging instructor who is able to capture your attention and hold it so well that when the lectures end you’ll find yourself saying, “What, already?” Culling high points from centuries of complex history and distilling them into eight half-hour lectures is a substantial challenge, and it is a testimony to Birzer’s scholarship that he manages to draw out details and focus on people and events that best illustrate the themes important to Catholics as good citizens.
This course is not merely history, but a broad tour of disciplines that includes philosophy, art, literature, theology, politics, and sociology. With clear thinking and articulate presentation, Professor Birzer demonstrates his mastery of all these topics, weaving them into an integrated whole that proves he doesn’t just discuss what a good liberal education does–he demonstrates it. He is what C.S. Lewis and Sheldon Vanauken would call an Old Western Man, and he is a joy to listen to.
In the first lesson, Dr. Birzer sets the stage for the series by discussing the exploration of the New World. He explains the conduct of the nations colonizing the New World in light of the conflicts of the Old World. In particular, he contrasts Catholic exploration and evangelization, particularly as practiced by the French and Spanish, with English colonization and evangelical outlook. In the second lesson, Birzer lays to rest the popular misconception that the English colonies that eventually became the United States were havens of religious toleration. In fact, the opposite is true in colonial times–colonists sought religious homogeneity within their jurisdiction. Catholics especially fought terrible legal and social headwinds, which was largely traceable to political and social struggles in Europe.
The third lesson focuses on a Catholic whose life began during that oppressive period but who lived through the transition into the United States of America, a nation with religious toleration written into its founding documents: Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Birzer is particularly qualified to discuss this critical Founding Father, having written a biography of him, American Cicero, published in 2010. Birzer uses Carroll’s life to examine the dynamics of that time, how colonial history converged with 18th century political and social thought. Carroll illustrates how a liberally educated, publicly minded, and devout person can change history–an important lesson for us to remember.
In the fourth lecture, Dr. Birzer examines the Second Great Awakening and Religious Democracy. He points out that the erosion of the Christian faith in certain corners began even before the end of the 18th century in America, influenced by Enlightenment thought. He explains how a popular reaction to that erosion engendered the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. This not only sparked the phenomenon of Revivalism–something Catholics need to understand in order to comprehend elements of Evangelicalism to this day–but it sowed the seeds of radical individualism. By emphasizing the believer and God without any community or sacramental participation, this religious phenomenon laid the groundwork for significant change in American society and thought.
That change is examined further in the fifth lesson, which examines de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America. Birzer uses this to illustrate how America was already shifting from a republic to a democracy within two generations of its founding. He compares and contrasts these two different visions of government, particularly pointing out de Tocqueville’s prophetic statement that because democracy values equality above all else, citizens of a democracy will sacrifice anything to retain equality–even the virtue and sacrifice necessary to maintain a republic.
Lesson six discusses the rise of the “greater good”. This very important lecture provides the listener with an understanding of the foundations of modern progressive thought. Birzer contrasts the “common good” embraced by the Founding Fathers as the goal of a proper republic with the “greater good” advanced by the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This Progressive ideal means that some citizens must yield their rights for the benefit of the majority.
The seventh lecture discusses the moral imagination, which is particularly important for understanding modern culture. This explains how the dark roots of Progressive thought combined with the diabolic imagination–the vision that seeks to recreate the world in our own image–form the toxic mix that Blessed Pope John Paul the Great called the “culture of death”. As an antidote, Birzer presents the Catholic vision of the moral imagination: the vision that acknowledges both order and mystery in creation, and man as a creature and an active moral agent.
Lesson eight examines the 20th century as the outcome of these intellectual and moral trends. The bloody harvest of the will to create a reality apart from God’s creation, combined with the denial of the intrinsic value of every human being, resulted in over 205 million citizens being massacred by their own governments. Birzer uses the examples of Pope John Paul the Great, whose moral call sounded the death knell for Communism, and Ronald Reagan, who discarded the failed American policy of containment and defied the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall, to illustrate how the triumph of evil is not a foregone. But the triumph of good takes clear vision, courage, a moral imagination, and an understanding of the Christian value of the human person.
Do yourself a favor: forgo some television shows this month and watch this series of courses. Take advantage of your access to scholars like Dr. Birzer. Step away from the mindless, breathless, “guess-what’s-happened-now” frenzy of the modern media. Educate yourself on where we’ve come from and how we got where we are. Catch a vision for where we can go, if we reconnect with our roots. We are not the Bandar-log that our culture tells us we are. We have a heritage as Catholics and Americans. This course is your opportunity to learn more about it.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.