It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation. —St. Thomas Aquinas
The trouble with mere pragmatism is that it doesn’t work. —G.K. Chesterton
What is education? I emphasize “is” because I am not here asking what education is thought to be, or what it should be according to a particular educational theory, however sound and persuasive. These are good questions, but they are secondary. What education is, in fact, comes first. Let us, then, look at education.
When we look, with the eyes to see it, education is seen as soul-craft. Classical and medieval man had twenty/twenty vision in this regard, as well as in regard to another important fact, that politics is educational. Through obedience to good laws and customs, and through the practice of prudence and deliberation with an eye to the commonweal, the citizen was educated, with his soul formed in virtue and ordered to the Good. Education entailed more than political education, of course, and whether informally in the family, the public square, or Church, or formally in the academy, the cathedral school, or the university, the soul was crafted, as it were, in and through knowledge ordered to wisdom.
Contemporary man also sees education and politics as factual matters. For him, it is less that politics is educational, and more that education is political. And politics is not seen as an education into the Good, but a quest for more and more Freedom. Mainstream education today is mainly about career advancement, financial success, and self-empowerment; perhaps this is because, in deference to the facts thus characterized, political power is authorized, not to help make people virtuous, but to secure them individual liberty.
Which set of facts is correct about politics and education? Although facts cannot be demonstrated, only shown, perhaps it is enough just to point out the obvious corruption of contemporary politics and the shambles that is American education to vindicate the classical and medieval factual characterization over the modern and contemporary. Supposing the ancients and medievals got it right, which I do (but that’s a topic for another essay), it is more important than ever that politics and education both become now what they already are, and always have been, tools of soul-craft.
For politics to become what it is, education must do it first, and for this, it must reject its undignified role as a mere instrument to a “good-less” politics that has lost its way, and accept its true vocation as the very purpose of genuine politics, a politics of virtue. For this to happen, teachers need to ignore the immense pressure to educate students for something other than the good of their souls. To this purpose, they need not only to employ a curriculum ordered to the Good of the Intellect, but also to wield this curriculum well by becoming adept at both Socratic questioning and Ciceronian answering. Why both of these? Our culture is one of answers delivered authoritatively in the absence of prior, and with the prohibition of posterior, questions. But it is simultaneously one of desperate questions with no felt hope of definitive, certain, and saving answers. Most importantly, teachers need to have a right intention and good will, cooperating at every moment with God’s sanctifying—and educating—grace.
I think all this could be accomplished only if colleges and universities were to become what they already are, namely, places of leisure. Not, of course, in the popular sense of the term, but oases of learning and contemplation that transcend the work-a-day world with its exclusively utilitarian concerns. There is a paradox at work here. As St. Thomas and Chesterton suggest in the quotations above, without bastions of devotion to things valuable in themselves, culture becomes engulfed in the means-to-end mentality of pragmatism, and both the valuable and the instrumental, the sacred, and the profane, the Good and goods are endangered. One way to love the world is by reminding it of what transcends it, in loving service to it and our neighbor. This too is evangelization.
It is neither a consumer product nor a bottom line at which a college or university aims, but, like the guilds of old, a beautiful and useful craft, whether a fine art, a body of knowledge, or a piece of furniture. The liberal arts are at once the most useless and useful of crafts: useless in the literal sense of the term; useful in that the faculties they perfect and virtues they instill, when energized with passion and good will, cannot but flower forth in great works. Wyoming Catholic College aims at crafting persons, students with vibrant and enduring bodies, balanced and profound emotions, fertile and baptized imaginations, wise and versatile minds, good and gracious spirits.
Allow us to show you some of our wares, still in progress mind you, in the form of words, the tools of our trade:
It is one thing to believe something because you have been told that it is true, and it is quite another thing to come to believe something because you have tangled it around your heart and your brain, and afterward still think it true. (From a freshman essay in humanities)
In the Theaetetus, Socrates describes himself as a midwife to truth; Socrates himself cannot tell people truth; he can merely help them in the laborious process of obtaining it. The midwife comparison is applicable to the professor as well; he cannot teach us wisdom by having us go through the syllogisms; he can help us, however, go through the pain of obtaining that wisdom by our own intellectual work. (From a junior essay in philosophy)
Some books bewilder you because they truly don’t mean anything, but the Republic bewilders because it says too much; it’s the blindness of the man who first tries to look upon the Sun and cries out because it is too bright. It also instills you with both a wild desire to know, even as it tells you that you must wait about thirty years before you can know anything. Like the figures on Keats’ urn, who are in eternally frozen pursuit of the Beloved, I feel trapped and liberated at once, and so long to think upon such things until I die. So far, all that I have learned from the Republic is a far-off echo of the song of dialectic, which is almost entirely out of my key and yet breaks my heart. (From a freshman essay in humanities)
“It also instills you with both a wild desire to know, even as it tells you that you must wait about thirty years before you can know anything.” If every student in America could say that about a Great Book after four years of college—this WCC student said it after only a year—I think education would have made a good start at becoming what it is, and politics would soon follow.