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  • Michael Martin

Educational Atrophy: The Idea of a "Catholic Education"


The Dunce

Educational reform movements are as common as toadstools after a storm. In most cases, they are nearly as ephemeral. Unless, that is, the government gets involved: in which case they are as resilient and as toxic as plutonium. And the government always gets involved. It is no wonder, then, to find Ivan Illich argue that “The escalation of schools is as destructive as the escalation of weapons but less visibly so.”[1] When it comes to education, the hand that rocks the cradle is also the hand that signs the declaration of war. This is a pathological state of affairs. And it doesn’t need to be this way.


Regardless of governmental interventions in actual curricula, “expectations,” “benchmarks,” and—how I loathe the term—“best practices” (pernicious in the United States, and increasingly so since the famous—and failed—“No Child Left Behind” disaster and its offspring), there is always an interest in making education more meaningful. We always know something is wrong with whatever system is in place, but there is almost never enough will to stand against the oppressive environment created by government regulation, accrediting agencies, and, even more formidable, cultural assumptions concerning what education actually is. And what exactly education is or what it is for seems to be almost anyone’s guess.


Conventional wisdom often suggests that education is purposed to create a citizenry capable of competing in a global marketplace: a commitment that betrays the intentions of social engineers, governments, and corporate interests. It may be conventional, but it is in no way representative of wisdom, a fact which becomes uncomfortably obvious as we watch humanities disappear from even college and university curricula. Despite our own era’s preoccupation with STEM disciplines and our ignorance of the hypernormalization that accompanies it, it is still possible to recapture just what this educational enterprise is in the first place. And for this Jacques Maritain articulates the purpose of education in a most succinct manner (paraphrasing Pindar): the purpose of education is in “becoming who we are.”[2] I regret to report that most educational models fail to do this.


The reason most educational models fail to do this is because the dominant educational models serve too many masters and serve all of them poorly—and most of the masters aren’t worth serving in the first place. Kieran Egan, one of the most important (and neglected) educationalists of the last twenty-five years, describes the pedagogical schizophrenia that troubles nearly every school system in existence.[3] For Egan, what plagues contemporary education are what he calls “the three old ideas”: socialization, Plato and the Truth about Reality, and Rousseau and Nature’s Guidance. The problem is that the three are at odds with one another. How, for example, could a socialization model, the aims of which are to mold children into citizens reflective of and responsive to a nation’s needs, square with the Platonic ideal of creating a freethinking, independent, and self-actualized individual through mastery of content? Rousseau’s notion of letting the child’s instincts guide learning is likewise at odds with both socialization and the Platonic mastery of content.[4] What Egan proposes instead is a model that recapitulates the development of cognitive modes over history and in child development, a sort of cultural correlative of Haeckel’s “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Egan identifies these as “Mythic Understanding” (seen in children up to the age of ten or so), “Romantic Understanding” (ten through fifteen), and “Philosophic Understanding” (a thinking in systems, upper high school through early college-age). He also identifies what he calls “Somatic Understanding” (in pre-verbal children) and “Ironic Understanding” (adult), though he focuses on those types generally involved in K-12 education. There is much to recommend his model, which is probably why it has been almost entirely ignored by the mainstream. But “becoming who we are” only figures into it indirectly.


Unfortunately, the Catholic/Christian response to mainstream education partakes of all of the absurdities and short-circuits of the master culture that Egan lists. I have spent most of my life in and around Catholic education, though I did spend a few years of both elementary and high school in public education and received my Ph.D. from a public university. It really doesn’t matter, though, because there is virtually no difference between two. One has prayers at the beginning of the day and has its inmates attend Mass upon occasion, and sometimes it has a crucifix in the room or a statue of the Virgin. But that’s it. Though mission statements often attest to institutions being rooted in “Catholic traditions” of service, or social justice, or “the Catholic intellectual tradition,” or some other abstraction, comparing the Catholic educational model to its secular counterpart is by and large an exercise in dissecting minutiae (and what are mission statements anyway—outside of requirements of accrediting bodies run by well-meaning if misguided people upon the MBA model?). Indeed, the secular educational institution has become the superego of contemporary Catholic education, pre-school through university. It does not have to be this way.


Even the recent “innovation” in Catholic education (homeschool as well as parochial) to turn to a Classical model as a way to restore the glory that was Catholicism in hopes that it will once again be able to bestow it upon culture partakes of the absurdities Egan delineates. Is it a Platonic search for the truth about reality? Within limits, I guess. Is it socialization? Yes (but to a subculture). Is it trusting in the child’s innate sense of wonder? Not a chance (except in the case of Sofia Cavalletti’s work, which some graft onto a Classical curriculum). In general, though, this is a Let’s make Catholicism great again! approach that appeals to tribal instinct, a bunker mentality, and nostalgia. Please, let it die.


This nostalgia for the Classical—the Trivium and the Quadrivium—even haunts some very interesting and commendable educational philosophies. Maritain, for instance, in Education at the Crossroads introduces a reconfigured Trivium and Quadrivium (Trivium: eloquence, literature and poetry, music and the fine arts; Quadrivium: mathematics, physics and natural science, philosophy, and ethics/politics). Likewise, and certainly inspired by Dorothy Sayers, Stratford Caldecott adopts a Trivium/Quadrivium template in his model.[5] Caldecott, even though he recognizes “the need to recover a ‘poetic’ way of knowing,”[6] nevertheless, like many another Catholic educational reformer, seems to feel obligated to hold on to the Trivium/Quadrivium model. I think this occurs by a mistaken assumption that Catholicism is somehow synonymous with the medieval, an assumption prevalent in Roman Catholic (and even some Protestant) thinking and not at all characteristic of Eastern Catholic/Orthodox thinking. In practice, however, it approaches the point of becoming a sales gimmick. Whatever the case, the Trivium and the Quadrivium cycle through a never-ending sequence of the eternal return. It is time to let this way of thinking go; it has become a hindrance.


One problem of the Classical model, however modified or embellished, is that it privileges the intellect over all other human capacities, the underlying assumption being that education is essentially a system of intellectual data-gathering and manipulation. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, “If that’s what education is, then to hell with it.” Another problem, is that the Classical model, we need to admit, is the stereotype of a “proper education.” As the education of choice for elites over the last several centuries, its reputation surreptitiously furthered in novels, television, and film, the Classical model is embedded in the cultural imaginary as the exemplum of the crowning glory of education. Certainly, it is a fine education, but, as John Ruskin wrote, “The great leading error of modern times is the mistaking erudition for education.”[7] But there is no reason to assume a Classical education is the high water mark of Western civilization’s contribution to learning. Even St. Augustine, himself a reformed professor of rhetoric from a time when a liberal education was truly a liberal education, eventually thought of it as overrated if not a danger to the soul.[8]


Because of their dissatisfaction with received notions about what constitutes a proper form of education, many educational and social reformers have sought to bring a renewed freshness and vitality to the educational project. Not surprisingly, these initiatives range from the sublime to the ridiculous, while some, such as the Summerhill School, are a mixture of both. Indeed, the entire homeschooling phenomenon—whether in the spirit of Charlotte Mason, John Holt, Rousas John Rushdoony, or whomever—was born of a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Nevertheless, the superego of education as generally practiced haunts, and, indeed, inhibits the possibility of truly changing education—and homeschooling is no exception—even as reformers set up shadow systems reminiscent of something from the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. Legislatures, accrediting bodies, schools of education, and teacher unions, meanwhile, dedicate themselves to maintaining things as they are, upholding “the hidden curriculum of schooling” that “initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent.”[9] They talk a good game about educational reform, but treat only superficial and cosmetic symptoms—which bathroom to use, which informational technology to adopt, what kinds of diversity will be allowed in the classroom—while ignoring causes. As indentured as they are to what Egan calls “the three old ideas” (and in particular to socialization), they are unable and unwilling to really do something to transform education. We shouldn’t look to them for leadership because, honestly, they are happy with things as they are. Any person of integrity would do well to entirely ignore them.


Catholic education, I would suggest, which once was the model of innovation and spiritual renewal has pretty much stagnated since the Jesuit reforms in education instituted during the early modern period. Catholic education at the primary and secondary levels, for example, is often underscored by apologetics (for example, the almost obligatory Pro-Life speeches rehearsed in high school) which is an ill-fitting accessory combined with the fundamentally secular curricula utilized in Catholic schools. It is not a very successful model, at least as far as apologetics is concerned; and the occasional attempts to inject “creation science” into curricula to somehow signal a sort of religious authenticity prove even more of a failure, as ineffective as it is risible. At the college or university level, unfortunately, the project is often aimed at proving how un-Catholic the intellectual climate of the school is as a way to prove legitimacy in the eyes of the secular educational archons. As a result, far too many people come away from Catholic educational settings as agnostics, if not headed in the direction of atheism.



This is an excerpt from Michael Martin's forthcoming book, Transfiguration: Notes toward the Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, appearing this Fall from Angelico Press.

[1] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 14.


[2] Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads (1943; reprt., New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1960), 1. Maritain’s emphasis.


[3] Kieran Egan, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).


[4] Ibid., Chapter 1.


[5] See his Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2012).


[6] Ibid., 11.


[7] John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, Volume III (London: George Allen, 1900), 230.


[8] See Kevin L. Hughes, “The ‘Arts Reputed Liberal’: Augustine on the Perils of Liberal Education” in Augustine and Liberal Education, ed. Kim Paffenroff and Kevin L. Hughes (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2000), 95–110.


[9] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 106.