Left at the crossroads, or when did education go so wrong?

science | Jul 12, 2012 | By Michael Martin

The philosopher Jacques Maritain was unarguably one of the twentieth century’s most important Catholic intellectuals. Though a Neo-Thomist, he did not believe the Church should inhabit a kind of medieval sensibility in order to survive. Quite the contrary. He engaged the most important artists and thinkers of his time in his enthusiasm for the eternal Catholic celebration of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. His personal influence on the painter, poet, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, for example, inspired some of the finest Catholic art of the century, particularly the latter’s murals in the Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer: art that is simultaneously ancient, modern, and eternal. 

A teacher and professor himself, Maritain had some pretty wise things to say about education, many of which he set out in a 1943 book intended for an American readership, Education at the Crossroads.

Central to Maritain’s idea of education is his insistence that we pay attention to its ends. That is, we need to be deeply aware of the purpose of education? For Maritain the answer is clear: “the prime goal of education is the conquest of internal and spiritual freedom to be achieved by the individual person, or, in other words, his liberation through knowledge and wisdom, good will, and love.” I like this idea very much, but it is one which many educators—in Catholic as well as secular universities—would now treat with contempt as an outdated, quasi-humanist pipe dream.

As I have written in an earlier column, the current chatter—especially in conservative circles—about having education “go free market” is one the dumbest ideas around. Though I am sympathetic to the idea of “free markets” (when they’re free) in principle, applying this value to all segments of human life is absurd. What’s next, “free market babies”? “Free market families?” Get real.

Unfortunately, as usually happens with dumb ideas, the idea of “free-market college” is gaining ground. I would not at all be surprised to see the University of Phoenix model of college—low-cost, pragmatic, and “user-friendly” (i.e., online)—become the standard. Some educational programs of this ilk even advertise themselves as “free.” In a society that no longer needs to pay for music or books, no one should be surprised to see the same “entitlement-ethos” enter education. But I’ll say this about free music, free books, and free education: someone pays for them.

Certainly, higher education can be blamed for a host of problems. 1) It is too expensive. 2) The overthrow of the intellectual tradition as it was in the 1960s by radicals has given harbor to a spirit of subversion in academia (can anyone say “Bill Ayers”?) And, 3), the most damning charge (and most debatable): Students don’t learn anything in college.

In some quarters of Catholic higher education, the response has been disappointingly predictable (and naïve): return to the medieval (or, in some cases, Tridentine) model of the university! Guess what? This is a dumb idea, too. Although I am an advocate of a strong Liberal Arts curriculum, to pretend that being Catholic means being medieval is downright bizarre. As Maritain exemplified by his engagement with the art, literature, and culture of his time, retreat is not an option. It leads only to stagnation. (And, I’m sorry, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis no longer count as modern.)

Indeed, the medieval Catholic tradition was a thoroughly modern phenomenon—that is, in the Middle Ages. Medieval universities were hotbeds of theological and intellectual debate, not places of dry uniformity and the sniveling and anxious toeing of political lines. A modern Catholic education should not try to resurrect a past (that never existed anyway), but to reimagine it, contextualize it, and celebrate it, placing it firmly on the cusp of the future. Going backward, that is, is not the way to go forward.

The biggest obstacle to education in Maritain’s estimation—way back in 1943—has been the rise of the elective system: the arrival of “specialization” into the curriculum. What I am referring to is the structure of college life that we now take for granted, a structure many assume has always been there: the idea of being a “sociology major,” a “chemistry major,” or, heaven forbid, an “English major.” This movement, Maritain prophesied, would prove degenerative. I think he was right. Here’s how he describes it:

In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all, so as to complete the preparation of the youth before he enters the state of manhood. To introduce specialization into this sphere is to do violence to the world of youth. As a matter of fact, a young man will choose his specialty for himself and progress all the more rapidly and perfectly in vocational, scientific, or technical training in proportion as his education has been liberal and universal. Youth has a right to education in the liberal arts, in order to be prepared for human work and for human leisure. But such education is killed by premature specialization.”

In short, my claim is that higher education is in trouble because we no longer have a vision for what it is or what it should be. Neither do we any longer maintain consensus as to what a unified curriculum would be were one to exist. We are lost in specialization, or, what Benedict XVI has called in other contexts, “the dictatorship of relativism.”

On the one hand, the University of Phoenix model represents, I think, a kind of tyranny of relativism: specialization brought to its logical conclusion. The instrumentalism and pragmatism it embodies will surely give rise to other kinds of tyranny: in thought, in art, in innovation, in human flourishing.

On the other hand, the Catholic intellectual tradition represents a way out. It is not—nor should it be—a museum piece. It has always been magnanimous, tolerant, pluralistic, visionary, innovative; and it should reassert its vocation to be so. It should not be or be considered a holdover from antiquity, or even a holy relic, but something alive, simultaneously ancient, modern, and eternal.

 Spero columnist Michael Martin teaches at Marygrove College.



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