Education is preparation for life. We are social, so its purpose is to prepare us for a good life in community. It affects the whole man, inculcates community ideals, and builds on what we already are, through instruction, exercise, discipline, and setting definite goals. So it’s neither wholly from within, as the Romantics wanted, nor wholly from without, like technical training. And it’s different in different societies.
American public education naturally stands for American ideals and the American way of life. In the past, when life among us was more decentralized, local school boards and the parents who elected them had an important part in determining how those things were understood. That has changed. The people who run a complex, centralized, and increasingly diverse society with worldwide involvements don’t like to leave such questions up to amateurs and local politicians. They want them determined nationally and professionally.
So that’s what’s done. We have an increasingly national system of education that’s designed by experts answerable to each other, to major institutions, and to those who dominate public discussion, but not in any real sense to the public at large. They design it for the kind of society that makes sense to them: one run by experts and functionaries, along with commercial interests. The goals it promotes are thus efficiency, stability, and ease of management, with maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences the ultimate ideal that justifies the whole.
Its goals and ideals, then, are those of present-day secular liberalism, and the way of life intended is one of career, consumption, pursuit of individual satisfactions, and inoffensiveness. It tries to prepare young people for such a life by emphasizing career preparation, moderate self-expression, “critical thinking,” which implies deferring to recognized experts and their methods, and “tolerance,” which implies treating questions of value—those not immediately related to efficiency and equality—as a matter of private taste.
Taken as ultimate standards for life, these goals are profoundly dreary, and people—especially young people—need to be inspired by something higher. That is why every system of education, like every way of life, needs an ultimate religious sanction.
The solution to the problem has been to turn maximum equal preference satisfaction, the utterly mundane goal of secular liberalism, into a religion. As such it becomes equivalent to the deification of individual man. Each of us, by his will, calls a system of values into being and thereby creates a moral universe. Choice, and Justice Kennedy’s “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life,” become sacred principles.
That is why our schools emphasize cultural and lifestyle diversity so insistently. By doing so they facilitate the unbounded freedom of human nature, and so become agents of a divine kingdom in which all are gods.
This way of understanding the divine is of course radically opposed to Catholicism and every other traditional understanding of God, man, and the world, including any substantive conception of natural law. It treats the Biblical “He created them male and female” as oppressive, for example, because it tells us our nature is determined without reference to our will, while the current view is that we determine our nature as we please. That is why schools now insist that boys and girls are simply those who say they are such.
That view is of course insane, and insanity has costs. A way of life that lacks two distinct sexes is not a recognizable human way of life. Why think it workable for human beings? More concretely, the view demonstrates an alienation from reality that makes it impossible, for example, for the system to achieve its goal of effective career preparation. After all, if a boy becomes a girl when he says so, why can’t he become a doctor, lawyer, scientist, architect, or world leader simply by making that his dream? Current doctrine tells us he can, since such things must be equally accessible to all, so education becomes make-believe—all students must be above average, with no one left behind—rather than a realistic attempt to develop students’ actual capacities.
The general attitude of American Catholics today toward schools inspired by such an outlook contrasts strangely with the nineteenth century Catholic attitude toward public schools whose Protestant bias—shown, for example, by their use of the King James Bible—provoked the creation of the parochial school system.
The schools today are far more profoundly anti-Catholic. They train students not in a deficient form of Christianity, but in ways of thought antithetical to transcendent religion as such. Even so, the attitude of Catholics, including pastors of souls, is that such schools are basically a good thing, and many Catholic educators seem inclined to go along with their projects. Many conscientious parents have therefore been driven to homeschooling even when schools are available that are officially Catholic.
But why is this happening? Why so little awareness among parents, churchmen, and mainstream Catholic educators of how radical the problems are? We could complain about today’s Catholics, but it’s pointless. Everyone always has deficiencies. The question is why this problem at this time.
The problem, it seems, is that we are social beings who think and act as members of a community, and when connections other than money and bureaucracy break down it becomes hard to discuss broader considerations. That is why today social life is discussed only by reference to equality and efficient preference satisfaction on the one hand, and the religion of the divine ego on the other. Those are the considerations that seem to connect Americans as a people. An alternative that takes seriously the question of the human good becomes undiscussable under such circumstances and therefore almost unimaginable.
That situation has educational consequences. As noted, education is education for life in community, so if the only functional social connections are defined by money and bureaucracy the only education that is taken seriously will be education for career, consumption, and compliance with our rulers’ expectations. But the public schools already provide that. All Catholic schools can do, as long as they remain part of the American mainstream, is promise to provide the same thing better, with a gloss of Catholicism to provide an impression of high seriousness and an appeal to residual tribal identity.
But how can we—individual believers, Catholic educators, the Church as a whole, men of good will—break out of this situation? The problems with education generally, and Catholic education in particular, go much deeper than education itself. They have to do with fundamental orientation of life, and the communities to which that gives rise. Such concerns are behind talk of the “Benedict Option,” as well as much of the renewed interest in the Latin Mass, traditional and contemplative religious orders, and Catholic identity generally.
So education is far from the only issue. Even so, it seems clear it will be central to any effort to improve matters, not only because it can help promote a better orientation of life but because knowledge is power. The great weakness of liberal modernity, like modernity in general, is that it ignores too much. It takes seriously only what can be measured, manipulated, and universalized, and that leaves out most of human life. The result is that it loses touch with human reality and goes mad. We see that around us today.
One strength of those who oppose it is therefore intellectual. If even a few schools manage to maintain and pass on the full Catholic and Western cultural heritage, their graduates will have an enormous advantage, because almost alone they will be able to connect to the world as it is. And that advantage, for all the career benefits of adherence to current fads, must eventually tell.