Education and Civilization

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.

Students at St. John Vianney Parochial School in Nashville, Tenn., sing at the end of the all-schools Mass Feb. 1, 2017, in celebration of Catholic Schools Week. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

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.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James Kalb 134 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).


  1. That today’s “public” schools are more dangerous than those of their anti-Catholic predecessors of the nineteenth century needs to be apprehended fully and integrated into the Catholic consciousness. I have been trying to convince bishops and priests (let alone parents) of that fact for decades — with little success. Only when that fact is grasped will Catholic parents realize that choosing a Catholic school is not one option among many but is the ONLY option — if they want to save the souls of their children.

    • Fr. S:

      I know that there are some good Catholic Schools, but in our experience with 4 kids in 3 different grammar schools and one HS (so far), 2 of the 3 grammar schools were really mediocre about the faith, and the 3rd that was decent went downhill before it closed (Legion of Christ – catastrophe at the end).

      HS is great (Nashville Domincans – all girls). The one “Catholic” college (Jesuit) was utterly appalling fake katholic-ism.

      Majority with exceptions noted – were what Bishop Barron called: “coloring book Catholicism.” Infantile

    • Dear Fr. S.,
      My wife and I are promoters of NFP, as such we know many couples who do not use contraception/abortifacients in accordance with what Christ Teaches through His Church. Without exception, all of us, either home school or run the gauntlet of public schools. None of us have children in “catholic schools.”

      1. NFP opens a couples heart up to cooperationg with God and having more than 1 or 2 children.
      2. We simply cannot afford “catholic school”.
      3. “catholic schools” are now run most often by laity who do not believe.

      Is this somehow too complicated to understand? I mean really. It’s not rocket science.

  2. A lovely essay, to be sure, however dreadfully written; one finds oneself having trouble taking this author seriously. This is an essay on “Education and Civilisation,” but the standard of English Language used is simply sub par. For example, “So that’s what’s done” to begin a paragraph? Tis a pity, really, since in this essay, the logical connexion between human formation and education resulting in community building and the advancement of human civilisation is rather good. Not to mention, pointing out what happens when education fails, all rather well done.

  3. Mr. Kalb sees American education, and Catholic schools in America, for what most of them are: dreary and superficial.

    We can return to where we began – just as the home is a little domestic Church, it is a little schoolhouse.

    And some schools are returning to the classical approach to learning, escaping the Dewey model designed for turning children into drones for the homogenous state and its revenue-generators.

    We work to live, and as followers of Christ, we work as an offering to Christ, to live in the way, and the truth.

    God bless you Mr. Kalb for your work here today.

  4. Kalb is way too optimistic.

    “And that advantage, for all the career benefits of adherence to current fads, must eventually tell.”

    If the 20th century proved anything, it is that falsehood can out-compete truth any day. Socialism, Nazism, and even Democracy itself are all built on the lie that “all men are created equal” (except for the sub-human oppressors of The Capitalists, The Jews, and The Politicians respectively). Yet all three of these systems of (mis)government swept the world by storm and utterly destroyed the remnants of a saner, hierarchical political order.

    In our fallen world, there is absolutely no guarantee that truth will tell.

  5. Clearly there is a huge problem when we don’t even understand the purpose of an education. A true education cannot be different in different societies as a true education is the forming of the will to the will of God which can only be known through the teaching and acceptance of the Truth Revealed in Christ, which exists only in the teachings of the Catholic Church (prior to Vatican II). A true education also is the teaching of the virtues and morality necessary to an ordered soul and an ordered society.

    The only role of the state in the process of education is to recognize and not hinder the only true path God instituted for man to reach the state of perfection needed to do His will on earth so that the eternal life is spent in the presence of God which is the purpose of man’s existence and that path is through the teachings and practices of the Church Christ instituted.

    “American public education naturally stands for American ideals and the American way of life” and that is why it is neither a true education nor conducive to ever obtaining a true education and a Catholic wanting to be faithful to Christ can never be properly educated under this system as American ideals are based upon the false ideals of the Enlightenment or the rejection of the Truths revealed by Christ and espoused only through the Catholic Church. A false ideal that places man outside of the authority of God and of His Church and under the tyranny of passion. It is the forming of one’s mind in the philosophies that teach man the gospel of the Devil (Protestantism and the Rights of Man) rather than the Gospel of Life who is a person named Jesus Christ. In other words, American ideals and the American way of life are a hindrance to the fulfilling of man’s primary duty to God to know, love and serve only Him. We need only look at the culture these false ideals have created, which is a culture of destruction, death, immorality, extreme materialism, and lately, even a rejection of Nature and of reason. This is the natural result of American public education teaching American ideals.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Education and Civilization - Catholic Crossing
  2. Education and Civilization - Catholic Daily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.