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Russell Kirk’s home

A friend of mine recently told me about a banner she saw hanging inside the entrance of an American public elementary school. “You’re all number one,” the banner read. I must admit that my reaction to this was rather strong, if not downright irate. Two immediate problems sprang to mind. First, the message of the banner is a blatant lie. If each of the children is number one, then each child is also number 300 as well as being number 270,000,000 or even number six billion in our heavily populated world. Additionally, this lie struck me as heinously anti-western, in the sense that the West in each of its cultural high points—in the best of Hellas, the Rome Republic of Cato the Elder, Medieval Christendom, and the foundation of the American Republic—has always celebrated the differences of each individual person, especially in terms of abilities and contributions, as created in a certain time and place for an unknown but definitive purpose.

Such a proposition as “you’re all number one” might also lead to the opposite conclusion: that “you’re all number zero,” worthless, and should be put up against the wall. Images of “The Killing Fields” rushed into my already angry thoughts. Ideologies, after all, which reigned throughout the twentieth-century, and unfortunately show no sign of abating so far in the twentieth-first century, wrecked incomprehensible havoc on humanity in four of the seven continents. Based on the finite minds of men and women, drowning in the two-dimensional unrealities of their own subjectivities, ideologues and their ideological regimes murdered—not through war, but through the gulag, the holocaust camps, and forced famines—nearly 200 million persons in past century. While American educational theorists have the best intentions in mind, we all know what paves the way to Hell.

Second, at its most basic level, a seductive slogan such as “you’re all number one” indoctrinates the youngest members of American society with an illogical falsehood. We might as well have “war is peace.” Aristotle has every right to roll in his grave. Since the War of 1812 and the Second Great Awakening of the early part of the nineteenth century, American society has continued to democratize, promote egalitarianism and nationalism to absurd degrees. Such public school pronouncements as “you’re all number one” reveal how far (and how low) American society has come in the past two centuries. We’ve dismissed the founding fathers’ understanding of virtue, natural aristocracy, and a layered republic as simply too elitist and, therefore, unacceptable in the modern world. The founders, after all, failed to believe every American was number one. As Russell Kirk, arguably certainly one of the most important social thinkers of the twentieth century, has warned, American democracy in its extreme form will not end in each person being equal, but in each person owning every other person.[1] After all, George Orwell’s Big Brother asks, isn’t freedom slavery?

These thoughts lead one to ask: what is the role of true education in twenty-first century America? During the Cold War, as the West was attempting to find and define itself in the early 1960s against our communist enemies, historian and social critic Christopher Dawson made a fundamental point. Culture, he argued along the lines of the great Anglo-Irish statesmen Edmund Burke,

is an artificial product. It is like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which has grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of natural forces. It is the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired, and although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social not a biological inheritance, a tradition of learning, an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of ‘folkways’ into which the individual has to be initiated. Hence it is clear that culture is inseparable from education.[2]

If one is to transmit the norms and essence of a culture, he must do so through education.

Education, though, takes on many forms, most of them informal and uncontrollable by society at large. The most important education comes in the family. Indeed, a child learns more between birth and the age of three than almost everything combined from the age of three to death (assuming a normal lifespan for the person in question). Equally important, most of a person’s character is formed by the time he or she is six or seven.[3] Both of these critical dates occur before a child becomes fully immersed in full-time formal schooling. Education and character formation also occur with siblings and peers, at church, and, too soon, in the market place, bombarded by advertisers, marketers, and a variety of Willy Lowmans. In a sense, for any person, survival and success demand that one become at some level and in some way an autodidact, adaptable to a variety of new situations.

Education also, unfortunately, occurs in a multitude of other ways, most of them perverse and decadent, such as when watching the vast majority of television programs, reading the headlines in the grocery store checkout lines, looking at the quasi-pornographic covers of most fiction in airport bookstores, innocently searching on the web, and playing video games. Everywhere a person looks in this culture, he or she becomes inundated with images of adultery, sexual perversion, the bizarre, and the violent. All of this, the poet T.S. Eliot warned, is a product of nothing less than the “diabolical imagination.”[4] In our modern cynicism and decadence, we have left the moral imagination—that is, the use of one’s reason, rooted in the tradition of our ancestors, and anticipating the generations to come—to our great grandparents it seems, considering them hopelessly naïve, as we warehouse them and even their children in old folks homes. They are, to employ a true cliché, “out of sight and out of mind.” So, it should not surprise us, is their wisdom, locked away with their suffering.[5] And, hence, the tradition of the ages has failed to be passed down, and our culture, not surprisingly, turns to the faddish, the “improved,” the new, and the sleek. Continuity has turned to mere innovation for innovation’s sake.

From their outset, though, the first universities, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, attempted to capture the wisdom of the best of the Greeks and establish education on a moral and timeless foundation. Far from embracing the trendy and ephemeral, such as Socrates’ opponents, the Sophists, did, the followers and students of Socrates desired to uncover within the natural and human orders the true, the beautiful, and the excellent. Classical education in both the republican Greek City-States, the more sane polities of the Hellenistic period, and the Roman Republic and even the Empire, followed the model of Socrates.[6] 

The introduction of Christianity in the ancient world provided controversy, but it resulted not in an overturning of the classical system of education, but in a deepening of its moral foundations and in a sanctifying of its presuppositions. After all, C.S. Lewis understood, “Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there.”[7] And, early twentieth-century novelist and social critic G.K. Chesterton wrote, “the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom. Simple secularists talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion.”[8]

Both Chesterton and Lewis took their arguments from the Church Fathers. In his “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine wrote: if philosophers “have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” In much of The City of God, St. Augustine sanctified Cicero’s “On Duties” and Plato’s Republic to develop his arguments for a stable and thriving Christianity within a post-Imperial Roman world. It was this mix of the classical and the Christian that allowed for development of the Christiana Res Publica, that is, medieval Christendom. For his example in “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine referred to the Jewish acquisition of Egyptian gold, silver, and garments as the Hebrews departed for the promised land. Augustine justifies Hebrew actions by noting that the Egyptians failed to use God’s gifts properly. Further, “human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life–we must take and turn to a Christian use.”[9]

Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third centuries, presaged Augustine’s argument. Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in Miscellanies, served as a “preparatory teaching for those who will later embrace the faith.” Perhaps God gave philosophy to the Greeks as an introduction to Christianity. Philosophy, Clement concluded, “acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ.”[10] Taking these arguments together, the modern Christian may rightly surmise that Plato and Aristotle served as much as a preparation for Christianity as did Abraham and Moses. History and legend, as the twentieth-century mythmaker J.R.R. Tolkien argued, fused with the incarnation of Christ, the True Myth.[11] In other words, God blessed, or sanctified, the world–and its myths–with His Only Begotten Son.

Clement and St. Augustine were both responding to Tertullian’s famous question: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”[12] But truth, Clement, St. Augustine, and Tolkien each claimed, belongs to God, whether codified in scripture or nature or even within elements of pagan myth and culture. As the Author of existence God placed a part of His Truth in each culture, and, as Dawson has shown, each culture orders itself around the cultus, reflecting–correctly or incorrectly–that cult’s vision of the Divine. Therefore, as each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it finds some piece of the larger truth located within itself, allowing it to accept the full Truth of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. “Paganism does not merely survive but first really becomes itself in the v[ery] heart of Christianity,” Lewis argued.[13] “There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters when incorporated with it,” John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in the nineteenth century, “and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author, whereas before they were either infected with evil, or at best but shadows of the truth.”[14] That is, every person and culture longs for something greater than itself. Paganism, according to Lewis and Newman, fails to fulfill its mission until Christianity subsumes it.

The reintroduction of the universities by the Schoolmen in the medieval period only furthered the classical/Christian synthesis.

Prior to the twentieth century, then, western education had three purposes. First, as I think obvious from the preceding paragraphs, education promoted a morally-rooted society.[15] Historically, it is impossible to separate morality and religion from education. If one believes in a Creator, then one must acknowledge the wholeness of His creation.[16] Therefore, as social critic Russell Kirk explained in 1963:

Professors and priests are meant to be the conservators of mankind, to which end they are set among men, reminding us that we are not the flies of a summer. Their labor is to tell men that certain truths endure, that upon human nature a peculiar character has been stamped by the Creator with which we tamper at our peril, and that the complex of ideas and methods which we call civilization cannot subsist without moral sanctions. Priest and professor are meant to show men the mysterious coherence and continuity which binds all things in their places.[17]

If, as both Kirk and Dawson argued, education becomes the primary vehicle through which culture is passed from one generation to another, it would be good to ask what culture is. In no way is it easy define, and every culture is unique and, if alive, growing, adapting, and interacting. At base, Dawson argued, the beginning of all culture is the cult.[18] By cult, Dawson is not employing the modern usage of the term—that is, of something dark, secret, and eerie. Instead, Dawson uses it in its true fashion: the cult, or the cultus, is the group of people, usually in extended family groups, who have banded together because of common religious convictions. That is, they worship the same divine. Eighteenth-century social contract thinkers such as Rousseau “were wrong, in so far as they suggested that men had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, ‘I will not hit you if you do not hit me’; there is no trace of such a transaction,” Chesterton explained. “There is a trace of both men having said, ‘We must not hit each other in the holy place.’ They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous.”[19] The morality of the cult may be pagan/classical or Judeo-Christian, but it is a morality, nonetheless, and it passes its wisdom from generation to generation in a number of formal and informal ways.

In the twentieth century, westerners have almost completely secularized education, and the results have been disastrous. First, by severing education from its religious roots, we have separated the generations one from another. Each generation must begin anew, not only starting from the beginning again, but also believing itself the best generation to exist. This results in a form of temporal provincialism, and the generation is cut off from the continuity of the wisdom of its ancestors. Literary biographer Joseph Pearce has called this “chronological snobbery.” The irony, of course, is that the arrogant generation is intellectually and morally impoverished, though believing itself the greatest and most important. Second, and perhaps the logical outcome of the first point, the West will cease to be the West if it loses its religious roots. From the beginning, the cult was the basis of western society—the mixing of the classical, Jewish, and Christian worlds. Dawson best explained the end result of this trend toward secularization:

For more than two centuries Western civilization has been losing contact with the religious traditions on which it was originally founded and devoting all its energies to the conquest and organization of the world by economic and scientific techniques; and for the last fifty years there has been a growing resistance to this exploitation by the rest of the world—a resistance which has now culminated in a revolt which threatens the very existence of Western society.[20]

In his many learned works, political philosopher Eric Voegelin explained that separation of the religious from the material has resulted in a revival of a secularized form of the early Christian heresy of Gnosticism. “The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in the enterprise move away from the life of the spirit,” Voegelin wrote in 1952. As with Dawson, Voegelin argued that this conflict between the flesh and the spirit, the latter being “the source of order in man and society,” will end in the collapse of civilization.[21] Of like mind, Kirk also warned that “if the Garden is not cultivated, soon we find ourselves in the parched Waste Land.”[22]

Second, education encouraged the freedom of the individual from becoming an unthinking member of a collective—whether the collective was a nation, a business, or a union. As Kirk puts it, education should promote order of the individual soul and of the Republic.[23] Education certainly should not be for mechanization—either of a bureaucracy of administrators or of the individual. Kirk further explained:

If college and university do nothing better than act as pretentious trade-schools; if their chief service to the person and the republic is to act as employment agencies—why, such institutions will have dehumanized themselves. They will have ceased to give us young people with reason and imagination who leaven the lump of any civilization. They will give us instead a narrow elite governing a monotonous declining society, rejoicing in a devil’s Sabbath of whirling machinery. If we linger smug and apathetic in a bent world, leaving the works of reason and imagination to molder, we all come to know servitude of mind and body. The alternative to a liberal education is a servile schooling.[24]

Dawson agrees: “A scientific specialist or a technologist is not an educated person. He tends to become merely an instrument of the industrialist or the bureaucrat, a worker ant in an insect society, and the same is true of the literary specialist, though his social function is less obvious.”[25]

Equally important, though the schools of the West were rooted in the teaching of wisdom and virtue, they were, paradoxically to modern minds who often associate religion without arbitrary authority, always among the freest of institutions in western society. The cathedral schools of the medieval period, especially, were “free, self-governing guild[s] of scholars which possessed a charter of privilege and its own organs of government.”[26] Universities were usually organized as autonomous corporations of students and professors, open to all qualified members of Christendom, thus transcending any potential narrow nationalisms or aspiring political entities of the day.[27] Latin, of course, served as the universal language of scholarship. Medieval society allowed the scholars to be free because of the “Schoolmen’s convictions that they were Guardians of the Word, fulfilling a sacred function, and so secure in the right.”[28] In this conviction, there existed few differences between the teachers of the classical world, the medieval world, or in eighteenth or nineteenth century America, as the men and women of each period viewed their “first obligation [ ] to Truth. . . derived from apprehension of an order more than natural or material.”[29] Classical education and the renewal of culture worked in tandem. “Virgil and Cicero, Ovid and Seneca, Horace and Quintilian were not merely school books, they became the seeds of a new growth of classical humanism in Western soil,” Dawson wrote in 1956. “Again and again—in the eighth century as well as in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries—the higher culture of Western Europe was fertilized by renewed contacts with the literary sources of classical culture.”[30] The classical authors informed the American founding as well.[31]

Indeed, the greatest threat to real academic freedom is the loss of its moral and religious underpinnings. Just as a system of laws works best with absolutes, thus guaranteeing that “might does not equal right,” education works best with absolute morals and standards. Once a society has lost its belief in objective reality, the strongest and latest fads will become the trends, and those advocating them will become the educational czars. “When morals cease to be a matter of tradition and orthodoxy—that is, of the habits of the community formulated, corrected, and elevated by the continuous thought and direction of the Church—and when each man is to elaborate his own,” T.S. Eliot warned, “then personality becomes a thing of alarming importance.”[32] Certainly men such as Hitler and Mussolini were proving that as Eliot guest lectured at the University of Virginia in the early 1930s. For, “when one man’s ‘view of life’ is as good as another’s, all the more enterprising spirits will naturally evolve their own.”[33]

Dawson took this even further, warning that the nation-state will impose its own uniform beliefs, through man-made ideologies, quickly destroying the vast differences among religious, ethnic, and political communities. “It is impossible for this School-master-State to be pluralist,” Dawson said in an interview in 1961, “for it possesses in the common school an irresistible instrument for molding the minds of its citizens.”[34] The growth of the United States Department of Education over the past twenty-five years, and its penetration of every school district and almost every college and university proved Dawson’s words eerily prophetic. The end result of nationalist education in the world, in complete opposition to the universalism and freedom of thought of the medieval period, is a world-wide division within “the republic of letters by a civil war of rival propaganda.”[35] As Dawson correctly notes, little difference exists between nationality (a concept very different from true patriotism) and bestiality.[36]

Finally, third, and perhaps most important, western education had traditionally promoted the uncovering of the true human person through the discovery and cultivation of his or her unique gifts. Singular in time and space, each person’s role, then, is to use his gifts for Creation and the Common Good, the Res Publica. The modern world, though, has overly glorified the democratic and egalitarian, attenuating the profound and glorious differences among created beings. The western world’s norm was, prior to the French Revolution which unloosed the infection of ideologies into the world, to promote the uniqueness of each created being, each endowed with certain and unrepeatable gifts and abilities.[37] In the twentieth-century, the great philosophic pragmatist and reformer John Dewey, more than any other person, emphasized the need for equality and citizenship training in education as a means to nationalize and homogenize American citizens.[38] Fearing the massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and the changes they might bring to America, Dewey made Demos, Kirk lamented, a graven image.[39] All men, Kirk argued, desire a religion. If they fail to find a true one, they cling to a false one, such as an ideology. For the Pragmatists such as Dewey, Democracy as a pseudo ideology replaced the supposed superstition of the Judeo-Christian tradition.[40] For men such as C.S. Lewis, Dewey’s pragmatist educational scheme—based almost exclusively on sensory perception, nationalism, and citizenship training—meant nothing less than “The Abolition of Man.”

Prior to the French Revolution and the rise of what Burke denounced as the sophisters and calculators, the uniqueness of each individual mattered greatly. “Individual vocations had their own value and dignity, but that did not prevent recognition of higher and lower vocations,” theologian Romano Guardini argued in the mid-1920s. Ultimately, he noted, men and women did not confuse “the everyday with the sublime. . . the profane with the sacred.”[41] In other words, in the centuries of unified Christendom and even in the first few centuries of a divided Christendom, one considered one’s work sanctified, and one did the best he or she could in artisanship, as it served as a prayer.

Significantly, the liberal arts from the classical period through the nineteenth century provided the most important avenue for discovering one’s vocation in the intellectual, philosophical, and theological world. In his own views on the subject, Kirk pulled no punches: “We must remember that the aim of education is not to make every man like every other, but to awaken the highest talents of the best persons among us.”[42] After all, he continues, “this complex variety is the breath of life to society, not the triumph of injustice.” Equality is the norm only in the machine and in Hell.[43] Indeed, an absolute equality necessitates a deformation or negation of the virtue of justice, defined most properly as “the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.”[44] It is only in justice that one accepts his place in time and in space, what the medievals called the Economy of Grace.

A culture, then, based in the cultus, derives from the multitude of activities of each person using his or her gifts for the common good transcending time. Culture “is the product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake,” T.S. Eliot reminded us. “The artist must concentrate upon the canvas, the poet upon the typewriter, the civil servant upon the just settlement of particular problems as they present themselves upon his desk, each according to the situation in which he finds himself.”[45] Edmund Burke put it more bluntly: God “is the author of our place in the order of existence. . . having disposed and marshaled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by the disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned to us.”[46]

The medieval and Christian understanding of the “economy of grace” followed the classical teaching on community, though it rightly substituted grace for will. It is only in community, Aristotle claimed, that a person discovers his true individuality. As man is a social animal, he pursues his teleos—that is, his purpose—within the context of the community. To leave the community, the individual ceases to be human and becomes either a beast or a god.[47] St. Paul, a Hellenized Jew, echoes these beliefs closely in own exhortations to the early Christian communities in Rome, the Corinth, and Colossae. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the Common Good,” St. Paul instructed the members at Corinth. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”[48] This was the beginning of the Christiana Res Publica. St. Thomas Aquinas advanced this even further in the twelfth-century, arguing that a person’s “nature is social, so that man is meant to be coordinated with society; but his nature is also rational, so that he is intended to understand the universe of which he is part; man’s nature is creatural, whereby he must strive so to order his life that he may reach God as his natural end.”[49]

For thinkers such as Kirk and Dawson, the greatest tool the liberal arts gives one is the ability to discover one’s true purpose and character through the “moral imagination,” that is, the ability to rethink tradition and old understandings of the world, rooted in reason, in new ways.[50] Kirk often quoted Napoleon’s statement that “it is imagination that governs the human race.”[51] Mere facts tells us very minor things. After all, “true education is rooted in being, not in knowledge,” Guardini wrote.[52] One must think beyond the corporate marketers, the makers and tinkerers of the machine, and the ideologues and their killing fields. Myth, a true story that tells us something greater than a mere fact, becomes a lie in the mind of the modernist; in the mind of the post-modernist, myth can be anything at all.

It is characteristic of the barbarian, whether he appears in a precultural stage or emerges from below in the waning day of a civilization, to insist upon seeing a thing ‘as it is.’ The desire testifies that he has nothing in himself with which to spiritualize it; the relation is one of thing to thing without the intercession of imagination.[53]

But, it is myth that nourishes us and informs us. The Oxford don and mythmaker J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his poem “Mythopoeia,” echoing the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

of things not found within recorded time.

It is not they that have forgot the Night,

or bid us flee to organized delight,

in lotus-isles of economic bliss

forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss

(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,

bogus seduction of the twice-seduced)[54]

Myth, as Tolkien knew, equaled a truth that could not be explained by mere fact; myth is in essence a greater truth than finite science can provide on any single question.[55] Because of this, myth can emphasize the beauty of God’s creation as well as the sacramental nature of life.[56] “Our time, sick nigh unto death of utilitarianism and literalness, cries out for myth and parable,” Kirk explained. “Great myths are not merely susceptible of rational interpretation: they are truth, transcendent truth.”[57] Both Tolkien and Kirk believed that myth could teach men and women how to be true men and women, as God intended them to be, and not as mere cogs in a vast machine.

Chesterton, who served as a significant source of inspiration to a much younger Tolkien, once explained myth in a way that only Chesterton was capable of:

But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images of shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does not know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.[58]

Equally important, myth plays a vital role in any culture, binding together members of its various communities. “It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by a majority of the people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad,” Chesterton concluded in Orthodoxy.[59] Communities, political theorist Don Lutz has recently explained, “share symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people and link them to some transcendent order. . . . The shared meaning and a shared link to some transcendent order allow them to act as a people.”[60] The man “who has no sympathy with myths,” Chesterton wrote, “has no sympathy with men.”[61] One cannot, it seems, separate men from myths. Just as men are born into authority and community, they are also born into myth, and may, if blessed, become a part of it.

If Dawson and Kirk are correct, and education becomes the main vehicle through which culture is transmitted and a people united over time and across space, we as a society should be able to agree and disagree on several things. First, we should agree that true education is not about material prosperity or wealth acquisition. Second, it is not about vocational training in the modern sense of the word. Third, it is not about citizenship training for nationalist goals, as John Dewey so powerfully and persuasively argued at the beginning of the twentieth century. Pragmatism, after all, is the denial of history, as nothing can truly be known beyond what one experiences with his or her five senses. Fourth, it is certainly not about forming social equality or “mainstreaming” to use the faddish term.

True education is instead about finding the depths of human character and purpose in the order of the universe. Kirk, as usual, answered the question of education with truth, beauty, and excellence:

To what truths, then, ought the Academy be dedicated? To the proposition that the end of education is the elevation of reason of the human person, for the human person’s own sake. To the proposition that the higher imagination is better than the sensate triumph. To the proposition that the fear of God, and not the mastery over man and nature, is the object of learning. To the proposition that quality is worth more than quantity. To the proposition that justice takes precedence over power. To the proposition that order is more lovable than egoism. To the proposition that to believe all things, if the choice must be made, is nobler than to doubt all things. To the proposition that honor outweighs success. To the proposition that tolerance is wiser than ideology. To the proposition, Socratic and Christian, that the unexamined life is not worth living. If the Academy holds by these propositions, not all the force of Caesar can break down its walls; but if the Academy is bent upon sneering at everything in heaven and earth, or upon reforming itself after the model of the market-place, not all the eloquence of the prophets can save it.[62]

“You’re all number one,” the banner read. In the sense of each person being worth more than any human can calculate, the slogan is true. Every life is unique and vital to every other life—across time and space. But, only the Creator is number one. The rest of us, derivative, are created not equally, but uniquely in the Image of the Maker, each endowed with gifts, to be used in this time and this place. The best teachers—armed only with enthusiasm, wisdom and knowledge regarding their subject, and moral imagination—understand that.

And, so do their students. 

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1955), 52.

2. Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1989), 3.

3. Kirk, The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things are Written on the Sky (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1988), 72.

4. Eliot, T.S. After Strange Gods: A Primer on Modern Heresy (London, ENG: Faber and Faber, 1934), 57ff.

5. On avoiding suffering, see Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (1948; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 106ff.

6. For good overviews of the history and purpose of the liberal arts, especially in American colleges and universities, see Mark C. Henrie, A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000); and James V. Shall, S.J., A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000).

7. C.S. Lewis, The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963, ed. Walter Hooper (1979; New York: Collier Books, 1986) 427.

8. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 111.

9. St. Augustine of Hippo, “On Christian Doctrine.”

10. Clement of Alexandria, “Miscellanies.”

11. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 156.

12. Tertullian, Prescriptions against Heretics.

13. C.S. Lewis, Magdalen, to Dom Bede Griffiths, 1 November 1956, WCWC, CSL Letters to Dom Bede Griffiths, Letter Index 36.

14. Newman, An Essay on the Development, 348.

15. Kirk, Russell. “Babbitt and the Ethical Purpose of Literary Studies.” In Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (Washington, D.C.: National Humanities Institute, 1986), 10.

16. John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of the University: Defined and Illustrated (1852; Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), 91.

17. Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career (New York,: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1963), 26).

18. Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 168.

19. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; Colorado Springs: Shaw, 1994), 69-70.

20. Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 169.

21. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (1952; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 131. See also Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 111.

22. Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (South Bend, Indiana: Gateway, 1978), xvi. See also C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1947; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 27.

23. Kirk, “Cultivating Educational Wastelands,” in Politics of Prudence (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1993), 250.

24. Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1996), 47-48.

25. Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 132.

26. Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 16; and Kirk, Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1955), 16.

27. Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 17.

28. Kirk, Academic Freedom, 18.

29. Kirk, Academic Freedom, 29; and Dawson, “Education and Christian Culture,” Commonweal, February 26, 1954, 526.

30. Dawson, “Christianity and Ideologies,” Commonweal, May 11 1956, 141.

31. See, for example, The Founders and the Classics.

32. Eliot, After Strange Gods, 54.

33. Eliot, After Strange Gods, 34.

34. C.J. McNaspy, “Motel Near Walden II [interview with Dawson],” America 21 January 1961, 509. See also, Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 36; and Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (1964; Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1995), 113-33.

35. Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 124.

36. Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 122-23.

37. In the United States, that changed dramatically after the War of 1812, with the advent of Jacksonian democracy, and later, especially, with Lincoln’s nation-building policies as stated in the Gettysburg Address. In the United States, that changed dramatically after the War of 1812, with the advent of Jacksonian democracy, and later, especially, with Lincoln’s nation-building policies as stated in the Gettysburg Address. As a side comment, we should in fairness note that Lincoln’s creation of a pseudo ideology based on an extreme equality of persons has resulted in numerous good things: equality among the races, etc. At worst, it has lead to banners such as “You’re all number one.” We only have to compare this in a superficial fashion to the results of Germany’s nation building program to know that the United States’ pseudo ideology has been rather benign. On the rise of equality since the French Revolution, see Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 42ff.

38. Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 82-83.

39. Kirk, Academic Freedom, 42ff. For Kirk’s less refined views on Dewey, see his conversation with Flannery O’Connor in the mid-1950s, in Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 112.

40. Kirk, Academic Freedom, 53.

41. Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 55.

42. Kirk, Prospects, 67.

43. Kirk, Prospects, 142.

44. James Socias, Handbook of Prayers (Princeton, N.J.: Scepter Publishers, 1998), 29.

45. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1976), 92.

46. Quoted in Kirk, Prospects, 196.

47. Aristotle, Politics.

48. St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (RSV 12: 7, 12).

49. Thomas Molnar, Utopia: The Perennial Heresy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 131.

50. For a penetrating understanding of Kirk’s use of “moral imagination,” see Gleaves Whitney, “The Swords of Imagination: Russell Kirk’s Battle with Modernity,” Modern Age 43 (Fall 2001): 311-20.

51. See, for example, Kirk, “Imagination Against Ideology,” National Review (December 31, 1980), 1576.

52. Guardini, Letters, 88.

53. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 24.

56. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf, 99.

55. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 147.

56. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 104-5.

57. Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1989), 18. On Tolkien’s significant influence on Kirk, see James Person, Kirk.

58. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 105.

59. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs: Shaw, 1994), 47.

60. Donald Lutz, ed., in “Preface,” to Colonial Origins of the American Constitution (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 19XX), xv.

61. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 109.

62. Kirk, Academic Freedom, 190-91.

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9 replies to this post
  1. Thank you for a meticulous, sobering piece, Prof. Birzer (You are number one!)

    It’d have been more tolerable if they’ve said, “Our job is to make you number one.” But no. They know they neither can nor have any intention of doing so. Throw it on the pupils instead by using the passive tense, “You’re (all) number one.” Magically. Just like that. If I were a young pupil, how would I be sure they don’t really mean, “You’re number one, and if you’re not, it’s your fault!”

    Besides, as with countless products nowadays, it’s a sound bite, meant to tickle the pride of as many consumers, sorry, students, as possible (as if today's youngsters need any more puffing of their vanity and hence allow the shopkeeper, sorry, school administration, to increase their sales. Who needs long, solemn slogans or painful promises? Make it snappy! Or our “Number One” students (whom we presume have short attention span, as well as their parents) will get bored.

    Honestly, I’ve seen toiletry kits with more sensible and detailed ads, not an educational institute that is far more critical and cannot afford frivolousness.

  2. Another problem with the "everyone is number one" banner is the brakes it puts on the impulse to mastery. If everyone is already number one, where does that leave the desire to achieve the best AT SOMETHING? We can find ourselves by carving out the area in which we can shine: Susie is the best speller, Mary is the math whiz, Tommy makes beautiful puppets: this gives us a sense of accomplishment, not mere false "self-esteem."

  3. I believe the phrase "chronological snobbery" is actually Lewis' though I could not say where it is from. But, it is understandable that Pearce would use it from time to time without attribution.

  4. Thanks for this interesting post. Regarding the medieval universities, they weren't exactly open to everyone in Christendom. No women, and everyone there was at least in minor orders. John Buridan (14th cen.) is famous for being the only lay professor on record.

  5. What a fabulous article! You unite so many aspects important for understanding education — historical, philosophical, theological and cultural. I will have to recommend it to all the teachers I work with.

    On the scientific front, I remember as a kid loving stories about scientists and the wonders they discovered. They were always adventurous and speculative (I recall very little of the desire to "conquer nature for the sake of progress" theme). It is true that those who pursue science degrees in college are being trained to fit into the corporate/scientific machine, I think it sad and a betrayal to the extent that this kills the authentic wonder and excitement of the scientific endeavor.

    One small quibble: “It is only in community, Aristotle claimed, that a person discovers his true individuality.” This sounds like a Christian way to put his position, at least to the extent that our individuality makes us qualitatively distinct from our fellows. We are only fully human in community, and that is at root what each of is and aspires to be. I am not sure that I see any sense of rejoicing in the different gifts of the Spirit in Aristotle. But I don’t suppose he could have anticipated everything Christian. But perhaps I am selling him short on this point.

  6. Excellent article.

    I liked your musings on the truths behind all traditional cultures. I have long had similar thoughts. I myself am a Christian and I can understand why you'd want to twin any such thoughts with respect for Christian superiority. Sometimes though I wonder can't the other faiths do the same? Can't Hinduism for instance, or Islam, consider themselves the superior expression of truth for various different, but parallel reasons to Christianity? Perhaps none might be superior. Perhaps Christianty, as belief in the historical Christ and the historical doctrine and rites of the Church, is itself just an expression of a truth beyond even the formulations of Christian doctrine and belief. It has long been questioned, St.Clement of Alexandria himself does it, whether it is Christ the Logos or Christ the man who one must believe in to be saved. Perhaps the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ the man are the historical enactment of a mystery already prefigured in the nature of creation and the background of all other cultures and faiths(at least those which are in some sense 'traditional', not completely artificial and contrived ones like Scientology.). Perhaps, parallel to this, there are things important to Christianity, but in the background, which are brought to the foreground in these cultures and faiths.

    Not of course that I'm encouraging anyone to less exclusively and devotedly practice Christianity, I can imagine many, many reasons to continue that even if my musings were fully correct. Indeed they may just be idle musings, but there does seem something a little bit ad hoc in the way that many of those, like Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis, as much as admire and adore each of them, introduce the element of Christian superiority back into their views on other cultures and mythologies after glimpsing truth there.

  7. Brad, your magnificent post inspired a most pleasant dream last night. I met Russell Kirk in what felt to be a large and attractive city; there were no sky-scrapers and all the buildings were white stone and built to human scale on either purely classical models or modern, neo-classical ones. There were broad sidewalks shaded by trees and the city was bathed in light. Dr. Kirk looked younger than when I first met him, perhaps age 40, and he bounded up the limestone steps energetically, two at a time, toward some vast public building that seemed to be a library. We paused to talk at the top of the stairs because the weather was so pleasant (and if it was a library, I suppose we were not meant to speak inside). Unable to recall who said what, I repeat the gist of our conversation about your article.

    Up to around the time of Jefferson, an educated person could be familiar with most all of the arts and sciences; something impossible now when one would need to spend a lifetime just keeping up just with dendochronology or ophthalmology, Western poetry or Japanese wood-block prints. Adam Smith's division of labour is therefore reflected in more specialised education. Moreover, technical matters intrude into life more and more; from engineering, environmental sciences and medicine, etc.; into community, private business and public policy. This demands that a citizen is broadly literate in a gamut of both humane and scientific disciplines; in matters moral and artistic and practical. Mitigating against this are many factors of course, scarce time and a weak desire for catholicity of knowledge being only two and the decadent notion of education-as-trade-school as but another.

    I awoke, alas, before we drew conclusions. I suspect that our dicusssion would have led beyond CP Snow's "Two Cultures," a problem that has increased since he described it. It probably leads to an educational bifurcation, back to an earlier model with trade schools for the multitudes who are only interested in a career and a meal-ticket, versus an elite schooled to some degree in another's disciplines whether humane or scientific. How that would function in a modern democracy is unclear. Anyway, the Sage of Mecosta looked fit, busy and happy.

  8. Thank you everyone for this comments! Somehow I missed them when this essay first came out. Thank you. It especially means a lot as the editor of MODERN AGE rejected the article as “incoherent”–this was right before TIC came into existence. So, again, thank you.

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