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The tragedy of modern education is that it has left us perilously ignorant of who we are, where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. We are lost and blissfully unaware that we are heading for the abyss…

EcceHomoMany years ago the English writer G.K. Chesterton claimed that the “coming peril” facing civilization was “standardization by a low standard.” Today, almost a century later, Chesterton’s words have something of the mark of prophecy about them. Standards of literacy and numeracy, to say nothing of standards of morality, are not so much declining as plummeting.

The “dumbing down” of America’s already beleaguered education system with the introduction of the monstrous Common Core has only made bad things even worse. At the risk of seeming a trifle sensationalist, this ongoing affront to educational standards is nothing short of being a crime against humanity. Let’s not forget that the humanities are thus called because they teach us about our own humanity. A failure to appreciate the humanities must inevitably lead to the dehumanizing of culture and a disastrous loss of the ability to see ourselves truthfully and objectively.

The problem is that the architects of our secularist education system do not believe that it is possible to see ourselves truthfully and objectively. They have a chilling indifference to truthfulness and objectivity in human affairs, rejecting all discussion of truth and objectivity except in terms of that which can be measured empirically by science. With regard to the truth that we can know about ourselves as human beings, and which is expressed in the great works that have graced our civilization through the centuries, they never get beyond Pontius Pilate’s famous question, quid est veritas?, which is asked not in the spirit of philosophy as a question to be answered, but in the ennui of intellectual philandery as merely a rhetorical question that is intrinsically unanswerable. This intellectual philandery spawns numerous illegitimate children, each of which has its day as the dominant fad of educationists, at least until a new intellectual fad replaces it. It is in the nature of fads to fade but in the brief period in which they find themselves in the fashionable limelight they can cause a great deal of damage, a fact that Chesterton addressed with customary adroitness in 1910, over a century ago:

Obviously it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience and has weathered the world longer than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the latest ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience.

Implicit in Chesterton’s critique of the nature of modern education is a condemnation of the intellectual elitism that fuels the transient fads and fashions of the zeitgeist, the antidote to which is the timeless touchstone of Tradition.

It should, of course, be obvious that the disenfranchisement of the past inherent in modern education’s manic pursuit of novelty is not only an abandonment of the wisdom of the dead but also a disenfranchisement of the unborn. In denigrating and deriding the Great Books of Western Civilization, and the great ideas that informed them, the doyens of the modern academy have broken the continuum by which the wisdom of the ages is transmitted to each new generation. In refusing any authority beyond the individualism of the self, egocentric Man (homo superbus) has disinherited himself from his own priceless inheritance; in imposing his egocentric ethos on modern education, he is also disinheriting future generations. He is a contemptuous and therefore contemptible cad who not only kicks down the ladder by which he’s climbed but tries to destroy the ladder so that no one coming after him can climb it either.

Modern education is nothing less than the dogmatic imposition of radical relativism, the only philosophy compatible with homo superbus, a philosophy which goes hand in glove with the implementation of secular fundamentalism, the political ideology of homo superbus. Such a philosophy and its accompanying ideology refuses to tolerate anything but the things it tolerates itself, doing so in the name of “tolerance,” an egregious and outrageous example of the sheer chutzpah of Orwellian double-think! In short, homo superbus has recreated education in his own image, sacrificing all rival dogmas on the altar of self-worship he has erected to himself, on which the tabernacle of any god other than himself has been replaced by the mirror of self-referential subjectivism. There is no place in such self-referential education for religion or for any metaphysical philosophy, nor for the great writers and thinkers who espouse religion or a metaphysical understanding of the cosmos. Homer and Plato and Aristotle are vanquished, vanishing from school curricula. There’s no room for Dante or Chaucer or Shakespeare; or Austen or Dickens or Dostoyevsky. Instead, today’s already malnourished high school students will be fed trivia and trash, selected on the basis of its perceived “relevance.” A good, solid education should offer real meat and gravitas whereas American kids are being fed a thin gruel of nutrient-free nonsense. A good education is health food for the mind and soul, full of nourishing traditions; modern education offers only fast food and junk food for the soulless and the mindless.

The tragedy of modern education is that it has left us perilously ignorant of who we are, where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. We are lost and blissfully unaware that we are heading for the abyss. Such is the price we are doomed to pay for our blind faith in nothing in particular.

Having dissected the woeful inadequacy of modern secular education, we need to understand what constitutes authentic education. Such an understanding rests on an authentic understanding of what constitutes “truth” and an authentic understanding of who we are as human beings.

There is no better way to begin a discussion of “truth” than by asking Pontius Pilate’s question, quid est veritas? What is truth? One of the most famous questions ever asked, it is also one that has proved very difficult for many people to answer. It has baffled and confused some of the world’s most celebrated philosophers. It remains the most important of all questions, the one we must ask in order to make sense of anything else. It is, however, not a question that should only be asked. It must also be answered. It is not merely a rhetorical question to which there is no answer and it must not be asked in the tired and dismissive way in which relativists ask it, as something intrinsically unanswerable and therefore pointless. Nor is truth synonymous with opinion. They are not the same thing. An opinion may or may not be true. Truth, on the other hand, is always true and can be nothing else. Truth is synonymous with reality; it is the touchstone by which opinion is tested. If opinion fails the test of truth, the opinion should be abandoned.

If truth cannot be dismissed as unknowable, nor can it be affirmed on the basis of blind faith. Something is not true simply because we believe it; nor is it untrue because we don’t believe it. Truth simply is, whether we like it or not, believe it or not, or know it or not. This being so, and since we live within the realm of that which is true, of that which is real, and are subject to its laws, it would be well to understand the laws by which we live.

If the knowledge of truth is the beginning of wisdom and the necessary prerequisite for the living of a life that conforms to reality, the importance of the original question is reaffirmed.

The first step in answering the question, “what is truth?”, is to ask the preparatory question: How do we know what is truth? What are the means necessary to achieve the end?

We discover truth through the use of reason and only through the use of reason. There is no irrational path to truth. The so-called mystical paths to truth, such as the experience of the kiss of beauty or the goodness of love, are merely rational paths by another name, and by any other name reason smells as sweet. The good, the true, and the beautiful are nothing other than the triune splendor of truth itself, each of which conforms to, and is an expression of, the rational foundations of reality.

The great pagan philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, arrived at the conviction of the existence of the Divine through the use of reason. The great pagan writers, Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Virgil, arrived at the same conclusion through the rational observation of the follies, foibles, virtues, and vices of humanity and their respective consequences. These great pagans came to an understanding of the natural law through the rational observation of humanity’s place within nature and saw it as a logical and ultimately theological expression of the Divine law.

Although reason leads us to an acceptance of the existence of the Divine, and also to a rudimentary understanding of the Divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, justice, goodness, beauty, truth and love, it cannot tell us much more. In order for our reason to grasp the reality of the Divine on any deeper level, it needs the Divine to reveal itself.

God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture is the means by which our reason comes to understand Him more fully. Ultimately, it is God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ which opens our minds to the fullness of truth and ensures that our faith is rooted in reason.

Pilate’s question is answered by Christ in the latter’s assertion (to His disciples) that He is the way, the truth, and the life. In this revelation of Himself, God shows us that He is not only the Truth but the Reason. He is, furthermore, not only reason as a noun but reason as a verb. He is the reason who is the end of our quest for truth and also the rational means, the Way, by which the reason is discovered. In this sense, He is not only the Word but both senses of the word! In an apparent tautology that contains the totality of truth, He shows us that we have to reason to believe the reason to believe.

Having asked and answered Pilate’s question, thereby establishing the truth to which an authentic education should be directed, the other question that needs to be asked and answered concerns who we are as human beings. Who is Man?

For the materialist, man is simply homo sapiens, a label for humanity that was only invented in the early nineteenth century and has since become synonymous with what might be termed Darwinian man. As a label, it exposes the materialist’s lack of knowledge of Latin, as well as his lack of knowledge of man. Literally, homo sapiens means “wise man,” an absurd label for humanity as a whole. All human and historical experience shows that mankind, as a collective, is not wise, nor can any individual man be considered wise in his nature, i.e. from his very conception in the womb. Wisdom is something that we are meant to acquire as we live our lives. We can do so through our own experience or through the experience of others. The most effective way of becoming wise is to graft ourselves onto the collective experience of humanity exhibited in the history of civilization and its published works. It is, therefore, ironic that those who believe most firmly in the concept of homo sapiens are those most likely to treat with dismissive contempt the experience of humanity to be discovered in the study of the humanities. The ironic paradox is that those who consider themselves “wise men” are those who refuse to listen to the Wise Men that history has produced!

In truth, and to be fair to the materialist, he does not really mean what he is saying, in the sense that homo sapiens is a misleading label for his understanding of man. He doesn’t really believe that the human species is wise, which implies a philosophically virtuous imperative in human nature, but merely that he is “clever.” He believes that man is simply smarter than the apes and the other animals, which is why he has been so successful. The world of difference that exists between wisdom and cleverness was summarized brilliantly in The Hobbit in which the narrator tells us that goblins “make no beautiful things, but…many clever ones”:

It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.

The fact that goblins make “clever” things indicates that intelligence is not a guarantor of goodness, nor is it necessarily a means of finding the truth. Intelligence can be used in the service of cruelty or wickedness, or in the weaving of lies, or in the service of a host of other sins. In the absence of virtue and wisdom, intelligence becomes a servant of evil. It is poisoned.

For the Christian, in contradistinction to the materialist, man is not simply homo sapiens. He is not simply a “naked ape” or the most intelligent of the primates. He is a creature made in the image of God in a manner that distinguishes him radically from the rest of the animals. A better name for man is that given to him by the Greeks, who called man anthropos, meaning those who turn upwards. Unlike the other animals which, governed by instinct, are unable to do so, man looks up at the heavens, seeking a purpose and meaning to life beyond the mere creature comforts of everyday life. Reminding ourselves of Oscar Wilde’s epigram that we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars, we might see the gutter as the symbol of natural instinct and the stars as the symbol of supernatural desire. Man looks up; the lesser creatures do not. Man gazes; the animal grazes!

What we see reflected back to us in the magic mirror of the heavens is not homo sapiens who is ultimately as enslaved by instinct as are the rest of the animals, but anthropos who seeks solace in the sun and the stars, seeing in the heavenly bodies and the music of the spheres the signifiers of the light of grace. It is in this way that Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings speaks for all of humanity when he affirms in the darkest hour that “above all shadows rides the sun.”

Another understanding of man, related to the Greek anthropos, is that of homo viator, the travelling man or the man on the journey of life, the man whose purpose is to get Home by taking the adventure that life throws at him. The archetypal homo viator in western culture is perhaps Odysseus but, in Christian terms, the archetype is the mediaeval Everyman, who gets to heaven through his good works and the help of the Christian sacraments. For the Christian, every man is homo viator, whose sole purpose (and soul’s purpose) is to travel through the adventure of life with the goal of getting to heaven, his ultimate and only true home, facing many perils and temptations along the way.

The enemy of homo viator is homo superbus (proud man), who refuses the self-sacrifice that the adventure of life demands and seeks to build a home for himself within his “self.” Such a man becomes addicted to the sins that bind him, shriveling and shrinking to the pathetic size of his gollumized self. The drama of life revolves around this battle within each of us between the homo viator we are called to be and the homo superbus we are tempted to become. This drama is mirrored in the perennial personal struggle in the heart of every man between selflessness (love) and selfishness (pride).

Who is Man? Ultimately He is Jesus Christ, the Perfect Man who shows us who we are meant to be. In becoming more like Christ we are ipso facto becoming more fully human.

Who is Man? The answer was given unwittingly by Pontius Pilate as he showed the scourged Christ to the people. Ecce Homo. Behold, Man!

In a nutshell, therefore, an authentic education is that which teaches us that truth is real and is present most fully in the Real Presence of Christ in the cosmos, and, following logically and theologically from this Reality, it is an education that teaches us to be more fully human, more fully the person we are meant to be, by becoming more like Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published as a chapter of Planting the Seeds of Faith, ed. Draper John Warren (IHM Conferences, 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
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4 replies to this post
  1. It is well known that the Devil is a sad, uni9maginative clown, who cannot think of anything new. The “fads” he promotes are just the Old Sins with a fresh coat of paint and a tongue-twisting nomenclature. Those who fall for these ephemeral gauds and tinsel baubles, the New Pagans, have not even paused at piety and learning (So-Crates?!?), but have gone straight to the usual depravity and bored decadence.

  2. Ask 10 contemporary Westerners to define “Western Civilization”, and you will likely get 10 different answers. Most today probably wouldn’t like what the true definition would be anyway.

  3. Every child should practice reading using the Book of Proverbs. In 6.16 he will find the enemies of “homo viator’, those who Solomon calls Abominations to God. He will also learn that the purpose of Life is to gain understanding and wisdom. But as Socrates tells us only the Gods are Wise. When he is a teenager the Child should read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to understand we are simply ” A Soul carrying a corpse” and to understand that he is impervious to the machinations of others.

    Loved this Article. More pls.

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