Thank you for three great years!
Pius XI on Christian Education
In 1929--the same year in which the stock market crashed here in the United States--Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Divini Illius Magistri
on Christian education. My junior high Latin students could tell you that a literal translation of the title would read "Of that Divine Teacher," referring, of course, to our Lord--the master of all teachers.
is certainly worth reading in its entirety. Below I offer my readers but one small portion of that great work which highlights the necessity of allowing the Catholic faith to penetrate the whole of a school's existence, and not merely its religion classes.Pius XI
The mere fact that a school gives some religious instruction (often extremely stinted), does not bring it into accord with the rights of the Church and of the Christian family, or make it a fit place for Catholic students. To be this, it is necessary that all the teaching and the whole organization of the school, and its teachers, syllabus and text-books in every branch, be regulated by the Christian spirit, under the direction and maternal supervision of the Church; so that Religion may be in very truth the foundation and crown of the youth's entire training; and this in every grade of school, not only the elementary, but the intermediate and the higher institutions of learning as well. To use the words of Leo XIII:
It is necessary not only that religious instruction be given to the young at certain fixed times, but also that every other subject taught, be permeated with Christian piety. If this is wanting, if this sacred atmosphere does not pervade and warm the hearts of masters and scholars alike, little good can be expected from any kind of learning, and considerable harm will often be the consequence.
Technology and the Natural Rhythms of Life
Perhaps you recall seeing this article of mine about a year or so ago in The Herald. My, how one year is like a breath!
We are all aware, I think, that ours is an age completely saturated by technology. From the very moment our alarm clocks issue forth their diurnal wake-up blasts to the moment we hit the lights before bed, technology is all around us, playing sundry and significant roles in our lives. What we sometimes fail to see is that this separates us in many profound ways from all other eras of human history. And that is something about which we should be both proud and concerned. Technological advance, like a great many other things in this unique epoch of human history, has both its upsides and its downsides. The upsides are obvious: because of technology we have greater mobility, increased access to the myriad heaps of information present in the world, more and more sophisticated medical devices and techniques, and so on and so on. But all of this convenience comes at a price.
There are, of course, the obvious abuses of technology. No good Catholic, for instance, can be proud to live in an age when scientists are experimenting with human embryos. But the risks of technological saturation go even beyond this. Sometimes I wonder if anyone can be fully cognizant of how deeply he is affected by technology. Its whole development has happened so quickly that it is difficult even to track its impact on the life of man.
For centuries upon centuries before the advent of the technological revolution, human life was universally rooted in the rhythms of nature. One rose with the day and went down with the night. One lived with the seasons and patterned his life according to them. One moved as quickly as he could shift his feet and sailed as swiftly as the wind would blow. One stayed rooted in a particular area and worked with his hands.
Today we move at our own frenzied pace, according to artificial rhythms that we have created for ourselves. Because of electricity, we are no longer subject to the limits of daylight. We travel at mind-blowing speeds in our state-of-the-art automobiles. We live in suburbs, miles away from our workplace, and we get up and move to different towns with little inconvenience. Machines do a great deal of our work for us, and we spend a lot of time working them. We travel in ships that defy the wind and send instant messages remotely to audiences of thousands.
This kind of change can’t help but profoundly affect us, for good or for ill, and I’m not sure we are always aware of the risks involved. Whenever one separates himself from natural rhythms, he runs the risk of creating for himself artificial rhythms which are unsustainable. Some of us will readily admit that we are living in a daily frenzy without form, or that we are tied down every minute to electronic devices, or that we have abandoned some basic skills to the omni-competence of machines.
Summertime affords us a great opportunity to escape from this chaos, a time to reconnect with some of those God-given, natural rhythms, and to reacquire some of those skills that have been absorbed by machines. With this in mind, I heartily encourage you and your children to monitor your habits of technological consumption, and to reconnect yourselves with more traditional rhythms of life. One great way to do this is to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which not only situates you in the daily rhythm of the Church’s prayer life, but forces you to take cognizance of daily and seasonal rhythms. Besides this, a great many other things could be recommended. You could limit the amount of time you spend communicating remotely from a computer in order to develop good, strong, personal relationships. You could turn off your cellular phone for awhile and feel the freedom of solitude. You could rise and fall with the sun, and bring some order to the chaos of your daily schedule. What you stand to gain by doing these things is freedom and openness: freedom from the noisy drawl of modern life, and an openness to the voice of God, who speaks to us in the quiet of the rhythms he established in creation.
Historical Provincialism: Dawson's Name for Chronological Snobbery
Until a man acquires some knowledge of another culture, he cannot be said to be educated, since his whole outlook is so conditioned by his own social environment that he does not realize its limitations. He is a provincial in time, if not in place, and he almost inevitably tends to accept the standards and values of his own society as absolute. The widening of the intellectual horizon by initiation into a different world of culture was indeed the most valuable part of the old classical education. (Dawson, "The Crisis of Western Education")
Chronological Snobbery & the Importance of Reading Old Books
Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus tibi.
As I've noted elsewhere in these pages
, Gilbert Keith Chesterton once argued that it was downright arrogant to disqualify a good man's opinion merely because he was dead. Clive Staples Lewis, an acknowledged devotee of Chesterton, couldn't have agreed more. In his 1956 autobiography "Surprised By Joy," Lewis characterized this smug attitude toward the past as "chronological snobbery," an altogether suitable phrase by which he meant "the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to [one's] own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited." He wrote,
"You must find out why [something] went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also 'a period,' and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them."C.S. Lewis
No doubt every epoch has its cultural blind spots, ours no less than any that have gone before. And that is one of the main reasons for studying history in the first place. A deep knowledge of the past frees one from the tyranny of the present by giving him an alternate lens through which to view the world.
In another very insightful work, Lewis offered this piece of sage advice about reading old books:
"It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to three new ones.... Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good for seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.... The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books."
What, my dear reader(s), do you suppose our own cultural blind spots are? And which old books ought we to be reading in our day to help us locate and correct those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in our age that no one dares to attack them?
All pensees welcome!
If you haven't already done so, be sure to read Mrs. Huizel's lovely entry
about celebrating Holy Week in Puerto Rico.
Gloria, laus et honor tibi sit, Rex Christe, Redemptor.
Speaking of the problem of historical ignorance...
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 7, 2008 (Zenit.org).- A society that lacks an interest in history, is one that can be easily manipulated by ideologies, says Benedict XVI.
The Pope said this today upon receiving in audience members of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. He said the committee works "in a field that is of great interest for the life of the Church."
Today, he said "it is no longer just a question of tackling a historiography hostile to Christianity and to the Church. Today it is historiography itself that is going through a serious crisis, having to fight for its very existence in a society ruled by positivism and materialism.
These two ideologies have led to a boundless enthusiasm for progress, which [...] influences the view of life of large sectors of society. The past thus appears as a dark backdrop against which the present and future glitter with misleading promise."
"Typical of this mentality is a lack of interest in history," said Benedict XVI, "which translates into the marginalization of the historical sciences."
The Pope said this in turn leads to "a society which, heedless of its own past and hence lacking criteria acquired through experience, is no longer capable of harmonious coexistence or joint commitment in realizing future aims. Such a society is particularly vulnerable to ideological manipulation."
"This danger is becoming ever greater because of an excessive emphasis given to modern history," he added, "especially when research in this field is conditioned by a methodology which draws inspiration from positivism and sociology," ignoring "other important aspects of historical reality, even entire epochs."
"Even when its does not specifically concern ecclesiastical history, historical analysis nonetheless contributes to describing the life context in which the Church has carried out and continues to carry out her mission," said the Pontiff.
"There can be no doubt that Church life and activity have always been determined -- facilitated or made more difficult -- by the various historical contexts," he added. "The Church is not of this world, but she lives in it and for it."
You can find the full text of the article here
How much American History does a typical college senior know? Not much.
Last September the Intercollegiate Studies Institute
released its second National Study
concerning the "Accountability of Colleges to Teach America's History and Institutions." The results of the study were similar to those of their previous report, and so too were the conclusions which they drew from them, namely that American college students don’t know much about American history and that their colleges are failing to teach it to them.
The facts of the 2007 study are absolutely devastating. The highest performing group of college seniors were Harvard students, but even they scored below 70% on average. Compare their scores
with the those of seniors at our very own University of Minnesota, who barely broke the 50% mark—a failing grade by almost anyone’s standards.
Perhaps even more devastating is the fact that, on the same test and at the same college, seniors typically performed only marginally better, or in a number of cases even marginally worse, than freshmen did. At the University of Minnesota, for instance, freshmen scored an average 49.18% on the test, while seniors scored an average 53.50%. That, of course, is a very modest improvement.
Other schools, however, could not even boast of being in the black. At such prestigious Ivy League universities as Cornell, Yale, and Princeton, the freshmen actually outscored
the seniors—suggesting, of course, that those schools were actually obstacles to historical learning.
This is all very embarrassing, of course. Confronted with the facts, one begins to hope that the test’s level of difficulty bordered on the impossible, but unfortunately that is not the case at all. The test really is quite basic. Believe me; I took it myself. You can take it too
, if you wish.
Consider, for instance, the elementary nature of the following items
from the report:
• Seniors do not know basic facts of American history. Only 45.9% know that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution.
• Seniors do not know the basic timeline of American history. Only 47.7% know that Fort Sumter came before Gettysburg and that Gettysburg came before Appomattox.
• Seniors do not know America’s founding documents. Only 45.9% know that the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” comes from the Declaration of Independence.
• Seniors do not know the rudiments of America’s historical relations with the world. Only 42.7% know that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion.
What is one to make of all this? Does it even matter at the end of the day? Is there anything particularly dangerous
about historical ignorance? What does the study reveal about American schools and the way they approach history? These and other questions are certainly worth pursuing. No doubt the ISI report itself offers some very insightful commentary on a variety of like questions. I too have some thoughts. What I don’t have is the time to pursue them all right now.
The Kind of Student Essay You'll Never See Displayed on the Wall of a Public School
"If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."
One of my sixth grade history students made a very interesting insight in a recent writing assignment. She noted that since everyone in medieval Europe shared a common faith in Christianity, that same Christian faith was not in any way divorced from medieval education. She further noted that in our own age, which deeply lacks that kind of spiritual unity, it is not at all uncommon for schools completely to ignore, or even to prohibit, the discussion of religion altogether.
She’s right, of course, and I’m afraid she has only scratched the surface of the issue. Religion is not the only subject which gets shortchanged at a non-Catholic school. In a very real sense, our Catholic faith influences the way that we approach every single subject. I am constantly reminded of this as I teach history. I’m not sure what the standard treatment of the medieval period looks like at a public school, but I am certain that it is very different from the sort of treatment it receives here at Holy Family Academy. And that is just one very obvious example.
Yesterday I started reading a batch of essays written by the seventh grade history students. They are currently working on an American civics unit, and for the last couple of days they’ve been considering the role of the Supreme Court within the scope of American government. Specifically they’ve been considering the whole problem of judicial activism. Their most recent assignment was to describe the nature of the problem in a paragraph essay. As I was reading these yesterday, it occurred to me that, should HFA be a public school instead of a private Catholic school, the seventh grade students would probably never broach the topic of judicial activism, because the subject would be seen as too politically contentious.
That is not something we worry about too much at Holy Family Academy, since we possess here a broad moral consensus which allows us to see eye-to-eye on important moral and political issues. It is exactly for this reason that we have absolutely no ambivalence whatsoever arguing that Roe vs. Wade was an abominable Supreme Court decision. And that is a very important thing, of course.
In hearty celebration of our broad moral consensus, I offer you a brief sample of seventh grade student writing from Holy Family Academy on the topic of judicial activism. I give you the essay entirely as it was when I first read it—completely unedited. I doubt you’ll ever see an essay like this in proud display at a public school.
“Judicial activism is when the Supreme Court judges legislate, or kill a law for the poor reason of not liking it. They shouldn’t be able to do this because it is not what the Framers intended them to do; the judges are supposed to care about the constitutionality of the law. When they reject a law, they say it is unconstitutional, but many times their argument has an insufficient basis. For example, in the case of Roe vs. Wade, the judges claimed it was a “right to privacy” to have the right to an abortion, when really, because there is no mention of abortion in the Constitution, it should be in the hands of the states. Because of judicial activism, or judicial veto, the Supreme Court has more power than it should possess.”
Moral Unity and the Not-so-Dark Ages
For the last couple of months, the sixth graders have been studying the medieval period. The word "medieval" is actually a combination of two Latin words: medium
, which means "middle," and aevum
, which means "age." It's worth remembering that the people who actually lived during the Middle Ages had no sense that there was anything essentially "middle" about their ages. The phrase was coined during the Renaissance and later employed by Enlightenment thinkers who thought that between the glorious civilization of classical antiquity and that of Renaissance Europe there was a thousand-year chasm of darkness, ignorance, and superstition: these were the dark, middle ages, situated between the light of the ancient world and the light of modernity.
Well, I can assure you that the sixth graders will have nothing to do with such historical nonsense. Nor should they, of course, for there is simply too much evidence to the contrary. Ask them and they will tell you as much. They'll cite for you example after example of the medieval genius. They'll tell you about knights and chivalry and castles. They'll tell you about the flowering of medieval town life and the stability of the feudal system. They'll tell you about medieval guilds and universities, about gothic architecture and breathtaking cathedrals, about kingship, and medieval law, and the Magna Carta. They’ll tell you about St. Dominic and St. Francis and the orders they founded. They'll tell you about Dante and scholasticism and the medieval recovery of Aristotle. Indeed, they will debunk the entire myth of the dark ages with just two words: Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas Aquinas
The sixth graders will also tell you something much more basic—and also much more important—about the Middle Ages. They will explain, namely, that throughout the medieval period everyone shared a common faith and held in common a set of moral ideals. The medieval period, they will explain, was one of moral and spiritual unity.
Our age, as we all well know, cannot boast of that sort of unity. The signs are all around us. We can, however, achieve a deep and abiding moral and spiritual unity in a Catholic school. And that is something that the sixth graders at Holy Family Academy appreciate. I would know. They’ve told me so.
The Democracy of the Dead
I almost titled this entry "Why I Study History," but I figured that no one would read it if I did. "Why I Study History" has a "Why I Collect Matchbooks" sort of ring to it. "The Democracy of the Dead," on the other hand, has a unique and mysterious tone. It conjures up visions of dead men casting their votes and making their long-lost voices heard.
Perhaps some of my readers [Is there anybody out there?] are familiar with the origin of the phrase. Like a good many insightful lines, it was penned by a very large man named G.K. Chesterton—who was large, I assure you, in almost every possible way. In his very fine book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote the following:
"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father."
Perhaps now you can begin to see how closely related are the two titles I considered for this entry. If tradition tells us that our ancestors' voices are important, then it is history that actually informs us what those voices said. It is history that brings the dead to life. The dead would have no democracy without it.
Why is it important that the dead have their say? It is important because the dead are not idiots—at least not all of them are. I am always skeptical of historical theories which force their adherents to assume that men throughout all of history have lived in ignorance and stupidity—that is to say, until now. That sort of doctrine of progress was truly debunked by the 20th century, which saw devastating war after devastating war. Assuming, then, that no age has a monopoly on the truth, it becomes clear that wisdom can be found in any age. And whenever we find it, we ought to give it a voice.
Probably there is no other age in history as completely insulated as our own. Indeed, it is our age which has made the study of history a sort of antiquarian hobby, like collecting matchbooks. This means, of course, that we are relying almost exclusively on our own moral resources for wisdom and guidance. That is not only "arrogant," as Chesterton suggests, but dangerous. Former ages always looked to the past for guidance. Christians, of course, have done it in every age, though many of today’s Christians see their own faith through a modern lens that distorts it.
We need history. We need it as badly as we need mathematics and science. In fact, I would argue that we need history more than math and science. Those subjects can do a lot for our age, but they can’t impart wisdom. They can’t guide themselves. History can guide us. It can teach us what is and what is not essential. It can show us mistakes. It can show us the conditions of peace, order, and happiness. It can make us wise.
No, I am afraid I do not speak French.
I probably first became familiar with the word "pensee" while reading Pascal a number of years ago (in translation, of course). My readers probably know that the word means something like the English noun "thought," or perhaps "reflection." Pascal wrote a series of pensees in defense of Christianity in the mid 17th century, a period rife with skepticism. You can read more about Pascal here
. He is perhaps best known for his famous "wager
I am, of course, quite incapable of offering my reader(s) pensees of the same quality as Pascal's, but I will nevertheless endeavor to leave you with a few mediocre pensees of my own every now and then on this blog. That is assuming, of course, that there is a reader or two out there somewhere.
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These are times that try men's souls.