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.