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THE PROBLEMS OF MODERN EDUCATION
(TEACH ME!  Part I)

By Fr. Herve de la Tour

Taken in part from the original printed article of "Teach Me" in the June 2001 issue of The Angelus magazine.

The Angelus Editor's Foreword

  This conference has been compiled and edited from Fr. de la Tour’s talks given to the priests and faculty at Immaculate Conception Academy, Post Falls, ID, and also to the priests of the Society of Saint Pius X in the United States District at their annual Priests’ Meeting, Feb. 12 - 16, 2001.

  In this wide-ranging conference given to priests and faithful in both hemispheres over the last year, Fr. de la Tour discusses how and why modern education has broken down and cautions us to keep from following suit. He records how bad philosophy has corrupted education and re-establishes for us the basis for true education. This is not simply a speculative treatment, however. Father advises us practically on how to restore what has been lost and outlines the steps to be taken to do so. Priests, teachers, and parents, take note.

Introduction:  the Cause of the Problem of Modern Education

  In the year of Our Lord 1669, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the monks of St. Wandrille were chanting Matins. The fifth lesson was from St. Thomas Aquinas. It read thus: "Accidentia sine subjecto subsistunt." The Angelic Doctor explained in this lesson that after the consecration, the accidents of the bread remained without their substance, which had been changed into the body of Our Lord. Something unbelievable then happened. The young monks started to whistle in order to manifest their opposition to St. Thomas. How could such a thing happen?  Because they had been studying the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes rejected the Thomistic distinction between substance and accidents. He even refused to give a philosophical explanation of the mystery of the Real Presence. For him, reason and faith belonged to two completely separate domains. Since the Real Presence was a supernatural phenomenon, it was pointless to use natural philosophy to understand this mystery. This is why the monks, imbued with Cartesian philosophy, refused to peacefully sing the lesson of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Divine Office was thereby disturbed. The incident must have been worthy of notice since it was recorded in the annals of the monastery.

  Now let us reflect a little upon this anecdote. It is typical of the second half of the 17th century, when all the teaching orders in France (Jesuits, Oratorians, Doctrinarians, etc.) became slowly contaminated with the errors of Descartes. Even the novitiates of the contemplative orders started to teach Cartesian philosophy, as was the case in the Benedictine monastery of St. Wandrille. It also illustrates very well the theme of this conference, which is the influence of philosophy on education and, through education, on our spiritual life. We must realize that the Divine Office is the center of the monk’s life. And its peace is here destroyed because of a false philosophy. The right kind of prayer is upset because of the wrong kind of education.

  We used to say in 1969, when the Novus Ordo was promulgated, "lex orandi, lex credendi."  We rejected the new Mass because it did not express our Catholic Faith. Upon the way we pray depends the way we believe. A defective liturgy will little by little poison our faith. Well could we have said in 1669, when witnessing the rowdy monks whistling during Matins, "lex studendi, lex orandi." Upon the way we study depends the way we pray. A defective education has grave consequences with regard to our spiritual life. This incident from the annals of St. Wandrille is therefore symbolic, and will serve as a starting point for this conference.

  We will study the influence of the false philosophy of Descartes on our present system of education. I believe that the philosophy of education in many of our schools is not sufficiently inspired by the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas, but on the contrary has been affected by the errors of Descartes, just as in the non-Catholic schools. And this is one of the reasons why our schools are not bearing as much fruit as we expected. There seems to exist a disproportion between the amount of work on the part of our dedicated teachers and the results obtained on the part of our students. Could this be explained (at least in part) by the lack of Thomistic principles in our teaching? I believe so. John Senior wrote:

  Controversies in education, as in anything else, are consequences of deeper divisions in philosophy and ultimately in religion.1

  The problem of modern education is the modern philosophy which inspired it.

Cartesian Idealism

  Descartes is the father of idealism, a most pernicious error which has wrought untold damage to man’s knowledge. In a nutshell, idealism adopts as the starting point of philosophy thought instead of being. This error is much worse than the preceding ones. Why? because it no longer attacks one particular truth known by the intellect, but the intellect itself as the faculty of knowing truth. Without entering into details, Descartes believed that our intellect directly attains, not the things outside our mind, but our ideas of these things. His philosophy was wholly rationalistic. This means that he believed in the efficacy of reason alone, unaided by anything else. There was a complete separation between faith and reason, instead of the mutual collaboration found in St. Thomas. Cartesian philosophy is anti-Catholic in its essence, although Descartes believed himself a devout Catholic.

  Let us summarize the three main characteristics of rationalism. Firstly, it refuses to depend upon reality through experience. (It thus effects a separation between sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge.) Descartes does not appeal to the evidence of the object, but only to the so called "clear idea." This is pure subjectivism. Secondly, it no longer accepts receiving knowledge from previous teachers through tradition. (It thus effects a separation between modern thought and the wisdom of the ancients, especially Aristotle). Descartes wants to entirely reconstruct the whole edifice of human speculation. This is rash individualism. Thirdly, it wants to find truth without the help of supernatural Revelation. (It thus effects a separation between philosophy and theology.) Descartes never allowed the least Catholic dogma to interfere with his seeking knowledge. This is self-confident naturalism.

  From this too brief summary, we can realize that Descartes has inaugurated a new orientation in philosophy. One can see the spirit of the Renaissance at work. Reason, jealous of its independence, no longer humbly submits to God. Descartes is paving the way for Kant and Hegel. If our ideas are not measured by the things God created, what will prevent the divinization of our mind, since it has become the ultimate reality?  Idealism logically leads to pantheism. This is why since 1663 the Church has kept Descartes’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books. In spite of this prohibition, his philosophical errors were adopted by all the teaching orders during the second part of the 17th century, as the great historian Jean de Viguerie has proven in his well documented books. This was a great tragedy and had tremendous consequences with regards to education, which is the subject of this conference.

Catholic Revival in Education

  A renewal in Catholic education was able to take place in the 20th century. This was due in great part to the "rediscovery" of Thomism in the late 19th century. After the Renaissance, the doctrine of St. Thomas was no longer the leading inspiration in matters of education. We must wait for men like the Dominican Fr. Calmel to start again to apply Thomistic principles to the organization of a school. Fr. Calmel wrote a great book entitled Ecole chrétienne renouvelée, where he lays down how St. Thomas’s doctrine can become the soul of a Catholic school. He was the inspiration of the Dominican Teaching Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus, from which congregation issued the sisters of Fanjeaux who have a school in the US in Post Falls, ID.

  Another factor in this Catholic renewal in education is the "rediscovery" of Gregorian chant in the second part of the 19th century. After the Renaissance, the liturgy as the public worship of the Church was no longer what it was in the Middle Ages. Dom Guéranger explains this in his wonderful preface to The Liturgical Year (available from Angelus Press). St. Pius X promoted a return to the antique tradition of the Roman liturgy mainly through the Benedictine monks of Solesmes. In the 20th century, men like Henri Charlier (whose brother André was the headmaster of the famous school of Maslacq) understood that Gregorian chant was of supreme importance in the formation of youth. Henri Charlier taught chant to the parishioners of Mesnil-Saint-Loup (the parish of the Benedictine monk Fr. Emmanuel). His brother André was running his school on the same principles. He wrote:

  The Church willed that the authentic Gregorian chant be restored because she judged that this art was destined to make souls enter the unfathomable mystery of the Faith, whose doors it delicately opens.

  Between the 6th and the 12th century, the only schools were the monastic schools. The Latin Psalter was the standard textbook. The psalms are a wonderful tool to teach students the spirit of praise. Man is created for the glory of God. The Divine Office turns our soul towards heaven. In the 13th century, the great universities were founded and learned Dominicans taught scholasticism to medieval youth. But St. Thomas was brought up at Monte Cassino and died at Fossa Nova. In a way, the seedbed of Dominican theology was Benedictine life. As Cardinal Newman said, "The Church did not lose Benedict by finding Dominic." After the Reformation, in the 16th century, St. Ignatius came and Jesuit colleges were established. They were great schools; however, it is unfortunate that very soon, in spite of St. Ignatius’s desire, their teachers adopted Suarez and not St. Thomas as their master. This weakened them when in the 17th century they were confronted with Descartes, himself trained by the Jesuits at the College of La Flêche.

  I cannot dwell too long on historical matters, but I just wanted to point out that the Catholic renewal in education was made possible in the 20th century only when teachers linked again with the Benedictine and Dominican traditions. An education, to be complete, needs the humanities (and the Jesuits were justly famous for this), but also the robust wisdom of St. Thomas as well as the God-centered spirit of the liturgy. Men like Fr. Calmel and André Charlier were great educators because they tapped all three wellsprings.

  Let us now come back to Descartes and see successively how his doctrine contradicts St. Thomas’s, what influence it has on our modern system of education, and what can be done to counteract this pernicious influence. We summarize Descartes’ errors in five headings.

Suppression of Theology

  For Descartes, ideas, in order to give true knowledge, must be absolutely clear. Therefore theology cannot be a true science, since there is a certain obscurity due to the mystery of God. In the modern curriculum, there is very little room given to theology. To give you an example, there is only one hour of Christian doctrine per week in some of the French Society schools. This is because of the enormous amount of mathematics and physics in the programs for the nationwide state examination. The problem is that our students get the idea that what truly matters is science in the modern meaning of the word. Knowledge of God becomes confused with emotional piety instead of being light for the intellect. For St. Thomas, God must have the first place in the curriculum of a Catholic school. Theology must be recognized as a true science and be considered as the crowning of studies. It is also a supernatural wisdom, at the same time speculative and practical.

  Pope Pius XII spoke to students in the following terms:

  All Christians, but especially those dedicated to study, should have a religious education as profound and as organic as possible. As a matter of fact, it would be dangerous to develop all other forms of knowledge and leave the religious heritage unchanged from the first days of childhood. Incomplete and superficial, it would necessarily be suffocated and probably destroyed by non-religious culture and the experience of adult life, as is proved by the fact that the faith of many was shipwrecked by doubts left unclarified and by problems left unsolved. Inasmuch as it is necessary for the foundation of your faith to be rational, a sufficient study of apologetics is indispensable. Afterwards you should sample the beauties of dogmatic theology and the harmonies of moral theology. Finally, try to include Christian ascetics in your studies and press on, on, beyond to the high planes of mystical theology. Oh, if you could see Christianity in all its greatness and splendor! 2

  But it is equally certain that an ever-increasing development of your historical, literary and scientific acquirements without an adequate and corresponding deepening of religion, which is truly necessary, could be highly dangerous to your souls.... Do not let yourselves be satisfied until you have penetrated, as far as possible, into the intimate meaning of religious truth, and until the truth itself has penetrated you —your intelligence, your imagination, your heart and your whole being.3

Importance of Christian Doctrine

  What must be done in our schools to give our students a solid religious formation? I believe it is possible in high school to initiate them in theology. We must help them to penetrate into the great mysteries of our Faith. Fr. Calmel explains that this can be done when the teacher himself has a certain theological formation. He can then teach what he has himself assimilated. But since we need to ascertain whether the student has understood or not, the teacher must make him speak. I would suggest reviving the oral exercise of the disputatio. The teacher plays the part of the "devil’s advocate," using the false reasonings of the great heretics (Arius, Nestorius, Pelagius, Luther, etc.), and the students must refute him using what they have learned in the class. During theology class (what Fr. Calmel called "Christian doctrine") connections can be made with Church history (Councils, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church, etc.). These oral exercises should also be made for such modern issues as the New Mass, religious liberty, and ecumenism. The only way to form Catholic minds is to give our students profound convictions. Our boys need to love the truth with their whole heart. (Veritas is the motto of the Dominican order.) From this burning love will often proceed the desire to communicate this truth to our neighbor, in other words, apostolic zeal.

Mental Prayer

  Two more suggestions to implement this primacy of God in the minds of our students: We must teach them to meditate. I believe that personal prayer is extremely important. It is often what will make the difference between a student who perseveres after high school and a student who does not. Saying the family rosary is necessary, but not sufficient. A boy must also practice mental prayer in some way or another, i.e., talk to God in his own words. Each teacher can adapt this to his own grade level. He leads the students in meditation by helping them to ponder on some eternal truth, applying it to their personal life (like in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: "Jesus suffers for me...what can I do for Him?"). When the subject of the class has been the Incarnation, the Passion, or the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it should be easy to conclude by five minutes of prayer. The students must learn to avoid separation between their studies and their prayer life. Once again, everything has to be integrated. Why do we want to know more about God? Because we love Him. And the more we know about Him, the more we love Him. And true love leads to prayer.

Spending Time in a Monastery

  The second suggestion is to have our students, at least once in their high school years, spend some time in a monastery. I know it is often easier to have a priest come to the school to preach a retreat. Ignatian retreats are indeed very good and should be given to our students. However, I believe that the company of monks bears fruits which are especially important for our youngsters. André Charlier wrote: "Our modern world understands nothing because it has lost the sense of the sacred." The Divine Office is the praise of God, something gratuitous, disinterested, without utilitarian value. Our boys need to see the monks whose life is dedicated to the loving adoration of the Blessed Trinity. Abbot Marmion said that the monastic life is one long Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. The boys having their meals with the monks, working with them, and praying with them (ora et labora) will taste Benedictine peace (pax is indeed the motto of the Order). And what about having the students back at school sing the Divine Office? In some boarding schools the boys attend Compline. It is even possible for high school students to sing one hour of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary every day. The psalms are short and can even be memorized. There is no better school of prayer than the psalms.

Secularization of Knowledge

  For Descartes, theology is not a science. Not being a science, it is not a wisdom, and has therefore no influence on the other subjects of the curriculum. In one and the same man, the philosopher and the scientist are divorced from the believer. This leads to the secularization of knowledge. Its purpose will no longer be to know the world as coming from the Creator’s hands in order to know and love Him better, but to dominate it in order to make our life more comfortable through technology. There is a reversal in the orientation of knowledge. For medieval man, things spoke of God who made them and ordered them. For modern man, things are silent, they are on earth to be analyzed by means of algebraic equations. In the medieval scheme of education, everything was part of a whole. There were no "secular" subjects. Everything was to be taught in the light of faith. Theology is a wisdom, and one of the attributes of wisdom is to give harmony and unity to the parts of a whole, to "integrate" them. In modern textbooks of physics or biology, no reference is made to God. It is the same thing in literature. The "profane" subjects are completely cut off from the "religious." This division is not good. It is one of the effects of the disintegrating spirit of the Renaissance.

Catholic Science

  What can we do to encourage a Catholic perspective on science in our students? Modern textbooks crammed with molecular biology exclude the Creator from their pages. They do not lead the children to wonder at the beauty of the universe. But I believe the Catholic teacher can do a great deal in spite of these faulty textbooks. Whenever we can, let us not be afraid of dropping a quote from Sacred Scripture appropriate to the particular lesson we are studying. It is not a question of transforming every class into a religion class, but of helping the student acquire a Catholic mind, a mind which realizes that "the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil" (Gerard Manley Hopkins). The utilitarian purpose of science pales when compared with the recognition of God Himself as seen through His wonderful world. There are many beautiful verses from the psalms like "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork," or "He has pitched a tent there for the sun, which comes forth like the groom from his bridal chamber and, like a giant, joyfully runs its course" (Ps. 19). There are also a lot of religious analogies which can be drawn from nature: For instance, our Lady is the "Star of the sea," a "rose amongst the thorns," "dawn arising," etc.

  Passages like the following one from St. Theresa of the Child Jesus can also be used:

  Jesus opened the book of nature before me and I saw that every flower He has created has a beauty of its own, that the splendor of the rose and the lily’s whiteness do not deprive the violet of its scent nor make less ravishing the daisy’s charm. I saw that if every little flower wished to be a rose, Nature would lose her spring adornments, and the fields would be no longer enameled with their varied flowers. So it is in the world of souls, the living garden of the Lord...4

Liturgical Latin

  It is sad to see that in many schools of the Society of Saint Pius X, students are exclusively studying classical Latin, just as in the public schools. Since they lack motivation, at the end of several years they have achieved very little: Most students are hardly able to decode a few sentences of Cicero with the help of a dictionary. If they were studying ecclesiastical Latin as well as classical Latin, students would be more motivated since they would see the connection between Latin and their prayer life. They could thus learn to understand the Gospel of the Mass, the psalms of the Office, and other prayers from the liturgy. Fr. Calmel wrote that in order to love Latin, one needs to have enough Catholic sense to be "vehementer affectus suave sonantis Ecclesiae vocibus." (St. Augustine was thus vehemently moved by the sweet voice of the Church, i.e., by the singing of the psalms in the basilica of Milan). What a world of difference between the Introit for the First Sunday of Advent drawn from Psalm 24, "Ad Te levavi animam meam," and some insipid sentence about the slave of the mother-in-law! The students can learn by heart after having translated them, some verses of the Adoro Te Devote, the Stabat Mater, or the Lauda Sion. They can follow the liturgical cycle through the hymns of Vespers ("Creator alme siderum" for Advent, etc.). Here is a quote from Pope Pius XII:

  Latin!  A language, ancient but not dead, whose superb echo, even if not heard for centuries in the ruined amphitheaters, the famous forums and the temples of the Caesars, is not silent in Christ’s basilicas, where the priests of the Gospel and the heirs of the martyrs repeat and sing again the psalms and the hymns of the first centuries in the reconsecrated language of the Quirites. Now, the language of Rome is principally a sacred language, which is heard in the divine rites, in the theological halls and in the Acts of the Apostolic See, and in which you yourselves often address a sweet greeting to the Queen of Heaven, your Mother, and to our Father Who reigns above.5

  Fr. Berto was the private theologian of Archbishop Lefebvre at the Council. He was a Dominican tertiary and a great educator. He advocated teaching Latin like a living language, whereas the modern way is exclusively through written grammar and translation. Why would the French teacher say to his students, "Fermez la porte," or "Ouvrez la fenêtre," whereas the Latin teacher would never say "Claude januam," or "Aperi fenestram" (i.e., "Close the door"; "Open the window")? There is not enough time to quote extensively from Fr. Berto, but it is interesting to know that his ideas about the method of teaching Latin were shared by such men as Fr. Calmel and Henri Charlier. There has been a return to pre-Renaissance ways of teaching in the past 50 years like in the textbooks using the "natural method," as it is sometimes called. Far from us to advocate a "Latin without tears" utopia. But we should put emphasis on oral exercises. Students need to be able to speak a little Latin. This demands good teachers, but it is not an impossible task, especially if the students do it daily for 15 minutes. Simple questions are asked in Latin by the teacher, and the students must answer in Latin. For example, "Quae est Maria? Maria est Mater Dei. Ubi est Roma? Roma est in Italia," etc. Ideally, this needs to be started in the 7th or 8th grade, or, even better, in 5th or 6th. Fr. Berto believed that these exercises would greatly facilitate the students’ understanding of the liturgical texts. After having studied the missal, the students in the last year of high school could translate some articles of the Summa in connection with their program in philosophy.

Fragmentation of Curricula

  For Descartes, the only certain knowledge is science in the modern meaning of the word, i.e., maths and physics. For St. Thomas, philosophy is the most certain of all natural sciences. It is the knowledge of things through their first causes. As theology is a wisdom in the supernatural order, philosophy is the supreme wisdom in the natural order. It pertains therefore to philosophy to put order in the other branches of the curriculum, i.e., assigning to them their proper objects, making sure they do not encroach upon each other’s boundaries, etc. Philosophy is "architectonic," as Aristotle used to say, meaning that a mind with a good philosophical formation will be an "integrated" mind and not a "compartmentalized" mind. For the medieval student, there was a hierarchy among the branches of the curriculum and a distinction, but not a complete separation, between them. As an example, modern students will study biology apart from scholastic philosophy. The result is that life will be viewed in a mechanistic perspective, i.e., will be reduced to physico-chemical factors, instead of being viewed in a hylomorphic perspective, i.e., explained by a principle of organization called substantial form.

The Importance of Philosophy

  The goal of our education is to produce Catholic minds. For this purpose it is absolutely necessary that our students be exposed to the principles of Thomistic philosophy. I would suggest starting with a simple Logic class in 9th or 10th grade meeting a couple of times a week. There exists at this age a natural propensity to argue. (It is what Dorothy Sayers called the "pert stage" in her famous essay "The Lost Tools of Learning"). Our students desperately need to clearly define their terms in order to make accurate statements. Their essays are too often marred by imprecisions, vagueness, and even confusion. They also need to make the proper distinctions in order to break up concepts into several divisions. Last, they need to construct correct reasonings and detect fallacies in arguments. These are the three ways to advance in learning: definitio, divisio, ratiocinium. Logic (also called "dialectic") was considered a prerequisite for the other subjects in the medieval scheme of education. Before tackling a special domain, you needed to have acquired enough mastery in handling the "tools" of grammar (language), dialectic, and rhetoric (speech).

  The second suggestion is to have a class in psychology in the 11th or 12th grade. Our boys would greatly benefit from an in-depth study of the human soul. God is the author of the natural order. It is important to know the faculties He created, to understand their purpose so as to use them according to His will. Original sin wounded, but did not destroy, the natural order. This is why our students need to have at least some grip on the basic principles of Thomistic psychology. There are many important practical consequences which can be deduced from the principles put forth by St. Thomas in his Summa. This is done very well by the Dominican Sisters in their classes to their schoolgirls and in their talks to their parents. It is certain that a mind enlightened with truth is one of the best weapons we can give our boys in order to work out their eternal salvation. (We also have to train their wills to virtue, but this is not directly the topic of this conference.) The knowledge of the human soul as designed by God truly helps us in seeing the moral law not as some arbitrary code imposed from without, but as the consequence of the nature of things from within. Our students learn not to separate their intellectual life from their moral life. When they study a Greek tragedy, they could apprehend the passion of despair from a poetic mode through literature, already knowing it from a scientific mode through philosophy.

Loss of the Sense of Reality

  The idealism of Descartes can be briefly contrasted to the realism of St. Thomas in the following way: For the French philosopher, what our mind directly attains in the act of understanding is the idea of a thing. In other words, the idea is conceived as a "painting" of reality. For the Angelic Doctor, what our intellect directly attains is the thing itself, reality which exists outside the mind. It is only reflexively that the intellect can know its ideas. In other words, the idea is conceived as a "window" through which we know the nature of things. It is not the direct object of knowledge, but only a means. Another point we have to bear in mind is that Descartes thought that our ideas were "innate," i.e., pre-existing in our mind, whereas St. Thomas, with Aristotle, believes that they are abstracted from sensible data. Our five senses are the "bridge" which exists between our intellect and reality.

  One of the consequences of the Cartesian errors in the domain of education is that modern science tends to fabricate subjective notions to reconstruct reality in the mind instead of understanding the objective nature of things created by God. Many physics textbooks are not seeking to help the student to penetrate into the essence of natural things, but rather to manipulate algebraic notions to quantify and measure phenomena. This leads to subjectivism. Our mind handles mental concepts without reaching the innermost "quiddity" of things (i.e., what answers to the question, quod quid est? what this thing is?).

  Another trend in modern education is that teachers too often do not respect the proper order of knowledge (i.e., firstly sensible data, and secondly intelligible ideas). In chemistry they give students the table of elements and talk about electrons and protons before actually seeing what copper or zinc is. In biology they have their students dissecting a plant and observing its cells under a microscope before reflecting about the nature of the plant and its place in the order of creation. For instance, here is a beautiful poem by Joyce Kilmer that can be used to make children sit down under a mighty oak and admire it. ("Knowledge begins in wonder and ends in wisdom.")

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

  There are great books which can be used to integrate the study of science and literature and thereby awaken in the child a certain love and appreciation for reality. A good one for primary grades is by Anna McGovern, where she arranges the materials through the four seasons.

Using the Five Senses

  The book mentioned above has very good questions that the teacher should ask the students in order to help them to observe things around them. For instance, let our boys capture a grasshopper. They should see its green color, hear the noise it makes when it rubs its legs together, smell its odor, touch its dry skin, even taste it if they wish to imitate St. John the Baptist in the desert. From all these sensible data, they can then abstract the essence of grasshopper-ness, which is enjoyable for the mind because worth knowing for its own sake. It is a shame to see so many of our boys unable to distinguish an oak from an elm or a chickadee from a nuthatch. Our students need to get in touch with the natural world which surrounds them. The Audubon Society has excellent field guides for birds, rocks, mushrooms, reptiles, insects, trees and flowers. Our pupils should know how to identify and observe them. They can draw them and make reports on them in the manner of J.H. Fabre when he writes about the spider. They, of course, should also know the constellations of the sky. (Astronomy was one of the four liberal arts of the "quadrivium.") Stargazing awakens a sense of wonder in us, the same feeling of awe which must have penetrated the soul of Job as God told him: "Shalt thou be able to join together the shining stars the Pleiades, or canst thou stop the turning about of Arcturus?" (38:31). I believe that a lot of the material studied in our schools is not relevant and should be kept for later specialization in college. I am afraid that, like too much liquid poured too fast into small cups, all this "science" spills out of the brains of our boys and not much is actually retained by them. One other good thing about nature study done in field trips or living specimens brought into the classroom (boys love to bring frogs or lizards to their teachers) is that it motivates the students. Hopefully, they will all get "hooked" on one subject, either birds, insects, etc. And then they will want to study on their own, and this is one of the goals of education, to give a desire for more knowledge.

The Mystery of the Universe

  When we think about what to do to counteract the Cartesian influence in our schools, one of the things which comes to mind is the sense of mystery. Descartes had suppressed the mystery in things since, for him, what we know is our own "clear ideas" which are luminous and evident. St. Thomas, on the contrary, knew that our understanding of things is limited and therefore includes a certain obscurity. A danger of cramming the minds of students with facts of how things operate is that the illusion often arises that science can explain everything, has all the answers. Now this is not only foolish, it is even bad science, for the best scientists know that precisely they do not have all the answers. What is the nature of light? What explains the migration of birds? What about the amazing instinct of insects? etc. We have to get our students to marvel, to admire, to wonder at God’s creation. We can never fully comprehend it, and knowing this is part of true wisdom, one of the goals of education.

  Pius XI set forth the Catholic ideal of education, which is to instill an attitude of docility to a reality which has not been made by us:

  By the time the child is of the age of reason, he wants to further his investigations. He looks for the "why’s" and "wherefore’s" of things, for solid knowledge. He must also acquire a wise, serene, level-headed judgment which will enable him to appreciate people and things in their true worth without letting himself be swayed by false appearances, heated passions or temperament, or by the tide of opinions [Pope Pius XI, 1926].

How to Study Literature

  It is very sad to open a modern literature textbook. It certainly provides the student with a tremendous amount of data. You find information about the life of authors, their style of writing, the history of the period in which they lived, etc. A wide variety of excerpts from the classics is found so that the student is exposed to a "little bit of everything." But what is the result? The very purpose of literature class has been defeated. Our students must study literature in order to appreciate the true, the good, and the beautiful which are expressed in a poem, a drama or a novel. They can, through the means of the imagination, have access to the profound realities of human nature so well depicted in great literary works. The point is that the modern anthology crammed with footnotes often involves the students in things extrinsic to the text itself, instead of penetrating into its heart. I believe that the best way to study literature is to study a few carefully selected books per grade, but to study them in depth, with a good teacher. A teacher must know and love the books he is studying with his students. He must also read aloud to them. This is the best way to get them interested in the books. Then the students must be asked questions and they must answer. It is often the only way to make sure they are grasping the contents of the book. Good books are not only a means to cultivate the imagination, but they also help us to gain mastery over language, in other words, to learn self-expression both oral and written. Our schools need to choose the books best suited to each grade. For instance, in my opinion, the works of Robert Louis Stevenson or Mark Twain would be excellent for 7th and 8th grade. In the 9th and 10th grades the novels of Charles Dickens and Walter Scott seem to fit well for this age. In the 11th and 12th grades, they could read Shakespeare and of course, Chesterton and Belloc who are a must for Catholics. These are only examples, as there are many other good books which can and even ought to be studied, e.g. the Iliad and the Odyssey, and The Song of Roland, etc. We are fortunate to have in the US such men as Dr. David Allen White and Dr. Peter Chojnowski, who are both very competent in matters of literature. They can be a tremendous help to our teachers.

A Mistaken Understanding of the Nature of Science

  For Descartes, science is a quantitative collection of clear and simple ideas which measure reality. For St. Thomas, science is a qualitative comprehension of principles (hierarchized under the idea of being) which are measured by reality. There is not enough time to dwell on this aspect of the Cartesian revolution, but it does also have far-reaching consequences in the domain of education. It is certain that modern instruction is centered on data to be memorized in order to be able to pass an examination rather than on a formation of the intellect through a step by step quest for truth. I believe this is one of the reasons for the lack of motivation among our boys. We are not engaging them enough in the process of their own education. They are too passive. The teacher is not doing his job of showing them the "inside" of the science he is conveying so that they in their turn may enter through the door. There is a beautiful quote of Pius XII on this topic:

  Open, expand, illuminate and progressively adorn the child’s and the adolescent’s minds which are awakening to life; guide the curious and ardent youth whose holy ambition is to discover the truth and who is eager to investigate every branch of learning: is there perhaps a task more lovely, more vast, and more varied in its admirable unity than this? In fact, in all ages and in all achievements of study, one thing only is sought: to find and possess an even fuller and purer light in order to love and enjoy it, to defend and propagate it; to give it to each and all, according to one’s ability, and to multiply and spread the benefits of this light everywhere.6

Quality Rather than Quantity

  The above-quoted words of the pope put us on the right track for a reform of our system of education: To study fewer things but to know them better. Simplify our curriculum in order to give more time to the formation of the intellect. Our boys too often have a smattering of culture, bits and pieces in their memory, too often vague and confused notions, but they have not learned how to think. This is a real problem. We do not want students with a superficial veneer of knowledge, but Catholic minds who have assimilated the cultural tradition passed on to them. But too often we have the impression that the wisdom that the teachers are attempting to pass on to these minds is not communicated. The students do not seem to have the interest needed and the good seeds of philosophy, literature and history fall on barren ground. The fruits are simply not there. Too many graduates from our schools have no character, no convictions, no love of the truth. They do not seem to enjoy knowledge. Here again, Pope Pius XII warns us against the dangers of Cartesianism in education:

  In order to study seriously, you must guard against the belief that the amount of knowledge acquired is the fundamental element on which to build the edifice of our future culture. There is no need to know too many things, but only to learn what is necessary and suitable, and to learn it well, to understand it properly and study it thoroughly and intensely. It is therefore necessary to avoid compelling yourselves to make an almost superhuman effort and to run breathlessly after everything that learning has enshrined and tries to bring to the student’s desk. This is all the more true if one is thinking of methods of learning which are pure memory aids. These methods are a far cry from serious and pleasure-giving study, from a real and profound cultural formation, and because of them some schools are running the risk of involving themselves in a drama which saddens parents and irritates the students.7

Integration of the Different Subjects

  Fr. Calmel wrote that the Catholic school does not consist in a class of Christian Doctrine, with a class of literature added on, and, in addition, a class of mathematics crowned by a class of history and some physical education, the whole thing interspersed with languages and sciences. The Catholic school does not consist in the presentation of subjects side by side, but in the presentation of the same, entire, beautiful and coherent truth, which is the constant nourishment of the teachers, and which they communicate to the students with serene enthusiasm, through the diverse disciplines, whose different requirements are yet respected.8

  Our boys need to have a coherent vision of truth in their minds. It is vitally important, as we have already said, that, in order to fight against the "separation" of the Renaissance, to present Catholic wisdom as a whole (integer). Our students need to see the intelligible connections between all the subjects taught in the curriculum of our schools. I remember the science projects in Kansas where the students had to make a report on insects. They had to observe them, to write about them, to draw them, etc., thus integrating several disciplines. J. H. Fabre [see postscript to article] in his books often makes connections between biology and history, or biology and geography. There is a very interesting book called Archimedes and the Door of Science by Jeanne Bendick. It is a successful attempt to integrate science and history. The mathematical and physical principles Archimedes discovered are combined with characteristics of the Greek world in which he lived. The book truly brings mechanics and hydrostatics to life instead of reducing them to abstract theories. The student is led to experience some of the excitement Archimedes must have felt in discovering these truths. There are several helpful books of a similar kind in home schooling catalogues (on Thomas Edison, etc.).

  Pope Pius XII was advocating a harmonious development of the intellect through a synthetic integration of all the branches of our curriculum:

  Those who are aware of the problems of the schools know that there is nothing more harmful than a mass of ideas accumulated in a confused and disorderly way —ideas which neither meet nor integrate, and which, rather, often clash and cancel one another out. Frequently the teaching and study of scientific matters is completely divorced from the total training of the intellect.9

The Learning of Crafts

  Another suggestion is to get our boys to have a practical activity which puts them in contact with real things, and where they have to acquire a manual skill. This seems strange, but this kind of experience is very helpful for the development of the mind. Some boys have understood the concept of the lever when using a pitchfork. Our students all need to learn a small craft: pottery, leatherwork, gardening, farming, woodworking, etc. It can be a hobby done at home. If it is not possible at home, it could be arranged at the school.

  Henri Charlier emphasizes its importance:

  The true practice of crafts with every blow of the hammer comes up against a nature of things which admirably forms the intelligence not only as far the practical side is concerned, but also forms reflection on nature and the spirit of things.10

  What wonderfully civilized quality we find in the work of the craftsmen of old! There was a "logic" in the operations of their trade, and these men had mastered it. I believe it is possible to introduce some of the same spirit in the education given in our schools.

Music and the Receptivity of the Mind

  All the great educators insist on a less hurried pace for studies so as to give time for the truth to sink in and take root in the mind. Music has a great role in making the soul passive, i.e., receptive to teaching. A student who learns to appreciate good music is thereby refining his imagination to make it a fit instrument for his intellect. We have to get our boys to enjoy the great classical composers. They also should have a good repertoire of folk songs (not only American, but also Scottish, Irish, etc.). And, of course, they should sing Gregorian chant. The ideal would be for each boy to know how to play one musical instrument, even a simple one like the harmonica or the recorder. But it is not always possible. At least our students need to be exposed to beautiful music. In some schools, they have classes in music appreciation, in others they listen to music during the meals. I would like to quote Marcel de Corte, the great Thomist philosopher, about the importance of music in the education of his son Leon.

  During the months when the man begins to appear in the boy, Leon was enraptured by music: a haunting melody would recur incessantly in his mind. A very talented pianist, he was able to overcome the paralysis of his hands by repeated exercises. Thanks to his older brother, he was initiated into Bach. It is alone, now, that he ventures forth on the sonorous sea in search of his soul. Like Romanesque art, music is for him the way that leads to the interior life, and which, at the same time, hands him the key to the exterior life. By himself, without our ever having discussed it, our son rediscovered the point of view of the Christian soul of the Middle Ages, as it was formed by Greece and by the Gospel: the microcosm and the macrocosm correspond, and the universe of the soul is in union with the whole universe. The knowledge of self and the knowledge of God who sustains the totality of the real in existence, meet. To know oneself is also to know God, or, rather, to understand that one only exists by God; and to know the place that one holds in the universe, to the point where the lower material world and the superior spiritual world are met together in man.11

What the Society of Saint Pius X Can Do

  To conclude, here are five practical suggestions to help the Society fulfill its mission of education. Of course, the ideal would be to have an institute of teaching brothers for boys like the Dominican Sisters for girls. But this has not been God’s will, so we have to see what can be done with the means at our disposal.

  1. A philosophy of education common to all our schools. Every priest and teacher should have a clear idea of what the goals of education are, so that he will take the right means to attain them. We need to take St. Thomas seriously and use his principles in order to make our schools conform more to the Catholic ideal.

  2. Seminars for the training of our teachers. A reform in education must begin with the reform of teachers, who must receive a sound theological and philosophical formation. This can be realized through seminars during the school holidays. During these sessions, workshops can be organized with experienced teachers giving demonstrations to younger teachers.

  3. Headmasters in community with their faculty. Each school faculty must have a real community life, including meetings with the headmaster where they study some aspect of Catholic education. The headmaster must visit classrooms and then have individual appointments with his teachers so as to guide them. He must see the "big picture," i.e., the curriculum of the whole school so as to establish connections between the grades.

  4. Communication between the schools. The Dominican Sisters often have meetings between their principals and between their teachers on a subject. This allows for a greater uniformity in their curriculum. It also promotes the family spirit, since everyone can profit from each other’s experience. Something similar could be organized for our schools. One advantage is that more work can be accomplished since it can be shared between the different schools (e.g., one school works on the Latin curriculum, one school on the history curriculum, etc.). It demands co-ordination, but it would bear great fruits.

  5. Conferences to the parents. This is very important since there must be profound harmony between the school and the family. Our parents are full of good will, but many of them have lost the true principles of education in the home, and this is why they often seem to work against the education given at school. It is our duty to teach them to rediscover these principles (authority, discipline, self-sacrifice, etc.) so that there can exist a mutual collaboration between parents and teachers.

  There are many other ideas which could be implemented such as: intellectual competitions between our schools (we have soccer and basketball tournaments. Why not a debate tournament on history, philosophy, or other topic?); extracurricular activities where both teachers and students take part so as to create bonds between them, such as hikes, canoe and camping trips, etc.; formation of confraternities in order to foster piety (similar to the Children of Mary for the girls). But what has been said will be enough to give us some elements of reflection for the time being.

  Let us entrust our schools to the Immaculate Heart of Mary so that she may help us to make them more Catholic, for the greater glory of God and the salvation of many souls.

  1. The Restoration of Christian Culture, 179.
  2. Papal Teachings: Education, Selected and arranged by the Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, Allocution of March 24, 1957, 551-552.

  3. Ibid., Allocution of Sept. 30, 1953, 462.

  4. St. Theresa of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul (Rockford, IL: TAN Books & Publishers, 1997), 2.

  5. Education, Allocution of Jan. 30, 1949, 372.

  6. Ibid., Allocution of April 10, 1950, 384

  7. Ibid., Allocution of March 24, 1957, 547.

  8. École chrétienne renouvelée, 62-63.

  9. Education, Allocution of March 24, 1957, 548.

  10. Culture, École, Métier, 27.

  11. Deviens ce que tu es, 113-114.

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Titles include:

  • Birds (East)
  • Birds (West)
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  • Fishes, Whales, and Dolphins
  • Fossils; Mammals
  • Mushrooms
  • Night Sky
  • Reptiles and Amphibians
  • Rocks and Minerals
  • Seashells
  • Seashore Creatures
  • Trees (East)
  • Trees (West)
  • Weather
  • Wildflowers (East)
  • Wildflowers (West)
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