How to fix the mess of our education and culture – St. Ambrose Press

Learning from the failed lessons of Locke and Rousseau, discovering the truth about life and human dignity from Cicero, Luigi Giussani and Fulton J. Sheen

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“Every teacher knows that it is easier to win a mind with a mistaken interest than one that has no interest at all.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

This article concerns the impact of how the most dominant theories of education and culture, Locke and Rousseau, have shaped the moral, intellectual and spiritual landscape of our souls in the modern West and left us longing for something more.

Cicero in his great book, On Living and Dying Well, states “for it was the beauty of the heavens that kindled even on earth a love of wisdom, a paternal or ancestral passion for knowledge. Indeed, it will give a speech enjoyment to those who, though surrounded by mist during their time on earth, nevertheless, longed to peer through it with the eyes of the mind.”

In our culture today, schools, colleges, universities and the workforce are no longer places where one comes to sharpen the eye of the mind to seek reality and cherish the gifts of the heavens. Today, the spirit of political correctness, diminished reason and ‘opinions’ dominates academic instruction, discourse both and working environment.

This model of education and culture has played a dominant role in for the past few centuries and owes its influence from the two architects of modernity, Locke and Rousseau, who are the fathers of modern education and culture.

Locke in his treatise on Education calls on man to be an industrious, rational, moral ‘Victorian’ man focused on accumulating wealth, fame and prestige. Rousseau on the other hand calls on man to be a ‘romantic’, ‘nature’ loving ‘individuals’. These two notions of reality define us as human beings, in the same way one identifies himself with either being Democrat or Republican, an environmentalists or an agnostic.

“The savage lives within himself; the sociable man, always outside himself, knows how to live only in the opinion of others.” Jean Jacques Rousseau

These two notions of education and culture dominant school, college and work. It dominants the very arguments we make about the nature of school curriculum, debates concerning education philosophy, life or whether the purpose of education and our lives is to serve the needs and demands of the state or industry or whether education and the government should give us a culture that is more ‘free’, ‘authentic’, ‘creative’, ‘open minded’, utopian! etc.

These pointless debates have failed to truly form the core understanding of the dignity and mystery of the human person and the role of education plays in unraveling this mystery rooted in truth and reality.

Today, if you were to engage any recent high school graduate or undergraduate from college and honestly ask him to list the things he learnt during his education. It is certain that the student would talk about how most of his classmates were vicious amoral bullies addicted to pleasure or trapped in the ‘Greek’ life at most state and private colleges in many parts of the country. Similarly, many senior executives of Fortune 500 companies are either divorced, on their third marriage or have died from medical conditions after spending three decades making banks and businesses 20% more efficient.

The real experience of most students going to school and college would be living out fantasies played out in movies such as Hangover, Scary Movie, 300, pleasures and fantasies that have a greater impact on them as students than reading Aristotle, the Iliad, Cicero, the Doctors of the Church or Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or working for organizations where they spent a lifetime producing paperwork and spreadsheets.

From this truthful reflection of our condition as human beings in the modern world, there is no doubt that we are lost and live lives without purpose.

Furthermore, most people today both young and old are lonely and frustrated with life. They have chased after promiscuity and various forms of pleasure to avoid the pain and drudgery of everyday life primarily out of self hatred. Scientific research or studies need not tell us such truths, the mindless television shows, marketing and advertisements tell us this, including the ongoing opioid crisis.

Many seek to fill in the holes in our souls with pleasure when the soul in fact actually longs for love, truth and beauty. In our schools, colleges and workplace we are not told that there is something called objective truth, wisdom and refined beauty but are sold the gospel of Rousseau and Locke that only nature and their inner instincts can satisfy our thirsts of the flesh to gratify our pleasures. This conception of education and reality gives us only to choices vanity and death.

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The great Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen gave an accurate reflection on our culture with great clarity when he was talking about youth culture in his time which is the same today. “They ridicule everything because they have no confidence in it. This ridicule expresses itself in the way they dress or fail to dress, in a general uncleanliness by which they manifest that they feel themselves as strangers to society and are characterless in a characterless society.”

“the other outlet is the orgiastic, or the overemphasis of sex, in which the youth tries to escape the decay of society by a return to the primitive, seeking a release in blood, though he can never find it because he dresses it up in too sophisticated a manner. As a youth loves speeding not in order to arrive some place, but just for the excitement of speeding, so too a teenager is apt to turn to the carnal to make up for the loss of purpose of life and society and family, by the intensity of an erotic experience. He seeks to destroy the mores which he knows to be corrupt and to drag everyone down to his own level. Abandonment becomes a substitute for creativeness. He hopes to recover some compensation for what his sick soul has lost. Finding no home for the soul in the world, he becomes self abandoned.”

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Almost all can relate to the two points stated above by Archbishop Sheen. Luigi Giussani, the great 20th century theologian, professor and writer spent his entire life dedicating himself to young adults and families to seek an authentic relationship with reality and authentic understanding of the role of reason and love. He lived in a time in Catholic Europe where the vast majority of young people and the communities they lived in were in a state of terminal decline, despair and hopelessness after the war.

Giussani was clear to point out that Reason and Nature, the two things Locke and Rousseau advocate for is not enough. Reason alone and nature cannot be the means to minister to the soul but only Truth. The longing and discovery of truth is the true end of education to guide the soul to come to know the Truth and to accept it freely. Education ought to be a place where students and man is free to learn the truth about his existence and to be authentically free. In the search for truth, man discovers the purpose of his existence and why he was created.

This an echo of the Ancients, where Cicero would say “if it is possible to attain wisdom, then we should put it to use and not just possess it. If its hard to acquire the only limit on seeking the truth is finding it, and to give up looking is shameful, when what we’re looking for is the most beautiful thing there is.”

The discovery of truth makes us guardians of it, where virtue cultivates within us a deeper longer and appreciation for beauty and excellence. This can be seen in the craftsmanship of Gothic architecture, classical music and fine craftsmanship where the artist inspired by beauty dedicates his life to master his craft. This is the main purpose of what our culture, schools and work environments ought to be rooted in Truth and virtue.

For seriousness, consistency, greatness of spirit, honesty, dependability, and magnanimity are virtues that are absent in man today. The ignorance of the great masters of western civilization has left us spiritually and intellectually impoverished as a culture and even as a Church. Authentic wisdom, humility and truth grounded in reality and love is something that can only satisfy the soul.

Archbishop Sheen once said “once a professor communicates that knowledge to him, he will always be dependent on the teacher for that information. He can never put himself back into ignorance, though he may use the knowledge over and over again. So great is the student’s relationship to a college for giving him an education, that the college is called the alma mater.”

In our modern schools and colleges, many of us do not recognize such institutions with the title as our loving mother of wisdom and beauty. Wisdom is not the conversation we see in our curriculum, books and careers we have been given and bestowed upon today.

God in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11 calls us to be “a strong man fully armed guards his palace, his possessions are safe. So be vigilant. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”

The virtues of living well, strength, virtue and magnanimity even known to the Ancient such as Cicero are the virtues that cultivate great character and is the only purpose of education.

As Catholics we have led our culture, families and schools to give in to the drama of modernity that has now starting to destroy the Church from within.

In today’s classrooms in most schools and colleges, students entering all share one thing in common, that truth for them is relative. Thus the challenges for educators today is convincing a mind that is disinterested with the world and its authentic self to discover Truth.

In this age of feelings, political correctness and sentiment, we need to break the bondage men have to the sentimental, pain absorbing pleasures of what our culture has to offer. For only pure love and truth casts our fear. It is sad to walk into most college campuses, workplaces and schools to see teenagers, young adults and adults disenfranchised with their own culture, out of touch with reality and seeking a life of pleasure to numb the pain.

The disinterested mind is the greatest problem real we face. For we are living in a generation that is spiritual poor and hungry, failing to find authentic happiness in the things they believe will make them happy.

Cicero, M. T. (2012). On Living and Dying Well. Cambridge: Penguin Classics.

Crain, W. (2011). Theories of Development. New York: Prentice Hall.

Sheen, F. (1997). Guide to Contentment. Alba House.

Locke, J. (1996). Some Thoughts Concerning Education and of the Conduct of the Understanding. Cambridge: Hackett Press.

Rousseau, J. (1979). Emile: Or On Education. Chicago: Basic Books.

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