No healthy boy has ever wanted to go to school. I know I did not. Parents who are confronted with a son who has played hooky or feigned a stomachache will sometimes try to reason with him, explaining why it is important to get a good education. These exercises never worked with me, and I would not trust a boy who said they did.
Why do we force our children to go to school or try to teach them at home? This question first raised its ugly head in my mind about 25 years ago when I was giving a lecture to the faculty of a private school. My theme was the importance of a classical education, and I had quoted, as I always do, Quintilian’s definition of the orator as the vir bonus peritus dicendi, a good man skilled in speaking, as the point of departure for my argument that the object of all education is to turn out a human being of a certain type, someone who is morally good and whose learning can be put to the use of his fellows. This is the doctrine that was revived—and distorted—by the civic humanists of the Florentine Renaissance.
To me, the familiar argument seemed self-evident and, in its emphasis on civic utility at the expense of the higher purposes of humane learning, even a bit trivializing. The headmaster, however, was offended. He explained that his school was child-centered, meaning that there was no common objective, no single set of qualities that could define success. In his school, every student would have the opportunity to fulfill themselves [sic], to grow up to be whatever it was he or she wanted himself or herself to be. Jokingly, I responded that Jack the Ripper’s mother must have believed something like that. More seriously, I asked, if children can be trusted to know what sort of people they should turn out to be, why force them to go to school? Why not let them simply choose how they spend their time, whether in studying Latin and math, playing baseball, watching television, or robbing candy stores?
Why do we go to so much trouble and expense to educate our children? What, in particular, is the point to a university degree that may cost well over $100,000? Most parents would respond, without any reflection, that a degree from a “good” college or university is a prerequisite for any career that will produce a good income. But, it can be pointed out, many people make a good deal of money without ever going off to school. When Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, came to Rockford, the topic of his sermon to the doomed youth of Winnebago County was a familiar message made so popular by Mr. T in the form “Don’t be a fool, stay in school.” When someone pointed out that Mr. Thomas, although a high-school dropout, had made a lot of money, his answer was, “Yes, but if I had stayed in school, I would have made a lot more.” The poor man spent his entire life making more and more money until his death at the age of 69. I cannot forbear asking the musical question posed by Peggy Lee (in a Leiber and Stoller pop song), “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”
Some wiser parents will say that it is not enough for their children to make as much money as Dave Thomas, if they do not learn how to behave at the country club. A man with an Ivy League degree will have met the right people, knows which fork to use, and understands that some of his life should be spent in spending money properly, on tennis and trips to Europe. Besides, where else will he meet the proper mate, if not in a school that attracts the right sort of people?
This argument carried more weight back when the faculty and students at Ivy League schools were well-brought-up WASPs, but a brief visit to Harvard or Yale should drive any such fantasies out of the country-club Republican mind. Still, there is something to this way of thinking, because it raises, however crudely, the question I was putting to the prep-school teachers in Rockford: What sort of adults will emerge from your school, assuming all goes well?
Of course every normal parent wants his children to enjoy a decent income, whether by making money or by inheriting or by marrying it. It is all very well for a rich philosopher like Plato to sneer at comfort and security. Aristotle knew better. Unless he has a roof over his head, no man short of a saint can expect to lead a full life, and it would be foolish to denigrate the little pleasures of people who play tennis and bridge and enjoy a night out at the theater, who can make small talk at a party without confusing small talk about friends or sports with the larger purposes of life.
Meat and drink, golfing and theater-going are not the proper ends of human existence, but learning to eat like a Christian or enjoy Shakespeare is part of an education that makes us less bestial and more human. We humans do not live by ourselves or for ourselves. To be truly human we must be of service to kinfolk, neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. An education that produced men good only for making money and playing golf might fit a nation of anarchists and hedonists, but it will not do for a decent society.
It is not enough to have the will to serve, if we lack the capacity. How many times has a well-intentioned Christian or patriotic citizen joined a movement only to make a fool of himself and his movement? This is the hallmark of the American clergy, Protestant as much as Catholic, that their “ignorance and effrontery” (the words the late Robert Nisbet used when he explained to me why he could not go to church) drive away some of the best people in our country. How many pro-life leaders, with their boilerplate arguments, their bad manners and worse grammar, have made the defense of innocent life seem like one more Elmer Gantry con game?
The purpose of rhetorical studies, from ancient times down to recent days, was to equip the middle and upper classes with the tools of persuasion. The late Robert Byrd, though largely self-educated, was the last man in Congress to possess the rudiments of rhetorical training. Many bad things can truly be said of Senator Byrd, but when he believed in a good cause, he not only had the courage to speak out but the ability to speak convincingly. Rhetoric is the art most prized in the City of Man, and even today, when rhetoric has collapsed into salesmanship, it is the glibbest liar who gets the girl, lands the contract, wins the election, and snookers the largest congregation. If educational standards had not entirely collapsed, Rick Warren and Barack Obama would be selling their snake oil in a cheap carnival, and Ann Coulter and Bill Kristol would be practicing law somewhere in the hinterlands instead of making fools of themselves and each other in print.
If rhetorical training could only raise the level of public lying, it would be worth all the trouble and expense, but when we consider the decline in civic eloquence from Adams and Jefferson to the Bushes and Obama, it is enough to inspire a teacher or parent to force the students to memorize the Cicero their ancestors could quote: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia? . . . O tempora, o mores!”
How far, in the end, will you go, Barry, in abusing our patience? How long will that rage of yours make fools of us? And where will it end, your unbridled audacity of hope that throws its weight around? . . . What times these are, what character we have!
Even the loftiest statesman is something of a bore, if he has failed to cultivate his mind and sensibilities. The benefits of philosophy are obvious: It is the high road to truth and reality, and the main reason for the collapse of intelligent discourse in America is the abandonment of philosophy, by which I do not mean the gibberish taught by Hegel and Nietzsche, much less Sartre and Husserl. In Catholic intellectual circles, the substitution of phenomenology for Thomism is an unmitigated disaster.
Well, a Christian might ask, is that all there is? All this dedication to civic virtue or even philosophy is a distraction from the requirements of a Christian life. Surely, a life devoted to prayer and the practice of charity is the only proper life for man. I would answer yes—and no. Cloistered monks and nuns are free to devote themselves to a higher calling, but even they would not last very long without the strong arm of Christian soldiers to defend them and the charitable hearts of Christian men and women to support them. For the rest of us, however, it is a very grave mistake to attempt to bypass our ordinary responsibilities and to live as if we were in Plato’s Republic or the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a kind of pietism that is little better than an excuse for cowardice and failure.
The everyday virtues of parents and citizens are not to be despised. The loyalties to family and commonwealth we learn to practice and the humane learning we strive to acquire foreshadow, if we live successfully, the higher loyalties and learning that are the final aim of human life. If it is our duty to develop the powers needed to build and preserve a City of Man worthy of our human nature, our development is stunted if all our speechifying and politicking and soldiering is not done in aid of our higher duty, to prepare in our hearts and minds a place for the City of God, which cannot be built with bricks or laws any more than a god can be made with human hands.