Catholic Liberal Education presents an interesting dilemma that sooner or later presents its most enthusiastic proponents with a stark choice. It is the kind of dilemma that Julius Caesar faced in 49 BC before he crossed the Rubicon with his army.
A decision must be made that forces a certain set of actions and outcomes that must be one way or another. No middle ground. No compromises.
What is this dilemma?
The dilemma is this:
Given that there is a difference between excellent intellectual formation and the intellectual formation that is widely considered excellent, what then should the educator, to whom genuine excellent education is sacred, choose?
Isn’t this a tough one? Should educators choose to educate students in the education that seems excellent or the education that is excellent?
Perhaps you think we are raising an unnecessary opposition? You are thinking, why can’t we choose an education that both appears excellent and is excellent?
As if you might say to Julius Caesar,
Wait a second Julius…no need to throw the die!
But the Catholic educator does need to throw the die.
Consider for a moment. What is the the education that appears excellent?
Well, quite simply,the education that appears excellent is the one which prepares a student for successful admission to Harvard University…or to any one of the so called “Ivy League schools.”
Harvard University is the universally accepted standard of educational excellence. Harvard University is the exemplar, the paradigm of secular education. Every school and college must do its best to measure up to the Harvard standard at the peril of being thought inferior, or substandard, or unattractive.
Therefore, because it wishes to appear excellent, every college preparatory school, every secondary school and therefore every primary school bows and genuflects to the Harvard standard.
Is this too simple? Am I exaggerating? Would you prefer that I substitute the name of some other secular institution? Or perhaps you think I should replace Harvard with the name of some prestigious Catholic University? The University of Notre Dame? Georgetown?
I suppose it is an example of the sheer power of custom and fashion that dictates our obsequious homage to these Universities; fashionable schools which have abandoned their missions and mottoes decades ago.
We need not attempt to illustrate this point on a case by case basis. The University of Notre Dame and Harvard share the same measure of excellence, namely Harvard’s.
And the united force of these universities, almost as if by explicit compact, in league with one another, have set the standard of excellent education for entire generations of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Isn’t there something disturbing about this?
Shouldn’t the Catholic, when confronted with the realization that his own ideas of intellectual formation are in no way different than the ideas of the purely secular man, be at least a little suspicious that something is amiss?
Now these considerations bring up a question. Suppose there is something called “Catholic liberal education.” Suppose that an excellent Catholic liberal education is something different from the education that the world proposes. Is it possible to obtain such an education or to impart such an education with half-hearted dedication? Is a Catholic liberal education achievable as a mere add-on to a secular education?
As if we might say,
Catholic liberal education is essentially the same thing as what the world considers an excellent education. But it is different insofar as the Catholic education adds a “faith dimension.”
This is what I call a secular education with a Catholic veneer. Skin deep in Catholicity, the body of such an education is thoroughly secular, thoroughly materialistic, thoroughly servile.
Catholic liberal education is not the same thing as a secular education with the sign of the cross.
Is there an alternative? Is there an excellent education that exceeds that which is proposed by Harvard University?
I propose the following:
There is something that is called wisdom, to which all men are ordered by nature, and in the possession of which happiness consists. And further, in order to obtain wisdom one must pursue it for its own sake.
Real education recognizes this.
In order to obtain wisdom, one must not place it as a close second to something else, one must not even place it parallel with some other goal.
Could this be an alternative?
Or must Catholic educators always have to pay lip service to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty while they really bend all their efforts towards getting students accepted at Harvard University, or Princeton, or Cornell, or Notre Dame, or any one of the myriad “seconds” to which their SATs will allow?
Catholic liberal education is something radically different from what the world proposes.
Catholic liberal education is worth promoting and defending. And given the fact that there is a radical difference between excellent education and the education that appears excellent, the Catholic educator must make a choice.
At some point he must cast the die.
As for me…
Alea Iacta Est!