The Elective System in Education: A Denial That Nature Acts For An End.

As we have argued elsewhere the question “does nature act for an end” is of the utmost significance for everybody. Of the important lessons to be learned from a Catholic classical education, that nature acts for an end, is perhaps the most significant thing that a student can obtain.

The things one learns in mathematics are certainly very important as well. Properties of lines and surfaces, triangles and circles, Parallel lines and tangents…. all wonderful things!

Knowledge of history (insofar as one is able to have “knowledge” of history) is significant as well. Definitely worth the money! A wide familiarity with the classics and great literature is of course absolutely essential. These add that little extra polish!

And then you have Latin and Greek and Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic….I admit it…all these things are critical.

But if nature does not act for an end then as we have seen all these things are arbitrary! For example ….Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic which are all arts that attempt to help nature do what it is trying to do already. But if nature is not trying to do anything in the first place…then these arts lose significance…except of course if one happens to like them and feels like learning them….they become “electives” so to speak.

If man’s mind, which is still a production of nature as far as I know, was not made for an end…then knowledge of mathematics and Latin and Greek become purely ornamental. One might as learn the arts of CD polishing and fingernail painting…or whatever it is that pleases one.

If nature does not act for an end then faith does not build on it…because Faith is for an end… a supernatural one at that.

If nature does not act for an end then knowledge of  literature and the “classics” and  fine poetry and fine arts all become merely a sort of decorative display of intellectual curiosities that might make a person more interesting to someone else who happens to be interested in these curiosities. Kind of like multiple piercings. Why bother wearing just one set of earrings? Better to wear as many as the ear will fit! And stick one in your nose too! And your belly button!!!

In other words if nature does not act for an end in the things that it does and in the things that it produces then EVERYTHING IS UP FOR GRABS. Life becomes purely a matter of choice. What do I choose to do today? What shall I choose to do now? And what shall I choose to do now, because I no longer choose to do the other thing.

And this actually sounds attractive to the modern ear because choice appears to walk “arm in arm” with freedom. Freedom appears to be something like the ability to choose without any constraints.

But if nature acts for an end then this would present us with a major constraint. If nature acts for an end, then one simply has to get out of bed at a decent time in the morning and get to work. One has to sit around studying, against one’s will and immediate interests, for years and years and years!

If nature acts for an end then one has to find out what that end is and then find out how to best achieve it…or else one will literally not know what to do with himself.

It would be kind of like a rabbit that just sat there thinking “what am I supposed to do?” And what if he never figured it out? Imagine how pathetic that would be!

Imagine a fly just buzzing for no reason…or a spider sitting there wondering what his web making apparatus was for (forget the fact that if nature did not act for an end then one would not call it a “web making apparatus”).

It is interesting that we live in a time which fundamentally denies that nature acts for an end.

That nature acts for an end is against the intellectual custom in which we have been raised. Here is a provocation…While you might think that it is obvious that nature acts for an end you probably are still a defender of the elective system of education….

You might even think that it is acceptable for someone not to obtain a liberal education….the horror!

I bet you have entertained the idea that if one does not want to learn Euclid then one does not have to.

Maybe you think that it is morally justifiable for someone to refuse to learn how to sing!

Perhaps you are comfortable with the choice that many students make to “elect” Spanish over Latin.


You say “yes, yes” when I propose that nature acts for an end…but then you deny it with force and passion when defending the elective system….

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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3 Responses to The Elective System in Education: A Denial That Nature Acts For An End.

  1. Joseph Gonzalez says:

    I would be the dead last person in the universe to defend anything about the modern system of education. I would also, however, be very interested in seeing a more detailed argument for why the elective system is a denial of the principle that nature acts for an end.

  2. Mark Langley says:

    Well, theoretically I suppose electives make sense, say, in graduate school (or for you right now 🙂 But the fact that Harvard University adopted the elective system around 1887 (that is the year that they disposed of their undergraduate mandatory Greek requirement) under the leadership of Charles William Eliot…this fact represented the loss of understanding that the human mind is supposed to have a specific education….and that every mind is the same in this regard….

    Veritas… Scchhhmmeritas….hmmph!

  3. Pingback: The Elective System in Education: “You Cannot Train Everybody For Everything” | Classical Catholic Education

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