Here is a question for the classical education movement: Catholic schools, historically an important force in American education, are increasingly at risk of losing their distinctive mission. In the hope of shoring up that mission, in the hope of a Catholic schools renaissance, what if they renewed their mission with a classical liberal arts vision?
The question is prompted by an important event in the national discussion on education reform. Last month a group of prominent scholars, led by Providence College professor of English Anthony Esolen, published what will hopefully prove to be a seminal white paper on this very question of how to renew the Catholic schools mission. The paper, entitled After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core, is a clarion call to Catholics. It also has something to say to everyone in the classical education movement and to anyone genuinely seeking education reform in America.
As stated in the introduction, the authors’ chief concern is the toxic impact of Common Core and its K-12 standards. Among its greatest harms, “Common Core… drastically cuts the study of classical literature and poetry.” It “represents… a strictly utilitarian view of mankind,” what Esolen calls “man with the soul amputated.” This view of education is “devoid of any attention to ‘the true, the good, the beautiful.’ It eliminates the occasions for grace that occur when students encounter great works that immerse them in timeless human experiences.” Rather than giving students great works of literature and art, Common Core gives them primarily “informational texts,” since its “basic goal…is not genuine education, but rather the training and production of workers for an economic machine.”
As After the Fall makes clear, the radical assumption at play in Common Core is that most kids need only a minimal education, a kind of training for the workplace; and that means, so the Core’s logic goes, classical literature and the arts are a waste of time.
That highly truncated concept of education means that the Core’s designers have turned their back on a deep cultural wellspring. Not so with the authors of After the Fall. Rightly, they invoke a range of sources that would renew Catholic schools against the utilitarian logic that diminishes the Catholic educational mission.
Among the richest authoritative sources the authors cite is one of the core documents of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes. Here are the document’s first lines: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men.” Note the council’s concept of a common humanity. That is the Church’s starting point for any social or cultural effort, including education.
Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) is also known as the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World and is one of the Catholic Church’s chief expressions of the role of Christian work and culture in our time. Under a section where the council fathers articulate special “urgencies” falls a remarkable statement about the study of the humanities: “Literature and the arts are… of great importance to the life of the Church. They strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world. They have much to do with revealing man’s place in history and in the world; with illustrating the miseries and joys, the needs and strengths of man and with foreshadowing a better life for him. Thus they are able to elevate human life, expressed in multifold forms according to various times and regions.”
In other words, literature and the arts foster the proper sympathy for and understanding of our humanity. They are real and true since, among other things, they illuminate our past and present. They are profoundly hopeful, too, as they “foreshadow a better life” for all of us. Finally, literature and the arts provide an authentic common ground, what some would call a genuine source of pluralism: “to elevate human life” is a desire for all people, a longing in all persons, in “various times and regions.” This is akin to what the authors of After the Fall say of great works of literature and art: such works “immerse [students] in timeless human experiences.”
Vatican II’s vision of education is clearly not utilitarian; rather, it is purposeful in the sense that humans are called and are destined to live according to a deep and ever-deepening sympathy for and understanding of the human condition—our hopes and joys, our grief and sorrows. And, as the council fathers explain, classical literature and art are vital to that depth. The “community of men” have a claim to an education that reflects their common nature, their shared dignity.
The council’s vision is universal as well. Classical literature and art are wonderfully inclusive and intended for everyone, including the kids who are going to grow up and work with their hands, code our computers, build our cars, repair our homes, protect our borders, and provide our food on farms and in grocery stores. To assume otherwise is to treat them as less than human.
The false assumption at work in Common Core says that American students are not capable of thinking through and choosing to live justly as Plato’s dialogues implore. They are not up to spiritual insight as Dante’s Divine Comedy inspires. Nor need they feel the pull of love found in the poetry of Heaney and Frost, the dramas of Shakespeare and Wilder, and the novels of Austen and Dostoyevsky.
This truncated concept of our humanity wrongly assumes that our mechanics, nurses, and soldiers cannot share the sorrow of Michelangelo’s Pieta or the outrage of Picasso’s Guernica. It robs our students of the forgiveness that crowns Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the wit and joy of Copland’s Rodeo, and the cathartic human cry in Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.
This utilitarian concept of education robs students of their heritage, the cultural riches that deeply illuminate and encourage their experience as human beings. Under Common Core’s sweeping reduction, America’s students would be culturally shackled. Their adulthood would be burdened by a diminished ability to feel and think truthfully.
By contrast, classical liberal arts education frees America’s students by fostering their sympathy for and understanding of our humanity—"the miseries and joys, the needs and strengths,” their longing for a more “elevated life” and their hope for the future. This is what the authors of After the Fall understand. This is the vision of education articulated in Gaudium et Spes.
Just think what the renewal could be of America’s Catholic schools, schools in general, and of America herself if that vision spread?
Andrew Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.