On teaching nothing

In 1937, the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, addressed the National Catholic Educational Association. He said the Catholic Church possessed “the longest intellectual tradition of any institution in the contemporary world,” yet Catholic education in the United States had “imitated the worst features of secular education.”

I repeat: That was in 1937. In the 80 years since then, the situation is the same, only the worst features of secular education have gotten worse.

When people ask me, “What would G.K. Chesterton have said about the Common Core?,” the first thing of which I have to remind them is that I don’t put words in Chesterton’s mouth, he puts words in my mouth. But if I were to say what Chesterton would say, I would answer: “It’s not common, and it’s not the core.”

However, I don’t need to invent any new words from Chesterton. As with any modern dilemma, it turns out that he has already said something about it. He warned about the Common Core in a talk called “Culture and the Coming Peril.” He said, “To put it shortly, the evil I am trying to warn you of is not excessive democracy, it is not excessive ugliness, it is not excessive anarchy. It might be stated thus: It is standardization by a low standard.”

That was in 1927, a full 10 years before Robert Hutchins’ reprimand of the National Catholic Educational Association. And Catholic schools have only continued to lower their standards to match the public schools. The curriculum in most of our Catholic schools is no different than that of a public school, with the exception of a religion class tacked on. But the Faith is kept sealed in that one class and does not infiltrate any of the other subjects that are taught. That is one of the main reasons Catholic schools continue to close. (The other reason is that Catholics are neglecting to have children.)

If we’re not offering something truly different, truly unique, truly distinctive from the public schools, there is very little reason why parents would pay a lot of money to send their child to a Catholic school when they can get the same thing for free somewhere else. If we’re not offering something truly better than other private schools, they are going to choose the other private schools because… they’re better. If the only thing we offer that’s different from another private school is a lower tuition, then we’re just a cheap private school. If that’s all we’re selling, we’re going to have as good a reputation as _______ [enter the name of your most loathed tacky discount store here.]

What do we have to offer that’s different? Certainly the rich Catholic intellectual tradition that Robert Hutchins referred to, which is not being taught anywhere else. This means a baptized understanding of the arts and sciences, where a profound theology and a cohesive philosophy inform every subject, where everything is infused with meaning and purpose, and everything is connected to everything else. There is no such thing as a subject that is irrelevant to the Incarnation. There is no such thing as a neutral subject. When we try to teach literature or art or science or mathematics devoid of the Catholic faith, when we have emptied it of the divine, we are ultimately teaching nothing.

Surely this will raise the objection that we are being too dogmatic, and that will keep people away.

But as Chesterton says, “There are two kinds of people: those who are dogmatic and know it, and those who are dogmatic and don’t know it.” In other words, the ones who claim to teach undogmatically are also dogmatic. They are simply keeping their dogma a secret, possibly even from themselves. “The teacher is allowed to say that twice two is four, not because it is less dogmatic, but because it is less disputed. In other words, education is easy when dogma is universal. It only becomes difficult when men are divided about dogmas.”

Public schools can’t teach religion, and secular private schools won’t teach it. Except both of them do. Stepping around God, they have to come up with a godless explanation for everything—for man’s creativity, for his morality, for his behavior, for his past, present, and future, and for the physical world itself. They can only teach fragments of facts with nothing to hold them together. The result is that the fragments don’t combine to form anything. And so they actually teach nothing. Instead of faith, they can only offer doubt.

Chesterton says, “I am quite ready to respect another man’s faith; but it is too much to ask that I should respect his doubt, his worldly hesitations and fictions, his political bargain and make-believe.”

Most public school teachers know they have to compromise on the big questions. They are less conscious of the fact that they also have to compromise on the small questions. The politicians, so vociferous in their support of education, are also vaguely aware of the compromise, that education is entirely unsatisfactory. Chesterton says, “Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf.” This is the government’s attitude towards public education. We know it’s a failure, we know it’s not nearly good enough, yet we keep pumping resources into it. We settle for less and say it’s good enough.

But it’s even less than less. It’s nothing.

Catholic schools are able to offer a real alternative to nothing: everything! We can offer a complete education, drawing not only on our vast tradition of learning but on the Truth from which it stems, from the Truth that informs all other truth.

We do not have to shrink from the dogmatic. “All sane men,” says Chesterton, “are dogmatic.” And, he insists, “All teaching must be dogmatic…. The teacher who is not dogmatic is not teaching.”

DALE AHLQUIST is President of the American Chesterton Society, editor of Gilbert!, host of the EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense, and chairman of the Chesterton Schools Network.

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