An unrealistic divorce: education and relativism

We’re uncertain about such facts of reality as gender and the dignity of human life. What has gone wrong with the world? It’s topsy-turvy and upside down! How did this happen, and has the education of most Americans contributed to this insanity?

Scholars have suggested that the precursor to insanity is a disconnect with what’s real. Does objective reality exist? Or is man free to apply his own constructs, his own meaning, to reality?

Turning back the clock a bit, the tremendous benefits of modern science may be attributed to advances by both the great natural philosophers: Bacon and Descartes, and the pioneers of science, Galileo and Newton. A rather unfortunate consequence of their contributions (and certainly other factors played into this as well) is the divorce that occurred when Aristotle’s formal and final causes were eliminated from “natural philosophy” (aka “science”). The effect is that what “is” has been up for debate ever since.

Along with Aristotle’s geocentric paradigm, out went the metaphysical causes that provide an indispensable link between substance and purpose. By throwing the baby out with the bath water, reality is divorced from meaning and is henceforth defined according to relative perceptions and desires.

When what a thing is made of (material cause) and how it came to be (efficient cause) becomes the sum of the object—while the thing’s fundamental essence (formal cause) and purpose (final cause) are ignored—the thing takes on whatever meaning one cares to assign it.

So what has education to do with this? Modern education embraces the divorce between the first two causes (material and efficient) and the last two (formal and final). Why? The last two, which address essence and purpose, require value judgements, that is, statements related to meaning. Material and efficient causes are expressed in measurable terms and therefore seem to align with that which is strictly empirical. When all four causes come into play, reality is linked with meaning, which can’t always be quantified.

If modern man is to regain his mooring, children must be taught that everything—from the cosmos to the cottonwood—is rife with meaning. In the Mass, we proclaim “heaven and earth are full of your glory.” Visible manifestations, even those of this world, are married to invisible meaning.

The seven liberal arts, in all their unbridled splendor, allow the student to encounter what is. Perceiving the truth and beauty of realty teeming with meaning and wonder, such a student is inspired and awed by the goodness of God’s creation as each thing conveys something of the character of its Creator.

This student of an authentic Catholic liberal arts education could no sooner identify a man as a woman, as he would call a birch an oak. Reality is possessed of rational logic. Even with all the mystery, miracles, and anomalies inherent in Creation, a liberal arts student clearly perceives it is not his place to impose meaning on reality, but instead to appreciate and admire what it is.

Can a good education make a difference? Resoundingly, yes! One of the most precious gifts of an authentic liberal arts education is learning to take joy in reality, in all its material beauty, in how it came to be, in the meaning of its existence, and in its final purpose.

KAREN LANDRY chairs the Great Books Department at Christiana Homeschool Academy in Westminster, Md. She earned a master’s of arts in film from Regent University. Karen divides her time between teaching and forming her teen boys.

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