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From the May/June, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Student Assembly by Anthony Esolen

Student Assembly

Today’s Mass Education Pushes Children Away from Virtue into Mere Hygiene

by Anthony Esolen

Have you ever waited in line to tour the gigantic, boxlike “machines for living” built by Le Corbusier? Have you purchased tickets to sleep a night in a fifteen-story apartment complex? Have you surveyed a sprawling paper mill or bottling plant and said, “If only my house looked like one of those”? Neither have I. We are human beings, after all.

Yet this insight, that homes actually presuppose human beings to live in them, with human bodies, and a human nature, has had no effect on our public schools. I assert that the way we build schools, where we place them, what we choose to teach (and what we choose not to teach), how we treat the sexes, how we schedule the school day, the manners we expect from students, and indeed the whole crazy machinery of officers and administrators determining the system, are the result of nothing less than our having forgotten what human beings are.

Two Incompatible Visions

I should like to illustrate by recalling my experience in grade school. It was not pleasant. I was taciturn and lonely. I was also years ahead of my classmates, so I spent a lot of time in the classroom daydreaming or doodling. But for all that, the school was fit for a human being. How?

First, it was a Catholic school. The battle over prayer in the public schools has never been over whether a few innocuous pieties might be uttered at the beginning of a school day. It has been over two incompatible visions of mankind. The one affirms that man is made for a transcendent end. It sets our gaze at a horizon we are somehow meant for, but which we cannot attain on our own. Architecturally, it is as if we dwelt in the neighborhood of a steeple and a bell tower, whose tolling would remind us that what we do below is to be oriented toward the things above.

The other vision denies that end. It affirms that what matters is only what is here and now, or what we can eventually produce in a future here-and-now. It generally scorns the past, and replaces wisdom with technical efficiency. Its Eden is not one of holiness, but of managed hedonism, secured by technological advancement and sound political directives.

Suppose that the poets and the theologians and almost all the great philosophers of every culture are right, and the technocrats are wrong. Then the public school, with its culture oriented towards nothing transcendent, is an offense to human dignity. It is like a house without windows, or a world without a sky. That explains why their buildings have come to resemble factories.

About Something Sacred

But that was not so at my school. When we arrived in the morning, we were instructed to enter the nearby church and to sit with our classmates, boys on the right, girls on the left. Our teachers, most of them nuns, would be there before us. We would hear the remainder of Mass, and that is how we began the day. On every first Friday of the month, we ended our studies early, to go to the church for the rosary—we were praying, we were told, for the conversion of Russia—and the rite of Benediction. During Lent, we attended the Stations of the Cross, followed by confession.

We had a thousand reminders that political power is frail, that mere pleasures vanish, that the love of money is the root of evil, and that the things that really move the human race, faith, hope, and charity, are everlasting. The nuns, with all their human glories and human flaws, were visible reminders of these things. So were the high, arched windows in our rooms. So was the inscription from Thomas Aquinas that was painted over the entrance. Every day of my school life, I saw the One who died on the cross, for love.

Many things follow from that first insight. Our dress, for instance. If human beings have a transcendent end, they must pursue it in communion with others, since none of us is sufficient for himself even in the necessities of everyday life, let alone wisdom; and love is both the condition and the purpose of our freedom. Therefore we did not dress as we would while playing ball in a field or digging in the garden. Who would attend a wedding in jeans and a T-shirt? We dressed as if we were about something sacred, and about it together. So the boys dressed in jackets and ties and dress shoes—no sneakers—and the girls dressed in plaid weskits and skirts, with the initials of the school embroidered on the front.

A Realistic Discipline

There’s more. Our classes were, by today’s standards, huge. The number of students in my class fluctuated between 45 and 51. It is quite impossible to manage so great a number of hedonistic units. Discipline would break down immediately. But it was not hard at all for one nun to teach that many human children. How did they do it?

The other side of their belief that we were all meant for holiness was their knowledge—a day or two in our company would suffice to show it—that we were deeply flawed. We were weakened by original sin. It is strange to see how an utterly unwarranted optimism regarding the natural goodness of mankind is bound up with a totalitarian need to keep these saints under constant surveillance, while the acknowledgment of our sin is compatible with a realistic discipline that allows for, and helps to effect, true freedom.

The sisters did not beat us. There were no paddles. But they did not put up with backtalk, or other rudeness, like whispering, or chewing gum, or slouching. They did not load us down with homework, because we got a lot done during classes, as was to be expected when we were not herded from room to room like animals, and when we brought to school the same expectation of obedience—not slavishness, which is compatible with hatred, sabotage, and defiance—that we took for granted at home and in the church.

Answerable to Church & Home

The school was an extension of the home. It wasn’t that the sisters had read the social encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI and modeled their school accordingly. They did not think about subsidiarity so much as they lived it. That, too, made it possible for them to teach so many children in one room. For they knew the families. Indeed, they would see these families together at church on Sunday.

The vast anonymous consolidated school, ironically, has no room for families, and can only wiggle individual units of self-will into their peg holes. But it is quite a different thing when a small number of sisters are teaching the children from the same several dozen families year after year—both for the sisters, who grow accustomed to the families, and for the children, who grow accustomed to the sisters.

There was never a sense that the school set itself in opposition to the home. Now, because of an erroneous and truncated view of man, we forget what marriage and family are for, and we allow an impersonal state—a monstrous paternity without fathers—to bully its way into everyday life. But the school I attended was answerable both to the church, which stood across the street, and to the home.

A Genuine Lunch Hour

That, too, was nearby. We had one bus, for students who lived a mile away on the far end of town. Everyone else walked, including me and my sisters and brother. Many of the students lived on the neighboring hills above the school, and for them the walk home was a natural transition from being in school to being at play, outdoors—after a quick change, of course.

The walk is a human thing. Not only were we outside in the fresh air, a great good in itself, but we could talk easily with one another, or dawdle at a candy store, or pass by the houses where our classmates stopped. When you walk, you gain a sense of the whole neighborhood, from the dogs and the toddlers to the old ladies on their porch swings. That is impossible on a bus.

Because we lived nearby, and because the school was oriented toward the church and the home, we were given a genuine lunch hour. For a couple of years, my sister and I walked home for lunch, where my mother cooked us such glorious things as French toast or homemade pizza. Others brought their lunches in bags, drinking cartons of milk from the local creamery (as we all did, for our mid-morning break). Then we would congregate on the “playground,” a blacktopped area beside the school. One or two of the nuns went outside to make sure nothing bloody went on. We played jail, tag, crack the whip, and cops and robbers. The boys flipped baseball cards against the wall, or traded them.

Some kids went next-door, to the Knights of Columbus building. There they might buy some candy, or duck into the adjoining barber shop, run by an old Italian man. Some of the older kids would cross the bridge over our river and buy lunch at a little restaurant. There were no security officers, no metal detectors, no hall passes, no furloughs. As long as you were back in time, you were all right. In my six years of attendance, I cannot recall a single occasion when somebody wasn’t back in time. That would have been as unthinkable as not showing up at home for supper.

Learning Without Cynicism

There were subtle ways, too, in which the sisters acknowledged that we were sexual beings, boys and girls, rather than indiscriminate creatures with minor differences in plumbing. Again, this was something tacitly assumed rather than consciously pursued. The boys were treated as boys. If their play got a little rough during lunch hour, it was all right. I do not remember that the nuns ever stopped what we were doing. The boys were expected, too, to do a little of the dirty work around the schoolroom, like washing the blackboards and cleaning the erasers. When the state demanded that our school offer physical education, the sisters got the bright idea to hire a dance instructor, so the boys and girls learned—along with “modern” moves laughable to remember—how to dance the polka and the waltz with one another.

The curriculum could have been better. We had modern “readers,” which did not include any great literature, even in excerpts, unlike the old McGuffeys. The best books were the geographies. Geography was its own subject, and a favorite of mine, as I loved to make maps, complete with cities and rivers and agricultural and industrial products. They and the histories were presented from a Catholic point of view, so we were introduced to Father Junipero Serra, John Carroll of Carrollton, and Elizabeth Ann Seton. Religion was erratic, but I do remember a splendid and eloquent old compendium of stories from the Old Testament, with accounts of the wicked King Ahab and the saintly King Josiah. Math lingered forever in arithmetic, but by the sixth grade everybody could perform all the important operations: long division, for instance, and calculating ratios and percentages.

In Sister Carmene’s sixth grade, we received pretty thorough instruction in English grammar. We diagrammed sentences, and not just the simple ones, either. We learned about tense, mood, voice, person, number, and case; about participles, gerunds, and infinitives; about coordinating and subordinating conjunctions; about adverbial phrases and adjectival phrases; about noun clauses and relative clauses and the rest. When I arrived in high-school Latin and German, I was surprised that my classmates from other Catholic schools did not know what the subjunctive mood was.

What we did not have was cynicism. Partisan politics was absent. One day, the girls were taken aside for instruction in the female body. That was that. Everyone assumed that sexual instruction was the business of the parents, who were, after all, the employers, and who gave their children to be schooled as part of a sacred trust. Those parents would have been as astonished to find a sex-besotted curriculum as to hear that the man cleaning their septic tank was talking to their kids about hookers.

The sisters remembered that their students had souls, and I suppose they prayed for us all the time, though it never occurred to me to ask. They also remembered that they were part of a community. Indeed, one of the girls from my class herself became a nun, and her younger brother became a priest, as did the son of my barber, whose wall featured a portrait of Pope Paul VI. Nor did the school invade our summers. We were left, blessedly, to live.

Suppose, though, we have forgotten what a human being is. How will we build schools then?

Machines for Educating

The ambiguity of the subtitle above is deliberate. Is the sense of the gerund active or passive? I believe we have built schools as machines for educating, because we have assumed that children are machines for educating. We haven’t forgotten that they are human beings. I’m not accusing our educators of conscious cruelty.

But our view of mankind has been so impoverished by the bad philosophy of our time that, without thinking about it, we treat children as if there were no specifically human ends to be pursued by intellectual and practical virtue, and as if there were no natural goods to be sought as ends in themselves or as means towards those ends.

Take the placement and size of the modern consolidated high school. The one in my town in Rhode Island will do for an example. It “serves” the teenagers of an area covering 68 square miles, with more than 30,000 inhabitants. A school large enough to accommodate so many adolescent units cannot be built in any long-settled area. It cannot be on Main Street. It cannot be across the street from a barbershop and next-door to a rectory and a church, as the high school in my hometown used to be. So it is located at a convenient distance from everyone and everything.

I say “convenient” because it really is the aim of the educators to have the students isolated from the community, partly so that they won’t have so much opportunity to get into trouble—for the modern school’s notion of virtue is minimalist and ineffectual, consisting in keeping one’s genitals healthy, not shooting people, and eating vegetables—and partly to insulate the school from chance oversight.

Of the nearly one thousand young people who are amassed in the Coventry High School, not more than a dozen or so live close enough to walk to the place. So they must ride the bus; and, what with the frequent stops over so large a district, the rides can be very long. No fresh air, no exercise, no casual meeting of people along the way, no dropping into the small market, no diversion into a field for playing ball—and, most important, no daily-lived reality of belonging to a neighborhood.

The Loss of Human Things

These are not mere pleasures I’ve listed. They are human things—as necessary for a well-lived human childhood as are healthy food and drink. If it is argued that, no matter where we place the school in Coventry, almost all the students will have to ride a bus to get there, the answer should be, “And who says that there has to be only one school? Why shouldn’t there be a high school for every place where a good many people live?” The answers will inevitably be some form of argument from efficiency. “We can’t have five world-class swimming pools!” No doubt; but then there’s no need for such, nor for most of the rest of the machinery that stocks the suburban school.

As for what schools are really for, teaching students the rudiments of literature, science, history, geography, and so forth, there is no gain at all in the large school. In fact, if the “departments” at such a place enforce a conformity from class to class and teacher to teacher—not in discipline but in, say, textbooks or choice of literature—then there is a distinct loss to the common good. I can’t fathom how it is a boon to the community to have a thousand youths reading Catcher in the Rye, rather than some of them reading, if their teacher is brave enough, Moby-Dick.

Then there’s the sheer harried rush of bodies in the large school, herded from room to room on command, and strapped into the Billows Feeding Machine for a squeezed-out twenty minutes for lunch. This managed chaos, like nails on an assembly line funneled into boxes for sale at Home Depot, is reflected also in the curriculum.

For there really isn’t any. If we remembered that human beings have ends, moral and intellectual, then we would wish to lead children, personally, gently, carefully, to the point where they could speak intelligently about the founding of our nation, or read Crime and Punishment, or look with knowledge at a painting by Michelangelo, or puzzle out some lines of Latin poetry. The disciplines would have to do with one another, and each would be coherently organized in itself, ordained towards some end.

Units & Consolidation

But instead, we treat the youths as if they were filing cabinets or computers or units of a mass electorate. We give them a unit (the word is revealing) on Egypt, then a unit on American Indians, just as one might download this program onto a computer, and then that one. We instill in them the “right” opinion regarding weather or war, so that, by the millions, they will pull the correct lever in the voting booth. We like it all the more when the opinion is accentuated by scoffing at piety, cutting oneself off from the wisdom of the ages, and parading one’s higher knowledge before one’s parents. This is known as “critical thinking.”

We build the schools flat and sprawling, like factories. The high school in my hometown, that closed its doors when “consolidation” took place (that word, too, is revealing), was built like an old courthouse or even a church. It had a tower and a belfry. The builders probably assumed that that was the way a school should look, but then we must ask why they thought so, and what view of human nature and of education it silently expressed. First, there was an embrace of beauty. The tower could not be justified on grounds of sheer utility, unless we remember that without beauty the human being starves and shrivels; it is, appropriately enough, a great disutility to be a utilitarian.

But the beauty wasn’t merely decorative, like a patch of flowers planted here or there. It was, visually and formally, the building’s orientation and pinnacle. It was a building for people who have souls. It pointed towards the heavens. In those days, the schools had not lopped the head off the humanities; they were not allergic to the spiritual. Indeed, the teachers made sure that the Catholics among the students went once a week, after hours, to receive religious instruction at the parochial school across the street.

All Hygiene, No Virtue

No one would have called that building an “educational center,” a term that surely shows that we haven’t lost all sense of humor. For the very thing that an educational center lacks is a center. It has no heart. No surprise there—that a soulless thing should be heartless, too. There’s a lot of talk about sex in such places—or rather What to Do with Those Things—but very little talk about love. No abiding love of one’s country, no love of one’s heritage of literature and art, and certainly no awakening love between boys and girls, to be fulfilled in marriage.

It is stunning, when one steps back a moment to consider it. A thousand boys and girls in one place, their bodies sprouting hair, their bones lengthening and thickening, their hearts racing, their looks awkward and beautiful at once, and you spend a few hundred hours talking about Genital Mechanics, and not a minute about what boys and girls are like, and how they can learn to love one another as married men and women. All hygiene, no virtue. But then, cleaning is what we do to machines to keep them running well. That makes a “good” machine.

I could go on: the televisions everywhere, the thoughtless submission to the god of “technology,” the layers of organization, the depersonalized punishments, the imperviousness of the system to appeal by parents, the anonymity of scale. I used to say that in our country we have no compulsory education. We have compulsory schooling. Now I am wondering whether I shouldn’t choose another word, at that. 


Learning vs. Deep Folly

I’ve just returned from Patrick Henry College in northern Virginia. It’s the college for homeschoolers, with majors in liberal arts and government. It’s now got 340 students, who keep their tuition low by doing most of the grounds-keeping, guard duty, janitorial work, and cooking. This is a stupendous place. I’m used to it now, because it was my third visit.

Let’s just imagine boys wearing coats and ties, and girls wearing dresses. Let’s imagine that half of them are studying Latin and Greek, and the other half, modern languages. Let’s imagine that all of them have been reading Thucydides, Burke, Livy, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Milton, Spenser, Dante (yours truly’s translation), and so forth. Give ’em an IQ superior to students at Harvard and Yale. Make ’em clean-cut, joyful Christians. See them worship together in song at morning chapel, daily. Since they’ve been homeschooled, they actually know how to read and write . . . and they are happy. I spoke to those kids for eight hours running, and they are still emailing me with questions.

I gave them the same talk I delivered at Yale two weeks ago, when I was interrupted by fifty gay students staging a kiss-in. The contrast . . . in the simple ability to understand what I was talking about! When I said “Descartes” and “Bacon” and “Augustine” and “Plato” and “Von Balthasar,” those kids at Patrick Henry were a part of the conversation, but the ones at Yale were simply lost.

The harmony between humility, love, and knowledge was one of the things I spoke about. We can look at it in at least two ways. The more obvious: unless I am humble, I will not condescend to learn from teachers or writings or works of art that initially put me off, because they are old, or their presuppositions are not mine, or they make heavy moral claims upon me, or whatever. The less obvious: humility by its very nature is generous and free, opening the heart to the wonder of what lies beyond the self, while pride hardens the heart and brings along a similar sclerosis of the intellect. All the poets and philosophers and theologians knew these things.

The practical result of the form of intellectual arrogance we now suffer is that vast fields of art and wisdom are shut off from us. The students don’t learn from Dante, because they don’t read Dante at all. If they do read Dante, they are encouraged by their hipster professors to subject him to our moral and artistic criteria, shallow as they are, rather than to allow him to call those criteria into question. Dante doesn’t teach us; we “teach” him, in the schoolyard sense of the word—we “teach” the old Florentine a lesson.

So we are not just stupid in a good old honest sense. We are stultified and stultifying. We take that measure of folly with which nature has endowed each of us, and by hard work and much reading we deepen it into downright idiocy.

—Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Student Assembly” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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