touchstone archives


Piquant excerpts lifted from Touchstone editors' own reading & listening.

Topic: Education

All too often, relativists relativize others but not themselves. They relativize the past but not the present. They pour the acid of their relativism over all sorts of issues but jealously guard their own favorite ones. A recent study of classical education in the universities [Victor Davis Hanson in Who Killed Homer?, 1998] points to this attribute when it defines the present-day American academic as "a well-fed, elite, institutionalized thinker of the late twentieth century, who crafts ideas for his peers, with the assurance that the consequences of those solutions should not and will not necessarily apply to himself."

Os Guinness
Time for Truth (2000)

Education Commonplaces #5 July/August 2020

If you know what you are saying and believe it to be true, make it clear—and not just to dons, but to everyone. . . . Descent into jargon to give the impression that obscurity is profundity is a temptation indulged not only by ecclesiastics, for it luxuriates in the ivied halls of academia and the labyrinthine corridors of government. But it parades with colorful panache in the Church, and it can bewitch even in English translation. If you make a list of jargonish adjectives and another of jargonish nouns, you are on your way to writing your own neoplastic academic speech, papal audience address, Apostolic Exhortation, or even your own Encyclical. . . .

By switching back and forth, or by occult inspiration, you can construct prophetic sounding platitudes such as: "integrally ecological field hospitals," "planetary coprophagists," "dialectical nominalists," "epochal soap bubbles," "nuanced rigidities," "ontological peripheries," "clericalist paradigms," and "pickle pepper-faced ecological debts." Then you can start crisscrossing: "issue-oriented coprophagists," "paradigmatic consequentialists," "sloth-diseased nominalists," and so forth. You can even describe "planetary field hospitals," "osteoporotic nominalists," "epochal peripheries," and "schizophrenic clericalists." It's fun, and might have been the sort of pastime the late imperial senators in moth-eaten togas engaged in while the Ostrogoths menaced the crumbling Roman walls in the sixth century.

Fr. George W. Rutler
Crisis Magazine, (September 23, 2019)

Education Commonplaces #6 July/August 2020

The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment; or as the Nazi liked to say, "of Blood and Soil." I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

Victor Frankl
The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (1955)

Education Commonplaces #8 May/June 2020

The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
On Certainty, ¶160 (c. 1950)

Education Commonplaces #17 March/April 2020

Pascal knew that Montaigne was cheating: to most humans, curiosity about higher things comes naturally; it's indifference to them that must be learned.

Mark Lilla
The Hidden Lesson of Montaigne (NYT review, March 2011)

Education Commonplaces #27 Nov/Dec 2019

Again, in the habits and regulations of schools, universities, and the like assemblies, destined for the abode of learned men and the improvement of learning, everything is found to be opposed to the progress of the sciences; for the lectures and exercises are so ordered, that anything out of the common track can scarcely enter the thoughts and contemplations of the mind. If, however, one or two have perhaps dared to use their liberty, they can only impose the labor on themselves, without deriving any advantage from the association of others; and if they put up with this, they will find their industry and spirit of no slight disadvantage to them in making their fortune; for the pursuits of men in such situations are, as it were, chained down to the writings of particular authors, and if any one dare to dissent from them he is immediately attacked as a turbulent and revolutionary spirit.

Francis Bacon
Novum Organum (1620), XC

Education Commonplaces #52 May/June 2019

[I]n publishing as in most places, if it weren't for received wisdom, there wouldn't be any wisdom at all.

Donald E. Westlake
in an interview c. 1999

Education Commonplaces #62 Nov/Dec 2020

Thus began [in the Church] a process by which the Tradition was sentimentalized in and through kitsch—that is, mass-produced objects that, according to Clement Greenberg, depend upon "the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends." That end is not to create something worthy of the Tradition. The goal of kitsch is to create objects that borrow just enough gravitas from the Tradition to seem authentic while, in fact, specious "good feelings" are placed front and center. . . .

In other words, the cheesy, the tacky, the "in poor taste" spring into life when form falls absurdly short of content. Kitsch happens when consumers are trained actually to prefer a sentimentalized form over authentic content. . . .

[C]ommodification reignites the strange engines of ancient fetishism. Just as a golden calf, with its sentimentalized associations with the gods of Egypt, could be looked to by the Israelites as a preferred option, as an idol that would provide as Yahweh provides yet without the demands of Yahweh, the modern, commodified object, trading upon its vibe of authenticity, promises to change your life while avoiding genuine engagement with the Tradition. . . .

[B]ad taste went hand in hand with bad theology. The person who favored mime homilies might well say, "I don't find the concept of Original Sin particularly helpful." The priest who offered a clown Mass might express his doubts about the Nicene Creed. . . . If a person welcomed a departure from the devotions, the architecture, even the liturgy of past tradition, he probably did this because outside the sanctuary, he was trained to prefer a sentimentalized form over authentic content.

Joseph Hatcher
"The Kitsch Council," (July 6, 2020)

Education Commonplaces #63 Nov/Dec 2020

When I read their discussion of a poem, I feel as if I were reading an account of a great swimming competition in which the author reported only on the temperature of the water.

Harold Bloom
on certain Deconstructionists; quoted in "Remembering Harold Bloom" by Neil Arditi, Jewish Review of Books (Winter 2020)

Education Commonplaces #71 Jan/Feb 2021

We make idols of our concepts, but Wisdom is born of wonder.

Pope Gregory I
(pope 590-604)

Education Commonplaces #75 March/April 2021

I would not represent [Robert E.] Lee as a prophet, but as a man who stood close enough to the eternal verities to utter prophecy sometimes when he spoke. He was brought up in the old school, which places responsibility upon the individual, and not upon some abstract social agency. Sentimental humanitarianism manifestly does not speak the language of duty, but of indulgence. The notion that obligations are tyrannies, and that wants, not deserts, should be the measure of what one gets has by now shown its destructive power. We have tended to ignore the inexorable truth that rights must be earned. Fully interpreted, Lee's "duty" is the means whereby freedom preserves itself by acknowledging responsibility. Man, then, perfects himself by discipline, and at the heart of discipline lies self-denial. When the young mother brought an infant for Lee to bless, and was told, "teach him he must deny himself," she was receiving perhaps the deepest insight of his life.

Richard M. Weaver
"Lee the Philosopher," The Georgia Review (Fall 1948)

Education Commonplaces #93 July/August 2021

[T]here are many misteries contained in Poetrie, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by prophane wits it should be abused.

Sir Philip Sidney
(circa 1582)

Education Commonplaces #101 Sept/Oct 2021

Half of our standards come from our first master, and the other half from our first loves. Never being so deeply stirred again, we remain persuaded that no objects save those we then discovered can have a true sublimity. . . . Thus the volume and intensity of some appreciations, especially when nothing of the kind has preceded, makes them authoritative over our subsequent judgements. On those warm moments hang all our cold systematic opinions; and while the latter fill our days and shape our careers, it is only the former that are crucial and alive.

George Santayana
(quoted in Owen Barfield's Poetic Diction, 1928)

Education Commonplaces #102 Sept/Oct 2021

In the . . . Bread of Life discourse, its metaphysical character takes us to the heart of what we now know as the eucharistic mystery, so grotesque an imagination for Jesus' early followers that many of them said, "This is a hard saying; who can hear it?" and turned back (John 6:60). But Jesus does not deter them from leaving by making his saying more prosaic and user-friendly; his purpose is to teach a deeper truth, one that perhaps cannot be perceived without the poetry.

David Lyle Jeffrey
Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (2019)

Education Commonplaces #103 Sept/Oct 2021

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one's prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical— and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letters and Papers from Prison (c. 1944)

Education Commonplaces #109 Nov/Dec 2021

The public holds to a touching belief in the absolute unanimity of science. Encouraged in dogmatic habits by the words of popularizers, it accepts what "science says" or truths that "we now know . . ." as if some agency existed for creating agreement among the workers of a particular age or ascertaining their consensus. . . . [T]he conviction that knowledge comes out of the observation of matter tended to dwarf the role of intelligence and idea.

Jacques Barzun
Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (2nd ed., 1958), p. 122

Education Commonplaces #111 Nov/Dec 2021

For the ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it "by heart" in the fullest sense of this expression, that is, with one's whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.

Jean LeClercq, O.S.B.
The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (1961)

education Commonplaces #124 May/June 2022

Now consider the difference between advice and wisdom. To my mind, wisdom is what enables one to bear the inevitable; it offers the solace of recognizing and accepting the limits of doing. With wisdom, one can endure what is necessary, inescapable, unchangeable. It is retrospective and essentially theoretical. Advice, on the other hand, is prospective and essentially practical. It offers counsel on altering for the better what is still subject to change. Deliberate counsel given through wise judgments, enabling one to alter future actions, makes advice useful.

Morris Philipson
Foreword to Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Hortatory (1971)

Education Commonplaces #132 July/August 2022

Boyhood, like measles, is one of those complaints which a man should catch young and have done with, for when it comes in middle life it is apt to be serious.

P. G. Wodehouse
Uneasy Money (1917)

Education Commonplaces #133 July/August 2022

There is an untranslatable Italian word for the mental bank account you acquire by memorizing poetry: it is gazofilacio. Contini believed that an accumulation of such treasure would eventually prove its worth even if it had to begin with sweated labor.

It was the universal conversation, conducted through memory. . . . Though it can be overdone, there is nothing like a trading of quotations for bringing cultivated people together, or for making you feel uncultivated if you have nothing to trade.

Clive James
Cultural Amnesia (2007)

Education Commonplaces #134 July/August 2022

A valid argument does nothing to guarantee the living truth of its premises. Logic is the logician's business; truth he leaves to others.

David Berlinski
One, Two, Three: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics (2011)

Education Commonplaces #135 July/August 2022

Language is the dress of thought; every time you talk, your mind is on parade.

Samuel Johnson

education Commonplaces #148 Nov/Dec 2022

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

Analects 13.3, translated by James Legge

education Commonplaces #149 Nov/Dec 2022

“Teaching is no joke, sonny! I’m not talking of those who get out of it with a lot of eyewash: you’ll knock up against plenty of them in the course of your life, and get to know ’em. Comforting truths, they call it! Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterwards.”

A Priest character
in The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos (1937), translated by Pamela Morris

Education Commonplaces #181 Sept/Oct 2023

Unless you expect, you won’t discover the unexpected.

(c. 500 BC)

Education Commonplaces #207 May/June 2024

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