As Wise as Pigeons: Lessons Never Learned

Why must the children of light always be ten revolutions and a hundred years behind the children of darkness?  If we cannot always defeat our enemies on the battlefield, can’t we at least learn to recognize their tactics so that we won’t be fooled the next time?  Never mind that.  Can’t we learn to recognize, from the bullets whistling past our ears and our comrades lying beside us shot through the heart, that they are our enemies?

Several days ago I was at a tent meeting with some of the oddest of the children of light.  These Christians preach Christ, and Him crucified.  Indeed, they preach so doggedly about Christ’s atonement for our sins and our complete helplessness to save ourselves, that they never get around to talking our new life in Christ.  Every day is Good Friday, and what happened on Easter merely confirms the power of Christ’s blood and so redirects our attention to the Cross.

None of this is wrong, as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go far.  I have a soft spot in my heart for underdogs, especially when they preach about the Lord to a people stultified by bad schools, television, and the unutterable banality of vice.  I wish my friends well, though I suspect they believe I’m not “saved,” because I haven’t been struck blind on the road to Damascus.  My conversion was slower and more embarrassing, but that’s another story.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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After the meeting I enjoyed refreshments with the members of the group, including several young people, three lads and a lass, between seventeen and twenty four years old.  We got to talking about school.  I’m an American, but we spend our summers in Canada, in Cape Breton.  And since I always ask my freshmen at Providence College what they’ve studied in high schools public and parochial, and, more to the point, what they have not studied, what they haven’t ever heard of, I asked the same questions to these pleasant Canadians.

“I’m going to name a few English writers,” I said.  “All I want to know is whether you recognize the names.  You don’t have to tell me anything about them.”  These people were bright enough, as you could tell from their presence at the meeting and their conversation.

Milton.  No recognition.  Wordsworth.  No recognition.  Tennyson.  One of the boys said, “Albert?”  That was a hint that he had once heard the name.  “Close,” I said.  “Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the great Victorian poet.  Can you tell me anything about him?”  No, nothing.  “What on earth do you do in school for twelve years?” I asked.  That’s a question I’ve asked a thousand times, in both countries.  They laughed.  They were not going to defend their schools, not even as Canadians to an American.  They knew they were indefensible.

They did tell me that they read Shakespeare, one play a year, detached from the history of England, from the tradition of English literature, and, most disappointing, from Shakespeare’s Christian faith.  Shakespeare is the most theological of English dramatists.  It’s not simply that he alludes to scripture all the time.  It’s that entire plays are structured around theological questions—and are incomprehensible without the foundation of the Christian story.

Here the young lady became the lead interlocutor.  She was the oldest and had read the most.  She wouldn’t allow that Shakespeare was a profoundly Christian author; not because her interpretation of Shakespeare differed from mine, but because, in comparison with the gospel, the Christian writer meant nothing, even if he was the greatest dramatist who ever lived.  She understood that many people flourished by being taught at home, but she was glad she went to high school, not for what she learned there, which she admitted was not a lot, but because it gave her the opportunity to witness to Jesus.

I couldn’t let matters rest.  “But that’s not what school is for,” I said.  “Look at what you might have learned, in a sane world.  You might have learned about Bach, that giant of a composer, who dedicated every work he composed to the name of Jesus Christ!”  She shrugged and said she enjoyed Bach, but she wouldn’t go so far as to call him a Christian.  She was moved not one inch by the wealth of Christian history, art, music, drama, and poetry that she had been denied the chance to study.  She said she reads Jane Austen for pleasure, but the humanities in themselves mean nothing to her.

It struck me that there’s a strange similarity between these Christians and the secularists who dominate our schools and who have eviscerated our curricula, replacing the great poets of our heritage with ephemeral scribblers upon “current events.”  That’s the one thing that cannot be taught with any perspective.  But it requires no special study (ignorance is a boon if you’re reading Maureen Dowd).  It exposes no deficiencies in the teachers.  The young people at the meeting didn’t care about Wordsworth or Tennyson, because they had Jesus.  The secularists are worse.  They don’t care about Wordsworth or Tennyson, because they have Tony Kushner or some other purveyor of twaddle.

Which brings me to the Common Core Curriculum that is being pedaled (not peddled; the governmental foot is on the accelerator) to our schools.  Apparently plenty of Catholic schools are on board, too.  That is baffling.  Every big “reform” of the public schools for the last sixty years has been disastrous—the expunging of any trace of religion from the classroom; the replacement of small schools with hulking institutions; the consolidation of school boards to attenuate local control and personal oversight; the abandonment of geography; the shift from history to current events; the New Math; the basal reader; comic books to amuse the poorer students in high school; the war on boys; the expansion of health class to “sex education” (what the heck is so complicated?); the corruption of the latter; teaching to standardized tests; the absurdly biased textbooks; the abandonment of any systematic study of grammar; teaching foreign languages “conversationally,” which means, in effect, illiterately; the abandonment of math-based sciences such as physics and chemistry, in favor of biology, reduced to ecology, reduced to cuddles; what on earth would make us think that anything this system produces can do us any good?  Homeschoolers enjoy their signal and mortifying success largely because they see everything that is done in school and then go and do precisely the opposite.

So why should Catholic schools line up for a curriculum that stiffs literature and the arts?  Why accept a curriculum whose utilitarian presuppositions are inimical to everything that a Catholic is supposed to believe about human flourishing?  Why, to recall the article published here a few days ago, rush to adopt the Big History program promoted by atheist Bill Gates—a program that certainly is Big but is sorely lacking in History, that is permeated with determinist assumptions regarding human life, and that wholly ignores or reviles the single most significant event in human history (the one event my young evangelizers know about and cherish), and that wholly ignores or reviles the single most culturally dynamic institution in human history, the Church?  Why should John Dewey or Bill Gates write our curricula?  That would be like having Alfred Kinsey write our sex education lessons.  Ah, but I forget—we have those, don’t we?  Or it would be like having Carl Rogers run a “spiritual” retreat for nuns—ah yes, we did that too, didn’t we?  It would be like hiring the disciples of the secularist architects Gropius and Von der Rohe to design worship-machines for us, boxes that consign the Stations of the Cross to scratches of graffiti a hundred feet away, and that awake no sense of mystery, and recall no rich heritage of symbols and gestures—but wait, we built those boxes, and when we didn’t build them, we transmogrified perfectly lovely churches into their image and likeness; and we breathed upon them, and they became mausoleums.

But why should there even be a national curriculum?  Have we lost our minds?  Have we forgotten who and what we are?  A man and woman marry and have children, and the responsibility to educate those children rests upon them, because children aren’t bottle caps to be stamped with the same label, one after another.  The principle of incarnation forbids it.  One home cannot be a copy of another, because the spiritual, intellectual, artisanal, and physical strengths of one couple and their kin are not the same as those of another.  No two siblings are alike.  The very idea of a national curriculum, to be pedaled upon the children of three hundred millions, should be repugnant to a freedom-loving people, and anathema to people of faith.

Here I throw my hands up in despair, because the leaders of my church, after a hundred years of the attenuation of genuine community life, consumed by Big This and That, still cannot understand that there’s as much difference between a community and a faceless aggregate as there is between a free man and a numbered inmate in a prison.  They cannot understand that even if the National Curriculum were acceptable—even if, this time, the man who sold us rat poison for corn meal is going to give us healthy food—that there should be no such, that the very existence of a National Curriculum fundamentally alters the relationship of the citizen, the school, the town, the state, and even the family to the national government?  Why is that so hard to grasp?

Then there’s the Catholic Health Association, giving its lordly fiat potestas—let there be might—to the national government, to control every feature of our health care system.  What has made the bishops so slow to understand that, even if a nifty legal filter could pick out the specks of rat poison in the meal for Catholic schools and hospitals, that doesn’t do a damned thing for individual Catholics, or for other Christian objectors, or simply for people of good faith who don’t want to pony up for somebody else’s pills or diaphragms or snuffed babies?  Why have they not seen that a nationalized medical system also fundamentally alters the relationship between the government and the citizen?  Why can’t they divine the difference between inequalities that result by circumstance, and rationing as a matter of principle?  They’ve climbed into the lifeboat, then they object if the skipper mistreats them—when the thing to do was to reject the lifeboat and its principles, and to use our own resources and our Christian mandate to assist people in need.

The wise Laocoon hurled his lance at the wooden horse and cried, “I fear the Greeks, even when they are bringing gifts!”  Why, why must the children of light say, “Look here, Mammon’s going to build us a new school and a new hospital, and they’re free!”

As wise as pigeons—or as innocent as snakes.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts Sr. Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association speaking in favor of healthcare reform at a press conference with Vice President Joe Biden on July 8, 2009.


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