The Faithlessness of Public Education

In the wake of the dreadful massacre at the high school in Florida, I asked, via social media, what I thought was a question so obvious that everyone was bound to miss it, just as you do not notice the air you breathe. It was simply this. Why is no one surprised that a deranged young person would attack a high school? Why there? Plenty of other places are full of people—malls, stadiums, public squares, beaches. Why a high school?

I got a lot of searching and troubling answers to that question, and these persuaded me that, for all my suspicion of our large public institutions supposedly devoted to education, I had not come close to grasping how inhuman and soul-destroying they have become. They are places of neither faith, nor hope, nor love. Of course you do not seek faith, hope, and love at a shopping mall or those other places I have mentioned. But what if school, by its very nature, ought to be such a place? I do not seek nourishment from a stone, and yet I do not recoil in loathing from that stone; stones are not for eating. But what if the bread I have been given is not bread, but stone? That would be bad enough. We can make it worse. What if the egg I have been given is not an egg but a scorpion? At least the stone cannot sting or kill. The scorpion can. What if it is not simply the case that the school neglects to foster faith, hope, and love, but gives to young people either paltry imitations thereof, or poisonous impostors?

We might take these one at a time. I will devote this essay to faith.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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I attended a Catholic high school in Pennsylvania. It was a good school. It was, as I look back on it after all these years, far from perfect. In those days, the prevailing wisdom was to treat religion rather lightly, or to subject it to popular chat, so we did not actually read a single one of the Church fathers, and I only learned about Augustine—both who he was and that such a man existed—at Princeton, of all places, under the tutelage of a couple of brilliant teachers of English literature, both of whom were devout Christians, though I did not know that at the time. Yet the fact of religious faith was everywhere. The nuns wore habits, and priests and nuns taught classes in religion, which were required of everybody. On holy days we assembled for Mass in the auditorium. There were crucifixes in every classroom. There was a pro-life club, with a healthy membership. A certain moral order was taken for granted. I wish it had been actively taught, but then those times were a muddle, and it hardly occurred to anybody until too late that you would have to go out of your way to teach young people, for the most pressing example, that they should not do the child-making thing, or engage in any licentious actions preliminary to it, unless you were ready to welcome a child into the world—that is, unless you were married. One girl in my senior class did get pregnant, and we didn’t see her in the halls anymore; she finished out her schooling at home, I believe.

A lot of Catholic schools met their end in the decades that followed. Mine did not, though it now goes by another name, having become the host of a merger with a Catholic school in the city that did shut down. Perhaps it was because the school never did betray its charism entirely. I returned there when I was a young professor to give a talk, and the whole student body filed into the auditorium in polite silence, boys on one side, girls on the other, dressed up as we had been, and they were attentive and appreciative, and asked good questions, and—after some initial nervous hesitation—laughed at my jokes. I was pleased.

What measure of the faith was imparted there, I can’t say, but I got the impression that the man who now ran the school took the faith seriously, believing that it was the school’s distinguishing feature; otherwise it might as well be any place, and why would you pay good money for that? Where there is faith, there is the possibility of wonder, because what I have often called the “low ceiling” is not fixed over the soul. It is possible, just possible, that the teachers at such a place will at times remember that the gaze of man must sometimes pierce beyond the workaday world, and that will influence, however subtly, the kinds of things they like to study and the ways in which they study them.

They need not be reduced to lubricants in the satanic mills where, as the pinnacle of human achievement, worldly careers are founded, molded, shaved, and polished. They may occasionally glance upward and see something else besides a vast web of pipes, power lines, and belts. I am not merely talking about what happens in religion class. Here I beg leave to cite a substantial passage from Josef Pieper’s essay, “The Philosophical Act”:

Surely the sudden effect of poetry in the realm of means and ends comes as strange and remote as a philosophical question. Nor is it otherwise with prayer. Perhaps it is still understandable that men should say: “Give us this day our daily bread,” but what of the words of the Gloria: Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam?—can words such as these be understood in the context of the “rational-useful” and of a utilitarian organization? Man also steps beyond the chain of ends and means, that binds the world of work, in love, or when he takes a step toward the frontier of existence, deeply moved by some existential experience, for this, too, sends a shock through the world of relationships… The act of philosophizing, genuine poetry, any aesthetic encounter, in fact, as well as prayer, springs from some shock. And when such a shock is experienced, man senses the non-finality of this world of daily care; he transcends it, takes a step beyond it.

Perhaps no one at my high school thought consciously in these terms, but we were not in fact bombarded on all sides with “this world of daily care.” The teachers did not hold up for our admiration the hero or heroine who had conquered in such a world by conforming to its design. I might put it this way. We dressed neither for the boardroom nor for the vacant lot. We dressed as if for church.

I knew, at the time, that I was being given what was not available at my town’s public high school. But that was merely to assume that we got some bread to eat rather than shards of flint. Yet what if things are worse than that, now? What if it is the scorpion?

Man must worship, man must obey: he is homo religiosus, whether he likes it or not. The throne will not remain empty. So then, what is the impostor that takes the place of Lady Faith?

Is it the bitch, Politics? Maybe so. My time in school coincided with the resignation of a president, the near defeat of his successor in the primaries, and a teetering general election that resulted in a two-percent victory by the challenger over the incumbent. I do not recall a single political lecture or demonstration in all that time. We had, you might say, better things to do, or things more appropriate for our youth and our station in life. Or perhaps the teachers understood their place.

Our Catholic faith is a realm of mystery and of clearly shining truth; nothing is too humble for it, and nothing too highly exalted. In the sight of God—of whose holiness even the most rascally among us must have been fitfully aware—all human considerations take on the whole palette of reality. The man who gives a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty is suddenly more glorious than the professional humanitarian, with all his pomp and glamour. It is a realm wherein we just might learn patience, because we know how little we know; and instead of painting all things with the bald and blaring colors of a political banner, we ask God to teach us more and more, to see things as he would have us see them, and that, though it may be a humbling exercise, is never humiliating.

Politics by contrast is eminently a realm of enmity, hatred, ruthlessness, and vainglory. It is Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate, instead of noon prayer. Politics disappoints; it must, because man is and always will be a sinner. When that idol disappoints, we turn not against it but against our enemies; we will pardon a man who changes his wife, but never a man who changes his party. Our nation is mired in a chronic civil war, because the great concern that might unite us, a knowledge that we are all proceeding to the grave and to judgment before a just God, has been smothered, and there is nothing left for us but to scramble for the perks of the world and hate those who are more successful at it than we are. And to the extent that this sad atomism of the world assumes an intellectual being, to the extent that it becomes a regnant Ideology, to that extent do we justify our hatred and make it into a political virtue. You are “saved” if you follow the right slogans.

Imagine, then, being immersed in this bath of hatred, all day long, every day. I am not saying that the teachers are all wicked, or that hatred is uppermost in anyone’s mind all the time, though the word “hate” has become astonishingly common. I am saying that it is in the air, inescapable: hatred of the west for its sins, hatred of the west for its virtues, hatred of men, hatred of women who did not hate men as they ought to have been hated, hatred of religious people for taking their religion seriously, hatred of people who do not hate whom they ought to hate and who therefore vote the wrong way, hatred of the past for not being the present, hatred of the present for not being the future, hatred of all the imperfections of this world for being what they are, and, in the darkest souls, hatred of God, for being who he is.


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