The other day Dan Levin, a reporter for The New York Times, went trawling online for stories from “survivors” of Christian schools. Word got out, people were appalled, and Levin ended up publishing a miserable and meaningless little piece, in which a couple of tributes from grateful students—see, even in the Sahara you can find an oasis or two—were set beside predictable accounts of sexual repression, anachronistic dinosaurs, and a whimsical Slave Day for raising money. The sexual repression had to do with desires contra naturam, no surprise.
The episode reveals two things. The first is hatred. The second is laziness in the broadest sense: acedia, that smoky gloom in the presence of what is good; carelessness; a stolid lack of curiosity; and vanity, the fat confidence that you know all you need to know already.
Hatred and laziness. On the other hand, when Jacob Riis reported on the crowded public schools in New York, he had an egregious wrong before his eyes, and he did the leg work: investigating what qualified as playgrounds and recess, and describing what the children were compelled to endure. He was righteously indignant, but he had no animus against schools, public or otherwise. You don’t need an ideology to tell you that children need exercise and fresh air. I have read a few of his articles in my volumes of The Century Magazine. By comparison with Levin’s piece, they are like entries from the Encyclopedia Britannica compared with a broadsheet self-printed by its inky visionary in his basement.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But you do need an ideology to seek to harm thousands of private Christian schools, be they evangelical, Catholic, or otherwise. Seek, and ye shall find; the words of the psalmist: “If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, who could stand?”; or Hamlet: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” If we ferreted out the worst sins of every human being around us and of every human institution, we would need to impound the world. If everyone were to be judged by the Accuser, it would be off to the everlasting bonfire for the lot of us. It astonishes me that our cognitive elites know so little about themselves or about man’s sorry history that they do not see this. They are like sewer-dwellers who have lost the sense of smell.
Still the question stands: why would anyone want to single out Christian schools for scrutiny, when they are a minority of all schools, and when public schools are basket cases of social pathologies and ineptitude? It is like saying, “I wonder what those Knights are doing, really,” when there are strip joints and gang hangouts across the street. Or worse. It’s as if they were made desperate by hope, and are now terrified by the possibility that there might be more to life than ambition, gain, and sensual indulgence.
We might replace Christian school with another descriptor, thus: “Ernst,” says the man with the bad mustache, “we must find out what really goes on in the shul and the yeshiva. Allow me to introduce you to Jakob, who has become one of us.” The alteration reveals the bigotry, but not the incuriosity. It explains the bigot, not the blockhead.
As we know, Christian schools are everywhere to be found; Mr. Levin might have considered the bold move of arranging a visit, sitting in on a class, and chatting with students and teachers in the cafeteria. He might then have been rewarded by learning something. The most important educational reform in our time has been the instituting of the “classical Christian” school, both protestant and Catholic. Who is more likely to study Latin—a protestant at the evangelical Patrick Henry College, or a student at Harvard? Who is more likely to read Dante’s Divine Comedy—a third-grade girl at The Academy of Classical Christian Studies, in Oklahoma City, or a graduate student in comparative literature at Princeton?
I know the answer to that one, having been regaled by a little girl in a restaurant, who recited to me by memory forty lines from canto two of Dante’s Inferno—Beatrice’s conversation with Virgil. Perhaps the secularists do not visit because they are afraid to be shown up. They with their hyper-modern curricula, which are ephemeral and incoherent but reliably “religious” in their adherence to the secular creed, are like their own caricatures of evangelicals startled by the existence of astrophysics. Evangelicals study Dante, and the secularists tremble.
“But school is not only about what you study,” they may say. No, school is also a social place, because we are social beings.
Let me describe then what an ordinary day is like for me at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.
I pull into the parking lot next to the building where my office is, as well as the chapel and the cafeteria. It’s eight in the morning. I cannot get to my office without waving hello to two or three students and greeting them by name. We are a school on a human and not an inhuman or transhuman scale. People know one another.
I go to my office to get ready for class. I’ll be there for an hour, and almost always there will be a knock on my door. So it was also this morning. A cheerful young man is working on his senior thesis on Robert Frost’s wary evaluation of technological developments, and the influence of Darwin upon his vision of the natural world. We chat. He has read a book of Frost’s correspondence and is about to order another book on Darwin and Frost. He has read most of Frost’s poetry. He’s almost ready to start writing. This is good, because he will be presenting his thesis in April and will defend it in front of three professors and his fellow students, who will be there for moral support. Our students pull for one another.
One of my colleagues is chanting in his office nearby. He leads the chant at Mass, though there won’t be Mass this morning; our good chaplain is elderly and can’t make it in the snowy weather. Chant is a big part of life here. The students train themselves in chant, polyphony, and folk singing. It’s common for me to pass by a knot of students practicing Palestrina’s Sicut cervus or arrangements composed by one of our instructors.
I go to my first class for freshmen. It’s Ancient Rome and the Early Christian World. Today we are reading Livy’s account of the second Punic War. Hannibal has cut the Romans to pieces at Lake Trasimene and at Cannae, in both battles taking advantage of the ambition—that is an accusatory word, as I’ve explained to the students—and the recklessness of the Roman generals. More Roman soldiers die in those two days than the United States lost in the whole Vietnam War. Then comes Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Delayer, who commits Rome to a long, inglorious, and successful campaign of attrition. We read these things to enter into the minds and souls of the Romans, to learn what they thought of themselves when they were at their best and worst.
We share the same lunch, in the same cozy cafeteria. One of our deans rings a bell and announces, to much cheering, the appointment of two freshmen to the student council. She carries a sturdy little toddler on her hip, while her other boy toddles about the room much to the pleasure of the students.
I return to my office, and another student comes by. He is preparing a junior presentation on Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. We bat around several ideas and settle on a plan: he will hunt down all Scriptural references to fools, folly, and vanity, and consider how Erasmus plays upon them. He’s a chess aficionado, so we go through a game by Mikhail Tal, featuring an early sacrifice of the queen. We’ve played two games together, one win each.
My second and last class of the day is a tutorial open to juniors and seniors on seven of the more theologically oriented plays of Shakespeare. We’re in the middle of As You Like It, and we are free and easy in our talk. “Know you not I am a woman?” says the sprightly Rosalind to her cousin Celia. “When I think, I must speak!” You can’t enjoy Rosalind’s playacting at being a boy playacting at being a girl unless you see the goodness of both boys and girls, and their foibles and their differences. Two of my students have a special reason to enjoy the differences. They are seniors, and they are married; we get a lot of marriages among our students.
It’s late in the afternoon, and I’d hang around some more because I’m never in a hurry to leave a place that feels like home, except that there’s a snowstorm brewing and I want to beat the traffic.
This is an ordinary day for me at Thomas More; it is ordinary because good things are in order.
If Mr. Levin visited us, this is what he’d find. I do not say that he would like it; I don’t know him. But we must face the truth. Some people lead bad lives, and look with longing upon the goodness they do not share. But other people hate the good, and the better it is, the more they hate it and wish to spoil it. This may be the choice the Church faces in our time: to be despised by her enemies for being lukewarm, or to be hated for being good. Christ was not lukewarm.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is an astronomy-themed fresco on the ceiling of the library in Amorbach Benedictine Abbey in Lower Franconia, Bavaria, Germany. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)