Unlearning the Errors of Our Secular Age

I pointed out a month or two ago that the kind of meritocracy we have makes people stupid, mostly because it’s based on a technological attitude toward human life. Thought has an order, but not one we can fully grasp, so if it’s reduced to certified expertise and made a sort of industrial process it stops being thought. The more impressively it’s organized, after a certain point, the less like thought it becomes.

Since that’s so, intelligence needs to consider a counterattack: what should be done so our ways of thinking become more functional and attuned to reality? The most important point, it seems to me, is restoring an understanding of the world that has a place for intelligence and meaning. We orient ourselves toward reality, so if we think the world is mindless we become so ourselves. We can’t quite become mindless, and we can’t help but believe that the world makes sense of some kind, so to make our thought coherent with itself and with our own experience we must accept that the world is ordered by reason and meaning.

The Christian view enables us to do so, and thus to understand our actual situation. It tells us that the world includes not only atoms and the void, along with human skill and desire, but an array of other realities extending up to the absolute intelligence that is God. So technology is not everything, but leaves out what concerns us most. That view explains better than any other how thought can exist, why it applies to the world, and why it has an order we can participate in but can’t fully grasp.

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In itself, though, the view is rather abstract. To be usable in a cosmopolitan and argumentative age, it has to be made concrete enough to give determinate results, and include a way of settling disruptive questions. Otherwise it won’t be able to keep itself together or tell us much that’s helpful.

That is where Catholics have an advantage. Our faith has distinct teachings, a structure of authority, a philosophical tradition, and other resources that make it possible to discuss and resolve disruptive issues. The result is that Catholicism is able to deal with new intellectual and social developments while retaining coherence and integrity. That is why Catholic civilization invented the university and fostered the sciences and liberal arts, and it is also why the Church has been able to come back repeatedly from catastrophic weakness and corruption.

Keeping the whole of thought together can be a lot of work, and cutting corners is always a temptation. The easiest way to do so, if new developments in the secular world are strong and the Church is weak, is simply to conform the Faith to the new developments. That is what Catholics have done in recent times, at least at the practical everyday level.

The civilization of the West was once Catholic Christendom, and until quite recently the Church remained a respected presence within it. That is not true any more, but we do not notice how profoundly the understandings now established are at odds with the ones we claim as Christians. The failure is made easier, of course, by the growing stupidity that affects all of us, and makes us unable to imagine any understandings other than those by which we are surrounded.

So to regain a way of thought that gives thought and meaning a place in the world, and so makes it possible for intelligence to function without defeating itself, we have a huge labor of intellectual reconstruction before us. We have to reconnect to our heritage, and that means unlearning many of the basic principles we’ve been taught by the world around us, such as the technological standard for life and thought, and putting what is good and true in that world on a different, more Catholic, and more adequate foundation.

Beyond that basic and necessary but somewhat daunting task, a move away from an industrial to a more human and more functional understanding of thought and knowledge would include more specific and immediately practical changes that rely less on Catholicism than on ordinary good sense that should be available to all.

First, most demands for educational and professional certification should be eliminated. The multiplication of such demands is based on the belief that people can’t do anything without special training, because the only knowledge that counts is organized technical knowledge. If we cut back on those requirements people will get back into the habit of doing things as a matter of common sense and everyday human functioning.

Secondly, we should get rid of the idea that everyone has to go to college. Only a minority have the talent and inclination to profit from higher liberal education. If people accept that point, higher education won’t be dumbed down and young people will be freer to develop the particular abilities they have in a way that makes sense. That will be good for everyone.

Our leaders have a variety of reasons for their insistence that everyone go to college. It means more years of thought reform. It means more of life gets absorbed by the formal technocratic structures our rulers dominate. It means jobs, status, and influence for the academically successful that dominate a meritocracy. And it means such people are the model for human worth, since their kind of education and the life it points to is treated as the only one worth having.

There is also a more basic philosophical reason. Technological society has no idea of the good, so it makes individual autonomy the highest goal. To advance that goal, an education is needed that emphasizes critical thinking directed toward informed autonomous decision, and that is what liberal education is now thought to be. To say that some people are limited in their ability to absorb such an education is to say, it is thought, that they are innately less autonomous and more subject to nature or to social categories than other people are. Since nature is now understood as a mindless force, and social categories as arbitrary and oppressive, the result is that such people would have to be considered slavish and even subhuman compared to others. Such a view is morally unacceptable.

In fact, of course, we are all limited in our ability to engage in abstract critical thought and make radically autonomous decisions. The world can’t be reduced to formulas and general principles, however useful they may be as a complement to skill and common sense, so we live more by intuition, imitation, experience, tradition, and the development of good habits than by abstract speculation or formal expertise. The result is that apprenticeship and similar methods of passing down the tradition of an occupation are likely to be more useful than academic study in most connections.

Academic study itself is less a matter of pure critical thinking oriented toward radically autonomous decision than the transmission of a tradition of inquiry and understanding directed on the one hand toward the good, beautiful, and true, and on the other toward leadership and wisdom. Education is always education into a community based on an understanding of man and the world, so it should always have a religious component and emphasize substantive cultural content. For that reason, liberal education should see itself as fundamentally religious, and emphasize something very much like study of the classics. A religious setting makes it possible to make sense of all else, while classical studies provide the discipline of close attention to extremely high-quality texts that present the viewpoint of free and active men capable of handling whatever comes their way. It is hard to imagine a better school for leadership and wisdom, or for the search for truth.


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