True Educational Reform


Dorothy Sayers Contemplating'

Dorothy Sayers contemplating the last things.

[From a few years ago. . .]

As I had mentioned in a previous post, I’m heading to Indianapolis this weekend for a conference on the meaning of liberty and education. One of the finest books I’ve come across in preparation for this colloquium is Liberty Funds on 1973 book, Education in a Free Society. The book concludes with Dorothy Sayers classic piece, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Originally written at the beginning of the Cold War and delivered at Oxford, Sayers’s piece has as much to tell us now—if not more–than it did in the 1940s.

As Sayers believes it, western civilization was in slow decline, in large part, because it relied so heavily on the educational inheritance of previous generations. But, it was using up that inheritance as quickly as possible, approaching the point of its complete disintegration.

“Many people today who were atheist or agnostic and religion, are governed in their conduct by a code of Christian ethics which is so rooted in their unconscious assumptions that it never occurs to them to question it. But one cannot live on capital for ever. A tradition, however firmly rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies.”

Like other Christian humanist critics of the time, especially Albert Jay Nock, Romano Guardini, and Christopher Dawson, Sayers worried that with the declining importance of the liberal arts, not only would education become compartmentalized into a variety of “subjects,” but that those educated in such a system would take their own subjective preferences into society itself. Consequently, a man might know much—that is, he might know an outrageous number of facts—about a thing, but he would be unable to place that thing into a larger and important context. In other words, he would prefer the particular to the universal, perhaps not even knowing a universal existed. One might consider this educated man incredibly knowledgeable, but no one would mistake him for  being wise.

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The Genius of Sir Thomas More

thomas-moreSir Thomas More (1478-1535)

An argument could be made that the world ended when Henry VIII had Thomas More executed.  Or, perhaps, in less drastic terms, the “modern world” began on July 6, 1535.  What was left of the world of Christendom faded away at that moment.  This argument actually seems more plausible than the claim that some historians have made that the modern world began with Luther and Calvin.  In almost every way, Luther and Calvin–with More, John Fisher, and Erasmus–looked first and foremost to the past for guidance and inspiration.  Luther was a devout Augustinian, and Calvin’s first love was the Stoicism of Seneca.

A few glimpses into More’s personal correspondence reveal much about his innocence and hope.

“For His wisdom better sees what is good for us than we do ourselves.  Therefore, I pray you be of good cheer, and take all the household with you to church, and there thank God both for that He hath given us and for that He hath taken away from us, and for that He hath left us, which, if it please Him, He can increase when He will.  And if it please Him to leave us yet, as His pleasure be it.” (Thomas More to Mistress Alice, September 3, 1529, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 51)

“The more I realize that this post involves the interests of Christendom, my dearest Erasmus, the more I hope it all turns out successfully.” (Thomas More to Erasmus, October 29, 1529, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 53)

“Congratulations, then, my dear Erasmus, on your outstanding virtuous qualities; however, if on occasion some good person is unsettled and disturbed by some point, even without a sufficiently serious reason, still do not be chagrined at making accommodations for the pious dispositions of such men.  But as for those snapping, growling, malicious fellows, ignore them and, without faltering, quietly continue to devote your self to the promotion of intellectual things and the advancement of virtue.” (Thomas More to Erasmus, June 14, 1532, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 54)

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Paul Rahe’s De Tocqueville

rahe softFrom a response, “Republican Virtue, Democratic Spirit,” delivered on April 7, 2009, at Hillsdale College to Paul Rahe’s excellent work on Alexis De Tocqueville.

Thank you, Professor Schlueter for organizing this and for inviting me to speak.  Thank you, Miss Essley, for your kind introduction.

Professor Paul Rahe [professor of history and political science, Hillsdale College] is not a happy man.  Nor should he be.  From almost any perspective, the state of the world appears rather bleak.

Everywhere, we see an economy in tatters, a people uncertain, and a culture corrupted, perhaps beyond redemption.  Perhaps.  Stimulus packages, plans to add untold debt as a burden upon our children and grandchildren, and promises from the Federal Reserve to print money all should give us pause.

More immediate dangers exist.  Across the Pacific, a missile was launched this weekend from a regime we should have eradicated in the early 1950s.  We are now living with our previous errors in judgment.

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bbirzer_dawson_lgTo put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as putting it “with fervor”), Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.  I’ve have had the opportunity and privilege to argue this elsewhere, including here at the majestic The Imaginative Conservative.  I would even go so far as to claim that Dawson was THE historian of the past 100 years.

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

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An Important Note to Readers of Stormfields

Dear Stormfields readers,

First, thank you!

Second, for some reason beyond my control, WordPress erased almost 5,000 of you from my subscriber/followers list.  This happened to me about 2 weeks ago at this account and also at my music website, progarchy.

I have no idea why.

Just please know that if you were taken off the subscriber/follower list, it was NOT personal!

Third, if you’d like to sign up again, I’d be more than happy to have you!  Let’s hope it’s permanent this time.

Thank you for understanding,


Frank Miller’s first encounter with Batman:
“If your only memory of Batman is that of Adam West and Burt Ward exchanging camped-out quips while clobbering slumming guest stars Vincent Price and Cesar Romero, I hope this book will come as a surprise.

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St. Augustine’s Two Cities: Then and Now

The City of God“Nature makes nothing in vain,” Aristotle, the great Pagan philosopher of ancient Athens, understood.  Aquinas concluded Aristotle’s argument fourteen centuries later with “only Grace perfects nature.”   Following St. Paul’s letters in the New Testament, St. Augustine, eight centuries before Aquinas and seven centuries after Aristotle, wrote: “All natures, then, inasmuch as they are, and have therefore a rank and species of their own, and a kind of internal harmony, are certainly good.  And when they are in the places assigned to them by the order of their nature, they preserve such being as they have received.”[1]  Nothing could sum up the argument of the Christian Humanists better than the arguments of these three men, one pagan and two Christians: Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Aquinas.  Everything has its place, its role, its purpose, singular to it, known and understood only fully by the Divine Author, who placed each person and thing in His story, what a monk at the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Lindesfarne called “God’s Spell,” or the Gospel, in 950.  The story in which we as human persons participate began with Creation, reached its middle and highest point with the Incarnation, the Death, and the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, and will end with the Apocalypse.  The end will come when it comes.  Even Jesus claimed not to know His Father’s mind and desires on the subject.  Each of us, then, as members of the story, has our role.  Some roles are greater, some are lesser, but each has an intrinsic importance.  We may neglect our role, we may pervert our gifts, or we may freely give up our free will, through Grace, and submit to God’s Will.  St. Augustine challenged his readers:

Choose now what you will pursue, that your praise may be not in yourself, but in the true God, in whom there is no error.  For of popular glory you have had your share; but by the secret providence of God, the true religion was not offered to your choice.  Awake, it is now day; as you have already awaked in the persons of some in whose perfect virtue and sufferings for the true faith we glory: for they, contending on all sides with hostile powers, and conquering them all by bravely dying, have purchased for us this country of ours with their blood; to which country we invite you, and exhort you to add yourselves to the number of citizens of this city.[2]

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