[God-centered] humanism is an alternative to an anthropocentric [man-centered] humanism, according to which human life is explained in purely secular and natural terms, that is to say, as though the human person were sufficient unto himself. Anthropocentric humanism is inadequate, since its explication of the human condition is too narrow, focusing only on two of its causes. Clearly, with its preoccupation with only the natural and secular dimensions of the human condition modern institutionalized education is an edifice built on the sand of anthropocentric humanism.
In calling for a different foundation, however, one that recovers a different tradition, Maritain is neither a pathetic nostalgic nor an exclusivist. In the first instance, he aims to recover a tradition, not just because it is a tradition, but because it holds lessons and values for contemporary times. In the second, he has in mind a legacy that is inclusive, by virtue of its comprehensiveness and analogy, one that accommodates all peoples by not necessitating a commitment to formal institutions or canons but only to a world-view respecting the spiritual depth, dignity, and mystery of human personality.
In a Judeo-Greco-Christian civilization like ours, this community of analogy, which extends from the most orthodox religious forms of thought to the mere humanistic ones, makes it possible for a Christian philosophy of education if it is well founded and rationally developed , to play an inspiring part in the concert, even for those who do not share in the creed of its supporters…
In answer to our question, then, “What is man?” we may give the Greek, Jewish, and Christian idea of man: man as an animal endowed with reason, whose supreme dignity consists in voluntarily obeying the law of God; and man as a sinful and wounded creature called to divine life and to the freedom of grace, whose supreme perfection consists of love.
With this statement of his philosophical anthropology, Maritain is calling for educators to change direction and to journey along another, less worn path, a road more soundly constructed and with a more definite direction. The Frenchman’s call is still timely, for the same crisis that educators faced in his day is still before us. The intersection that defines this crossroads presents educators with one of two alternatives:
to continue educating according to the assumptions of a positivistic social science, pressing on with a so-called reform that is, in fact, no reform; or,
to provide a different foundation for education, one which is committed to a philosophical anthropology grounded in a tradition antedating the Enlightenment and rooted in more ultimate metaphysical and theological principles, while at the same time doing justice to the fact that the human condition is also situated socially, historically, and culturally.
Institutions of learning have made their decisions: (with very few exceptions) they have chosen the first alternative – to continue down the road of anthropocentric humanism. Having been so radically compromised, they are beyond reform. At the present time, educational reform on any meaningful scale in this country can now only apply to individual educators, to parents and their little flocks at home, not to institutionalized education in general.
The words college and university derive from Latin roots signifying unity. Without coherence and synthesis [unity], knowledge cannot result in understanding nor mature into wisdom; and if educational institutions fail to lay, at least, the foundations of wisdom, they simply fail to educate. American educational institutions have failed democracy specifically in that it they failed to address those abiding concerns of philosophical anthropology and ethics necessary to make sense of our social lives.
If modern educational institutions are unable to contribute to these ends because they no longer make sense out of metaphysical and axiological principles necessary for understanding human existence, then educational institutions can no longer even begin to teach the human being what it is to be a human being. If so, the student ends his education as he began it, with no wisdom about himself. Hence, his soul is impoverished, for, even in general outline, he cannot answer the question, what is it to live a human life?
His education has failed to teach him how to understand himself and how to relate to his world.
This failure to cultivate in students a due regard for their human nature sufficient to inspire them to believe that to live the human life is to live a life according to reason accounts, in my judgement, for the exaggerated careerism and bourgeois individualism among the youth today. Because educational institutions no longer assist students even in those first faltering steps toward wisdom – which, at a minimum, is to exercise confidence in the conviction that reason, to a significant degree, equips one to deal with life effectively – students have come to fear the world and human life as an absurd, dangerous, and wholly mystifying place. Since they have not been taught to value or to depend on reason, they suppose that the world is, in fact, irrational. Since this condition makes for an insecure existence, they turn delusionally to the mystique of job and technological expertise to provide them security. For them a job is the only security possible in a world beyond the reach of reason.
There is no doubt that Maritain would approve of Mortimer J. Adler’s Paideia Proposal to reform education. In Education at the Crossroads he lauds Adler’s efforts. What merits Maritain’s approval is that Adler, unlike so many other reformers, realizes that education can take place only when an understanding of human nature and its ends are vigorously evident and operative in the mission (goals), curriculum, and modes of instruction used.
Since this understanding is generally ignored by systems of education today, one must regrettably conclude that only nominal education is taking place. High schools, colleges and universities may still impart knowledge, but this has only to do with data and technique. There is little effort to connect knowledge with those principles of coherence sufficient to make knowledge yield understanding and relate to human life and its ends. Hence learning in today’s school system is about more or less discrete knowledge, but not really about education.
Taking to heart the Latin root of education (from ex + ducere – to lead out of), there is simply little, if any, leading out of ignorance to an enlightened reckoning of what it is to realize the potentialities of human life. Adler, however, understands that without these ultimate foundations there is no education. His Paideia (that is, the upbringing of children) Proposal, which accords with his earliest recommendations for educational reform, dating back to his association with Robert Maynard Hutchins in the thirties, is a program aiming to supply these foundations and, thereby, to bring about lasting educational improvements. His recommendation is to return to the great books.
Adler proposes that these classic works be taught dialectically, in discussion groups. In this way, moderators can better cultivate in students those intellectual virtues, such as independence of mind, which made possible the production of great books originally. This also sets up the conditions so that education can contribute to the moral and political reflections necessary for the formation of citizens in a democratic society.
Such reflections vindicate religious-based homeschool education because such education addresses the entire human condition and man’s secular and metaphysical ends, and thereby makes sense out of the metaphysical and axiological principles of human existence by integrating them into a coherent synthesis. A religious-based homeschool education, based on Dr. Adler’s Paideia Proposal, concluding in the study of the classics – the great books (particularly if augmented with dialectic discussion groups), such as that proposed by the Great Books Academy, would therefore be an ideal educational environment for our times (the parents providing the religious instruction).
Having returned to its roots in the family, homeschool education has signal significance for history. Parents must become that diaspora of enlightened educators about whom Maritain prophesied, a diaspora laboring in the twilight of civilization. It is a labor, I am confident, that Providence can put to a purpose.