[i] More precisely, human education is the art of using knowledge about ourselves and things around us to develop excellent human habits of judging, choosing, reasoning, and enjoyment.
As such, human education is an art whereby we improve ourselves in our ability to acquire, develop, and mature in human knowledge and use of human freedom. Education, in short, exists for two natural human ends: developing habits of wisdom and and prudence. Catholic education exists for the further more-than-natural end of getting us to heaven. Human nature and the natures of things around us, not fantastic musings about differing purposes of human choice or human self-definition, set these goals. Whether we choose to attempt to escape from ignorance or avoid the slavery it produces, ignorance produces a slavery from which human nature drives us to escape by inclining us to improve the quality of our minds and the way we live our lives.
A main question before all of us regarding the nature of our human education relates to the respective demands of things around us and human nature, not to goals of misguided educational theorists or the vested interests of professional educators and politicians.
Still, such goals play a part in any present reflection upon the condition of contemporary Western education. They often obfuscate our proper understanding of education by constituting three inertial blockades to reforming such education: (1) vested educational interests, (2) a vicious circle in the teaching profession, and (3) a deeper and reciprocal vicious circle existing in the relationship between education and politics.[ii]
Regarding the first obstacle, Adler says somewhat metaphorically: “Organized education is one of the largest rackets in this country, and the teachers colleges, especially such influential ones as those at Columbia, Chicago, and California, are the gangs that control what goes on, in ways that do not always meet the eye and would not stand inspection.”[iii]
Regarding the second and third obstacles, Adler notes that “a vicious circle exists in the teaching profession,” and always tends to exist when human institutions become standardized. In this instance, “a philosophy of education becomes an official program imposed upon the profession and the system by various accrediting agencies, degrees, requirements for promotion and so forth.” When this happens, the circle becomes almost impregnable. Even if the great mass of teachers were to feel that there is something wrong with education, they could do nothing about it. They have been subjugated; worse than that, they have been indoctrinated by the reigning philosophy so that they no longer have enough free judgment to be critical; but worst of all, they themselves have been so inadequately educated that they would be hindered from understanding the principles or taking part in the execution of the reform being proposed.[iv]
The net result of such indoctrination is over-training and under-education. Most of our school teachers today are over-trained and under-educated. The teaching art presupposes an intellectually and linguistically cultivated mind. The teacher’s art is that of communicating learning arts about ourselves and the things around us, arts of listening and speaking, reading, writing, measuring, judging, choosing, reasoning, and qualitative dicernment about the truth, goodness, and beauty of things and ourselves.
Once we have institutionalized education, as Plato recognized centuries ago, a culture tends to develop in a circle, Adler’s third, and vicious, circle.[v] The educational principles and the social habits they produce tend reciprocally to influence each other. To improve a society, we have to better its educational institutions. To better its educational institutions, we have to better the society. How do we avoid the vicious circle when we have been indoctrinated in the false educational “philosophy” that we need to transcend to get out of the circle?
We do so by our natural ability to reason about the things around us and ourselves and, by so doing, eventually to recognize that, strictly speaking, this “false philosophy” is no philosophy at all. Philosophy, like physical science, starts in wonder: with limited knowledge about things around us and ourselves, not with error or doubt. To get out of a racket and avoid the vicious circle it produces, we have to recognize that we belong to a racket in the first place. This is as true of philosophers as it is of anyone else.
Next we have to get rid of the false view of ourselves and the things around us with which we have been indoctrinated. In the late 1930’s, Adler thought that these views were philosophies of materialism, pragmatism, and modernism. I concur with Adler that, to reform contemporary education, and Catholic education especially, we have to rid ourselves of such mistaken views. I do not agree with him that these are philosophies. They are modern sophistries, falsehoods, ignorance, about ourselves and the things around us that trace themselves in the West at least as far back as René Descartes.
As Catholics, we easily rid ourselves of these false views by recalling our metaphysical and theological heritage, by recalling who we are, how we got here, where we are going, and why we are going there. We are human beings, finite created beings, composed of a corruptible body and immortal soul, made by an almighty Trinitarian creator God in His image and likeness. We got here through God’s free gift of creation. We are working our way toward heaven. And we get to heaven through the grace of faith and participation in the Church’s sacramental life, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Hence, materialism and modernism are wrong because they take no account of spiritual realities and the reality of mystery. Pragmatism is wrong because not all human truth, not every human good, is practical. Some human truths are more, greater, than practical, more, greater, than useful. For example, the delightful truth that a person we love is alive, or contemplation of the truth that only God can create the universe ex nihilo.
After we jettison our materialism, pragmatism, and modernism, we have to recognize that we have to get rid of all modern sophistry and recognize that, strictly speaking, we have no philosophy of education, or of modern philosophy, at all. Hence, we have to develop them.
To do this in philosophy of education as Catholics, we must realize that Catholic faith must illumine such a philosophy. We must build it upon a Catholic understanding of the human person, the supernatural ends of the human person, and the means to achieve these ends.
The main reason we need to do these things is that the goal of all human education is to help make ourselves all that we can be, to bring ourselves to perfection in the exercise of the human operations we produce through habitual exercise of our educating faculties, our highest human faculties. We find the ends of human education in the things around us and the way they relate to human nature and its goals.[vi]
We educate ourselves chiefly through our intellects because we educate ourselves by increasing our knowledge. And we increase our knowledge chiefly through our intellects. Still, other faculties participate in human education. But, strictly speaking, they do so by co-operating with the human intellect in the work of personal education.
Hence, in some way, all forms of lower education involve lower educational faculties participating in the work of the human intellect and the human intellect participating in the work of these lower faculties. In the act of knowing the human intellect and the lower educational faculties belong to the same genus. Hence, the distinction we often make between “higher” and “lower” education. Whether higher or lower, both are educational.
Not every human faculty is educational. Some such determinate capabilities, for example, are nutritive. Others help to increase our size, make us physically bigger. Others help us digest or excrete.
Educational faculties are a personal coincidence of intellectual and other human faculties. Examples of such other powers are our five external senses, internal senses of imagination and sense memory, and emotions and will. In some sense, we may call each of these faculties “educational” or “intellectual” because, in some way, they involve a cooperative activity of human intelligence and other determinate human powers.
Some people might be under the mistaken notion that we develop our intellectual ability after we acquire a lot of sense knowledge. This notion is incorrect. We sense nothing without intellectual awareness. And, in this life, we have no intellectual awareness without simultaneously sensing something. Human intelligence in this life is not strictly intellectual or sensory. It is a coincidence of both, personal. Our intellect is present in the first act of sensation, and our senses are present in our first act of intelligence. Human intelligence is personal, a coincidence of acts of body and soul. For this reason, the mark of intelligence is judgment, not sensing, imagining, or abstract conceptualizing.
When we blindly make choices, we often say we make “uneducated” choices, choices devoid of right intellectual direction. Strictly speaking, when making choices, the only thing we can directly choose is some human action. We do not directly choose external things. External things are instruments that make possible our performance of human actions. For example, we do not directly choose a knife or a fork. We choose humanly “to hold” a knife or a fork to engage in the human act of eating. We directly choose to hold and to eat, not the knife or the fork. We do not directly choose socks or shoes. We directly choose “to wear” socks or shoes.
These are major, not minor, points about human activity. Human activity is living, personal activity. When we indirectly choose something that helps us to carry on such activity, we do so by enabling this thing instrumentally to participate in living, personal action. We give it instrumental intellectual direction and form through participation in intellectually directed human powers, like our external body parts and the senses that activate these parts. And we give our intellects bodily direction by limiting them to participation in sensory activity. Wearing and holding are sense and intellectual activities. The way a person wears clothes or holds a knife and fork is personal, intellectual and physical. So are actions like riding and swimming, walking and dancing, and reading.
Since human education is personal, since it involves cooperation between the human intellect and human faculties that, in some way, can co-direct each other, to have a complete understanding of human education, we have to have some understanding of the faculties that the human intellect can influence and that can influence the human intellect, and of how all this occurs.
These faculties are at least five in number: (1) external (the five external) and (2) internal senses (general sense, imagination, emotions, sense memory [memory of sense details], particular reason), (3) intellectual memory [memory of abstract generalizations], (4) will, and (5) intellect.
We become educated by getting our educational faculties to work together, cooperate, to increase our knowledge. By so doing, in a way, we become more human than we were; we intellectually grow, excel, as persons. In a sense, the whole task of education involves getting our faculties to work together, to cooperate, to grasp or produce the human good. As Catholics, we easily understand that this action involves overcoming the effects of original sin.
We become most excellently human when we excel at performing personal actions through the most excellent exercise of our highest powers of intelligence and choice through cooperation with our lower sensory powers. “Virtuous” is a name we often use to refer to excellent human beings, to human beings who excel other human being at living a moral life, or in something we call “being human.” We often use the word “skillful” to refer to human beings who excel other human beings in their ability to get their human faculties to cooperate, harmonize, coincide, or work together, to do or make things exceptionally good for improving human life. Virtuous, or skillful, people, in short, have some sort of exceptional ability to get their human faculties of intellect, sense, will, and emotion to work together to do humanly exceptional things, or exceptionally human things.
Human education is human nature’s call to human virtue because by human virtue we become all that we can be. Human virtue is the educational method, the means to human happiness. And human education is inculcation in human happiness. By nature, in short, we incline to pursue knowledge and avoid ignorance because, as Aristotle understood centuries ago, without knowledge, we cannot become happy in this life or the next.[vii]
True, knowledge is not enough to become happy in this life or the next. It is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for becoming happy. At the same time, knowledge is not enough for education. Human education involves more than knowledge: human goodness, making our faculties and actions good, getting them to cooperate to recognize and do humanly good things.
To become educated we must make our human faculties good and use them well. In its most precise sense, human education is education of human faculties in their own good exercise, in human goodness. By nature, the chief end of all human education is to produce a good human being, a being that acts humanly well, that lives well, excellently. For this reason, dire consequences befall any purported philosophy of education that bases itself upon a flawed understanding of human nature. Strictly speaking, such a philosophy of education can be no philosophy at all, and cannot educate.
From the standpoint of Catholic education, the perfection of the human person as education’s natural and supernatural end means, first, that Catholic education’s main aim is to produce good Catholics, to produce good Catholic human beings, human beings who love their God and neighbor as themselves and get to heaven: Christ-like individuals, saints. Any Catholic philosophy of education that forgets this aim is no Catholic philosophy of education at all.
Secondly, it means that the primary means of Catholic education lies in training, disciplining, the human faculties in all the human virtues so that they cooperate to do humanly good things.
Achieving these means requires that Catholic teachers understand what human faculties we can educationally train and how we go about educationally training them. The faculties we educationally train are those that can take direction from right reason, reason directed by knowledge. Human freedom does not lie in absence of a rule directing our human actions. It involves “submission to a right rule.”[viii] Education liberates our faculties by intellectually qualifying them to participate in the rule of right reason. Wisdom and prudence free us from slavery because these two intellectual virtues qualify our emotions and appetites, thereby enabling us to master our human faculties and apply them rightly to the individual situation to discern truth and enjoy exercise of excellent choice.
Catholic education is a liberation movement that gives us mastery of all our learning faculties by qualifying them through direction by right reason. As human beings we are naturally born with different external and internal sensory, emotive, and appetitive faculties that are immaturely developed and incline to cooperate to take direction from rightly guided human reason so that we might bring them, and ourselves as persons, to mature and healthy development.
People who know about such things and can pass their knowledge on to others through intellectually-elevating conversation should be our teachers, the ones who can communicate it. As Adler has rightly said, education is elevation of our intellects by our intellectual betters.[ix] Its method is that of speaking and listening and its various modes, of conversing with the intellectual superiors around us about the natures of things and people. In short, in its most precise sense, the teacher’s art is liberal arts (the communications arts) education drawing upon a cultural heritage of great intellectual discovery rooted in accurate knowledge about ourselves and things around us: liberal arts education that stands on the shoulders of giants. As such, the teacher’s art presupposes a cultural heritage and conversation with cultivated minds, a tradition of virtue-laden conversation, not rote method classes accompanied by classes based upon flawed human psychology, mistaken pedagogy, and lack of rich intellectual content.
The reason why this must be the nature of the teacher’s art is easy to understand. Teaching is a cooperative art, much like farming. It presupposes fertile soil with which to work and proper cultivation of that soil. For teaching to occur, we must have qualified minds and bodies: mentally and physically qualified students and teachers.
Mentally-qualified student minds are those receptive to learning, to taking direction from their intellectual betters. Students who lack the proper emotional and volitional mindset to take directions cannot learn. Neither can students who are distracted by excessively severe physical ailments or other impediments to teachability, such as excessive distractions of one sort or another.
Mentally-qualified teaching minds are those receptive to sharing their knowledge, to conversing and cooperating with their intellectual inferiors. Intelligent people who lack the right emotional and volitional mindset cannot teach. Neither can people who are impeded by excessively severe physical ailments or other impediments to sharing their learning because of one sort of distraction or another.
In its most precise sense, however, teaching requires more than intellectual and emotional receptivity, and physical and emotional health: superior knowledge of the sort an artistic and scientific mind possesses. Properly speaking, teaching involves guiding a person to come to know by leading that person to imitate the sort of reasoning process the teacher uses to discover and communicate a truth.
Teaching occurs through intellectual imitation. The person who knows something best is the person who knows with greatest precision the closest, most intimate, and most minute causes for a thing’s existence and operations. Because such a person knows best what causes things to exist and operate the way they do, this person, more than anyone else, deserves the name “teacher.” And this person, more than anyone else, in principle, should be best at explaining to others why something is the way it is and behaves the way it does.
For this reason, the architect tends to be better than anyone else at teaching us the principles and causes that enable buildings to withstand stress and support a specific structure’s weight. Teaching involves directing a person’s intellect by causing that intellect to share in rightly directed reasoning through explanations guided by a knowledge of causes. Teaching, in short, is intellectually-elevating conversation.
Because teaching is intellectually-elevating conversation and a cooperative art, we rightly apply the term “teacher” with unequal precision to many subjects of unequal ability. In a strict application of the word “teacher,” only the artist or scientist, the great discoverer, deserves the name because only the artist or scientist, the best of discoverers, can explain to others with utmost precision the most proximate and minute causes for different occurrences, can explain something in terms of its first, most universal, and highest, and causes. Such is the way, for example, that we apply the word to master builders, architects. In a wider sense, we may refer the name “teacher” to anyone with more causal knowledge than another person who can use that knowledge to give that person an improved understanding of the reason why something happens. In this sense, a carpenter on a job site can teach a prospective home buyer why one piece of material is being used in one place, not another, by the simple explanation, “Because the boss said to put it there.” Or the general contractor might reply: “Because the architect said to use that type of wood”; or “because I know from experience that it belongs there.”
Such analogous use of the term “teacher” is crucial to understand because it indicates that more than one kind of teacher, and more than one kind of student, is involved in human, and Catholic, education. On every level (higher, middle, or lower) human and Catholic education have many teachers and learners. On whatever level, the chief teacher is the person who (1) knows something best and (2) is best able to communicate this knowledge to others.
In most instances, this main teacher is not the classroom teacher. Not to recognize this fact is a grave mistake. A main goal of every level of education is to achieve excellent cooperation between students and teachers. The most ideal educational situation lies in work of the best of students with the best of teachers. The next ideal situation lies in the work of very good students with the best of teachers. After this, the work of good, then poor, students with the best of teachers. Whatever the situation, all students work best with the help of the best of teachers because such teachers communicate knowledge best and can get the students to cooperate best.
Human education is a cooperative conversation between learners and teachers. The best of teachers must be the most knowledgeable and the best communicators. Sometimes, however, the most knowledgeable person might not be the best communicator. For instance, this person might not be close at hand, or might be sick or disabled, or, because of lack of language skills, might not be able to say well what he or she knows. Hence, in the practical order, human education requires a multitude of teachers.
Often, some children are better than adults at communicating adult matters to other children because the children readily understand how to put these things into language children readily understand and adults have forgotten. We teach the way we can, not the way we wish. Being able to teach involves being able to put things into a language another person can understand. And, at times, this is not something a great discoverer knows how to do. Hence, aside from great discoverers, human education needs secondary teachers, people who help beginning students participate in the intellectual discoveries of great intellects by translating these discoveries into language that beginning students can understand.
By nature, elementary (lower) education begins in the home with conversations between parents and children, with home schooling. All further education is an extension of this primary education. In a way, then, all education is home schooling or an extension of home schooling. Higher education terminates in the cultural order with great conversations between highly educated students and great discoverers.
Most education lies between these two extremes. Highest education terminates for a Catholic in the beatific conversation between Christ-like, saintly, people and the persons of the Trinity.
We get from the lowest level to the highest through exercise of intellectual and moral virtues. Hence, elementary education is education in elementary intellectual and moral virtues, training a child’s lower educational faculties to become receptive to learning, to taking direction by reason.
Before the “age of reason,” that is, before the child has reached the level of moral self-awareness and control, children still have the ability, more or less, to listen to reason. The main aim of all elementary education, and of higher education, is to get people to listen to rightly guided reason.
Formal elementary education is an adult-assisted training of a child’s senses and emotions, a participation of a child’s senses in direction by adult intelligence. Children are naturally inclined to listen to adult reason in the same fashion that our sense faculties are naturally inclined to take direction from our sense of sight or adults and children are naturally inclined to accept intellectual direction from people we think know more than we do. We all tend to act this way because we are naturally inclined to follow direction by rightly-guided reason more than we are inclined to follow any of our other human faculty or sort of reason.
In most everyday situations this elementary education takes place with several children. Its natural mode should be friendly conversation. It starts with a child’s understanding of the things around the child and of the child’s sensory self. We begin teaching children by linguistically familiarizing them with themselves through sensory contact with the things around them and themselves. We start to teach them by talking with them in a language they can understand, through intellectual conversation between adult and child. We do this to try to get their sense faculties to cooperate with our linguistic direction.
When we do this in a group setting, we have to get all the children involved as cooperative, secondary, teachers and learners. Hence we start this process by trying to develop group conversation among friends. We get the students to talk to one another so as to know one another better.
Hence, one of the first jobs of any teacher is to befriend students, to wish them well, be willing to share our learning with them, and help them befriend each other. One of the first things a classroom teacher must do, then, is to create a learning atmosphere, friendship: an atmosphere in which students are inclined to co-operate with each other in intellectual conversation.
A second job of a classroom teacher is to recognize that classroom teaching involves coordinating the activity of a multitude of teachers and learners. As Adler was fond of saying, a teacher is only “a better student.”[x] Lifelong learning is a cooperative venture involving a multitude of teachers and students of varying abilities. The more we can harness the cooperation of this multitude to elevate our intellects the taller and wider become the shoulders of the intellectual giants upon which we need to stand to become all that we can be.
A third job of any teacher is to get students repeatedly to reflect on who they are, why they are where they are intellectually and emotionally, where they came from, and where they are going.
The fourth job of any teacher is to form students into a reading circle, or circle of learning. Learning is a cooperative human activity that we achieve mainly through conversation. Hence, a main job of the classroom teacher is to engage students in cooperative reading of, and conversation about, books of exceptional quality.
We are more likely to increase our intelligence by constantly conversing with intelligent people than we are by talking with mediocre, or dull, intellects. This is true on every level of education. We do not have to be geniuses to realize this simple truth. For this reason, the main teacher in most educational settings is the good book.
Elementary education is primarily elementary training of the external senses, bringing the external senses under rational direction centered around conversations about a good book. Human beings use the human memory and imagination to direct our senses and emotions. This explains why we can so easily alter people’s emotional states by causing them to recall imaginary situations. The human memory and imagination are essential instruments used in elementary, and all, education. In elementary education, we focus attention on educating the sense memory in cooperation with the imagination to develop a child’s sensory motor skills as we direct these, in cooperation with good books, toward mastering listening and speaking, reading, writing, measuring, and enjoying abilities.
In a sense, elementary education involves imbedding our sense faculties with linguistic directions we get from great teachers through good books, habituating these faculties to follow good linguistic directions: getting the growing external and internal senses to do what better minds reasonably tell them. For this reason, among others, all human education involves training in the liberal arts. And, because this process involves direction by memory and imagination, the ancient Greeks first called human education “music,” education by the Muses, goddesses that influence memory and imagination to assist in developing liberal learning.
In a Catholic setting, this education involves several other teachers, the internal teacher, Christ, who guides us through the direction of the Holy Spirit in the Church’s sacramental life, the Magisterium, and parents.
Just as we must constantly remind children about the physical things around them and themselves as physical, emotional, and intellectual beings and children, as Catholics we must constantly remind them about their spiritual realities that surround them, their spiritual nature, and their status as children of God. Catholics do this through sacraments and spiritually significant and symbolic life.
We physically communicate knowledge about intellectual, emotional, and spiritual realities through use of physical beings, signs and symbols. As physical beings we are totally incapable of conveying our thoughts and emotions to people without the use of linguistic signs and symbols. Signs and symbols play a crucial role in all education, especially spiritual life. We educate children and ourselves in virtue through signs and symbols. We do this through physical and psychological acts of speaking and listening, reading and writing, measuring, painting, sculpting, singing, and dancing. Devoid of participation in a richly significant and symbolic life, we human beings die intellectually and emotionally. This is as true of spiritual life as it is of emotional and intellectual life in general.
Hence, no Catholic education worthy of the name can expect to succeed devoid of rich participation in the Church’s sacramental life and respect for the Magisterium’s teaching.
Finally, all elementary education is primarily an extension of parental education, is extended and cooperative home schooling. True elementary schools are cooperative and extended home schools. Rich family life is human education’s best elementary setting. Parents, not elementary schools, the State, or the Church, have the main moral responsibility of educating their children to adulthood. While no parent knows all the things a child should learn, neither does every classroom teacher, administrator, cleric, or politician. Schools are extensions of the home. Strictly speaking, homes are not, and never should be, extensions of the school.
The chief form of elementary education starts, and remains, in the home. Elementary school teachers and administrators reinforce, assist, this effort in home schooling. To forget this is to disorder elementary education and to undermine elementary education’s essential nature as familial conversation. Because elementary education is chiefly familial conversation with great teachers, absence of parental involvement necessarily weakens elementary school education. Because parents have a moral responsibility to educate their children to adulthood, they have a moral responsibility to find their children good teachers when they cannot teach their children themselves. For both parents and elementary schools these good teachers are mainly authors of great books, great discoverers. For Catholics, they are, among others, great Catholic intellects and spiritual writers.
To forget this reality as Catholics, and to attempt to replace great discoverers with classroom teachers or anyone else, weakens elementary education, familial conversation, and family life. When Catholic schools do this, they take Christ out of the family and drain the family of its greatest teachers and principles of spiritual life.
Peter A. Redpath
Full Professor of Philosophy
St. John’s University
Staten Island, NY
[i] Mortimer J. Adler, “Are There Absolute and Universal Principles?”, Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company and London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1988), p. 56.[ii] Ibid., pp. 78–79.[iii] Ibid., p. 78. Italics are Adler’s.[iv] Ibid., pp. 78–79.[v] Adler, “Are There Absolute and Universal Principles?”, p. 79, and Plato, Republic 424A–426E.[vi] Adler, “Are There Absolute and Universal Principles?”, p. 57.[vii] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk. 1, Ch. 1, 982a1–981b35.[viii] Mortimer J. Adler, “Liberalism and Liberal Education (1939),” Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, p. 51.[ix] Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book (London, England: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd., 1949), pp. 33–35.[x] Ibid., pp. 33–35.