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 Alexandre Duret-Lutz / Flickr

A few days ago, Stratford Caldecott, the wisest writer on education in our time, passed away at the all too early age of sixty. He had written many books, on a wide range of things: on the theological imagination of Tolkien; on the liturgy; on the cosmos; on charity; and on beauty, especially as regards a truly liberal education. 

It's time for us to return home, and Stratford Caldecott can show us the way. But first we must understand that we are in a very strange land, and we can no more “apply” the wisdom of Mr. Caldecott to the schooling we have, than we can put icing on mud and call it cake.

Our schooling is ghastly. We must face this fact. At its least inhuman, it is crassly utilitarian, and inept to boot. But it has grown worse than utilitarian. Russell Kirk long ago described its progress in degeneration. We reject the “moral imagination” that could be built up in us by patiently receiving what the greatest artists have to teach us. We do not stoop to learn from Marcus Aurelius, the grave, dutiful, tranquil emperor meditating upon life from his barracks on the German frontier. We will not humble ourselves to heed the lessons that Shakespeare can teach us – about the fickleness of popular sympathies, the transience of power, or the beauty of the pure body and pure soul. If we study the old masters at all, it is to find that they are conveniently modern and “progressive,” or to teach them a lesson in the schoolyard sense, taking them apart and exposing their supposed weakness or cowardice.

An education that does not order the soul towards truth and beauty, that does not instill the intellectual virtue of seeking the truth, and the practical virtue of putting moral truths in action, is no education at all. It is not fit for a human being. It may be fit for a robot, or a beast, or a devil.

Having rejected that, Kirk says, we seize upon the “idyllic imagination,” a paradise of fools. We dream up utopias on earth, and will spare nothing old and venerable, nothing genuinely tolerant, nothing that comes to terms with human fallenness, human limitations, and human error, in bringing these utopias into being. The last hundred years have been drenched in utopian blood. At its least destructive, the idyllic imagination breeds flies of a summer day, songs like “The Age of Aquarius,” or books like I'm OK, You're OK; or the foolish feminist dreamworld of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland. 

But the idyllic imagination fails, because it is founded upon a lie. So, Kirk says, it is succeeded by the “diabolic imagination,” whereby we embrace darkness for its own sake. We allow our souls to be twisted; we crave what is bent, perverse, cruel, hideous, and sick, while praising ourselves for our bravery. Mass entertainment is now an engine of this diabolic imagination, and our schools have eagerly gone along with it. Vampires; teenagers committed to murder one another; celebrations of sodomy and statutory rape (The Vagina Monologues); in short, the works of death.

These things are worse than the pods that are fed to swine. When your belly is empty and cramping up, what good is it, really, if you “get” to root around with swine in a sty? You have two immediate troubles: everything you are not eating, and everything you are. So in our schools. What's wrong is everything the students don't learn there, and everything they do.

It is time to arise and go back to the Father's house.

Listen then to these words, from Caldecott's Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-Enchantment of Education:

It is the nature and calling of the human being to know: truth, being, wisdom, goodness, and virtue – the forms, or the highest causes. It is in knowledge that we transcend our limitations (including the limitations of mortality) and become identified with the truth that is our highest and deepest ground, beyond all that the senses can offer. But knowledge can only be attained by the systematic ordering of the soul or personality in pursuit of integrity; that is, the discipline of thought (by logic) and will (by virtue).

For Caldecott, these are not airy abstractions. Beauty is real; it is the rich efflorescence of the glory of being. The greatest scientists, he observes, are in love with the beauty of what they study; they would study it regardless of any use to which their discoveries might be put. An education that does not order the soul towards truth and beauty, that does not instill the intellectual virtue of seeking the truth, and the practical virtue of putting moral truths in action, is no education at all. It is not fit for a human being. It may be fit for a robot, or a beast, or a devil.

How do you build up the soul of a child? That is what great literature and the arts are for. They are for everyone. You can judge a school by its syllabi, or the books in the library, or the poems and the songs the students know and love. Every child should go down to Mordor with Frodo and Sam, or sit atop the mizzen with Jim Hawkins, or float down the river with the worthy Mole and Rat, or ride with Paul Revere, or watch while the beggar Odysseus strings his bow on the fatal day for the wicked suitors. Every child should enter the sunny gardens and the shady groves of poetry; to be with a swinger of birches with Frost, a barefoot boy with Whittier, a sailor on the doomed ship with Coleridge.

And when they are a little older, they may confront the titanic moral imagination of Hugo, Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot, and Dickens; they may be ready for the poetry of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. Again, these are for everyone, as beauty and goodness are for everyone. We don't say, “I'm sorry, but you are only average, so Bach is not for you,” or, “It seems you are quite ordinary, so look at this chintzy portrait of Elvis on velvet, while the others look at Rembrandt.” What kind of phony charity is that?

Stratford Caldecott has patiently done the work our school principals and teachers should have done. He has shown us the sorts of things we ought to be teaching, and why. He has not just said to the prodigal in the sty, “Don't you know that you are in a miserable place?” He has said, “Here, son, let me lead you the way back home.”

It's time we let him do that.

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Anthony Esolen is a Fellow at the Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, NH.  He is the translator and editor of Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House), and is the author of more than a dozen other works, including Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery) and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press).  He regularly writes for The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Touchstone, and Magnificat.