Study Everything. Do Anything.” So reads a T-shirt I got from Notre Dame’s arts and humanities college, my alma mater. As written, it seems a fine motto. Pope St. John Paul II championed education that “combines excellence in humanistic and cultural development with specialized professional training.” As practiced, I’m less confident.
The arts and humanities college offers thirty-three majors. On their “outcomes” pages, no less than twenty-nine of them plug that a recent graduate works as a consultant. (The other four include Fortune 500 companies and investment banks.) It was not always so. In 1855, the school offered one course of study toward a degree. The curriculum included Latin, Greek, and English grammar, ancient, modern, and American history, logic, ethics, and metaphysics, mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry. A graduate would have read, among others, Homer, Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Livy, and Tacitus, and have committed Horace’s Ars Poetica to memory. (At least in theory. The faculty included just one trained classicist.)
So where there was one education, meant to prepare students for a wide range of vocations, whether a life in the priesthood, business, or any of the “learned professions,” there are now basically infinite educations, each created by the individual student out of electives chosen based on personal preference, and each billed as preparing her for a small subset of competitive, demanding (and high-paying) jobs. The shirt might as well read: “Study Whatever. Do Consulting.”
According to G. K. Chesterton, a similar shift happened in household tools. Once, a man carried “the universal stick,” which he used to hold himself up, to knock enemies down, to point with, to tap, or to twirl. Now, he has a crutch, a cudgel, a laser pointer, and (horror of horrors) a fidget. Once, a man had a fire, which he used to boil his tea, toast his bread, light his room, and warm his hands. Now, he has an electric kettle, an electric toaster, an electric light, and central heating. “Everywhere there was one big thing that served six purposes; everywhere now there are six small things” that serve one. Even if the new things are more useful (itself debatable), the old things had other, less obvious purposes. “The fire need not blaze like electricity nor boil like boiling water; its point is that it blazes more than water and warms more than light.” It exists in part “to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.”
No man, heathen or otherwise, would die for his furnace. I don’t wonder why not. The furnace is a “modern and specialist” thing. All it can do is warm the house. The fire is an “ancient and universal” thing. Besides (or above) warming the house, it can “raise [people’s] spirits,” “tell stories to their children,” or “make checkered shadows on their walls.” Likewise, the current specialist education might be better at making consultants. But has it raised their spirits?
Maybe some specialization in college is inevitable. Parents want convincing that their kids’ degrees are worth the price (a tall task that might well require a major consulting firm). And as Chesterton put it, “the average man has to be a specialist; he has not only to learn one trade, but to learn it so well as to uphold him in a more or less ruthless society.” Young people, however, “need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world.” Though the demands of work made it “difficult for the average man to be a universalist,” Chesterton equated universalism with “general sanity.”
If college today is for teaching young people a “trade,” when are they to be introduced to the world? If a college student must become a specialist to get a job, when is he to become a universalist to guard his sanity?
One answer to this question: high school. The Chesterton Schools Network, for example, consists of more than fifty academies, with more opening this fall (including one in my native Columbus, Ohio). Their high schoolers read Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. They learn math—from geometry to calculus—and how to relate it to philosophical inquiry; they learn science—astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics—and how to relate it to God’s creative act. Every student learns to draw, to debate, to sing, and to act. Students read the Bible, the Church Fathers, and the Church Councils. They attend daily Mass, weekly confession, and pilgrimages to Rome and Assisi. They become, in short, universalists.
Or, colleges could include a classical core curriculum that each student is required to take in addition to their specialized classes. Many classical colleges across the country do just that, and are flourishing.
At whatever level, it is crucial that young people become more than mere specialists. Chesterton called education “the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice.” We need schools (and colleges, and home-schooling parents) that understand this responsibility. We need schools that teach each student that even if he must be first-rate in his trade, he is also “a fine fourth bagpipe, a fair fifteenth billiard-cue, a foil, a fountain pen, a hand at whist, a gun, and an image of God.” And we need schools that do so because they believe what they teach. “That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child.”
Dan Loesing is a lawyer who writes from Columbus, Ohio.
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