Rorate Caeli

Guest-post: What Should Guide the Classical Education Movement? (Fr. John Rickert, FSSP)

Conversatio Nostra in Caelis Est

Fr. John Rickert, FSSP

The decline of education in the United States, and, I fear, in much of the Western world, has become increasingly apparent and dire, and the decline has accelerated in recent years. It brings chagrin, or even shame, to realize that many college graduates would not even pass the final examination for the 8th grade from Salina, Kansas, of 1895.[1]

One response to this decline has been the rise of Classical curricula, academies, and colleges. This response is undoubtedly a great improvement and may even succeed in staving off the utter collapse of education. I believe it is too early to tell, but it is worth a valiant effort. Yet, there is a caveat that I believe is absolutely necessary, or else these efforts will ultimately be in vain.

Classical education, in whatever form or implementation it takes, must be informed by the supernatural truth of the Catholic faith. Too often, I fear, “Classical curricula” are really some variant of Renaissance Humanism, which was a more-or-less conscious rejection of the Church and hence a move towards intellectual apostasy. To read, study, and discuss Plato and the Philosopher King, in and of itself, can be intellectually beneficial, but why should there be less interest in kings who were actually saints? Why should the wisdom of Plato be held in higher esteem than the divinely revealed wisdom of Solomon? Why is that students read the consciously non-committal C.S. Lewis yet have no acquaintance at all with the highly-committed Juan Donoso Cortés?

The point I am making is far from new. Athenagoras of Athens, who is justly held in high regard even if he is not recognized as a saint, made some similar points in his Legatio, which is still well worth reading and thinking about. He points out, as others have, that the pagan myths have much in them that is reprehensible. Why, then, do we, who should live a life of grace, consider such baseness to be a vital part
of an “education”?

Fr. Antonio Vieira, S.J., (1608 – 1697), who had a stunningly vast knowledge of Classical languages and literature, as well as of the Church Fathers, says this in a sermon to the King of Portugal:[2]

"To know the law of God, to fear God, to keep the law of God, and not to depart in any way from them. If Aristotle knows more than God, follow politics of Aristotle. If Xenophon knows more than God, imitate the ideas of Xenophon. If Tacitus speaks more certainly than God, study the shrewdness and maxims of Tacitus. But if God knows more than they, and is the true and only wisdom, then study, learn, and follow the reasons of state given by God. I am not saying people should not read those books, but all politics without the law of God is ignorance, deception, uncertainty, error, misgovernment, and ruin."

Our conversation is in Heaven, as St. Paul tells us in Phil. 3:20. It is undoubtedly good to have a sound mind in a sound body: mens sana in corpore sano. But far more more important, and necessary to have is: mens sancta in corpore sancto.

[2] Sixth Friday of Lent, 1662. Preached in the Royal Chapel.