Humanist, Where Art Thou? 


A person is most human not when he is mulling over the details of a marketing campaign, or carting a wheelbarrow full of clay for the fashioning of bricks without straw.

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,
"Tho' all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said, "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free.
They shall never sound in slavery!"

    (Thomas Moore, commemorating the Dublin uprising of 1798)

    "It is rare in a working environment that someone says, 'Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'"

   (David Coleman, Department of Education, 2012)

According to new Common Core State Standards, drawn up by the David Coleman quoted above, English teachers in high school shall spend more than half of their time teaching their students how to read nonfiction: not essays, but "informational" texts, such as bulletins from the Federal Reserve, court decisions, and computer manuals. That is because the students must grow into their roles as players in a global economy.

I am sorely tempted to double the consonant in that word, making it "globbal," because in point of fact it is a contradiction in terms to suppose that anyone can be a "citizen of the globe." Citizenship implies a city, and a city exists in a place and a time, with these neighbors, and not mountain dwellers in Tibet or fishermen on the Congo. It also implies the existence of real human beings, with thoughts about the good, and with sometimes unruly passions, who, regardless of their wealth or their age or their station in life, must address the great existential questions. What shall I love Why am I here? Where am I going? Whom should I obey?

An image comes to my mind — Samuel Adams, having been granted a vision of the people for whose liberty he was fighting, their descendants now submitting prone to the dictates of a vast bureaucracy of education. There I see him, retching over the side of a boat in Boston Harbor. What has happened to the people's love of liberty? Where has it gone? I suggest that it has gone the way of our belief in the dignity of the human person, who is never to be reduced to a mere counter or cell or drab functionary in an economy, globbal or otherwise. There is a connection to be drawn between disdain for liberty and disdain for the things that are peculiarly human — for example, loyalty to our parents and forebears, or our often faraway longing for what is beautiful and virtuous, or an abiding sense of the sacred, or our common worship of God.

Do I want children raised up on songs and poetry, rather than on manuals and financial news? Yes, a thousand times yes!

If all I want is a market analyst, then indeed, what do I care if someone has read The Wind in the Willows? But if all I want is a market analyst, what do I care if the analyst is human at all? A computer might do as well — if there are no human or divine things to take into account, or whether I should be marketing such a product in the first place.

But when I lose my sense of the transcendent worth of man, I am the first to be punished; I am the one who suffers the cramping of the soul. I become the sort of person who can read that poem by Thomas Moore, or hear it put to song, and not be moved, or if momentarily moved, to snicker and call it trivial. I will have taken out my heart of flesh, small and needy as it may have been, and replaced it with a heart of stone. And then I will make my way in the world and across the glob, seeking to perform that same cardiac operation upon everyone else, especially the young.

There is nothing wrong with reading court opinions, in a law school class or a civics class. Sit-ups, I hear, are healthful enough. People used to give their children doses of cod liver oil, too. And gray is a color among others. But it is an affront to human dignity to replace poetry (I use the term broadly, to cover all works of imaginative literature) with sit-ups, gray suits, cod liver oil, and court opinions.

Look again at that short lyric by Tom Moore. I am not Irish, but its deep feeling and bold simplicity stir my heart. I do not have to have been one of the freedom-loving students of Dublin in 1798 to be moved by the poem. Its portrayal of piety and courage is not globbal, but universal. That is to say, it rings true wherever there are human beings who love their native land, whether they are Tibetan or Congolese — wherever there are human beings who give their hearts away and reckon not the cost.

Do I want children raised up on songs and poetry, rather than on manuals and financial news? Yes, a thousand times yes! For I want my neighbors to be human — and free. Sure, it is useful to know something about the chicanery of central banks. But it is more useful, just because it is useless, to sing.

A person is most human not when he is mulling over the details of a marketing campaign, or carting a wheelbarrow full of clay for the fashioning of bricks without straw. He is most human when he stands free beneath the heavens and joins with his fellows in expressions of love, gratitude, and devotion. I would be honored to stand beside the Minstrel Boy.

As for the Under-Pharaoh of Education — well, there's an old story that applies to him too.




Anthony Esolen. "Humanist, Where Art Thou?"The Catholic Thing (April 12, 2012).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

The Catholic thing — the concrete historical reality of Catholicism — is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which daily brings you an original column that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current events affecting the Church, along with other commentary, news, analysis, and — yes — even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Robert Royal, Brad Miner, James V. Schall, S.J., Hadley Arkes, Francis J. Beckwith, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.


Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college's Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2012 The Catholic Thing

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.