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The 'end' of education


The title of this talk is: Logos: In the beginning was the Word—The nature and power of language. After some further prayer and reflection, I would like to add a subtitle to the talk: The end of education!

WomanReadingI'm not using the word "end" as in the destruction of education, but rather in the traditional Thomistic use of the word "end."  That is to say, the purpose or goal of education.  St. Thomas believed that to truly understand a subject, one must know the "end" or "purpose" of what we are wanting to know.

For us as Christians, Jesus Christ is the end or purpose of everything.  As St. John Paul II would never tire of saying; "Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life."

I would like to begin this talk with two stories.  The first is told by my good friend and former boss, Archbishop Charles Chaput.

He tells the story of an acquaintance, an economics professor who runs the doctoral program in economics at an Ivy League university, one of the best in the country.  He was asked what he values most in the undergrad background of his doctoral candidates—management theory?  Accounting?  Finance?

His answer was 'none of the above.'  He looks for an education in the traditional liberal arts and some fluency in our cultural heritage.  If you want to excel in the social sciences, he said, it helps to start by knowing who and what a human being actually is.

Economics is traditionally called "the dismal science," a term coined by Thomas Carlyle, the famous 19th century Scottish writer and philosopher.  He knew that manipulating market data can be tedious, soulless work.  The liberal arts are the opposite; they enrich the human soul and its greatness.  And if they're taught with energy and joy, they're anything but tedious.  Great literature, art, and music, along with the skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, are a path not just to knowledge, but to wisdom.

A huge amount of today's educational orthodoxy is about mastering technique and acquiring information.  These things are good, but they don't go far enough.  A real education is about meaning—in other words, developing the character and moral vocabulary to understand and properly apply the facts and skills we acquire.

The second story I'd like to begin with is geared toward Beatles fans, of which I am one.  Paul McCartney turned 80 years old June 18.  He recently published a two-volume work entitled: The Lyrics: 1956-Present, by Penguin Books.  In it, he tells the background and the inspiration for 154 of his songs.

I recently listened to a podcast interview between the publisher and Paul McCartney.  When Paul was asked about the major influences on his lyrics, he pointed to his education.  He attended the Liverpool Institute for Boys, a 7-12 public school in Liverpool.  He related the books he read in school, works like the epic poems of Homer and Virgil, which he read in the early grades.  He mentioned authors such as Shakespeare and Milton, and particularly "The Miller's Tale" from the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer.  He said he laughed all the way through the tale for its outrageous humor.  In the upper grades he read Dickens, Dylan Thomas and Lewis Carroll, whose description of the Walrus was the inspiration for the song, "I am the Walrus" on the White Album.  Providentially, Paul met John Lennon at a church festival when he was 15 and, I guess the rest is history.

The nature and power of language can never be underestimated.

Whether you are a Beatles fan or not, the lyrics, words and melodies of those songs absolutely captured the imagination of a whole generation.  They spoke to millions around the world, people of all languages.  Paul McCartney also studied Latin, German and Spanish at the Liverpool Institute for Boys.  The Beatles made their debut on the world stage in Hamburg, Germany, where they sang many of their songs in German!  The point is, words matter."  The nature and power of language can never be underestimated.

These two stories illustrate that whether you are a university professor or a rock and roll star, a good grasp of language and familiarity with great literature can take you a long way.

We all know the nursery rhyme: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall/ all the king's horses and all the king's men/ couldn't put Humpty together again.  It's a kindergarten classic.

Humpty began his career 300 years ago as the name on a cannon in the English Civil War.  His work as a talking egg in the fairytale industry came much later.  His importance for us in this session is his co-starring role, with Alice, in Lewis Carroll's strange children's story, Through the Looking Glass, published in 1871.

In that book, Humpty says, in a rather nasty tone, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."  Put simply: Humpty, and Humpty alone, decides whatever his words mean.  It's the kind of self-assertion that marks Humpty Dumpty as one of the most prophetic political and educational theorists of the modern era.  Here's why.

Words are the basis of thought, belief, and action.  A rich vocabulary expands our subtlety and precision not just in our verbal expression, but also in our thought.  Thus—when properly used—language builds up the dignity of our species.

To the degree that a word accurately reflects reality—words like unborn child, man and woman, male and female—it tells the truth.  And as Jesus himself once said, "the truth will make you free."  Not always comfortable, or happy.  But truly liberated, and always free.

On the other hand, dishonest, misleading words confuse and demean us.  Josef Pieper, the great German Catholic philosopher, wrote a short, simple text half a century ago—Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. In it, Pieper argues that much of advertising, public relations, and political lobbying is designed to bend the truth; to manipulate its target audience toward morally ambiguous ends.  The outcome is predictable.  In Pieper's words, "Public discourse itself, separated from the standard of truth, creates [an epidemic of] vulnerability to the reign of the tyrant."

We have a government of law, checks, and balances, designed to be of the people, by the people, for the people.  In order for that to work, it needs literate citizens with a high degree of self-mastery, community loyalty, and moral sense.  It needs mature adults willing to listen and not merely rant; willing to subordinate their private appetites and egos to the common good.  This is why the moral framework of American public education is so important.  Education shapes—or should shape—responsible citizens.  The root of that word "responsible" literally means "answering to" some higher purpose or authority, to a greater end.

Thus, the absence of God in the vocabulary of our public discourse is a statement about God.  It's an implied affirmation of his non-existence, or at least his irrelevance to human affairs.  And that has practical consequences, because a concept like "the common good" is inescapably moral.  It involves what each of us should and should not do to sustain our shared community life.

Education of the young is about teaching the difference between virtue and vice, right and wrong, truth and lies.

Education of the young always involves more than simply sharing facts.  It's also about teaching the difference between virtue and vice, right and wrong, truth and lies.  At its best, education is part of the glue that holds the country together as a unified people.

The ferocity of verbal abuse, physical violence, and irrational hatred unleashed by otherwise "progressive" people with the downfall of Roe is instructive.  Roe v Wade was a badly reasoned decision that invented a "right" to abortion, unrelated to the Constitution or democratic process.  But we now live in an environment where emotion substitutes for logic; where people have lost the skills of careful reasoning and cultural memory; where there's your truth, and Ann's truth, and Bill's truth, and my truth.  Which really means that there's no truth at all; just the naked will to power.

The American founding was shaped by Enlightenment reason and biblical morality; by a keen sense of both the dignity of human beings, and their fallenness.  The founders understood that the human person is utterly unique and unlike any other creature; that freedom is not license; that there is no freedom without commensurate responsibilities; that a God who created nature and humanity does exist; that there are such things as natural law and objective truths that ground the world in reality; and that a real community is more than a collection of people joined together by the same antagonisms, illusions, and sins.

We seem to be losing nearly all these little wisdoms.  And that's dangerous, because in a technological age, in a nation with our wealth and global influence, our capacity for damage to human life and dignity is immense.

Here's the point: Words matter.  And this is why a truly "liberal" education matters—an education alert to both humanity's greatness and its limits; an education in the liberal arts and the richness of our moral and cultural heritage.

Many years ago, Neil Postman, the late media scholar, wrote a clever little essay titled "My Graduation Speech." Postman wasn't a Christian, nor—to my knowledge—was he even religious.  But he had a very good grasp of what any good education must do.  In his essay he argued that, sooner or later in life, everyone belongs to one of two tribes, Athenians or Visigoths: persons of maturity, self-restraint, and concern for others, with a hunger for beauty and truth; or self-centered, emotional bullies with cloddish tastes, coarsened language, and vulgar souls.

He noted it's "much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, [and then] you must work at being one, whereas we're all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths.  That's why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians."

A university degree or the lack of it, he said, doesn't determine your tribe.  There are plenty of lawyers, doctors, public officials, and professors who would fit quite comfortably in any barbarian camp.  And there are quite a few bus drivers, stay at home moms, and sanitation workers who, because of the humility and integrity of their lives, have an Athenian soul.

In his book The End of Education, Postman added that, at its best, schooling should be about "how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.  Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since our politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it, and our commerce despises it.  Nonetheless it's the weightiest and most important thing" to consider for anyone interested in building or rebuilding a humane civilization.

This is why Postman was skeptical of hype about computers and new technologies in education.  Postman understood and respected the strengths of computers in classrooms.  But he also stressed that the role of new technologies in schools should "be discussed without the hyperactive fantasies of cheerleaders."

A sober education in the good and bad of new tech tools is one of the most urgent needs of young students.  Reading a book is a fundamentally different experience from scanning a computer screen.  It produces a different and deeper emotional and intellectual response.  A computer screen is composed of thousands of animated electrons.  It encourages restlessness.  It creates a background radiation of mental noise.  An absorbing book produces the opposite: mental focus, silence, and a kind of interior rest.  To put it another way, the screen and the printed page—over time—produce two very different types of persons with different imaginations and different abilities in the crucial human work of thinking.

A liberal arts education, at its best, reminds students why they're human and what that means.  It gives them the ability to rejoice in the grandeur of the human experience, to make sense of its sufferings, to respect its natural limits, and to acknowledge at least the possibility of transcendent things beyond this world.



BishopJamesConleyBishop James Conley. "The 'end' of education." Southern Nebraska Register (Juy 22, 2022).

Reprinted with permission from the Southern Nebraska Register. Image credit: William Wood, The Met, Public Domain.

The Author

Most Reverend James D. Conley, DD., STL, is the bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska. Before his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI to the see of Lincoln in September 2012, he served as auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Denver under Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. He earned his Master's of Divinity from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., in 1985 and a licentiate in moral theology from the Accademia Alfonsiana, part of the Faculty of Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

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