Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.

-1 Timothy 4:1-5

The West needs a resurgence of Catholic education, drawing on the traditions of the medieval period, but taking into account the realities of our modern world. Regulars at AATW all seem to share the conviction that our culture has been infected by a nihilism disguising itself as something positive and creative. There are good apologists out there who are fighting the prevailing culture – but we need more and we need to attack the philosophical roots of this nihilistic trend.

Artes liberales: trivium

The trivium comprised grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These areas of study are closely intertwined because the higher, conscious thinking we carry out is done verbally, whether mentally, orally, or in writing. Poor thinking and communication lead to a number of problems: inability to properly engage with meaningful metaphysical issues (for example, the claims of the Gospel); difficulty in obtaining higher paid jobs; and weakness to manipulation by unscrupulous people in both private and public life (e.g. workplace acquaintances and politicians).

Far from being abstract skills with no everyday application, grammar, logic, and rhetoric are essential for success in the modern, globalised world. Disrespect towards these endeavours is, in part, fostered by standardised teaching rules handed down from governments. It is, in fact, relatively easy to draw up lesson plans that will engage students in the study of rhetoric, provided teachers are free to be flexible according to the composition of a given class. Many students would be delighted at the prospect of sitting down to read actual State of the Union addresses, if the teachers could free up time for them by dispensing with the study literature that the state considers necessary for a child’s education. In a free market, the schools with the better teaching plans would rapidly rise to the top: children who are taught the trivium will be more likely to succeed in life and plan effectively for the future. Schools that continue to plough the field of leftist literature will soon disappear.

While synoptic teaching of these skills is inevitable and desirable, they each need their own dedicated time. This will not necessarily be in equal proportions in a given year, and schools should be free to develop longer-term courses that take account of this requirement. One of the problems with annual, state designed testing is that it forces a given school year to cover certain topics, when it might be desirable to leave certain things for later or to let individual students progress at their own pace. Time and again, we have seen that a one-size-fits-all approach is disastrous in education.

Philosophy is a good example to consider. Children are, in fact, implicitly taught philosophy all the while. In their early science lessons they are taught about the necessity of accurate observations and about conducting a “fair test” – but that is about as far as it goes. It is logical to delay the formal teaching of philosophy till later in a child’s development. Maths, so prized by Plato as a preparation for philosophy, is the main arena for teaching abstract thought to children. However, as each year in science comes on, with its annual test, the actual teaching of the philosophy of science gets further away: the specific continually drowns out the general. To make matters worse, those who pursue science at university are not necessarily taught philosophy of science there either: some courses do not offer it at all, while others only have it as an optional module, pursued by those who lean towards the arts.

This deficiency has impacted the poor presentation of science in the media, and the abysmal presentation of a perceived conflict between science and religion in low church diatribes and debates between atheists and theists. No one who is open-minded could think that a man like the late Father Frederick Charles Copleston was a bad philosopher or a bad Catholic – he was neither. He showed us that you can be a pious Christian and a first-rate thinker. But you cannot appreciate his work and the work of others unless you first appreciate that science is what it was originally called: natural philosophy. A Catholic, medieval-based education (that takes the student through the Enlightenment) will allow the student to see this. The average state-provided education in the US and UK does not.