History and the School

by Dr. John Senior

Political liberals who dominate the media (including universities) today, denounce the other modes as enemies of democratic dogma. Among the fantasies such reduction spawns is “one worldism” of the Wilsonian sort—fantasy because the U.S. Constitution is not a blueprint for the world or even for America: Men are not created equal. Humans, like most animal species, are divided by gender; and America, like most societies, was (and despite the utopian emancipations still is) divided into rich, middle and working classes with a slave or quasi-slave body of captives and recent immigrants (black, white, yellow, mestizo—whatever) who do the menial work. Since the civil rights rebellion, the servile class has suffered left wing delusions of upward social mobility and their masters suicidal guilt.

Because we have descended to the non-rule of unruly “democratic” man, the art of government, divorced from its end (the common good), is a headless means, a multi-media machine whose message is programmed by unaccountable, irresponsible agents.

Since the state, as Plato says, is the soul writ large, the “democratic” state, led by the mob, is like a man ungoverned by his lusts. Since no one follows, leaders run to stay ahead of whatever the mob demands, but since mobs are mindless, and cannot even know their wants, some other “mind” (the tyrant’s or the demon’s) invents and whets their appetites.

Politics falls from persuasion, determined by the give and take of rational rhetoric, to the psychological order, where irrational appetites are manipulated.

Traditional schools are not immune because, on the highest intellectual level, many “Thomists” (not St. Thomas) turn out to be fideists. To protect the Church against the dialectic criticisms coinciding with the oligarchic ascendancy in the nineteenth century, the Hierarchy imposed a know-nothing childishness on Catholics. The doctrine of infallibility was raised to a papalotry by which whatever the magisterium said—not just infallible decrees—was taken as the word of God. When St. Thomas was declared the Common Doctor of the Church, professors in seminaries and universities took the Summa as a “Book of Knowledge” where all answers can be found, if not directly, then inferred, by ingenious accommodation. The extreme reaction of democratic revolt against the authority of the magisterium (since Vatican II by the magisterium itself) blew in a house of straw. Bad to worse to be sure: Before there was false order, but order nonetheless. Blind obedience to true propositions kept a hundred years of Catholics from modernist error and sin: They did not read Marx and Nietzsche; couples married, stayed married and had many children; priests were trained in disputation and knew the arguments—like high school children learning Euclid, they memorized axioms and worked proofs never having seen their truth but got the answers right! Alas, when the “democratic” revolution came, not just the ignorant, but priests and nuns with doctorates were easily switched from axioms to false assumptions on the authority of new theologians (and many broke vows they had taken in what had really been playing a memorized part).

The Summa Theologica is exactly what it says it is, a book for beginners in the graduate school of theology, not a blueprint for kindergarten through college. First of all, it presupposes something requisite to education itself, and lacking in industrial society, a normal human life nurtured by the direct experience of what poets (not philosophers) call “nature”—earth, sea, sky, forests, fields, wild and domestic animals, stars. The capital joke of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is a rooster who struts about declaiming Thomist philosophy. I found out teaching Chaucer years ago that the difficulty was not with philosophy but that, even in a class of small town and rural students, none had ever raised chickens! And this is the crux of the crisis in the political order: Poetry not grounded in reality is fantasy, and image illusion; a people with the habit of such pseudo-poetry can be easily led, through the manipulation of empty images, to illusory ideas. In reforming education, before “back to basics,” “back to nature”!

In the second place, the Summa presupposes twenty-five years of propaedeutic, that is, the whole classical curriculum from elementary and high school through college. The order of learning follows the order of human growth. Now St. Thomas and the Fathers agree that theological knowledge is (in St. Anselm’s famous phrase) “Fides quaerens intellectum”—Faith seeking understanding. In the theological order, you begin with Faith and using reason try to understand it. But, for example, teaching third grade arithmetic you cannot invoke such logic because Faith presupposes nature. Let children know what chickens are by seeing, hearing, chasing, being chased and pecked before they count their eggs! The education expert says, “It makes no difference if it’s eggs, peanuts or stars! Two and two of anything is four”—a mode of discourse college youth can handle, but abuse to six- to twelve-year-olds who think by sight, sound, touch, smell and taste, in a word in things. You can pry them loose by teaching methods but in doing so deprive them of the natural strength in childhood learning. Tom Sawyer on his island spending hours watching insects or alert for shooting stars at night is far from wasting time. It is the work of schools to discipline such learning, not subvert it. Confusing theology with politics reduces teaching to propaganda where truth is whatever message authority wants. The docile child, in filial fear, starting with faith in what he is told, will say that two and two is four and worse believe it, never having seen the fact—an ungrounded act of faith that will shift with shifts in power. Take the children out to see insects and stars and let them wonder for themselves. Insects and stars are really wonderful and wonder is the way Christ teaches at the center of the soul.

Schools reflect (and further shape) their ages. For aristocrats the school is the frontier. Timocrats establish private academies for the children of the privileged classes. Oligarchs train little money-makers for success in business. “Democratic” schools are street gangs.

“But not our school!” you say. Well, I have seen computers on the sixth-grade desks and your children at Right to Life demonstrations organized precisely on the rules of New Left manuals—the placards, chants, jeers, locking arms, the fanatic women making speeches about “family values” while pathetic fathers nurse babies in the crying room! When St. Paul says women should be silent in the Church, he means in the whole mystical body, not just the chapel. Let Rachel weep for her children and Jacob fight and teach. Lady, go home. Your house is on fire and your children will burn! Get out of public life back to the bedroom, kitchen, nursery and salon—oh, do the talking there! Restore the truth and beauty of your sex in house and garden where they fructify and flower. But how, when we have grown so poor our women have to work? Fathers, make your living at some manful thing—oh, how? How can we teach what we have failed to do? Except for heroes and some lucky few, I see no way.

Every age has its heroes. The natural aristocrat, as Jefferson called him, the genteel timocrat like Lee imitating Washington, the oligarchic millionaire, the democratic savage. In schools the hero is the teacher. Frontier aristocrats like Natty Bumpo learn from nature. Timocrats have legendary masters—Chamberlain at Bowdoin, Lee at the college that now bears his name along with Washington’s; Tom Brown’s School Days, celebrating Arnold at Rugby, was an American bestseller. Oligarchs adore the Scientist. “Democratic” teachers are “Rap” stars, rapists of the heart and mind if not the body—though it sometimes come to that.


Which is why traditional schools have run in terror to the opposite extreme. Child abuse is a common mark of “democratic” practice—and so is its reverse, the freezing up of love. We need good, normal Catholic men, called to teaching by the love of Christ, of his students and subject for whom wisdom is fear of the Lord and understanding keeping His commandments.

Traditionalists, God knows, have heroically kept the Faith, but from economic pressure and a well-earned distrust of experts, have often ignored the heroic mode: Unqualified, talentless, unloving teachers have been employed as if teachers were employees! A school is first and principally a faculty, a college of “colleagues” themselves perennially learning together what they teach. Good schools need tenured masters. Home schooling or schools without gifted, educated, independent (that is, “heroic”) faculties are not schools at all.

In a society that pays teachers less than truck drivers, prudence counsels family men to seek safe slavery in other jobs until by luck or grace they find refuge.

Things appear to be so bad, some think it is the End. However, it is a habit of history, as of the spiritual life which history reflects, that when things get worse, the worst winds up the spring of a return to give us one more chance—if not a second Spring, perhaps an Indian Summer. As emulsified mobs in universities and schools churn into mostly slavish clabber, a few golden kernels precipitate out into free, intellectual butter.

The class nature of society is a fact but in the vicissitudes of history, long-lasting, stable orders shift, elites collapse, déracinés from everywhere loot and squat in culture’s mansions. Yet unbelief and classlessness are vacuums intellectual and social nature abhor. Willy-nilly truth and class recur. It is a curious fact that the worst “democracy” in smashing all distinctions, opens up the world to that benign and only true democracy where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free...neither male nor female.

John Senior was the founder of the famous Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, through which hundreds of his students entered the Catholic Church. He is the author of several books including The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture. He is buried in St. Marys, Kansas.