July 2012 Print

Education as Metaphysics

Fr. Paul Robinson, SSPX

Metaphysics is the loving pursuit of wisdom. And the wise man is one who sees all reality from a single point, as far as is possible. Any true education must seek to make students wise.1 But modern education denies that there is any unifying principle in reality, and thus presents it as a series of disconnected pieces. Herein lies the rub.

Reality as Mosaic

The tiles of a mosaic, working together, can form a stunning work of art. And while each of the tiles has value on its own, in that each one displays a certain color and pattern, that value is insignificant and negligible compared to the impact of the whole, which is much greater than the sum of the parts. Similarly, geography, mathematics, biology, and English, each has its own meaning, but that meaning only becomes clear and fully illuminating when seen in the perspective of all reality.

Now, modern education treats each subject as an end in itself and as completely disassociated from every other subject. The purpose of English class is to learn English as best as possible. Nothing more. And while it is certainly good to learn English, it is yet much greater to learn life. An English expert can get a job, but not necessarily get a life. For this, he must be wise.

For any education to be able to zoom out from the details of individual subjects to give a unified picture of the whole, it must first admit that there is some unifying principle linking one subject to another, then find that principle, and finally integrate that principle into the entire body of education. It is like breathing life into a dead corpse, giving a soul to coordinate all the members of the body.

But modern man has made such an education of universal vision impossible by denying the existence of any such principle. In fact, for him, there is nothing higher than the mind of man, and the universe being just a product of billions of years of fortuitous chaos, it is up to each individual to give unity to reality, according to his own subjective perceptions. Thus, for example, he does not admit the existence of a human nature common to all humans. There is no gender, natural sociability, natural union between the sexes, or universal moral code that pertains to all men. It remains for each individual to decide whether to be male, female, or both or neither; whether to follow society or not; whether to be heterosexual or homosexual; and even to decide his own laws of behavior.

If there in fact existed a human nature, common to all men, it would be important for young students to understand that nature and live by it, and education would expend great efforts toward that end. Otherwise, the students could know many things, but would not know how to be human. But if no such nature existed, then students would only be enabled and encouraged to make themselves, in other words, not to live according to what they are, but to be according to how they want to live.

Broadly speaking, today’s education not only leaves out telling students about their own human nature, but but reduces all learning a heap of tiles without relation, a mass of material without life.

The Whole Enchilada

“All branches of knowledge,” says Fr. Edward Leen, the 20th-century Catholic writer, “should be pursued harmoniously in view of attaining a clearly conceived and clearly defined objective. That objective is the creation of habits of thought that impart to the person the power to deal successfully with life.”2 This paradigm of education does not see the student as a mere brain to be stuffed with unrelated facts, but as a human being who needs to be equipped to fulfill his sublime destiny. This point of focus makes all the difference in the world: modern education gives you a skill set, while true education gives you yourself.

Now, Josef Pieper makes it clear that, for rational men, dealing with life means dealing with all that is. “In the tradition of Western philosophy,” he says, “the capacity for spiritual knowledge has always been understood to mean the power of establishing relations with the whole of reality, with all things existing.…Spirit, it might be said, is the power and capacity to relate itself to the totality of being.”3 Thus, the power of thinking enables man to connect with reality as a whole and not just disjointedly as the animals do. The life of reason is the distinctively human life and so education—as preparation for life—seeks primarily to form (not fill!) the intellect. The chief work of the educator is fitting the mind for the reception of truth.4 Being taught how to learn is more important than learning what is taught.5

Newly crowned with a mortar board and clutching his diploma scroll, the graduate walks away from his alma mater to enter the world and take on life. Is he ready for all that the future will bring him? Can he judge situations or will he only react to them? Can he make good choices and commit himself to them or will he simply follow happenstance? Can he clearly distinguish good from evil, true from false, beautiful from ugly, or will he see everything only at face value? In short, does he have wisdom or does he just have skill? Each answer depends on whether his education was a formation or a training. The former sends forth a person, and the latter a worker.

An Example

The practical implementation of this true notion of education is what makes it an art. Any mechanical system built solely on material means, such as buildings, equipment, course schedules, desks, and textbooks, can systematically produce a uniform skill in its students. To form a human person, however, requires a teaching vocation—a life, not a system, is needed to form a life.6

Dr. David Allen White, the famous Catholic literature professor, speaks of just such a person in some of his conferences—his eighth grade teacher, a terrifying and delightful schoolmarm. She imparted to him, at that young age, some of her own love for good literature and, in doing so, opened his soul to the true and beautiful such that, later in life, he was able to recognize it on his own, not only in literature, but also in the Catholic Faith. This one good teacher was able, in a single year, to set him on the track of his own life’s teaching vocation, but also on the track of his eternal salvation and that of many others for whom he provided the same love. What he received from her was much less learning than an attitude; it was not so much a skill as it was a focus. A process cannot do this, but a true teacher can.


The scope of education must not be reduced either in its subject or its object. The student is not a brain, but a human being,7 and he is not to be presented a heap of unrelated knowledge, but to be readied for life.8 The accomplishment of this great work is the true aim of education.


Fr. Robinson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and entered the Seminary in Winona in 2000, two years after completing a Master’s in Computer Science Engineering. He was ordained in 2006 by Bishop Bernard Fellay and is currently a professor at Holy Cross Seminary in Goulburn, Australia.

1 “On the mere plane of natural knowledge, [the University’s] task is to master a diversity of subjects, to promote wisdom, and to form the intellectual personality of the student. It should be on its guard, therefore, lest it fail in its highest mission, namely, that of giving young minds a respect for truth, and of guiding them to independent lines of thought, indispensable for their intellectual maturity.” Pope Pius XII, Quel motif de joie (August 12, 1952).

2 Edward Leen, What is True Education? (Sainte Croix du Mont, France: Tradibooks, 2008), p. 95 (emphasis added).

3 Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), p. 133.

4 Fr. Leen, What is True Education?. p. 38.

5 “Practically speaking, it is much more important, in the interest of the individual as well as of society in general, to know how to live a good life than it is to know a great deal” (Pope Benedict XV, Letter Compluribus quidem, February 10, 1917).

6 “The ‘teacher’ is a person who knows how to create a close relationship between his own soul and the soul of a child. It is he who personally devotes himself to guiding the inexperienced pupil towards truth and virtue. It is he, in a word, who molds the pupil’s intellect and will so as to fashion as best he can a being of human and Christian perfection” (Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the Italian Catholic Elementary School Teachers’ Associ-ation, November 4, 1955). “It is, however, evident that teachers will never be worthy of their profession, if, although possessing adequate cultural preparation they should limit their work to instruction in the strict sense of the word, and feel themselves under no obligation to provide the deeper and more comprehensive instruction that is education. Every-thing in the school must be educative. If it is not to fall short of its purpose, it must be made educative in its every aspect” (Letter from Secretariat of State, September, 1955).

7 “It must never be forgotten that the subject of Christian education is man whole and entire, soul united to body in unity of nature, with all his faculties natural and supernatural, such as right reason and revelation show him to be” (Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, Dec. 31, 1929). “Even where natural knowledge is concerned, the discovery of the truth is not merely a matter of hard thinking, and when the truth concerns the meaning of the world, a good brain is not enough: the whole human personality is involved” (Pieper, Leisure).

8 “Education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime goal for which he was created” (Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri). Fr. Robinson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and entered the Seminary in Winona in 2000, two years after completing a Master’s 
in Computer Science Engineering. He was ordained in 2006 by 
Bishop Bernard Fellay and is currently a professor at Holy Cross Seminary in Goulburn, Australia.