Among the manifold areas of society with which the New Evangelization must both contend and reform, we have almost at the center correcting the way in which we view education. This is true in terms of the education of children (both in public and in Catholic schools) as well as in formation for the priesthood and religious. During Pope Benedict XVI’s April 2008 visit to the United States, he gave talks at the Catholic University of America and at St. John’s Seminary in New York in which he pointed to the crux of the problem. In those talks, Benedict commented on a question concerning the reason people are increasingly reluctant to entrust themselves to God. According to a Zenit summary, the Pope replied:
“It is a complex phenomenon and one which I ponder continually,” the Pope confessed. “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in — a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves.”
In these words, Benedict summarizes a fundamental problem with contemporary education. Today, we seem to have forgotten that education is not simply the imparting of knowledge (and a very deficient view of knowledge at that). Rather, as Blessed John Cardinal Henry Newman indicated, education is about the cultivation of an intellect. Indeed, education must be about the cultivation of a whole person, it ought to be intellectual, moral and spiritual formation. While gaining knowledge is a fundamental aspect of education, to be fruitful it must stand within the forming of the five intellectual virtues and the training of the will (or the four cardinal virtues). There are several implications arising from this authentic meaning of education at all levels.
Intellectual cultivation must begin with the formation of children. The formation of the intellectual virtues needs to be understood and carried out as the primary goal of education; of course, it must be done at the appropriate level for the child. Authentic education means that the one being taught develops habits of mind that result in the maturation of his naturally curious mind such that he is develops an insatiable appetite to seek the truth and the ability to know the truth. He must be able to identify and critically consider premises, he must be able to judge the logical progression of arguments, and he must have the capacity to assess the truth of conclusions. Children must be taught not only what truth is but they must be challenged continually to pursue it and to live in accord with it. Not only must a child’s education be cognitive, it must be formative and transformative of his entire person. Therefore, education must include the formation of his character.
This means then, that education thus must be a cooperative effort between a child’s first educators, his parents, and those who have been charged with assisting them; that is, today’s professional educators. If this education is to be effective, it must be an education in the whole person in which parents and schools support and reinforce each other.
Unfortunately, in our society, the tendency is to leave all education to the professionals in public education. Furthermore, the difficulties of pluralism in belief has prompted public education to adopt the theory that teaching of truth or values must be eliminated from the classroom, to include any mention of God, morals, virtue, or right character. In practice, however, children are being malformed in immoral ideologies veiled as tolerance, pluralism, social justice, civil rights, etc.
Even among all too many Catholic schools, the emphasis is on imparting a reductive knowledge because the majority of these are too closely wedded to the pedagogical theories and programs embraced by public educators. The result is that a fragmented array of bits of knowledge is imparted but with little attention given to intellectual cultivation and none paid to character formation. While parents of Catholic school children tend to be somewhat more involved in their children’s education than their public counterparts, even among these parents there is rarely concern for the cultivation of the whole child apart from his ability to demonstrate a certain level of knowledge. The intellectual virtues, the development of moral character, and spiritual maturation (i.e. development in holiness) are generally left untouched.
It is no wonder then, that even among children raised in Catholic homes where church attendance is faithful, children not infrequently stray from the faith once they leave home. When Benedict refers to the lack attention to formation of the will, it is character formation and spiritual maturation that he has in mind. Parents must be vigilant concerning their children’s education. They must understand what authentic education entails and ensure that their children’s education conforms to it. They need to demand that their schools conform to solid pedagogy or they must undertake for themselves, the formation of their children.
Children need to be taught to overcome the legalistic thinking of our age which results in almost an allergic reaction to any demands for personal restraint. They need to be taught that authentic freedom cannot be the libertine view of freedom for which our society mistakes it. If it were, freedom would be a vacuous concept. We know this because we can see that by simply exercising such a “freedom” we lose it. Almost everyone has some experience in which he has become enslaved to his choices; and so we can verify this. For example, continually hitting the alarm in the morning instead of getting up and going to the gym as one had planned, habitual, immoderate indulgence of food or drink, or any other bad habit to which one has become enslaved because he has freely chosen actions contrary to the good demonstrate libertinism is not authentic freedom. Nothing worthy of the name freedom can be lost simply by using it.
We can verify from our own experiences that for freedom to be preserved one must first recognize and then obey an order to human nature that preexists us and our choices. Neither is that order arbitrary. It arises from the “Order” of Being itself (that is, God) and so it brings with it a structure for action that corresponds with the meaning of the human person. Subordinating oneself to this order brings with the fruit of joy, but its disregard brings eventual interior discord and, if the disregard is sufficiently grave and prolonged, moral collapse.
With such ill-formed children, it is no surprise that the problem carries over to higher levels of education, including the formation of candidates for the priesthood and religious life. By the time young people present themselves for such formation, they are not simply blank slates; they have been malformed by their education and this malformation must first be corrected before authentic formation may ensue. The malformation also reaches to the effects of the manifold technologies used for communication and entertainment. A good share of those who regularly use such technologies have, by and large, become dependent upon neurotransmitters such as the hormone dopamine, many to the point of addiction. The negative effects are more pronounced the longer one exposes himself and the disabilities are more entrenched the younger one is when he begins to be habitually exposed to these technologies. They have become passive in learning, lethargic about acquiring information, resulting in a superficial understanding of the little knowledge they possess. All too many have all but lost the ability to concentrate long enough to read more than a page of text.
Too many of our young people have never developed the intellectual virtues, much less have they acquired a healthy moral character. Unfortunately, seminaries and houses of formation have been slow to understand the drastic changes which have occurred among those seeking formation and as a result, they are ill prepared to develop or implement the needed changes in human formation in order to address these new circumstances. Without a new approach to human formation that addresses the malformation of the greater portion of those seeking formation, attempts at intellectual and spiritual formation are likely to continue to bear grim fruit.
Moreover, intellectual formation at Catholic universities, seminaries and houses of formation likewise tend to mistake intellectual formation for conveying fragmented pieces of knowledge rather than to be cultivation of the intellect and character. Surely at the level of higher education the importance of breadth and depth of knowledge increases. Yet, it brings little value for service to the Church, and can even harm it, if this knowledge is not held by a someone of strong intellectual and moral virtue.
The New Evangelization will require restoration of the ability to think clearly among Catholics. It will require a recovery of the meaning of authentic intellectual formation and the development of strategies to overcome the debilitating effects of poor education and mind-altering forms of communication and entertainment we are experiencing today.