Tuesday, April 21, 2015

America's Scholastic Roots

Quo vadis, Carolus?
Catholic Founding Father
Charles Carroll (1737-1832)
I'm not a big fan of American political commentary, but I do read the odd opinion piece now and again. One such piece, penned by Patrick J. Buchanan and published on his blog a week ago, especially caught my attention. Entitled The Long Retreat in the Culture War, it laments the capitulation rendered by America's political and religious conservatives in the face of the cultural revolution which has been advancing virtually unchecked since the 1960's. On every important front, from religion in the public square to marriage and the family to human sexuality, the progressives have not only taken the field, but have been allowed to dictate the terms of the surrender. Mr. Buchanan tries hard to end the piece on a positive note, but there's very little he can offer in the way of an encouraging counterbalance. The situation is grim, and we would do well to come to grips with it sooner rather than later.

The reasons why America lost - some would say sold for a song - its own soul are many and far too complex to treat in anything approaching sufficient detail in a blog post. But I recently discovered an interesting piece of the puzzle which deserves more thoughtful consideration. The discovery came by way of a book with the following title:

Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic
Scholasticism in the Colonial Colleges:
A Neglected Chapter in the History of American Education
James J. Walsh M.D, Ph.D, Sc.D., E.D., etc.
Fordham University Press

As you might have guessed from that title, the book sets out to demonstrate that the Founding Fathers of the American Republic - indeed, nearly all educated Americans up through the middle of the 19th century - were intimately familiar with Scholastic philosophy and the medieval methods of teaching and study, and that this familiarity imparted the intellectual and moral foundation upon which the Founding Fathers conceived the new nation. Walsh writes:
The Founding Fathers of our republic, then, were educated according to the academic traditions which had been formulated in the earlier Middle Ages by Boethius, sometimes hailed as the father of Scholasticism, developed under St. Anselm in the eleventh century, reaching their culmination in the mind of Aquinas and the group contemporary with him in the thirteenth century when there came the conciliation of Scholastic doctrines with Aristotle, thus welding together the whole course of philosophic thought.
Walsh develops the thesis in great detail, providing a careful analysis of the so-called Commencement Theses debated publicly by examinees at the great American universities, such as Harvard, Princeton, the College of Rhode Island (Brown University) and King's College (Columbia University) from the middle of the 17th to the beginning of the 19th century. He continues:
A definitely revolutionary change came over the content and the method of college and university education during the first half of the nineteenth century. [...] Scholastic philosophy, which had been the basic element of education in practically all the institutions of learning in our western civilization from the early Middle Ages down to this time, was gradually dropped from the college curriculum in all except distinctly Catholic educational institutions.
The effect of this change was dramatic. Walsh writes:
Almost needless to say, this alteration in the subjects to which the student devoted their efforts, especially during the last two years of their college course, involved a profound modification of the method and content of education. The acquisition of information now took the place to a great extent of training in thoughtfulness and in discrimination of truth from falsity on which so much emphasis had been laid in the older time.
As to the motivation behind this change away from the sound principles of Scholasticism and critical thinking and towards novel theories of education and data-gathering bordering on pursuit of the trivial, I leave it to the interested reader to peruse the volume for himself and draw his own conclusions. But the following passage is very much worth noting in this regard:
It is probably easier to fool people now than ever before. Many refuse to believe that and lay the flattering unction to their souls that we are an intelligent, discriminating people, but the stock market and its devotees, our wonder-working patent medicines, the ease with which our people fall for all sorts of frauds as well as the prevalence of political chicanery and the naivete of voters, demonstrate very clearly the ease with which our generation may be duped. We have been filling students' memories with large numbers of facts but we have not trained them in that intellectual discrimination so important to the making of distinctions between what is true and what seems true and noting how close to each other truth and falsity may be under a great many circumstances. After all, half truths are more dangerous than whole lies.
Given what we know about the relationship between Scholastic philosophy and the recognition of human nature, natural law and the objective moral order - if you need something of a refresher on this extremely important subject, I recommend the brief but thoroughly accessible article by Logan Paul Gage entitled Darwin, Design and Thomas Aquinas - is it any surprise that the abandonment of Scholastic education was followed by an inability on the part of the people to intelligently self-govern as envisioned by the Founding Fathers? Or that today's average American conservative seems utterly incapable of making a cogent moral argument without referencing the Bible?

Those who are interested may download a pdf of the above-mentioned work here.

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