One of the parts of the Social Teaching of the Church that is commonly looked over is the importance of education. Blessed John XXIII spent some time toward the end of Mater et magistra to emphasize the importance of education, and certainly the Holy Fathers have spoken of the need to make education available to the poor. It is one of the liberating tools of society, and makes possible solidarity and participation in culture.
Sadly, our nation is terribly educated on a whole host of issues, and I fully admit to being deficiently educated in many of them myself. You need only read the prose of men like Chesterton or to look at the life of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to understand what education used to mean and just how far we have gotten from that ideal. Actually, you needn’t go that far. I recall with great fondness meeting the dear father of a friend of mine. After offering me some of his whiskey at our first meeting, the only proper thing for an Irish gentleman to do, we sat down and he wanted to know who I was. When he learned I had attended a Jesuit school he said to me, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.” This, I could tell him, was the opening line to Caesar’s Gallic Wars which I had to translate when I was in high school. One maybe two generations divided us, and we could share this because of our education. Today, amongst our youth, who could give the answer?
My wife and I saw an advertisement for a LeapFrog device for children that “teaches” them how to read and expand their vocabulary. It is for the children who learn differently, we’re told. While, I do not doubt for a second that there are different styles to learning, at what point does the intransigence of a child who is not learning a matter of laziness…especially in our culture?
All of this is coming to mind, not so much because of the commercial, but because I decided to pick up my copy of Plutarch’s Selective Lives and Essays. This would have been standard reading at one time in our country. Picking it up and turning to the life of Caesar I thought I might just read a line or two. I found myself engrossed in the story. I know how it ends. I’m aware of the betrayal, but Plutarch’s telling is magnificent even in translation. Consider this passage:
Brutus Albinus now got hold of Antony, who was loyal to Caesar and a man of vigor, and purposely detained him outside in a long conversation. Caesar, however, went in and the senate rose to do him honor. Some of Brutus’ party then took their stand behind his chair, while others advanced towards him, as if to join Tillius Cimber in a petition on behalf of his exiled brother. They all began imploring Caesar together and following him to his chair. But on taking his seat he rejected their petition, and as they pressed more strenuously on him, he grew angry with one and another. Thereat Tillius took hold of his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his throat. That was the signal for the attack.
First, Casca struck him on the neck with his sword, a blow neither fatal nor deep, for naturally he was nervous at the start of so terrific a deed of daring. At this Caesar turned around and clutched and held the knife, and both cried out almost in unison, the injured man in Latin, ‘You damned Casca, what are you doing?’ and his assailant in Greek to his brother, ‘Brother, help!’ Thus the struggle began…
Reading it, I could almost feel my heart racing, wondering what poor Casca was thinking when, making the first blow, he realized he has only managed to anger Caesar more. What drove Caesar to the senate that day when he had received omen after omen after outright warning not to go? What is it about the dictator and his people that brings them to love him so dearly after his death?
That’s the thing about great literature. One can learn about the deepest failings and fears of the human person. This Plutarch is a treasure of human experience, filtered and crystallized into linguistically emotive beauty. But the vast majority of American children will NEVER hear of him, or read these passages, or think about what it might take to kill and die for liberty’s sake.
Education, a good education, is crucial for the Social Teaching of the Church. We must take it seriously and give up this game of pretending that things are better now that our children don’t have to memorize or learn languages or even read. Talk to any college professor today, and they will tell you of the deplorable state of literacy in this our phenomenally wealthy nation.
Fighting for good education is part of social justice as well. So let’s fight, and bring life back into Plutarch’s Lives.
Does the following not creep anyone else out?