Dr David Daintree

'...the Holy Church has cultivated and kept in highest honour the source texts of this wisdom, and especially the Greek and Latin languages, as if they were a sort of golden robe clothing Wisdom itself.'  (Pope John XXIII)

'...one ought not to be considered a master of learning who does not understand the language of these writers.'  (Pope John Paul II)

'It is not…so great a distinction to know Latin as it is a disgrace not to know it!'  (M. Tullius Cicero)

These are hard sayings.  At a time when notions of rote-learning and disciplined hard graft are somewhat on the nose, and the focus of education is shifting towards entertainment pumped up with political activism, who wants to be bothered with tough learning tasks - unless there's at least the hope of a good salary at the end of it?

Narrow specialization is tending to produce high achievers in specific areas who are less than competent outside their fields, sometimes almost illiterate or profoundly ignorant of whole areas of human knowledge which have been traditionally considered essential to human civility.  How can a young man or woman reasonably be expected to choose a life-long commitment to a career at the age of 18 (or a lot earlier), whose mind has never been properly exposed to the richness of human thought, and in a world in which, as futurologists like to predict, the average person will need to re-train several times in the course of his life?   Surely we are asking too much (or too little) of the young people who are both the inheritors and shapers of the future?

The Americans perhaps understand this better than we do.  During my years at Campion College I had a visit from a member of the board of Christendom College (in Virginia) who was also a senior IBM executive.  His academic background was in Classics, from which he had moved on to specialization in IT.  He claimed that IBM was always keen to recruit staff from the liberal arts: if a young person is taught well to communicate and to think, he can be trained - and re-trained - to do anything else.

Have we learned this lesson in Australia?  Not really.  Small countries, when they imitate larger ones, tend to do so selectively and narrowly.  So yes, if you want to do Medicine at the University of Sydney you must now do another degree first - but will it stretch you?  Will it open up new horizons?   If you choose, as many do, to do Medical Sciences as your first degree, in the hope of improving your chances of getting into postgrad Medicine, it will do nothing for you at all except lengthen your period of training to become a doctor.

We need literature and the arts to teach us about the human spirit.  Why put the cart before the horse?  How extraordinary to study psychology or sociology or criminology (ever more popular with first-year students) without having read some great poems and novels!  What a tragedy it is when children grow up without seriously thinking about the miracle of creation, and the unique place of humanity at its heart, and the need for redemption.  Such ideas, if considered at all, are commonly dismissed as mere superstition, and those who hold them are despised.

Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honour their rights as well.

That was Vaclav Havel, speaking in Baltimore on 4 July, 1994.

In his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II set forth his vision of Christian education as supported by twin pillars, (1) the pursuit of the Unity of Knowledge; (2) the complementarity of Faith and Reason.

Most Catholic schools and universities seem less than enthusiastic.  Don Briel coined the term Teleopathy (literally ‘disease of the ends’) to describe a loss of purpose in Christian schools.  The symptoms include avoidance of any language which is explicitly confessional in favour of vague and platitudinous expressions (e.g. ‘the christian ethic’), and alienation from the institutional Church.  We've all seen examples.  I’ve met people who despise the Catholic Church but send their children to Catholic schools.  What are the chances that their children will grow up in the Faith?  None at all, if it weren't for the Grace of God.

As to those twin pillars, the notion that there is a unity behind all knowledge is a challenging one.  If I understand simultaneous equations, will I more readily grasp the use of the dative case in Greek?  Maybe not.  But it does mean, I think, that there are objective and fundamental truths, that God himself is supremely True, and that he encompasses all knowledge.  And this leads on to the next pillar, that Faith and Reason work together always and unfailingly.  Its corollary is that if we are afraid of Reason there is probably something feeble about our Faith.

We know that schools and universities, even Christian ones, from the sixties onwards started to back right out of the teaching of moral conduct, to abandon any pretense to tutelage in the old-fashioned sense.  We also know that there has been some movement in the other direction in the form of political correctness, the imposing of strictures on what we may and may not think and say.  From a position of no censorship in the late 60s, when absolutely everything was allowed to hang out, we have reached a point at which censorship has been applied in almost every department of life - except sex.  Nowadays people are being actively bullied and persecuted in Western countries for holding unpopular opinions.

There is no quick fix. If you have children in your care, teach them to think straight.  Question their easy suppositions, the nonsense beliefs that are so readily absorbed from their classmates.  Guide them to enrol in courses that broaden their understanding of the whole wide world, not just part of it.  Insist that they'll be better at any job they aim for if they learn to read and write and think first!  Try not to let them specialize too soon or too narrowly (of course we need specialists, but let them be humane ones).  Teach them history.  Tell them how amazing and how powerful ideas are, both for good and ill: sport is just play, but Ideas are the most powerful things in the world - they can make or break nations.  Above all, don’t despair, but keep a merry heart:  remember Julian of Norwich – ‘all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

  • About the Author: Dr David Daintree, Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre.