March 8, 2016

Education as if People Mattered – Dr David Daintree

by Dawson Society

The following is the paper presented by Dr David Daintree of the Christopher Dawson Center for Cultural Studies in Hobart, Tasmania to the Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture Inc. in Perth WA on 1 March 2016.

This paper first appeared on the webstie of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies.


Before talking about education I feel bound to declare myself. I am a Conservative. Being conservative has very little to do with the political left or the political right. I am not a right-winger: though some of my views might be characterized as right-wing I hold many opinions that would commonly be regarded as typical of the left. There’s nothing odd about that: Pope St John Paul was a conservative, yet an outspoken critic of capitalism. We live in a time when many on the political left play the stock market and own rental properties. Ben Chifley and other old Labor men would turn in their graves. There are social and ethical conservatives who are far to the left of many modern trade unionists!

So let’s extricate conservatism from the left/right polarity and see it for what it really is: an attitude of mind that respects humanity but recognizes its limitations; that (like Polly-Anna) thinks its bottle is half full rather than half empty; that cautiously believes in progress but not just in change for change’s sake; and, most controversially, that regards truth as absolute and values it above myth.

Conservatives believe that Mankind is superior to any other creatures (even to Melbourne’s threatened population of 400 bandicoots that have been in the news lately), created in the very image of God, yet unable of himself alone to help himself. St Augustine says much the same thing: ‘God who made you without you will not save you without you’: we must collaborate with God. We cannot do anything effectively on our own.

Conservatives believe that we have a duty to make progress, to husband the earth, to make it a better place. But we don’t accept the Victorian notion of Progress that made Science its God and trusted it to lead us to an earthly salvation. But we do accept that the Bible narrative begins in a garden and ends in a city, that we are moving towards greater complexities.

Conservatives believe that men and women are different but complementary, equally precious in the eyes of God.

Conservatives believe that the mere fact of being born doesn’t make you human, and that infanticide is a terrible evil whether committed before or after birth.

Conservatives believe in the value of truth, that truth is something to be pursued strenuously and fearlessly, wherever it may lead. But they also believe that God is the Father of Lights, in whom is no variableness or shadow of turning, and that truth will actually make us free.

Conservatives believe that education should be for life. It’s not good enough to teach trades and skills and arts alone, important as they are, but the Whole Person should be cared for and prepared for our eternal destiny. Morality, clarity of thought, analytical skills, efficient communication are or should be the basis of any professional training.

In this dumbed down world Conservative has become a dirty word; we are prigs and prats, resistant to change (and change is always a good thing, isn’t it?), obstructive, stubborn and stupid.

And so we come to those Humane Studies, those so-called Liberal Arts, which are arguably the foundation of true education.

What are the Liberal Arts?

Humane studies were considered appropriate to a Free Person. ‘You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free’ was a powerful statement with special resonance for the servile underclass in which Christianity first took route. Cicero (103-43), Martianus Capella (fl. 410), Boethius (480-524), Benedict (480-c. 545) and Cassiodorus (485-c. 580).

Trivium – grammar, logic and rhetoric
Quadrivium – arithmetic (number), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time)

Until perhaps the 14th century it was possible to read everything that had ever been written and available in libraries. Since those days expansion of knowledge has been exponential and the tendency to (over-)specialization has grown apace. Ancient scholarship was dependent on gleaning as much as possible from available material and was knowledge-based, with huge emphasis on memory. Modern scholarship is forced to be selective, more and more so as the mountain of material expands, ever more specialized. The emphasis has shifted from knowledge to theory, from facts to techniques for extracting facts. Tom Lehrer sand about the New Maths in the 60s: the important thing is not to get the right answer, but to know how it works!

An outcome of all this has been extraordinary ignorance.

In a recent article Res Idiotica ( Patrick Deneen (University of Notre Dame, Indiana) writes –

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their minds are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject), they build superb resumes.
But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks.
They are not to be blamed for their pervasive ignorance of western civilization, politics, art and literature. It is the hallmark of their education. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present.

Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

Gary Scarrabelotti (…/junk-our-culture-trash-our…/…) writes that dumbing down has been part of a deliberate agenda –

Radical secularists … have a solution: not to argue with the Great Tradition but to blot out the memory of it. This is what modern education systems – especially in the Anglosphere – aim to do. Many are the laments these days about the failure of education and the dumbing down of the rising generation. This, however, is not a failure but a singular mark of their success.

The truth of this is born out by the first draft of the Australian History syllabuses that managed to ignore Christianity almost entirely.

In Australia in the seventies two men, James Power, a Brisbane business man, and Karl Schmude, Librarian of the University of New England, began to think about establishing a new kind of institution in Australia, a tertiary college in the American liberal arts tradition that would blaze the trail towards a new view of education in Australia. Or more properly towards the revival of an old view of education, the view that literacy, eloquence, clear thinking, historical awareness and well-founded moral certainty ought to be laid firmly in place as a foundation for professional studies. So Campion College was born.

On the face of it other Australian institutions may be starting to move cautiously in the same direction. The more prestigious universities such as Sydney and Melbourne now teach medicine and law only as post-graduate disciplines, insisting that students do some other degree first. The less distinguished universities, though not quite brave enough to make the same demands, are nevertheless tending to introduce some humane studies into their first-year programs. My own daughter, for example, took Latin as her non-science option in first-year Medicine at the University of Tasmania.

What are these changes all about, and how well are we managing them?

For some time teachers and educators (the distinction is perhaps between experienced practitioners and mere theoreticians!) have become aware, if occasionally admitting it only grudgingly, that increasing 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 American response, long ago, was to insist that adequate preparation must come first, and that people should learn to communicate and think, at a very high level, before specializing. At a meeting with IBM executives at Yorktown Heights, New York in January 1984 Dr Barry Jones (at that time Federal Minister for Science) asked, ‘What type of people are you looking for?’ Their reply surprised him: ‘the same people we have always looked for – honours graduates in English or Philosophy who are good at playing chess’. 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 do another degree first, but will it stretch you? Will it open up new horizons to you? 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. And surely my daughter’s experience in being allowed to do a year’s Latin in first-year Medicine was little more than tokenism. What a shame that students are thus pushed into wasting opportunities for expansion: education should be for life, not just for a job.

Critics sometimes take a look at the Campion syllabus and declare it narrow, but this view reveals a certain lack of clarity in their thinking. Campion offers four subjects for the BA, while a conventional mega-university may offer perhaps 80 or 90. On the face of it does indeed look narrow. But a student in an ordinary university can actually take only four of those on offer, that number usually diminishing over the three years. By contrast Campion students study the same four in their second year and three of the four in their final year. Moreover the core subjects are exactly that – core subjects, subjects fundamental to humane studies.

History, because we need to understand where we are in time and space; where we’ve come from as a guide, at least, to where we’re heading.

Philosophy, to teach us clear thinking, and how to avoid simplistic and shallow platitudes. Is same-sex marriage really just about Love? Is astronomy just about twinkle twinkle little star? Is the Golden Rule, alone and unexplained, sufficient to help us find solutions to the agonizing problem of the refugees? Is Truth relative, just your version of what you’d like to believe?

We need literature and the arts to teach us about the human spirit. Why get the cart before the horse? How extraordinary to study psychology or sociology or criminology without ever having read some great poems and novels!

Our final core subject was Theology. An outrageous choice to the secular mind, but consider this remark by a distinguished modern statesman:

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 honor their rights as well.

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

Somebody at an English university more than 30 years ago applied the phrase ‘Mickey Mouse subjects’ to certain arts courses which had apparently been designed either to add appeal to their institution’s status in the market place, or even (dare I say it?) to present some easy options for less able students in a politically-correct world that increasingly insists on the ‘right’ of an increasingly large percentage of the population to a degree of some kind. I should hesitate to name names, but I think far too many people are studying Criminology at the University of New England, not to mention courses at other universities such as Rock Music Studies, Tourism, or Surfing]. I don’t doubt that some of you will think me arrogant in speaking thus of the good intentions and honest aspirations of many thousands of students and their teachers, but I do think we are in danger, all of us, of selling ourselves short and wasting our most precious resources: young people of intellectual bent should be stretched; young people whose talents are more practical should not be fobbed off with second-rate studies but given better opportunities to stretch their own skills in new directions. What is the point of teaching isolated and disconnected arts courses to people who have not properly learned to read, write, think, and communicate? Let’s have less Mickey Mouse and more apprenticeships.

I spoke at length of Campion because I know it best. Not everyone can or could or should go to Campion College. What can we say to those who won’t have that kind of experience?

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, it must be said, have been less than enthusiastic. Don Briel in a recent article ( describes what he calls ‘Teleopathy’, literally ‘disease of the ends’: a loss of purpose in Christian schools. He identifies the symptoms as avoidance of any language which is explicitly confessional, in favour of vague and platitudinous expressions like ‘the christian ethic’; and detachment from the institutional Church. I’m willing to bet that we can all think of examples. Personally I’ve met people who despise that Catholic Church but who send their children to Catholic schools. What are the chances that their children will grow up in the Faith? None at all, apart from 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 therefore readily grasp the use of the dative case in Sanskrit? Probably not (certainly not in this world – but perhaps in the next!). 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. The term ‘Ionian Enchantment’ was coined by a modern historian to describe the belief in the unity of all sciences. It refers to Thales, the Ionian pre-Socratic philosopher, who proposed water as the ultimate form of matter. Inadequate, of course, but it metaphorically expresses our desire for the unity known only to God.

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.

To be honest Don Briel doesn’t come up with a simple cure for the malaise and neither can I. 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 persecuted in Western countries for holding unpopular opinions. And all this, it is claimed, in the name of Love.

There is no quick fix. If you have children in your care, teach them to think straight. Question their easy suppositions. Guide them to enrol in courses that broaden their understanding of the whole wide world, not just part of it. 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 (even Horrible Histories is better than nothing – my seven year-old grandson is excited by it). Tell them how amazing and how powerful ideas are, both for good and ill: sport is just play, but Ideas have saved nations and destroyed them, too. 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.’